Mediocre Fred's Mediocre Blog
Friday, July 30, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Can't Explain" by the Who


Hello there, everyone! Well, the Democratic convention is officially over. John Kerry reportedly gave a very effective and well-received speech. I say "effectively" because I personally missed it, having become inexplicably fascinated by the "Celebrity Poker Showdown" over on Bravo. Yes, I am appropriately ashamed by this.

What is the appeal of this show? I'm not sure. For those who have been lucky enough never to have been entangled in this, "CPS" matches five C-list celebrities in a game of no-limit Texas Hold 'Em (once described by the Brunching Shuttlecocks' Lore Sjoberg as a "game that sucks away your money with the forces and speed of a cartoon anteater") in which the proceeds, of course, go to charity. (Just once, wouldn't it be great if the celebrities got to keep the money? Wouldn't it be great if, say, a house payment was on the line while David Cross is pondering his chances of drawing to an inside straight? Just wondering.) This is not good television. The show is two hours long. There's no real tension. The graphics are unbearably cheesy. Host Dave Foley cracks bad jokes and tries to figure out whatever happened to his career. The celebrities squint and look serious and try to pretend they know what they're doing. Expert commentator Phil Gordon tries to evaluate the celebrities' moves as if it was a real game. And if I hear the words "Shuffle up and deal" one more time, I may snap and kill someone.

And yet I know I'll be watching again next week. Why? That's what I can't figure out. The moves associated with Texas Hold 'Em are kind of cool and fun to watch, but I can't stand to watch real legitimate poker tournaments. And it's not as though I'm a big fan of the celebrities involved; last night's group included one person I'm actualy familiar with (celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who predictably came in hyper-aggressive and flamed out early), two people I've heard of but couldn't actually place (Kathy Najimy and Mimi Rogers), and two people I knew nothing about whatsoever (Michael Badalucco and Steve Harris). And it's not as though I'm a big celebrity gawker normally. So why is the show so addictive?

After pondering the matter, I think it's something about watching celebrities with their hair down. I'm also a big fan of the '70s game show "Match Game", in which contestants tried to match celebrities' answers to risque questions. (For those who aren't familiar, it's like "Hollywood Squares," only funnier.) That show was much better than "CPS" (Gene Rayburn was the gold standard for TV game-show hosts), but it had that same aspect of taking celebrities out of their natural element and putting them in a loose, alcohol-soaked setting where they could make fun of each other and behave more naturally. I didn't know a lot of the celebrities on "Match Game," either, but it was still amusing. And despite not knowing most of the celebrities on "CPS," it was fun and enlightening to see Mimi Rogers' poker face, or watch Kathy Najimy hold hands with her opponents before big draws. It's garbage TV, absolutely, but it's fun garbage, and in doesn't involve anyone being covered with cockroaches.

E.J. Dionne had a nice column in this morning's Post praising the Democrats for stressing national unity and attacking divisiveness at the convention. I agree with Dionne that this is a shrewd idea. Dionne says the approach calls to mind Ronald Reagan, who also famously campaigned against divisiveness. Critics of the strategy will point out quite rightly that Kerry has none of Reagan's buoyant optimism and personal warmth. But that's one reason, I believe, why the strategy is so brilliant.

Traditionally, optimism is the province of the incumbent's campaign, since it's easier to run an upbeat campaign on the theme that things are going all right under your leadership. Reagan's appeal worked because (1) things were clearly not going all right under Jimmy Carter, and (2) Reagan was such a charismatic speaker that he could imbue people with a sense of optimism just by speaking. Now, things are clearly not going all right under George W. Bush, and his campaign team can read polls: running an upbeat campaign based on his presidential record isn't going to work.

Ah, but no one likes to listen to Kerry speak! He's such a dour and gloomy person that he might as well be travelling with a rain cloud over his head. So figured the Bush team. They made a crucial tactical decision to go negative early, to define Kerry negatively in the minds of voters before Kerry could define himself. The Republicans wanted to finish Kerry as an effective contender before the convention, so that they could fall on the ball the rest of the way.

This strategy obviously carried a risk. It's always risky for an incumbent to go negative, to attack early. It might look like he's running scared. And if the challenger can weather the attacks and remain standing, the incumbent has little choice but to keep attacking and hope to draw the challenger into a firefight. Once you're drawn into the fray, as an incumbent, it's almost impossible to climb back out.

But the Bush team figured that an Eeyorish personality like Kerry could never effectively launch a message of hope and optimism. Plus, the Bush people figured to have a big money advantage, allowing them to govern the tone of the campaign. So they went ahead with the negative strategy.

But Kerry came prepared. He picked Edwards, a man who practically defines optimism, as his running mate. And the convention unveiled a platform of restoring unity and bringing a brighter future to everyone. At this point, the GOP has to be nervous, since they have to bank on Kerry failing to sell this message effectively. If they're not nervous, they're absurdly overconfident.

I think the Republicans were banking on Kerry running a much harsher, attack-oriented campaign, attacking Bush as dangerous for the country. Then, Bush could run a macho campaign based on decisive leadership vs. Kerry's waffling, and painting Kerry as a shrill extremist in thrall to the Michael Moore wing of the party. But with Kerry running on the Kumbaya platform, Bush is going to have to be much harsher, much more negative. It would be extremely difficult for Bush to come back with an upbeat message now. (And if he tries to lighten up his appeal by dumping Cheney in September, it's really going to look desperate.)

Now here's the interesting thing: if Edwards had won the nomination, or if Kerry had picked Edwards quickly after winning the primaries, the Bush campaign probably would have counted on a more upbeat campaign and adjusted accordingly. But by waiting until July to add Edwards, Kerry got the White House to prepare for a different campaign. For a guy who's knocked as a bad campaigner, Kerry certainly seems to be a good strategist.

Now, Kerry's speech was pretty strong stuff for a campaign based on hope and positivity, but I like the move. Kerry showed strength in his speech. All the other speakers were bright and positive and uplifting, but Kerry showed that he's ready to fight. In a reversal of common political wisdom, it looks like Kerry will be his own attack dog, rather than delegating the job to surrogates. For one thing, if the candidate himself is leading the attack, there are limits on how shrill the attack can get. Furthermore, Kerry knows that Bush's appeal is going to be based on strength and confidence. Kerry has to show that he can match that, in order to establish himself as a viable alternative. In a presidential campaign, strength beats weakness every time. But measured strength beats cocksure arrogance. If Kerry can show himself to be firm without being cocky, he could blow a big hole in the heart of Bush's message.

For the Democrats, of course, the question is whether the message will take. The convention can't be a one-time show. The Kerry-Edwards ticket has to sustain this theme the rest of the way. I believe they can do it, but only time will tell for sure.

Finally, the trading deadline is tomorrow. I would like to spend Monday analyzing the trades in my inimitable fashion, as I did last year, but in order for that to happen, we need to see some deals. Let's go, guys! Chop chop! Brad Fullmer isn't my idea of a headline name. Make it happen!

And with that, it's off to the weekend. See you Monday!
Thursday, July 29, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Yakety Yak" by the Coasters


Hello again, all! Today, a day after everyone else, I'll say a few words about Barack Obama, the speaker who electrified the convention on Tuesday. Then, with a tremendous crashing of gears and no apparent connection, I'll talk a little bit about Randy Johnson as the trading deadline approaches. Try not to get whiplash, friends!

Now, about Obama. Yes, he's tremendous, and yes, he's everything they say he is: smart, eloquent, engaging, smooth. He announced himself as a major player on the national political stage Tuesday (and incidentally, probably would have sealed a victory in his Senate race even if he'd been up against Ditka). Someone (I wish I could remember who) sounded a cautionary note yesterday, reminding everyone that four years ago, Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee was the Democrats' keynote speaker, and he was supposed to be the next big thing, too. And it's a useful reminder: people's attention spans are appallingly short, and Obama might well fade into the woodwork after the election's over. However, Obama is also a better speaker than Ford was, and Obama's currently in a high-profile race which figures to garner him attention beyond the convention, while Ford didn't have a second act.

Like Ford, Obama represents a Democrat's demographic wet dream: youthful, mixed-race, interesting life story, well-educated but still with the common touch. There's a difference, though. In 2000, when Ford was chosen, it almost seemed like the Democrats were desperate for anyone who might prove the party's vitality. The party's public face had become that of a bunch of aging white guys, Washington old hands who are more comfortable talking about appropriations bills and subcommittees than the pain and suffering of the average American. The Republicans' public face consists of aging white guys, too, but the GOP has long marketed itself as the party for aging white guys, so the connection is natural. The Democrats, meanwhile, are supposed to be the party of the young, minorities and women, and so a convention full of guys who look like William F. Buckley would not do. Enter Ford. He's young! He's black! He's Southern! Look, we have hope! It's as if the Democrats were casting for a slot ("Help Wanted: Fresh young minority face to provide Hope for Future"), and Ford was the first available face.

Obama, on the other hand, got the slot on merit. Certainly, it helped him that he's young and African-American, but he's also tremendously talented. As my man Frinklin stated in a brilliant analysis post that I'll cite later on, Obama is the Democrats' Albert Pujols, a phenomenal young talent. This keynote speech was like a September call-up, with the major-league club giving the kid a taste of the big time and whetting the fans' appetite for what's in store. Ford, on the other hand, was like the hot hand in AA getting a turn in the rotation to sell tickets for a last-place club. Having Ford speak looked opportunistic and desperate; having Obama speak looks strong and confident.

(Incidentally, I don't think Ford is as dreadful as this comparison makes him sound. I just don't think he can compare to Obama as a politician.)

Not only is Obama a good speaker, he has a good message. My man Frinklin said a lot of worthwhile things about Obama's performance:

There is something essentially thrilling (especially to us wonk types) to hear a new fusion of American politics. That is what Barack Obama did last night. I did not notice the specifics until I listed to the speech again, and checked out Andrew Sullivan’s posts on the subject, but this was a fusion of essentially conservative values (personal freedom and responsibility) with a traditionally liberal social conscience. If the name weren’t taken already, this would be “compassionate conservatism”. Perhaps “responsible liberalism” would be more appropriate. Add to that exciting fusion his undeniably American background (son of a Kenyan immigrant and Kansas farm girl), polished speaking style and willingness to confront scary issues, and you have the Next Big Thing in politics.

To use a sports metaphor, this was Albert Pujols. Do you remember when he came up? The Cardinals were excited about him, but trying hard to keep him concealed, fully expecting him to spend at least a half-season in the minors. Baseball people, both old-school scouts and modern-day SABR types were excited, too. Pujols had a good spring, and he broke camp with the Cards. Pujols faced high, but not excessive expectations. He did not meet them, he did not exceed them; Albert Pujols destroyed his expectations.

