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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

As for the Democrats . . .

I’ve been blogging for about six months now (at Public Intelligence), but with nothing like Michael’s readership.  I get so few comments that I have almost always responded to every one.  Plus twenty-five years of teaching have programmed me to praise and reply to everything anyone ever says in reaction to something I’ve said.

So I’ll confess to being a bit overwhelmed.  All of the comments have been so interesting—and it always fun to play these speculation games about future campaigns.  For the nonce, I’ve decided to plunge ahead.  But my opinions are changing in relation to your comments—and that will be reflected in future posts.

The last commentator, Dirty Donkey, has called my bluff correctly.  The claim that I would identify the Democratic nominee with the same (only partly feigned) chutzpah with which I anointed Jeb was bluster.  I thought the pressure of a deadline (it’s worked miracles for me in the past) might prove my salvation yet again.  But . . .

The Democrats face a familiar problem—the same one they faced in 1960, 1972, 1976, 1992, and 2004 (just to stay within my lifetime).  They are on the outs—and one of the consequences of being on the outside is that you’ve got, as one commentator put it, a very thin bench.  Very few of your people have a track record—or a national profile.  (The Republicans, of course, were in that spot in 2000—but they could turn to a family name and run the callow W.)

1972 doesn’t really count because the Dems were expiating the sins of ‘68 more than they were looking to win the national election.  McGovern’s nomination was all about keeping the party from disintegrating altogether.  So if we go by the other four elections, twice the nomination went to Senators from Massachusetts and twice to Southern governors.  (And it’s nice to recall that the Dems won three of those four elections.)

I agree with the various people who have pointed out that governors fare better than Senators.  And I think it is safe to say that neither Senator from Massachusetts will be the nominee next time.  No Adlai Stevenson moment here.  Kerry can start growing the beard and have his agent working on a SNL guest host spot now.  I just pray Kerry won’t run, so we will be spared the unedifying spectacle of erstwhile mates Kerry and Edwards going at it in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The Democrats are harder to predict because the party is so much less centrally controlled than the GOP and because it needs to find its identity as well as its candidate.  Of course, the perfect candidate will prove his or her perfection by being the face of an identity the party can both embrace and present in a coherent, forceful way to the nation as a whole.

I actually think Edwards could be that candidate. Undoubtedly, I will live to regret venturing such a positive statement about any politician—especially in a forum as public as this one.  I will resist the immediate temptation to list all his faults, so as to prove that I am not naïve.  I’ll just leave it that he is certainly a front-runner at this point and that his understanding of the economic realities (i.e. hardships) faced by the vast majority of Americans on a daily basis is everything I would hope for in a Democrat.

I think the Democrats will be too terrified of Hilary Clinton’s negatives to nominate her.  Even though the “electability” strategy didn’t work in 2004, I think plenty of Democratic primary voters will still pursue some version of that approach. 

So the field is wide open for dark horses—especially for governors like New Mexico’s Richardson or Virginia’s Mark Warner.  I don’t think any of the senators—from Biden to Feingold to Rockefeller —has much of a chance, but that hardly means it couldn’t happen.  And there’s always the savior from way outside, a fantasy particularly appealing to a party on the outs that also lacks any obvious standard-bearer.  The Democrats may well look for their version of the Governator.  Bill Cosby gets mentioned. We may even hear Colin Powell fantasies again.

Can the Democrats win?  I’ve already discussed the Electoral Map problems, which are really another way of saying that the South, as it has through much of American history, holds the balance in national elections.  That’s why a Southern candidate is always so attractive, although it is worth noting that Edwards didn’t help Kerry one bit in the South or anywhere else last time, and that, even at the top of the ticket, he would face an uphill battle just winning North Carolina no less any other Southern state.

Even more daunting is Kevin Drum’s recent report that only 18% of the electorate characterizes itself as liberal, as contrasted to the 30% who call themselves conservative.  The more surprising fact is that those numbers have not changed much in thirty years.  So the Democrats have won in the face of those numbers before—and they will again (even if not necessarily in 2008).

The Democrats need to run a hard-hitting and very well-focused campaign; they have to bring home to the public how the Republicans have overreached; and they have to articulate their vision of an America that doesn’t screw the middle and lower middle classes.

More on this last topic when I return at the beginning of next week.