That is what Obama did last night. If you’re a politically connected person, you’ve heard of Barack Obama before last night, regardless of your party affiliation. Maybe it is because you’ve read blogs or websites. Maybe someone you knew heard him speak, and gave you a nudge, “You really need to hear this guy.” Whatever it was, you would have heard the name. Last night he came out with a thrilling, magnetic speech, topping everyone on the card so far, even Bill Clinton. He destroyed expectations. Now, he has a lot more of them. I don’t know what happens to him from here. I sincerely hope, as an American, that he doesn’t sell out, or get fat. Last night on Larry King, David Gergen said he’d be the first African American President. He may be right. A Democrat’s dream: Kerry/Edwards win in ’04 and ’08, and Edwards/Obama in 2012.
I think Frinklin accurately summed up the buzz generated by the combination of Obama's speaking skill and his message. Call it "responsible liberalism," call it the new centrism, call it whatever you want, it's a powerful message, and one that has the potential to define the Democrats for a new generation.

If you didn't catch Obama's speech, the text is here. The heart of Obama's message is that we are all one America, a diverse, generous and tolerant land where we are free to pursue our goals while sharing common ideals. (Mickey Kaus, I believe, wondered sardonically if Obama's "one America" and John Edwards' "two Americas" average out to 1.5 Americas.) Obama's vision is the bright side of the civil-rights movement, the one we see so little of in modern America. Obama's vision is a fulfillment of Dr. King's: the benefits and joys of American life is available to everyone, and yet we are all able to maintain our distinctiveness and pursue our goals freely. It's a welcome change from the message of modern separatists, who stubbornly insist on attacking and repudiating America's common culture as much as possible. It doesn't hurt that Obama, the son of an African father and a white mother from Kansas, is the living embodiment of the merging of cultures in America.

That's one of the things I really like about Obama's message: he really believes in the "melting pot" ideal, or at least a modern update thereof. And better yet, he touches on the "melting pot" without actually saying the words. He embodies it, and he refers to its ideals in his speeches, but he doesn't use the hoary and somewhat discredited cliche. He's reinvented the concept for a new age, and that's very powerful indeed.

Better yet, Obama can speak to Republican themes, and speak movingly. He speaks of hope and opportunity in a way the Democrats haven't since Clinton. He speaks of personal responsibility as well or better than any Republican. He speaks of faith and God credibly -- a very welcome development for a party that has generally treated religious faith on a par with, say, belief in the occult. And he also talks about social responsibility in a way that makes old-school Democrats happy. It's a glorious synthesis of past and future, one that the Democratic Party would do well to adopt in forthcoming elections.

Now, the crashing of gears. Rumors are swirling that Arizona left-handed behemoth Randy Johnson, originally ticketed out of town by Saturday's trading deadline, may well be staying put. What started off as a hot rumor has descended into a mess that has made all the major parties (Johnson, the Diamondbacks, and the New York Yankees) look bad.

The Diamondbacks look bad because of the way this whole mess got started. The Johnson-out-of-town rumors began in the press. Initially, Arizona insisted that the Big Unit wasn't going anywhere. Then, after a while, they appeared to change their minds. By that time, they'd pissed off Johnson, and both sides wound up negotiating through the papers, which is almost never a good idea. If Arizona really wasn't going to trade Johnson, they needed to stick to there guns, rather than going behind the scenes to sound out other clubs. (That's a shabby thing to do your biggest star, and a stupid thing to do if he has no-trade rights, as Johnson does.) And if the Diamondbacks were planning to trade him, or even explore it, they needed to sit down with Johnson ahead of time and agree on a list of teams where he'd be willing to go, so that everyone's happy. Now Johnson's upset, and Arizona is facing the choice of an unhappy superstar or an awkward trade.

Johnson looks bad because of the way he's handled his end. He has every right to be upset about the rumors that started swirling all of a sudden, particularly since he reportedly didn't want to be traded before the rumors started. But once he decided to start calling the shot, he behaved like a petulant child. First he said he'd like Boston. Then he said he wouldn't go there. Then he said he wanted to go to the West Coast. Then he refused to go to the Dodgers. Then it was the Angels. Then he said it was the Yankees or nothing. Then his agent threatened that nothing would be a very bad idea. Up until now, Johnson has enjoyed a positive public image, or at least as much of one as a 6-foot-10 pituitary case with bad hair and bad skin can enjoy. But his latest maneuverings have marked him as just another greedy mercenary. (It would be one thing if he'd never won a Series ring. But he got his in Arizona in 2001.)

And the Yankees? They look bad because their attempts to land Johnson have spotlighted just how bad their farm system is. Johnson would have been in pinstripes (real pinstripes, not purple pinstripes) a week ago or more if the Yankees had any prospects to offer. But they've got almost nothing. Years of fattening up the big-league roster, scooping up other teams' stars, have finally caught up with the Bronx Bombers. It's so bad that George Steinbrenner fired his farm system director the other day, largely out of embarrassment. And the source of the embarrassment, primarily, has been the Johnson negotiations.

For all parties involved, I think, Saturday can't come soon enough. Maybe then Johnson will be gone, or won't, and everyone can slink back into their respective corners and pretend this all never happened. (Arizona also deserves a whipping for the hash it's made of the Steve Finley deal, but let's not even go there.)

That's enough for today. Mush tomorrow!
  12:20 PM
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Hard-Headed Woman" by Elvis Presley


Good day, everyone! Today I'm thinking about Teresa Heinz Kerry, in the wake of her speech at the Democratic convention last night. (Most everyone's buzzing about Barack Obama, and deservedly so; I'll cover him tomorrow.) I'm inspired to write about Teresa because of some negative commentary posted about her over at Real Clear Politics the last couple days. The gist of the comments: Mrs. Kerry is a liability to her husband's presidential campaign. I couldn't disagree more.

Yesterday, RCP's Tom Bevan used articles discussing Teresa's reputed bad temper to raise questions about her suitability as First Lady, though he is quick to stress that he personally thinks she's fine:

I recently talked to a friend of mine who interviewed Teresa and had nothing but good things to say about her. My friend said she was warm, funny, strong, and likeable in private. Unfortunately, Mrs. Heinz Kerry doesn't project nearly the same image publicly, if indeed that's really how she is.

Either way, another couple of outbursts like the one yesterday and her behavior could become a liability for Kerry. It won't help that the scrutiny of Teresa's temper will stand in stark contrast to Laura Bush, who rarely (if ever) has a bad word written or said about her.

People don't vote for first ladies, but candidates' wives can certainly leave either a positive or negative impression on voters (as Hillary did in 1992 with "let them stay home and bake cookies") which may help or hurt on the margins. In an election that could be razor-thin - especially in the traditional, values-oriented Midwest - John Kerry's wife could end up costing him some crucial votes.

Note well Bevan's passivity in describing the situation. At no point does he actually say, "Midwestern voters will reject John Kerry because of his wife." Instead, he just keeps saying that Teresa could be a problem for Kerry, particularly in the Midwest. It sounds vaguely like a mob boss issuing a sotto voce execution order: "Gentlemen, I have a feeling something very unfortunate could happen to Mr. Gambini this afternoon."

Today, John McIntyre continued the negative drumbeat, again raising the question of Teresa's fitness as a presidential spouse, and once again stressing that he personally thinks she's swell:

I've always felt Teresa was going to be a liability, if for no other reason than she is just not the average American's vision of what a First Lady should be like. Whether that is fair or unfair is another issue - and largely irrelevant to the discussion of her political impact. The bottom line is that together the accent, the money, and the attitude produce a package that isn't always flattering to middle America.

Personally, I've always found Teresa Heinz Kerry to be interesting not only because she is so opinionated and outspoken, but because in some ways she doesn't seem too self-absorbed by the importance of the campaign. That attitude can be refreshing in a primary campaign with multiple candidates. It's nice to have someone who is a little different. At some point, however, you would expect her to understand the gravity and importance of the situation that potentially awaits her should John Kerry win...

I don't think people vote for President because of the candidate's spouse, but after last night's speech it seems clear that Kerry's wife is going to be a liability for him. The real question is how much and will it matter. I'm not suggesting this is a big vote mover, but in a race that could be extremely close, even 0.3% in states like Ohio and Wisconsin could make all the difference the world.

Note well again: McIntyre believes that Teresa is "going to be a liability," though he personally likes her. That passivity again. What gives? If McIntyre and Bevan, both distinctly right-of-center politically, think Mrs. Kerry is engaging and entertaining, who is this anonymous "they" for whom she's going to be a problem?

What this is, of course, is a way for the GOP to tap anti-feminist prejudices without being overt about it. Conoisseurs of the old "Southern Strategy" will be familiar with this technique. After LBJ cast the Democrats firmly on the side of civil rights in '64, the Republicans sensed an opportunity. A lot of longtime Democratic voters, particularly in the South, didn't think much of the civil rights movement, and felt abandoned by their own party. The Republicans skillfully swooped in and, using coded racist appeals, picked up a lot of disaffected Southern voters. The GOP knew that overt racism was out, and would cost them a lot of support in the North, but talking about "tradition" and "preserving law and order" allowed the Republicans to assure white Southerners, with a wink and a nod, that the party was "safe" on race. Similarly, the modern GOP raises these "concerns" about Teresa Heinz Kerry to assure voters that the Republicans are "safe" on gender.

As with race in the '60s and '70s, there are a lot of voters, particularly in the South and Midwest, who feel at some level that this whole women's-rights business has gone too far, and that women belong back in the kitchen. Now, no mainstream party could overtly endorse that position without getting pounded, but if one party is on record rejecting it, the other one has an opportunity if it can find a way to reach those voters on the sly. The Republicans have used the candidate's-wife route to make this argument very effectively. If a Democratic candidate has a strong and ambitious spouse, the Republicans can raise questions about her and thereby reassure traditionalist voters without alienating more progressive moderates.

Hillary Clinton was the textbook opportunity for this. Democrats hailed Bill Clinton's wife (deservedly) as a smart, outspoken, independent and capable woman. They cheered when she talked about a "co-presidency" and "getting two for the price of one" and when she rejected the idea of standing by her man and baking cookies. Maybe Geraldine Ferraro's misadventures had put the kibbosh on having a woman on the ticket for now, but here was the next best thing: a First Lady who spoke out loud and proud about the issues facing the country. You go, girl!

Of course, there were plenty of voters who were uneasy about this. And the Republicans knew they'd have an advantage if they could reach those voters. But coming out and saying "Career women are scary" simply wouldn't do. So, instead, they started muttering about Hillary. "Isn't she awfully ambitious? Isn't she a pretty radical departure from the standards of a First Lady? Doesn't she seem awfully cold? And did you hear the way she slammed cookie-baking mothers? Can you believe that? Doesn't she appreciate what a good and noble thing it is to be a stay-at-home mother?" Clearly implied in all this was that the Republicans would never stand for uppity women getting too big for their britches. And traditionalist voters listened.

Here was the tricky part of the trap for Democrats: there's no effective way to respond to the coded appeal. Hillary couldn't just fade back into the woodwork without disappointing her Democratic fans and giving Republicans a chance to gloat. On the other hand, if Democrats responded by saying, "You're damned right Hillary's ambitious, and we love that! Something's wrong with you if you don't!", they're basically doing the Republicans' dirty work for them. It excites the pro-feminist crowd, sure, but it only further alienates the traditionalists who already aren't comfortable with Hillary. (That's the problem with bold progressivism that loudly rejects traditionalist thinking: all your opponents have to do is raise an eyebrow and say something like, "That's awfully bold," and boom, they've got the moderates in line behind them. It takes a pretty shocking event to change that dynamic.)

And if the Democrats attempted to call the Republicans out on their coded sexism, the Republicans could insist that they intended no such thing, and accuse the Democrats of militant political correctness. "What kind of world is it," the Republicans would say, "where you can't even raise the slightest concerns about a powerful woman without being accused of sexism?" Voila, now the Democrats look shrill, radical and paranoid. You see the diabolical brilliance of the rhetorical trap. It's like Chinese handcuffs: the harder the Democrats try to get out of it, the tighter they're bound.

(Really, it makes you wonder why anyone ever bothers with overt racism or sexism anymore. Covert appeals are so much more effective. As far as I can tell, that only occurs when racism or sexism is the dominant position, thus removing the need to be covert, or when the speaker isn't smart or sophisticated enough to do better.)

So now we have Teresa Heinz Kerry, a smart, outspoken, independent and capable woman. Her work and head of the Heinz Foundation revolutionized philanthropy, and revitalized the city of Pittsburgh. She's warm and personal where her husband is cold and formal. She's brash and blunt where her husband is careful and reserved. In some ways, she can be a real asset to the Kerry campaign. Therefore, she is a threat. So out comes the coded rhetoric again.

Now, Teresa's a "loose cannon." In other words, she's speaking out of her place, being uncontrollable and uppity. She's got a bad temper, another sign of her uncontrollability. (A bad temper is a whole lot more of a public liability for a powerful woman than a powerful man, no?) She doesn't understand the "gravity and importance" of being First Lady, which sounds like a critique of headstrong and flighty women if I ever heard one. (McIntyre also mentions her accent and wealth, a bonus appeal to xenophobia and classism.) She's a dangerous type, all right.

Perhaps you've also heard the well-circulated fable that the Heinz corporation, supposedly owned by Teresa, outsources its production overseas. Besides accusing Kerry of hypocrisy on the outsourcing issue, this story also takes another shot at Teresa by claiming that she controls the activities of the Heinz corporation. (This, by the way, is not true. She doesn't even own a significant percentage of the company stock.) Not only does she run the business, this story goes, but she's running it poorly, taking away jobs that rightly belong to American workers. But then, what can you expect if you leave a woman in charge, right?

Put altogether, the charges all add up to the same thing: Teresa is no one's idea of a traditional spouse. Because of that, she's a threat to the natural order of things. Sure, she was fun to listen to during the primaries, but was does it say about Democrats that they'd actually put her on the national ticket? Put Kerry in the White House, and who knows what she might do? Whatever it is, it's sure to be embarrassing to the country, because she doesn't understand her proper place.

By contrast, we have Laura Bush. Just like Sara Lee, nobody doesn't like Laura Bush. I like Laura Bush. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't. But she's particularly beloved by Republicans because of what she represents. Barbara Bush was a traditionalist feminine icon, to be sure, but she was also of an age when American women didn't have a lot of other choices. Laura is of a different generation. She could have followed the path that Hillary Clinton did; she's roughly the same age as Hillary (only four years older), and she certainly seems bright and capable enough to do anything she cares to. But she chose to follow a more traditional route. She chooses not to makes waves in her public utterances. She chooses to deflect the spotlight, rather than court it. She chooses to stand loyally beside her husband and be a classic First Lady. What a perfect symbol! What a great model to show to traditionalist male voters who wish the women would quit whining and get back to cleaning the bathroom!

Again, the Democrats are in a bind here. If they proclaim Teresa's virtues too loudly, they're once again doing the Republicans' work for them. If they were to start taking shots at Laura, they'd not only alienate traditionalists, but they'd hand Republicans the opportunity to slam them for hypocrisy. (And rightfully so; Laura Bush's life choices are just as valid as Hillary Clinton's or Teresa Heinz Kerry's.) And if they remain silent, they seem to be tacitly acknowledging that Laura is the better First Lady. Once again, the trap is carefully set.

Here's where McIntyre and Bevan come in. Both of them can claim with perfect credibility that Mrs. Kerry's personality isn't affecting their votes at all. They'd vote for Bush no matter whom Kerry was married to. But by suggesting that Teresa "might be a problem" for Midwestern voters, they offer cover to those who might be on the fence in those states. (They'd have mentioned the South, too, except that conservative pundits don't want to admit that the South is competitive at all.) So your average male voter in, say, Ohio might be undecided between Bush and Kerry. Maybe Teresa's outspokenness makes him uncomfortable, but he doesn't want to admit that, because it makes him sound sexist. But Bevan and McIntyre have now given our hypothetical voter some talking points: "Yeah, it was a close call, but in the end, I just didn't go for Kerry's wife. Too chatty, too temperamental. Can't have someone like that representing the country." And so he pulls the lever for Bush.

And what can Democrats do? Not a whole lot. As I mentioned, it's a pretty effective trap. But the Democrats need to force the Republicans out of the coded-language bunker and get them speaking openly about the proper role of women. If the GOP has to start speaking openly about what they feel is appropriate for women in general, rather than just taking potshots at specific candidates' wives, they might suddenly find things heating up for them.

But the Democrats had better act fast. They never found an effective rebuttal to the Southern Strategy. Now, the coded racist appeals are pretty much obsolete, but the region is solidly Republican now. People are in the habit of voting Republican in the South. And it'll take a lot of doing for the Democrats to break that lock. If they can't rebut the gender strategy, in 30 years we might be saying the same thing about the Midwest.

By the way, I neglected to talk yesterday about the Brewers' pickup of Russ Branyan. I like Russ; I always thought he was going places, even though he never quite broke through with the Reds and Indians. He's a low-average slugger with a ton of strikeouts, and that's what we can expect from him in the future. He's 28, which means we've probably already seen what he's capable of. An All-Star Branyan is not. In all probability, he's a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire.

But that's a good thing; we desperately need more power, and it never hurts to have a left-handed bench bat hanging around. More to the point, spare parts like Branyan are the kind of thing that separates potential contenders from mediocre teams. The fact that we're bringing in a guy like Russ indicates that we're starting to think of ourselves as a contender, and that's a very welcome change from the past several years. Hopefully, we'll build on this in the offseason, upping the payroll a bit and bringing in some more pieces: some more outfield power, a hot-hitting third baseman, an ace lefty reliever and a middle-of-the-rotation horse. If we spend our money wisely, I think we can get those pieces and keep our payroll in the $40-50 million range, and have a legitimate shot at the wild card next year. Hope is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

And with that, I'll wrap it up for the day. See you tomorrow!

(Cross-posted to Open Source Politics.)

  12:20 PM
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "With Every Beat Of My Heart" by Josie and the Pussycats


Hello there, all! After a suitable fortnightly wait, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice have returned to proffer romantic advice for the quietly desperate masses out there. Our cuddly couple comes to us today from Birmingham, Alabama, where Uncle Millie says he's "looking for some Southern Comfort." Aunt Beatrice says he's not talking about the beverage, either, but knowing Uncle Millie, he probably is. At least partially. Unless he's actually talking about... well, never mind that. Let's just turn things over to Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice, shall we? Take it away, you crazy lovebirds!

- - - - -

I Know A Place For Lovers Who Wander -- For Instance, My Hotel Room, by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice
UM: Howdy, lads! And a big sooooooooooooooeeeeeeeeey to you all!

AB: They say "y'all" down here, dear.

UM: Yes, yes. Well, we all (or is it "w'all"?) are having a hooting and hollering good time down here in Birmingham! Yes, sir.

AB: You'll have to forgive Uncle Millie. Ever since we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, he's been attempting to master the Southern dialect. Without success.

UM: Now, that's just a crockpot of crawfish, my love. I've taken to the Southern culture as a river trout takes to the mighty Mississippi! My heart belongs to Dixie.

AB: "Dixie" being the name of the woman he met while country line-dancing on Sunday.

UM: I can grapevine with the best of them, y'all lads!

AB: Just give it up, will you? You sound ridiculous.

UM: Bullhockey, love. Bartender, sir! Why don't y'all bring us a couple more bourbon and we'll take a gander on through these-here letters?

BARTENDER: Do what now?

AB: You're all ready to be character witnesses in the homicide trial, right?

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,
About three months ago, my girlfriend dumped me. I didn't really see it coming, and I took it pretty hard. I'm starting to recover from the blow, I think, and get back to my ordinary routine. Except where it comes to relationships. My friends have been trying to fix me up on blind dates, and for a while I resisted, because I just wasn't ready. Finally, though, I went on one last week. The girl was nice enough, but I spent the whole time thinking about the ways she wasn't as good as my old girlfriend. Ack! I feel like I'll never be able to enjoy dating again, because the new girls just won't measure up. How do I get myself in a better frame of mind?
Randy in Saginaw
UM: Well, now, lad, that's what we Dixie folks like to call a real pickle. That girlfriend of yours, she wound herself around your heart like kudzu.

AB: Kudzu? You don't even know what kudzu looks like.

UM: Why, I surely do, love. Now, lad, y'all are gonna need to turn it all around, I reckon.

AB: Enough, Gomer. Randy, it's not at all uncommon to struggle with dating again after the end of a long-term relationship, especially if the breakup wasn't your idea. And yes, the first few dates are probably going to be awkward for you. You just need to ride it out and know that the pain will fade over time.

UM: Just like when y'all get kicked in the family jewels by a mule.

BARTENDER: Do what now?

AB: Ignore him, bartender; he's not used to all this sun. If you still find yourself having trouble, you might want to sit down and force yourself to think about your former girlfriend's shortcomings. After all, no one's perfect, and surely your girlfriend did some things that bothered you. Perhaps she always forgot your birthday, or didn't call when she was running late, or insisted in attempting an accent that she wasn't even vaguely capable of pulling off.

UM: Why now, ma'am, I do believe you're referring to myself there.