Posted by John McGowan on 05/18 at 08:22 PM
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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

You Heard It Here First, Frist

Jeb Bush will be the Republican candidate for president in 2008.  With apologies to Yogi, this one is over before it’s even begun.

The Republicans will run on W’s record—and on whatever parts of his agenda remain unaccomplished.  They will never take the wimpy, apologetic route traveled by Gore in 2000, who tried to act as if he had never met Clinton.  Never compromise, never apologize.  That’s the Republican way.  Their candidate will run as W’s appointed successor.

The nerve-wracking part for the GOP will be the necessity of putting a new man in front of the public.  The voters are more likely to take a long look when they are faced with an unknown quantity.  So the party’s power-brokers will play it as safe as possible.  And it doesn’t get any safer than Jeb.  (Remember this is the party that has had a Dole or a Bush on the ticket every time since 1976.  Which means, I guess, that Libby Dole is Jeb’s only serious rival.)

That Jeb is from Florida is only icing on the cake.  He’ll have the money (like his brother did in 2000) and all the major players in his camp months before the primaries even begin. 

If I am wrong, we will be witnessing something that truly merits the name of revolution.  Because a candidate other than Jeb will mean that the party’s power-brokers will have lost control to its grass-roots cultural conservatives.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Republicans became the first American political party to be taken over from the elites by its foot-soldiers?  Hard to see that happening, if only because Republican foot-soldiers have so much built-in reverence for authority.  That’s one reason why the Republicans are always more disciplined than the Democrats.  Republican elites may argue among themselves and jockey for power, but it will be a new day in American politics when the party indulges in the all-out, equal opportunity squabbles that make the Democrats so lovable and so laughable and so frustrating.

The only other wild card, so far as I can see, is Bush family dynamics.  Laura and Barbara obviously love W, but relations between father and son and between brother and brother are much harder to fathom.  W has kept both H. W. and Jeb at arm’s length, and he might just scuttle Jeb’s hopes for the sheer devilry of it, just because he can put the kibosh on the whole deal.  He’s nasty enough for that.  More likely, however, W will settle for appointment as Secretary of State.  And Rummy will stay over at the Pentagon, aiming to break J. Edgar Hoover’s Guinness Record for abusive incompetence in office.

Will Jeb win?  Events, one would hope, will have something to say about that.  It would be horrible to think that nothing could happen that would change the voters’ minds about what the Republicans have dished out since 2000.  And I also hope that the Democrats will have something to say about it as well.  A good candidate and a good campaign against a non-incumbent gives the Democrats a fighting chance.  Plus the Republicans are not without their vulnerabilities.  How will they play the Social Security issue, since their numbers are demonstrably bogus and the public doesn’t trust them an inch on the subject?  And they will be deprived of one of their favorite campaign themes if they succeed in making the Bush tax cuts permanent.  Not even these Republicans would have the gall to promise to cut taxes further.  Of course, they will continue to assure us that it’s Republicans who can be best trusted to balance the federal deficit.

But the Electoral College map is daunting.  Jeb takes Florida, which means that there are very, very few states in play.  Almost all the close states last time went Democratic.  So the Democrats have to hold on to every one of their states (which won’t be easy) and win a few more.  Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota were all closer races than Ohio.  Only New Mexico and Iowa among the Bush states was as close as the four squeakers that went for Kerry.  So the Democrats need Ohio or they need three of the next closest four--Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada—while holding on to every state they won.

A little premature, no doubt.  Meanwhile, Billy Frist, are you listening?  Don’t kowtow to the religious right.  Don’t go nuclear.  All your boot-licking will be for naught, and no one looks good down on their hands and knees. 

Not that Jeb hasn’t done his own groveling. He played his role in the Terry Schiavo circus. Is there such a thing as a dignified politician?  Eugene McCarthy erred too far in that direction, refusing to sully his integrity for anything so sordid as gaining office or getting something done.  They didn’t call him “Clean Gene” for nothing, and he supposedly said that “politics is like coaching basketball.  You have to be smart enough to play the game well, but dumb enough to think it’s important.”

Tomorrow: the Democrat’s candidate.