AB: You think so? Anyway, Randy, I think once you start thinking of your old girlfriend as paradise lost and start thinking of her as a real person, you'll have an easier time seeing other girls as measuring up. Sure, your new date may not know exactly how much mayonnaise you like on your sandwiches, but she's probably got qualities that your last girlfriend didn't. And soon enough, you'll be able to see new women without comparing them to your last girlfriend at all.

UM: The darling little lady has said some fine things, but she's managed to overlook the surest solutions to your woes, lad. The only surefire way to forget about your last girlfriend is through lots of meaningless sex. See now, your head and your heart are plagued with the memories of the girl that dumped you. But your body's always ready for a good time. Let it guide you from bed to bed, and you'll forget about that ol' girl in no time.

AB: Once again, Uncle Millie proves that idiocy sounds the same in any accent. And if you ever call me your "darling little lady" again, I'm going to turn that mule loose on you.

UM: Whoa, Nelly!

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,
I've been dating "Margaret" for about 6 months now. Margaret's smart and funny and I enjoy spending time with her. The problem is physical intimacy. I like it, she doesn't. I'm not talking about sex; I'm talking about hugging and kissing and even holding hands. I'm really into all that stuff, but she doesn't seem to go for it. She doesn't resist it, exactly, but when I move in to kiss her or put my arm around her, I can feel her stiffen up a little. Is this normal? What can I do about it?
Marty in Phoenix
AB: Hi, Marty. If you and Margaret have been dating for six months and she's still not comfortable with hugging and kissing you, that's definitely not normal. She has a problem of some sort with physical intimacy. Possibly she was abused as a child, or perhaps physical contact was rare in her family. Maybe she recently left a bad relationship. Maybe she was raped. There are a lot of possibilities. And the only way to know for sure is to talk to her about it. The two of you are long overdue for a discussion about this.

UM: I thought that was their problem. They need, as Elvis said, "a little less conversation, a little more action."

AB: Hush. Marty, clearly this relationship isn't going to be satisfactory to you unless you have more physical contact, so you need to sit Margaret down and explain that, and find out why she doesn't seem to enjoy it. Don't be accusatory, just be honest and direct. "I've noticed that you seem to stiffen up whenever I try to hug or kiss you. Is there a reason you're not comfortable with that?" And be open-minded and listen to what she has to say. For all you know, maybe you hug so hard she thinks you're going to crush her, or perhaps she thinks you're a bad kisser. THe most important thing is to be able to communicate openly with her about it.

UM: Aw, bullhockey, my love. Lad, you're a true saint to have stuck it out this long with a cold fish like her. But how long can you stand around trying to get water from a dry well? I say you should dump her and find someone who's good at the indoor rodeo, if you catch my drift.

AB: We all catch your drift, dear. People in Africa are catching your drift even as we speak.

UM: Yeehaw! Well, go on out there and ride 'em, cowboy.

AB: Seriously, Millie, if you don't drop the accent, I'm going to get a branding iron and apply it somewhere very unpleasant.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,
I have a question about lovemaking. I have a long-distance boyfriend, and he and I have lots of fun in bed whenever he comes to visit. We're compatible sexually, and we both love to try new things, which is really great.
Here's the problem: My boyfriend has this fetish. I've heard of it before, but it's unique enough that if I said it here, he'd probably be able to identify himself. Anyway, I'm not really into it, but I'm willing to indulge him because he likes it so much and we don't see each other that often. At first, it was just an occasional thing (he knew I wasn't that excited about it). But now it seems like every time we make love, we have to do his fetish. It's getting to be too much. How do I talk to him about it without making it sound like I don't care about making him happy?
Heather in Dallas
UM: Well now, dear, surely you're aware that here in the South, we believe in the woman deferring to the wishes of her man. It's the natural order of things, and surely you wouldn't want to go against it. I think you should do as he requests.

AB: Thank you for that lovely 19th-century viewpoint, Uncle Millie.

UM: It's the traditional view, and we Southerners believe strongly in tradition, ma'am.

AB: For the last time, you are not a Southerner! Just stop it. I'm curious as to how often the two of them see each other. Does it say in the letter anywhere?

UM: Uh, well, no. Nothing in here about that. I didn't say anything about it, did I?

AB: No, but sometimes we trim letters for space. Let me see it; maybe there's a clue in there.

UM: Uh, no, I don't rightly think that's a good idea, ma'am.

AB: Why not?

UM: Well-

AB: Stop being silly and give me the letter.

UM: But ma'am-

AB: Give me the letter.

UM: I'd rather not-

AB: There. Thank you. Now let's take a look at- wait a second, she does mention the specific fetish in here.

UM: Yes, but I thought it would be better for everyone if we left that information out. We should protect her privacy. It doesn't change the-

AB: And it sounds awfully... familiar. Very familiar indeed. I don't think it was her privacy that you were concerned about. Was it?

UM: Well-

AB: And what's this PS? "Come on back soon! I miss you!" Interesting.

UM: Uh.

AB: Millie? Care to explain this?

UM: Well, golly, look at that there clock! I do believe we're plumb out of time-

AB: Not so fast. I haven't given Heather my advice yet. Heather, dearie, I think you should get rid of your boyfriend before his wife tracks you down. Okay, pumpkin?

UM: And that wraps up our column for today! Tune in again in two weeks for more romantic advice! Right, my love?

AB: Sure. Right after I make a gelding out of you. My love.

BARTENDER: Do what now?

UM: Happy hunting!

AB: Bye, y'all.

- - - - -

Well, thank you, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. As always, look for them again in this space two weeks from today.

And having nothing worthwhile of my own to add, I'll go ahead and take off. See you tomorrow!
  1:45 PM
Monday, July 26, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Easy Come, Easy Go" by Bobby Sherman


Hello there, everyone! Today the big buzz is about Ricky Williams' retirement, about which I don't have much to say. Football isn't my favorite sport, and besides, it's not clear exactly why he did it. (Hei Lun over at Begging to Differ offers up an interesting theory, that Williams was about to face major suspension time for marijuana use, which is worth a read.) The only thing everyone agrees on is that Williams was an odd duck, and that he really didn't feel at home in the football world, something I'm always sympathetic to.

Rather than talking about Runnin' Ricky, I'd prefer to focus on the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony that occurred this weekend. Reliever Dennis Eckersley and third baseman/designated hitter Paul Molitor were this year's guests of honor, and they have something in common: both triumphed over personal problems, particularly substance abuse. Both Eckersley and Molitor referenced these problems in their speeches. A number of commentators have called this the "New Age induction," since both speeches sounded like they might have been cribbed from a self-help manual. Eckersley spoke openly and movingly about his battle with alcoholism. Molitor touched on his own battle with cocaine from the early '80s. Both men paid tribute to their ex-wives. It definitely wasn't your father's induction ceremony.

Eckersley's speech was the one most commentators focused on (since it was more open and emotional), but I was more interested in Molitor. Molitor was one of the Brewers' brightest lights in my childhood, so naturally I was a big fan of his. At the time, he was just a great ballplayer to me, likeable primarily because he helped my team win games. Then he left Milwaukee in '93 in a cloud of acrimony to sign on with Toronto, where he won a richly-deserved World Series title. At the time, I didn't know what to think. Molitor was Milwaukee, he and Robin Yount. Yount stayed. But Molitor departed. Was it the money? Was it the lack of rings? How could he do this? It was my first experience in getting kicked in the teeth by the business side of baseball. (Later, of course, it became clear that the Brewers were at least as much to blame as Molitor for his departure, and it's certainly telling that the Brewers have not seriously contended since Paul left. Perhaps he knew something we didn't.)

Even then, I only knew Molitor as a ballplayer. But as time went on, and I grew older, I learned more about Molitor the man. First, it was the background mentions that Molitor had had a "substance abuse problem" earlier in his career. The "substance" was never specified, although anyone familiar with baseball in the '80s could probably connect the dots pretty easily. I never quite did, though. Maybe I just didn't want to. Eventually, the accounts became more straightforward: Molitor had used cocaine.

Nowadays, this sounds much more shocking than it did then. Nowadays, everyone knows the horror stories about cocaine, the risk of addiction and damage, the downside. But for a while, in the late '70s and early '80s, America thought it had found the perfect party drug. No side effects, no hangovers, just a tremendous high. It was a status symbol in some circles, and it was virtually mandatory among fashionable rich people who liked to party. And nowhere was this more true than among athletes. Baseball, because of a highly-publicized trial in Pittsburgh in 1985, was the sport most associated with cocaine use, but athletes in other sports did it too. (The NBA's Phoenix Suns had so many players snared in a drug sting in the mid-'80s that there was talk of folding the franchise.) It may seem stupid to younger people that so many athletes succumbed to cocaine in those days, but remember, these players didn't grow up hearing about how bad cocaine was. They didn't know how addictive it was, or what long-term abuse could do to you. They just thought it was a way to have a good time, to celebrate being young and rich and famous.

To Molitor's credit, he realized the damage cocaine was doing to him and his career, admitted his problem and kicked the habit cold turkey. And, of course, after he beat his problem, he went on to the long and productive career that landed him on stage in Cooperstown yesterday. Considering the lengthy list of cocaine abusers from that era whose habit derailed or at least diminished their careers, this is a significant accomplishment on Molitor's part.

Of course, Molitor's winding road doesn't end with his triumph over cocaine. He went through a difficult divorce a couple years back, and in his speech he acknowledged publicly for the first time that he fathered a son, Joshua, out of wedlock in Toronto. In some ways, I thought that was the most touching part of Molitor's address: revealing Joshua's existence in such a public venue, and promising to work on having a better relationship with the boy. Traditionalists grumbled that Joe DiMaggio never would have mentioned that in his induction speech, but I thought it spoke well of Molitor that he did. It takes a hell of a man to speak about that so openly. The most damaging thing about something like that is the silence, and the secrecy was corrosive, I'm sure, for both father and son. I really hope things work out for Molitor and Joshua.

Of course, it was hard not to listen to Molitor and Eckersley talk about their struggles without thinking of Pete Rose, who was just up the street, signing autographs and trying desperately to upstage the induction ceremony, as he does every year, unrepentant ass that he is. You may recall that Pete kicked off his latest get-me-in-the-Hall tour the day that Molitor and Eckersley were announced as being in the latest class. It was a typically crass and classless show from Rose, but the juxtaposition is interesting. Like Ecklersley and Molitor, Rose had an addiction problem in the '80s that threatened to destroy his career. Unlike them, however, he made no particular effort to control or beat it, preferring instead to pin blame on whoever was closest and most convenient, whether it be Bart Giamatti or Fay Vincent or John Dowd or the press. He's a manipulator to the max, never caring whom he might step on or annoy in his quest for personal ego-gratification. He is, in short, a dismal human being.

Now, you can certainly argue that Rose's addiction was no worse than Eckersley's or Molitor's, and you can argue that he should have been ordered into treatment rather than banished from the game. We can argue about whether betting for your own team is worse than betting against it, and whether gambling on baseball is tantamount to fixing, and any of the other side debates that have gone on for years now without any satisfactory resolutions. But one salient fact remains: Pete Rose has had 15 years since his banishment to get his life in order, and he hasn't done it. He hasn't even tried. All he's tried to do is figure out what minimum amount of public expression of guilt will get him off the hook. I still don't think he believes he has a problem, or ever did. And as long as that's true, he doesn't deserve to be cut any slack.

When Rose was initially banished from the game, I felt that keeping him out of the Hall of Fame was piling on. For someone who achieved so much and loved the game so well as Rose, it was cruel to deny him the Hall, especially given that sociopaths like Ty Cobb were deemed fit to inhabit Cooperstown. But the longer we've seen the swaggering, ugly Rose on display, the less sympathy I've felt for his omission. I still believe that he deserved to be in eventually; there's simply no justification for keeping the all-time hits leader out forever. But I'm increasingly disinclined to give Rose the satisfaction of entering Cooperstown during his lifetime.

It's true that the Hall of Fame is strictly a measure of one's baseball deeds, and not one's success or failure as a human. However, Molitor and Eckersley, in addition to being Hall of Fame players, are Hall of Fame people, for the way they're persevered and overcome. Pete Rose, however great a ballplayer he may have been, is no Hall of Famer as a man.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow!
  2:45 PM
Friday, July 23, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "The Grooviest Girl in the World" by the Fun & Games


Hello there, all! It's Friday at last, which means it's time to prattle on in aimless and disjointed fashion. Woohoo!

Today I'd like to begin with last night's Jeopardy! episode, which was fascinating. It was a case study in the ongoing saga of Alex and Ken. Allow me to share some notes, which I jotted down as I watched:

- Alex announced that some people had questions about Ken Jeopardy's performance, and they wanted to test him for steroids. The audience laughed a little, but Alex was clearly looking for a bigger laugh, so he staggered around in search of a punchline before finally giving up. It was pathetic.

- Ken correctly answered a question about the movie "Scarface." Alex then proceeded to do a really bad Pacino impression: "Say hello to my little friend!" Ken replied, "After the show, okay?"

- Ken swept the "Stupid Answers" category, and the audience applauded. Alex scolded them: "Do not applaud someone for running the 'Stupid Answers' category. It says more about you than it does about him."

- During the interview portion, Alex described one of the contestants as a "nice lookin' girl." It was an uncomfortable moment for all concerned. Now, it's certainly not unheard of for hosts to flirt with female contestants. Chuck Woolery calls female contestants "honey" and "darlin'." Richard Dawson even used to kiss the women on "Family Feud." But both of them seem like natural flirts. It seems like part of their natural personality. But when Alex does it, it's like seeing your elderly bachelor uncle hitting on your girlfriend: awkward and disturbing.

- Ken blew a question on purpose! He said the former captial of Delaware was Wilmington, giggling all the way. He's clearly getting bored with winning all the time. If either of his competitors appeared competent, I think he might have bowed out tonight.

- KJ clearly does not listen to classic rock. He didn't even guess on any of the questions in the "Sentimental Rock" category.

- Same category: Alex read the REO in "REO Speedwagon" as if it were a word, rather than spelling it out. He corrected himself, saying, "I'm tired here, folks. I used to drive a REO." This struck me as unlikely, since I remembered the REO nameplate as collapsing in the Depression. But while they stopped making cars in '36, they kept making trucks under the REO name until the '70s. So it's possible that young Alex used to pilot a REO truck. Useless trivia for the day.

- Before Final Jeopardy, Alex once again dared Ken to aim for the one-day money record (he's tied it twice). So, of course, Ken tied it again, leading Alex to utter the clench-jawed declaration, "You're doing this just to bug me!" As tempting as that would be, I'm sure that's not it. I have two theories on why Ken refuses to beat the record:

1. Ken is a humble soul at heart, and he doesn't want to make more of a spectacle of himself than he has to. He doesn't want to put every record out of reach; he's just winning easily because he can. But if he were really that humble, I'd think he'd have won by now. Which leads me to...

2. He's trying to leave himself with one challenge. He's already smashed every other record in sight. He hasn't had a serious challenge in weeks. He needs to leave one mountain intact. This theory will, I believe, be proven if he finally allows himself to beat the record at some point, and then loses the next day. Wait and see.

So what did we learn? We learned that Ken is doing an admirable job of remaining himself in this increasingly surreal situation. By contrast, Alex is becoming increasingly deranged. Ken's ongoing success has disoriented Mr. Trebek. Having been relegated to second banana, Alex is resorting to increasingly desperate tactics to get attention. I mean, bad impressions of Tony Montana? Come on, Alex.

Later that evening, I saw the latest MTV get-out-the-vote commercial. And I must say, I have dire concerns about their effort. The whole "Vote for Something" slogan is a decent way to encourage voting without pushing a partisan agenda. But before displaying the "Vote for Something" slogan, you see a variety of things that you could presumably vote for. In this commercial, we see a shot of a clear-cut forest, followed by a variety of environment-related things we could vote for. And one of them says, "Vote for Forest Fires." Vote for forest fires?! What the hell? Now, granted, I don't know of anyone who's running on a pro-forest-fire platform, at least not this election cycle. But still... MTV? What the hell is this?

Finally, I want to acquaint everyone a bit with the above-referenced musical selection. "The Grooviest Girl in the World" was a minor hit in the late '60s by a garage-rock band from Houston named the Fun and Games. It's a fun good-time sing-along song, but I particularly enjoy it for its bizarrely stilted lyrics and tortured rhymes:

Sha la-la la la la la-la la la la la la-la-la-la-la, hey!
Sha la-la la la la la-la la la la la la-la-la-la-la

There she was standing over by the telephone
Oh what a beautiful girl
Standing in the phone booth
Giving me a sweet look
Makes me want to give her a whirl

Hey, little Judy in disguise
Lucy in the sky
Come fly with me in my balloon...

Cause you're the grooviest girl in the world
You're a feminine portait of grace
You're the grooviest girl in the world
And I'm a guy with impeccable taste
Ahhhh, ahhhhhhh, yeah!

Walking such a long way
Talking to her all day
Sipping on a strawberry fizz
Playing with her long hair
Saying how much I care
Telling her how groovy she is

Hey, little Judy in disguise
Lucy in the sky
Come fly with me in my balloon...

'Cause you're the grooviest girl in the world
You're a feminine portrait of grace
You're the grooviest girl in the world
And I'm a guy with impeccable taste
Ahhhh, ahhhhhhh, yeah!
Can you imagine describing a woman as a "feminine portrait of grace" and then calling her "the grooviest girl in the world"? I love that. The juxtaposition tickles me.

And with that, it's downhill to the weekend. See you Monday!
  2:42 PM
Thursday, July 22, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Stuck in the Middle with You" by Stealer's Wheel


Hi there, everyone. Today I find myself with a new reason to be irked by the Bush administration: politicking over the tax cuts. This doesn't have to do with the fact of the tax cuts themselves. It has to do with the fact that, once again, the Bush administration refuses to accept reasonable compromises worked out by other people, preferring instead to push for complete and total victory, and to hell with the carnage. Even after almost a full term, Bush still does not understand that this is no way to run a government.

What happened this time? Well, three of the more popular tax-cut programs (expanding the 10-percent tax bracket, the tax break for married couples and the $1,000 child tax credit) are set to expire at the end of the year. Congressional Republican leaders worked out a deal in which these tax cuts (the most politically popular ones) would be extended for a period of two years, and there would be certain tax increases in other areas to help offset the impact on the deficit. Now, it may be true that the tax cuts are not something we can afford at all in times of financial difficulty. But given that admitting that is tantamount to political suicide, this plan is a good compromise: Republicans (including Bush) get to tout their victory on the tax-cuts. Moderates get to claim that they supported both fiscal responsibility and tax relief for the middle class. Democrats get to claim that they kept the extension to a manageable length. And (hidden bonus) everything comes up again in two years, just in time for midterm elections. Everybody wins, but particularly the Republicans (which figures, since it was their plan).

Well, the Bush administration apparently wasn't satisfied. The president's advisors swooped in and killed the deal. Why? Well, Bush has been agitating to make the tax cuts permanent, and two years just doesn't seem decisive enough for him. He wants a five-year extension, and none of this offsetting-increase pussy-footing around either. After all, George Bush is a strong leader. Too strong to waste time with piddling little compromise plans. Bush is determined to go the full monty!

Now, this isn't strictly a dick-measuring contest. Politically, there's a logic to this. The longer extension will come up for a vote in September, when all sorts of election-year pressures will come to bear. Bush figures that Democrats and moderate Republicans, come crunch time, are not going to want to be on record voting against these tax cuts, the ones most people like. The president is gambling that he can get a little now, or a lot later.

Imagine, if you will, the Republicans at the craps table in Vegas. They've made a few passes, built up a pretty sizable fortune, and now Congressional leaders are ready to cash out, content with their winnings. But President Bush is demanding that they let it ride. He's rolling the dice, and he feels like he has the hot hand. Come on, seven!

For people who like their leaders in the mold of Western heroes, this stuff goes over great. The firm-jawed president tossing aside the compromise and demanding a better solution looks great in the movies. However, it's not so terrific in the real world, where the goal is to do the greatest good for the greatest number.

Here's the problem: Suppose the Democrats decide to make fiscal responsibility a centerpiece of their electoral appeal. (Perhaps hard to imagine them doing this with a straight face, but bear with me, won't you?) They would then be justified in voting down the longer extension, and they can claim with credibility that they would have been okay with a shorter extension and offsets, but the longer extension is just too irresponsible. Naturally Bush & Co. would try to pin the "tax hiker" label on the Democrats, but there are signs that people are starting to see through that tax-cuts-uber-alles platform that worked so well in the mid-to-late '90s.

Furthermore, disgusted moderate Republicans might well join the Democrats in a display of backbone. If Bush pushes to defeat the moderates, it shatters the Republicans' image of party harmony, already fraying at the edges, which has served them so well previously. There's a very real risk that the fiscal-responsibility-vs.-irresponsibility storyline could win out over the tax-cuts-vs.-wasteful-spending storyline, especially since the Democrats, having control of exactly zero branches of the federal government, aren't in a position to ram through wasteful spending programs without Republican help. Think of it this way: A guy like Ohio's George Voinovich, a moderate Republican with immense personal popularity, doesn't need Bush's help to win re-election. He's not going to be cowed by the president's posturing. And if Bush and Voinovich wind up in a stalemate over the long extension, whose electoral chances would this hurt in Ohio? (Hint: Not Voinovich.)