Posted by John McGowan on 05/17 at 04:32 PM
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Monday, May 16, 2005

Hope

Many thanks to Michael for giving me this chance to talk to all of you.  So, without any further ado:

My talented student Brent Kinser (I wish I could claim some credit for his abilities) defended his dissertation last week: a study of Victorian intellectuals’ responses to oncoming democracy.  Each of the writers he considered—John Stuart Mill, Anthony Trollope, Walter Bagehot, and Thomas Carlyle—viewed the future with alarm.  But each of them also held firmly to some reed—no matter how slim—of hope.  For Mill it was liberal institutions and the conviction that the individual is, finally, the best judge of his or her own interests.  For Trollope it was English decency and deference.  Bagehot practically invented himself (albeit with a huge nod to Edmund Burke) that mystical document (which exists nowhere) that protects an Englishman’s liberties: the constitution.  And Carlyle trusted in Providence, who would eventually make sure that might and right were exactly aligned.

I am drawn to the idea that intellectuals have a responsibility to be hopeful.  Certainly, the scorched earth pessimism of writers like Martin Amis and Kathy Acker holds no appeal for me, while the late-career curmudgeonly phases of Harold Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth have been painful to witness.  (Roth’s latest, “The Plot Against America,” actually reverses the trend—and I think that gratitude for the shift in tone is partly responsible for the extravagant praise the novel has received.) The trouble with Bloom, Bellow, and Roth is not pessimism; it’s the peevish insistence that fools and nincompoops rule the roost.  If only sensible men like themselves were given the reins, all would be well. 

Contrast their contempt for 99% of humanity with the dignified, if devastating, pessimism of J. M. Coetzee.  His books are not about scoring points. The stark impersonality of his narrative voice, while terrifying, has the clarity and force that come from simple statements unmarked by special pleading.  Obviously, as the case of Coetzee shows, we can’t demand that our intellectuals be hopeful.  But, for me at least, the most bleak writers had better seem to be moved by something far from personal pique and speaking from a position within the maelstrom they deplore, not from a comfortable perch outside it.

All of the Victorian intellectuals Brent discussed were moved by a genuine fear that England was heading into potentially dangerous waters.  Democracy, they each believed (to different extents), would unleash powers that would be unpredictable in their effects and very hard to check once established. 

Leftist intellectuals in America today are plagued by equally potent fears about our country’s future.  The limited progress that this country has made toward curbing the worst excesses of economic exploitation and inequality, toward protecting the environment, toward securing equality before the law, toward providing a modicum of education and the opportunities it affords, and toward protecting civil liberties is threatened by the country’s move to the right. Add the mind-boggling financial irresponsibility of the current administration and it is very easy to spend much of one’s breath exclaiming against this or that outrage or dangerous trend or ignored fact or hidden crime. 

But the left needs to stop whining.  It needs to articulate better than it has done in the past six years the positive values that underwrite its vision of what America can and should be. 

The left has two basic pillars on which to rest its hopes: democracy and liberalism.  The two are not the same and can, in fact, be in conflict with one another at times.  Neither can be abandoned, even when their marriage is rocky.  Liberalism is the bulwark against tyranny.  Liberal institutions and liberal civil rights are, to a certain extent, shielded from the decisions of the demos.  The left has to affirm—even if it is sometimes against our own instincts—that liberal safeguards against the abuse of power act as a check on pure democracy. 

That affirmation is so necessary because the liberal check is so very fragile.  The sovereign power in a democracy rests with the people, and there is every chance, at every moment, that that power will overwhelm all the constraints that a liberal constitution places upon it.  In the long run certainly, and in the short run arguably, the liberal checks cannot hold out against a majority determined to have its way.

So the major hope has to be placed in the people themselves.  It’s either that—or no hope at all.  There is no other mechanism or force out there.  (Hegel’s and Marx’s great mistake was to think there were impersonal forces and inevitable outcomes in human affairs.) Either the left recognizes that the only hope rests in doing the rhetorical, political, and intellectual work of getting the people to affirm its vision of what this country is now and what it should be in the future—or leftists will end up offering their own versions of Bellow’s and Bloom’s peevish rants. 

Posted by John McGowan on 05/16 at 08:29 PM
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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Out of my brain on the 5-15

It’s about time for a blogging hiatus. This humid blog has taken a couple of sabbaticals in the past—one last summer, for a two-week vacation, and then a three-week hiatus after the November election, during which I posted only once a week while I was being re-educated at Focus on the Family Ministries in Colorado Springs.  Since then, I’ve been blogging away for five and a half months; I’ve crossed the million-reader mark (something I would never have dreamed of in a million reader-years), and I managed three honorable mentions in the 2004 Koufax Awards (more things of which I would not have dreamed in a million reader-years), which surely boosted my readership into the upper reaches of the blogosphere’s troposphere.  (I think that’s the correct osphere.) Last but not least, since November 3 this blog has garnered well over four thousand comments (yes, I went back and counted ‘em all—now we know how many comments it takes to fill the Albert Hall), and the amazing thing is, all of them have been funny.  Thanks, folks.