Meanwhile, the Republican congressional leadership feels undermined and humiliated by the president. They work out a deal, and he comes in and stops it. Look at this passage from the article:

The White House's forceful actions left congressional Republicans scratching their heads. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said earlier this month that he wanted to delay considering a tax cut extension bill until September.

But Bush called him to the White House earlier this month to demand action before Congress recesses for the political conventions this summer. At that time, the president expressed the fear that September's short congressional session would be so politicized that nothing would get done and the tax cuts would expire.
Hmm. So Grassley wanted to take things slowly at first. Then Bush comes in, pounds the table and demands that something happen nownownow. So Grassley dutifully goes and does his best, comes up with the best deal he can, and the president spits on it and says it's not good enough. Does this sound like the kind of person you'd want to work for?

When Bush was elected, he famously swore that he'd be a "uniter, not a divider." And once elected, he made a big show of inviting the Democrats over for coffee, shaking their hands and giving them goofy nicknames. Everyone felt good.

Then, at the first opportunity, Bush threw the Democrats under the train, and let them know that if they weren't going to play ball his way, they would play at all. So much for bipartisan unity. Bush was a president for Republicans only.

But then he started going after his own party's moderates, trying to bully them into doing things his way. So he's a president for conservative Republicans only. And now he's undermining his own Congressional leadership. Eventually, it's going to become clear to everyone: President Bush plays for his own team exclusively. In the end, he knows what he wants, and he's willing to bully anyone who stands in the way of his getting it.

If you are a sheriff in the Old West attempting to bring justice to a lawless frontier, this is an admirable management style. If you are presiding over a nearly-even partisan division in the most prestigious nation in the world, however, it is less than optimal. I'd say to Bush what I said to James Lileks on Tuesday (namely, "If there's only one right way to do things, why bother with a democracy?"), except that I'm not sure that Bush would be as hesitant to scrap the democratic system as Lileks would.

And consider the following possibility: What if the longer tax cut extension is defeated? What if the cuts end up expiring? It might wind up costing Bush the elections, and more than that, his intransigence will probably hurt the Republicans even if he is re-elected. Newt Gingrich could tell you what happens when Republicans try to play hardball with the budget. If the public perceives you as the holdup to an agreement, you will pay dearly. Gingrich overestimated the public's appetite for government spending cuts then. And I think Bush may be overestimating the public's appetite for tax cuts now. And if the Republicans lose this fight, the reverberations will continue beyond 2004.

And somehow, I'm not convinced that Bush cares. If he wins, he probably figures (with some justice) that he'll at least have the House in GOP hands until he leaves office. And if he loses... so what? Does Bush really care about the Republicans' Congressional fates in '06 if he loses this year? That's what comes back to bite you in the butt when you play ball with a guy like Bush: he'll protect you when he can, but he won't hesitate to sacrifice you to protect himself. If the Republicans did get wiped out in '06 after a Bush loss, he'd probably blame them for not listening to him more.

Bush is nothing if not a man of principle. Next to him, John Kerry surely is a waffler. Next to Bush, nearly all of us are wafflers. In Bush's book, waffling is the worst possible sin. We should ask ourselves whether that's true. And quickly, before we've committed ourselves to another four years of Marshal Bush.

I was going to write something about the Sandy Berger flap, but Frinklin beat me to the punch, and did a fine job at it. I agree with his pox-on-both-your-houses assessment of the situation. No one comes out of this looking good.

Finally, for today's Sign of the Apocalypse, click here. There are no words.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow!
  2:29 PM
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Drivin' My Life Away" by Eddie Rabbitt


Hey there, everyone! As promised, today I plan to write about something lighter, Jeopardy! uber-mensch Ken Jennings, or as Tony Kornheiser calls him, "Ken Jeopardy." At first, I was raring to write a good lengthy piece on the subject, and then I saw this piece by Bill Simmons. For those of you out there who are writers, I'm sure you've had this experience: coming up with a brilliant idea, sketching it out in your head, getting on a creative roll... and then seeing that someone else has already run with your idea, and better than you could. Especially if it's a writer you admire. It's kind of like being kneecapped with a baseball bat by your childhood hero. Once I realized that Simmons had tackled the Ken issue so well, the wind was out of my sails.

But then I slowly got my wind back. Because I realized that, as good as Simmons' article was, he didn't tackle everything there is to know about Ken. So I decided to proceed as planned, using Simmons' article as a springboard for my own. I hope you enjoy it.

Simmons isn't a big fan of Ken Jeopardy's personality, describing him as boring and unlikeable. And I agree that Ken isn't the most warm-and-fuzzy of game-show contestants out there. But I don't dislike Ken as much as some. For one thing, he reminds me of some friends I knew in high school. I wasn't at all surprised to learn that Ken was a Mormon, because the Mormon friends I had were very much like him: clean-cut, wholesome, friendly, humble, smiling, almost preternaturally upbeat. Their personalities seemed sanded smooth, as if all the rough or negative parts had simply been rubbed away. Ken strikes me the same way. One of my Mormon friends, upon discovering that my birthday was the next day, went home and made me a cake, from scratch. Two layers. Icing too. I'll bet Ken would do that. If my car was broken down in the middle of the night and I was stranded, I'll bet Ken would give me a lift. And yet, I understand the objections to Ken. There's something inaccessible and distant about him, as if he's not quite one of us. It might be his Mormon beliefs; their belief that they are the chosen people tends to separate them a little from the rest of us.  But whatever it is, he does seem a little different. (Simmons describes him as having a "Stepford mug," which I think is accurate.)

Of course, the fact that he knows all the answers tends to irk some people, since we are a proudly anti-intellectual culture. Ken's intellect doesn't bother me, though, since I'm usually that guy. My friends have long since grown sick of watching trivia-type game shows with me, because I'm constantly shouting out the answers and expressing disgust with the contestants if they botch them. With the smug superiority of someone who doesn't have to worry about ringing in or the glare of the studio lights, I usually whip anyone on stage.

Ken, though, is even better than me. He comfortably rattles off answers that I can't quite retrieve from the back of my brain, comes up with things I never even knew, and does it all with the cool nonchalance of a guy sitting on his couch munching Chee-tos. (Quoting Simmons: "At this point, [Ken] is doing everything but making cell phone calls or throwing in a load of laundry during the show, as he goads opponents into taking crazy risks.") The way he rattles off five or ten answers in a row, with barely a pause to breathe... that's impressive. I've reached the point where I don't even try to compete with him; I just tip my hat when he comes up with an answer I don't. (I've noticed, however, that sports is something of a weakness with him. Suffice to say, I usually clean up there.)

Simmons also put his finger on Ken Jeopardy's unique appeal, the mystique of the hot hand:

Yes, he's a smarmy know-it-all with the personality of a hall monitor, the kind of guy everyone hides from at a Christmas party. But he has "it" -- that indefinable quality you have when you know you're good, when you're in the zone and taking everyone for a ride. The '86 Celts had it. They toyed with teams before ripping their hearts out, Temple of Doom style. The [Jeopardy Guy] does too. Not since the pre-nanny Tiger has somebody laid the smack down like this. He doesn't beat people, he dismantles them.

There's something comforting about seeing the JG's smiling, Stepford mug every night, and the way he shakes his head in disbelief as Trebek announces his absurd money total.... Maybe he's boring; maybe he's unlikable. But like the truly great ones, he raises his game when it matters. Who else can you count on to do that these days?

There's something great about watching a person or team who has "it," that combination of talent and luck and ruthless killer instinct that juggernauts are made of. Ken may be a peach of a human being in normal situations, but in the Jeopardy! arena, he's a juggernaut. Plenty of smart people with quick trigger finger could probably rip off a few wins in a row, but sooner or later they'd get nervous, or bored, or just run up against someone better, and be defeated. In order to win 35 games in a row, you can't just be smart and quick. You need that, yes, and luck too, but you need something else. You need "it," that indefinable something that separates Cinderella stories from underdog champions, and talented champions from dynasties. That sense that, when the chips are down, you can beat anyone at any time. This year's Pistons team had "it." So does Ken Jeopardy.

From time to time in my career as a dedicated weekend warrior, I've had "it." There are days when I was certain that, even if I was playing against someone better, I would win. And on those days, I did win. When I was growing up, I played a lot of one-on-one basketball against a kid who was taller and more talented than I was, and had a penchant for tinkering with the rules when things weren't going his way. Time after time, I'd surge out to an early lead, and he'd wait, conserve his energy, wait for me to tire myself out and then calmly start hitting his shots and eventually winning.

Well, one day I went out there and said enough was enough. And suddenly I ran harder, rebounded more tenaciously, reached longer to save out-of-bounds balls. Shots started falling from places where they never fell for me before. Eventually he realized that something was going on, and turned his game up, expecting me to wilt. But not this time. I fought him even, then snared a crazy rebound, turned around and hit a jumper falling out of bounds to secure the win. That was my first experience with "it."

Ever since then, I've been fascinated by that feeling. It's so glorious and intoxicating when you have it. You're in a sort of trance, not really fully aware of what's going on around you, just locked into that zone. I can definitely see that happening with Ken, those times when he's just rattling off answers bang-bang-bang, referring to all the categories in shorthand to save time, sometimes clicking in before he knows the answers and counting on his brain to bail him out, knowing that it will. And he also has those moments when he knows he's clearly superior to his opponents, and so he take the time to toy with them, giving himself new challenges, making his dorky attempts at humor and pretending his Daily Double answers are just shots in the dark. I've been there, too, creating new mountains to climb for myself when I realize that the available mountains aren't high enough. I know someone in the zone when I see him, and Ken is in the zone.

Simmons notes one particular incident that I remember very well, probably the last time anyone mounted anything resembling a challenge to Ken:

Last Thursday, a competitor named Tom wagered all but $200 of his $6,200 nest egg on a Daily Double. You do that when you're going against the best. It's like bunting to break up a Koufax perfect game. Tom heard the question, hemmed and hawed, winced a few times, then threw out a "guess" ... and nailed it. Uh-oh. That's the JG's move. This was like John Starks sticking out his tongue and dunking on MJ. Certain lines should not be crossed. Even Alex's voice hushed.

You can guess what happened next. Trailing by $1,400 with half the board remaining, the JG rolled up the sleeves of his professor's jacket and went to work: six straight answers for six grand. When a flustered Tom botched the next one, the JG answered it correctly, exhaling for good measure. By the end of the second round, he'd tripled Tom's total, practically preening as they headed into commercial. The lesson, as always: don't wake up a sleeping corduroy giant.

That was a truly amazing moment. It was a brilliant ploy on Tom's part: the only way to beat Ken Jeopardy is to go all-out on the Daily Doubles. It's the only prayer you have of catching up. And you don't get to take the money home for finishing a respectable second. Tom knew what he had to do, and he did it. Unfortunately for him (and there was nothing he could do about this), there was too much time left, so Ken just kicked ass the rest of the way and left Tom gasping. Had the Daily double come closer to the end of the round, it might have worked. But that moment -- the realization that someone just might have figured out how to beat Ken -- was great television.

Not as great, though, as seeing Ken get on the nerves of Alex Trebek. Let's face it: up until recently, the only reason to watch Jeopardy! was to watch Trebek's ongoing disintegration. When I was younger, Trebek's knowledgable quizmaster persona was a welcoming presence, the appropriate companion to the show. Somewhere along the line, though, Trebek seems to have become convinced that he was God's gift to quiz shows, and became insufferably arrogant, as if he personally concocted all the questions and the contestants were morons for not knowing what he "knew." (Come to think of it, "insufferably arrogant" is a fair description of my game-show-watching persona. But a national audience doesn't have to put up with me.)

And then later on, he just fell apart. He started leering at female contestants like a construction worker on lunch break, reminiscing fondly about doing drugs in college and singing absent-mindedly to himself when the show returned from commercial break. (I swear I saw all these things happen. Easily the creepiest moment occurred when a young female contestant looked up at the sky after nailing a question, and Alex said, "Correct. And I adore the shape of your neck when you tilt your head upward." I swear.) It was hard to believe that I'd ever wanted to be like this man.

Ken's emerging has highlighted a couple things about Alex. First, he hates being upstaged. Second, he hates contestants who appear smarter than him. As time has gone on, Alex has grown less and less able to even fake congratulations for Ken after each successive win. Lately, he's come to sound like a man reading off the rolls of deaths in combat. Alex is even more noticably perturbed when Ken steals the spotlight from him. Last night, Ken made some lame joke and the whole audience laughed. Alex immediately started snarling, "You do know, of course, everyone, that this is the Ken Jennings Show. So let me get out of the way here. Ken, relax. Stretch a little. And when you're ready, at your leisure, select another category." Ken has become bigger than Alex, and Alex can't stand it. It's fun to watch him fume.

So when will Ken finally be beaten? Simmons theorizes, "I see it ending like Gagne's save streak -- a close game, then some sort of fluke and everyone standing around in disbelief. Either that, or one of the other contestants pummels him to death." A decent possibility. Eventually, you think, he may run into someone who's as good as he is, remains within striking distance, and manages to beat Ken in Final Jeopardy. Personally, though, I think it will end when Ken gets bored. Once he runs out of extra mountains to set up for himself, or clever ways to write his name, he'll go down.

I can foresee two ways for this to happen: He'll start betting the whole wad in Final Jeopardy, and eventually he'll get one wrong. Maybe he'd even refuse to answer the question. If he did that, especially after hitting some milestone like 50 wins in a row, it sends a clear message: I'm only beaten because I want to be. It's a strong statement. Probably too strong for a nice guy like Ken.

So I think it'll happen the way Simmons envisions, only it'll be semi-intentional. He'll have a deliberately slow trigger finger. He'll "forget" some of the answers. Once he sees somebody he could credibly lose to, as he's been on the ride long enough, I think he might just lay back and let his competitor win. It's subtler, a less-obviouis assertion of superiority, but it's more gracious. And Ken seems, at bottom, like a gracious guy.

In the end, I think we should be thankful for Ken Jeopardy. As Simmons points out, it's not often that we get a chance to see someone operating at that level, and we should be grateful when we can see it. It's not every day that we get to see greatness in action. We should take our opportunities when they come. 

Loyal reader Carl of FoolBlog shares my distaste for James Lileks and his approach to political discourse, and he passed along a very funny parody of some popular right-wing bloggers. Lileks is second on the list. If you've never read it before, you should definitely give it a look.

And that's all for today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? See you then!
  2:07 PM
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Radar Love" by Golden Earring
Hello there, everyone. So, did everyone enjoy yesterday's column on Ohio state politics? It was extremely wonk-oriented, I know. The Smart Lady expressed this opinion to me, that the column was not so much for general consumption. And I told her that I didn't care. If you really want to enjoy my work, you have to understand that sometimes it's going to hurt. And that's how I can tell the true devotees from the dilettantes. My fair-weather friends will read Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice, or my rips on George Steinbrenner, or my squabbles with Hammerin' Hank. But only the true believers will slog through columns like yesterday's. "It's a challenge to my readers," I told The Smart Lady. "How deep is your love?" She said she'd never heard that question phrased as a threat before.
Actually, I thought about slapping a disclaimer on yesterday's column, following the lead of James Lileks. But though I think Lileks' disclaimers are well-advised, I decided not to use one for mine.
Here's why. I think the Lileks disclaimers are useful because it allows people like me to read his work without a problem. For those not familiar, Lileks' site contains a mixture of ironic commentary on pop culture, stories about his young daughter and hard-edged right-wing political commentary. Whenever he's about to launch into the political commentary, he always offers a warning, so that those inclined to skip such things can wander off elsewhere and laugh at the old recipe books instead.
I appreciate the warning myself, because without it, I would have a hard time reading Lileks. I first became aware of him when he was writing columns in the Post, and from there I found my way to his site, most of which I like. I really enjoy his pop-culture stuff, and I don't even mind the little-daughter stuff (even though many of his critics tend to gag on it). But the political commentary is always going to come between us. It's not just that we come from opposite ends of the political spectrum; as I hope loyal readers can attest, I'm not so virulently partisan that I can't stand to listen to commentary from the right. It's his tone that bothers me.
When I first started reading his stuff, I ignored the disclaimers and read it all; after all, I liked his other work, so why not the politics? But after a while, I realized that the whole time I was reading it, I was screaming "No! No! No!" in my head, over and over. At first I tried composing counter-arguments, but after a while I realized it was useless. I could spend hours explaining why I found his arguments faulty, and he'd still think he was right.
What is it that I find so objectionable about his screeds (Lileks' word)? Generally, I think it's the fact that he preaches with the zealotry of the converted. Lileks admits to having been a leftist in his younger years, and now that he's "seen the light," he can no longer see the virtue at all in the old ways of thinking. There's a behavioral theory, which I can't quite remember the name of, which holds that the most zealous defenders of the standards of a group are its newest members. And if you think about it, it makes sense: the newest members are those whose status is the most tenuous, so they have the most to gain by ensuring that the standards of the group are firmly upheld.
Here's an example: Who is more likely to engage in garish and ostentatious displays of wealth: someone whose family has been wealthy for generations, or someone who made millions of dollars overnight? Naturally, it's the guy who just made his money. For him, the money is a new fact. Suddenly, he's been vaulted into a class where he didn't previously consider himself to belong. So of course he's more likely to insist on rubbing his money in everyone's face. Chris Rock likes to define it as the difference between being rich and being wealthy: Rich people blow their money on fancy cars and expensive toys, while wealthy people invest in assets, education, and things that appreciate over time. But it's easier to be "wealthy," as Rock conceives it, if you're accustomed to being rich. If you're born into money and are reasonably certain that you will not be deprived of it during your lifetime, then you don't feel the need to show it off. You can concentrate on making sure that future generations will be as blessed as you are. But if you've just come into money, you're never sure that it won't disappear just as fast as it came, so naturally you're going to want to take the opportunity to flaunt it while you've got it.
In short, the most virulent displays of classism tend to come from those whose status in the upper class is most tenuous, either because they just arrived or they're in danger of falling out. The concept of "noblesse oblige" is only meaningful to someone whose status among the noblesse is comfortably assured. (That's the dirty little secret of hereditary aristocracy: For all its flaws, it tends to produce an upper class which is secure in its status, allowing it the luxury of treating the lower classes better, if it chooses. On the other hand, since capitalism is premised on the idea that everyone can rise or fall through the classes on his own effort, it tends to encourage those on top to exploit their advantage and engineers mechanisms to keep themselves there.)
How does this apply to politics and Lileks? Well, someone who's been a lifelong Republican, who's secure and comfortable in that affiliation, is going to feel more comfortable granting the good intentions and valid arguments of their counterparts on the left. On the other hand, someone who's new to the party is likely to feel the need to explicitly, and loudly, reject the arguments of the other side, in order to reaffirm his new status. (The same argument applies in the opposite direction, as Arianna Huffington could tell you.)
If Lileks now feels that he's a hard-right type, then that's fine for him. What irks me is that he seems to have now decided that there are now only two allowable political camps: people who agree with him, and people who are foolish and unserious. What legitimate democratic political system is based on that philosophy? If there's only one right way to do things, why have a democracy at all? Why take the chance that the people, in a moment of weakness, will vote for the wrong option? Wouldn't a totalitarian system be better?
So if I had to wade through Lileks' supremely arrogant righteousness every time he felt like spouting off, I'd probably eventually grow sick of it. And in time, it would probably color my opinion of his other stuff. Have you ever had a friend who you thought was really funny in general but, every so often, would do something really inappropriate in public? Like making racist remarks, or grabbing at the posteriors of passing women, or dropping his pants? Over time, you usually decide that whatever benefit the friend may bring is outweighed by the irritation and frustration of the awkward moments. I don't mean to equate Lileks' political views with dropping trou in public, but it's that same thing. My irritation with his political rhetoric would eventually swamp my admiration for the other stuff.
And to his credit, Lileks understands that. Hence the disclaimer. He may not have much patience for the political views of people like me, but he still wants us to be able to communicate. Were we friends in the flesh, Lileks and I would probably get along pretty well, provided that we usually avoided talking politics. And by attaching the disclaimers, he allows me to do the same thing in cyberspace. We can share our interest in deceased pop culture, laugh together over it, and avoid coming to blows over the politics. It's a good policy, and I thank him for it.
So why don't I put disclaimers over my wonk-only posts? Because I don't think that they'll negatively impact my relationship with you, The Reader. The worst thing about me you can find out from reading those posts is that I'm an incredible dork, and you already know that. Perhaps reading about the state of the Ohio Democratic Party will bore you to tears (it probably should, if you don't live there), but I have enough faith in your deductive reasoning that I believe you can see where a column like that is heading pretty early on, and skip it if you don't want to read about it. Perhaps I should put in some sort of divider that will allow readers to skip to endnotes that might be more interesting, which I will consider. If you have any thoughts on this, let me know.
But don't try to let me know in the comments. Apparently, SquawkBox has decided that I've got too many thoughtful readers to allow me to keep using their service for free. I'd consider upgrading to the pay service, but since I'm going to be moving pretty soon anyway, why bother? So for now, I'm just going to go comment-less. Anyone wishing to make a note of something I've written can still do so at mediocrefred1979 -at- yahoo -dot- com.  You know where to find me. (My apologies to loyal reader Frinklin, who had a good comment about the Food Network chefs that no longer exists. Sorry about that, buddy.)
And if you've made it this far, you deserve a reward, so I direct you to Bill Simmons' Vengeance Scale, which is an entertaining attempt to characterize degrees of revenge. Ever wonder whether the song "You Oughta Know" was a stronger act of vengeance than the Revenge of the Nerds? Now we have a quantified scale! (Although I disagree with some of his rankings, but that's the beauty of it.) Check it out.
And tomorrow, I promise to try to be entertaining. See you then!
  2:26 PM
Monday, July 19, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players
Hello, all. I hope everyone had a fine weekend. Today I want to look at Ohio, a state I'm rather fond of, through the lens of the upcoming presidential election. Slate unveiled its latest swing-state profile on the Buckeye State. Both campaigns have tabbed Ohio as crucial to their hopes for victory. The stakes, however, may be higher for the Democrats, for whom an '04 victory may be their last hope for keeping Jerry Springer from taking the party's nomination for governor in two years. The thought is too gruesome for many Democrats to contemplate, that things have come to this pass.
Here's the problem for Ohio Democrats: Demographically, Ohio is pretty even: heavily Democratic Cincinnati and Cleveland are balanced by Republican-leaning areas across the rest of the state, with Columbus as a pivotal swing area. The problem is that, despite the state's general competitiveness, the state's Democratic bench is relatively thin.
Ohio's last Democratic governor was Dick Celeste, who left office in 1991 amid controversy after commuting the sentences of all prisoners on death row in the state, which damaged his prospects for future office. Ohio's two Democratic senators, Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn, retired four years apart, both too old to consider a run for the governor's chair. And with the party's elder statesmen out of the picture, the Democrats have scrambled to locate replacements, without much success.
Traditionally, in looking for a statewide candidate, a party looks at its Congresional representatives and big-city mayors, since these are the people with visibility enough to be credible candidates. And as it happens, the Democratic roster in these areas is shallow right now, due to a combination of factors.
Cleveland's current Democratic mayor, Jane Campbell, has been in office less than two years. Prior to that, Cleveland hadn't had a Democratic mayor since Dennis Kucinich back in the '70s. Cleveland is probably the best place in the state for Democrats to develop candidates, and the recent lack of Democratic mayors has really hurt the party.
Cincinnati's current Democratic mayor, Charlie Luken, has the resume to make a credible run for statewide office. But his term in office has been marred by ugly race riots that would surely become an issue in a statewide race.  Also, he doesn't appear inclined to make a statewide run, apparently more interested in running for re-election next year than using the office as a springboard to higher office. The previous mayor, Roxanne Qualls, has declared herself out of the running for future elective office after losing a Congressional race to Republican Steve Chabot. The mayor before Qualls, Dwight Tillery, has a fairly rocky relationship with the Democratic party, having fought with them over the role of African Americans in the party power structure, so it seems unlikely he'd get a nod. Unlike Clevelans, Cincinnati has potential Democratic candidates, but none who are ready and willing to make an effective statewide run.
Ohio's House delegation consists of 18 members, only 6 of whom are Democrats. Two of them, Tim Ryan and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, are relative newcomers and probably not ready for a statewide race. That leaves the following four: Sherrod Brown, Marcy Kaptur, Ted Strickland and Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich certainly has the profile, after standing as Democratic nominee for president this year (thus displacing the disgraced Jim Traficant as Ohio's most visible Congressman), but he's too liberal to have a real shot at winning statewide. Kaptur has represented the Toledo area for over 20 years, an impressive record. But if she had designs on statewide office, it seems likely she'd have run by now.
That leaves Strickland and Brown. Of the two, Brown is a little more liberal, particularly on social and religious issues. Brown has been in office longer, elected four years before Strickland. Brown represents an area outside of Cleveland, Strickland a chunk of southeast Ohio that borders West Virginia. Might they be possibilities?
Based on the record, I wouldn't count on Brown. The pugnacious congressman (and former Ohio secretary of state) is developing a reputation as being to the Ohio governor's race what Mario Cuomo was to the presidential race. In 1998, Brown sensed a void in the state Democratic power structure and thought about entering the governor's race, but backed off. In 2000, the Republican state legislature threatened to use the redistricting process to knock Brown out of Congress. Brown responded by threatening to run for governor. The Republicans backed off, and so did Brown. In both cases, Brown would have been pitted against old nemesis Bob Taft, who knocked Brown out of his secretary of state position in 1990 in a rough campaign. Now Taft is gone, and here's Brown, daydreaming about running again. Purely coincidentally, I'm sure, the Ohio legislature is talking about redrawing Brown's district again. Looking at the record, it looks to me like Brown's gubernatorial aspirations have more to do with personal vengeance and defending his turf (and possibly stroking his ego) than with any actual desire to be governor.
Strickland's another story. His aspirations are relatively fresh. And representing a rural district as he does, he has a chance to make inroads in areas that the Democrats have struggled with. On the other hand, some question whether he can hold the cities, without which no Ohio Democrat could stand a chance. Whatever doubts there may be, however, he's the best the party has to offer, statewide.
This is where Springer comes in. Though he's become famous as a trash-TV talk-show host, Springer does in fact have political experience: he served as mayor of Cincinnati in the late '70s and early '80s, and lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Celeste in '82. (Springer's political career was undone when a prostitution sting revealed a check written by Springer to a hooker. Lesson for politicians everywhere: when visiting a house of ill repute, always pay cash.) But Springer brings two things that the Ohio Democratic party is sorely lacking: celebrity name recognition, and money. Like him or not, Springer's presence in the race would attract megawatt attention to Ohio. And Springer's wealthy enough that he could virtually self-finance his campaign if necessary. Given the state of the Ohio Democratic organization, neither prospect is unwelcome.
Here's a sign of the desperation of Ohio Democrats: In 1998, with incumbent governor George Voinovich forced to leave office due to term limits, the Republicans nominated Taft, a man whose primary political asset is his last name. The Democrats, after Brown backed off, nominated Lee Fisher, who had lost his bid for re-election as attorney general in 1994. This was the best the could do. Taft won. When his re-election bid came around in 2002, Taft had done little to endear himself to the people of Ohio, and he was considered beatable. With the pressure on to locate a winner, the Democrats found Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan, whose primary claim to fame is being married to Captain Janeway from the Star Trek series, whichever one it is. Hagan immediately endeared himself to Ohio voters by telling everyone that he would not have a problem sending someone to buy marijuana for an ill relative. The people of Ohio found this platform so inspiring that they elected Taft by a 20-point margin.
This year, with popular moderate Republican Sen. George Voinovich up for re-election, Springer thought about entering the race. He backed out at the last minute, allowing State Senator Eric Fingerhut to step forward and absorb the expected pummeling at the hands of Voinovich. Now, Springer has his eye on the governor's race, and it's likely to be tough for the Democrats to stop him.
Timothy Noah, who wrote the Slate article, suggests that a Kerry loss would virtually ensure Springer receiving the Democratic nod. I'm not sure I follow the logic, assuming there is any and Noah's not just scare-mongering. Noah argues that only a Kerry victory can allow the Democrats to have someone capable of stopping Springer. But even if Kerry wins, the Ohio Democratic party isn't going to be any stronger. Even if Kerry beats Bush in the state, Voinovich is likely to crush Fingerhut, only further highlighting the Dems' weak bench. And the other Senate seat, held by Mike DeWine, is unfortunately coming up in the same year as the gubernatorial race, meaning that if, say, Strickland were the gubernatorial nominee, the party would have to find someone else to stand against DeWine in what figures to be an uphill battle anyhow.
No, the best way to stop Springer is for state Democrats to realize what his candidacy would mean. A Springer race would be a virtually certain embarrassment for the party... after all, few previous celebrity candidacies have come with this kind of negative baggage. And even if Springer does win, he's not going to have any coattails: a self-funded campaign would mean that the fundraising apparatus will remain in its current wheezing state, and while Springer would undoubtedly be willing to endorse his fellow Democrats, at bottom his reign would be all about self-glorification. Springer's term in office would do little if anything to improve the party as a whole. A candidate like Strickland, even if he lost, would do more for the party. Rejecting the Springer vanity candidacy would prove that the Democratic Party apparatus lives on in Ohio. Further, a statewide race would boost Strickland's profile for future races. It would also give encouragement to other potential future stars, such as Ryan and Tubbs Jones, that the party has not fallen into the hands of people like Springer.
Would a Kerry victory help? I guess it's possible. If Kerry leaned heavily on the Ohio Democratic party not to pick Springer, it might help. But in the end, the only people who can save Ohio Democrats from Springer is the Democrats themselves. In the end, the party has to produce a candidate credible enough to convince primary voters to overlook Springer's celebrity.
Right now, in electoral terms, the Democrats in Ohio are trying to climb Mount Everest. The Springer candidacy is the equivalent of a helicopter to the top: sure, it's quicker and easier, but what happens when the copter is taken away, or runs out of gas? You wind up back where you started, probably with a crash. And it only delays you further in doing what you need to: climbing the mountain the right way, slowly but surely. The Ohio Democratic party needs to get in shape, and the only way to do that is one step away. Right now, the Democrats would be best served by ignoring Springer's looming shadow and going for that first step: preventing a Voinovich landslide and delivering the state to John Kerry this year.
A comment by loyal reader Carl of FoolBlog on my challenge to name Food Network chefs with whom you might like to share a beer:
I'd be happy to throw back a few drinks with that Anthony Bourdain. Yeah, he's a colossal, pompous ass. He's also very funny, and just self-deprecating enough to be more entertaining than annoying. Plus he'd get liquored up and pay for everything.
Jamie Oliver isn't completely bad either. His young English hipster schtick is a bit overdone, but his enthusiasm for cooking is really genuine.
Personally, I'd find Bourdain's pompousness a little too much to be overcome by the humor. Despite the obvious appeal of having someone to pick up the tab, I'll stick to reading his books. For what it's worth, I bet Jamie Oliver would offer to pay, then once you were both blasted, suddenly "remember" that he'd left his wallet at home. I never got into Oliver's show myself (that English hipster thing, I guess), but I agree with you that he really does appear to enjoy cooking, and I'll give him credit for that.
That's all for today. Something else tomorrow!
(Cross-posted to Open Source Politics.)

  2:05 PM
Valium for the soul. Don't worry, none of those pesky strong opinions here. All are welcome. No shirt, no shoes, no service.

If You're Sick of Me, Read These Instead

My Distinguished Colleagues

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