I feel like I have end-of-semester exhaustion, even though I didn’t teach this semester (don’t tell David Horowitz!), and just over a week ago I figured out why.  All this time I’ve been blogging and blogstanding and blogtending, I also wrote three talks, three academic essays, and one newspaper opinion piece, while editing a special issue of a journal, turning in the long-overdue first draft of Liberal Arts, and finishing up work on a bunch of other things as well.  I don’t think I’ve ever done so much writing in a six-month span.  And it turns out that my long-overdue first draft needs a whole lot of work, and you know what that means—more writing.  Honestly, I’ve just gotten sick and tired of reading my own prose.  If you’ve sensed a certain lack of snap, crackle, or pop in recent posts, well, that’s why.  A friend recently remarked to me that when Janet guest-posted here two weeks ago, it was a “breath of fresh air” on the blog.  “Mm, m’fren’,” I replied.  “For you and me both.”

But I don’t want the poor blog to hibernate for weeks at a time, and I don’t want to jerk around my regular readers.  So, then, here’s the plan.  John McGowan has kindly agreed to step in from May 17 through the first week of June.  John teaches literature and literary theory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where (as you’re probably aware) they’re working overtime to establish leftist hegemony throughout the Tar Heel state from the mountains to the sea, and I think he’s one of the best in the business.  His most recent book is Democracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics, which I recommend highly.  Please give him a warm welcome, and I’ll see you all next month.

Posted by Michael on 05/15 at 09:27 PM
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Friday, May 13, 2005

Arbitrary but fun, volume IV

Five or six years ago I went to a University of Illinois hockey game.  The visiting team took the ice first—I believe they were called “the visitors”—to the tune of the theme from Doctor Zhivago.  “Ha ha,” I said to myself.  “So Illinois attempts to demoralize its opponents by having them take their pregame warmup to music associated with figure skaters.  Music for swirly-men.  How emasculating.  Ha ha ha.” But then Illinois took the ice—to the theme from Rocky III, also known as “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor. 

At first I was merely embarrassed for Illinois, but on further reflection, I thought what a nightmare this would be if I were playing for Illinois.  It’s not merely that I don’t like “Eye of the Tiger,” or that I think of it as practically an unwitting parody of “motivational” music.  That much is true; anyone who wants to get me going by playing “Eye of the Tiger” might just as well subject me to a series of motivational posters featuring pictures of golf courses, mountains, hang gliders, and so forth.  No, the problem for me would go deeper than that; it’s a visceral, not an intellectual, matter.  “Eye of the Tiger” would actually derange my hand-eye coordination and turn my quadriceps to paste.  There is no way I could play hockey after hearing such a song.  In fact, even thinking about the song right now is messing with my fine motor apparatus and leading me to make all kinds of uncharatceristic typograhpical mitsakes.

However, “Eye of the Tiger” is not the worst sports-motivational song in the world.  There is, in fact, a rich vein of crappy sports-motivational songs, the very worst of which is the Albert Hammond/ John Bettis travesty, “One Moment in Time,” commissioned by NBC for the 1988 Olympics.  “Give me one moment in time/ When I’m more than I thought I could be/ When all of my dreams, they’re a heartbeat away/ And the answers, they’re all up to me.” Belted out at 110 dB by Whitney Houston, of course, to music at once turgid and grandiose.  You know the Olympic creed—citius, altius, fortius, right?  Faster, higher, stronger?  Well, if you wanted to make Olympic athletes slower, lower, and weaker, you couldn’t do better, better, better than to write “One Moment in Time.” It’s the kind of song that would make even the great Edwin Moses stumble, fall, and crawl off into the nearest Barcalounger (no wonder Moses picked up only a bronze in the 400m hurdles in Seoul).  Thanks, Messrs. Hammond and Bettis.  Way to go, guys.

Then there are people who try to psych themselves up by playing Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” which strikes me as not merely counterproductive but very possibly pathological. 

Now, if I’m going to listen to something to keep the senses sharp and get some adrenaline into the system five minutes before taking the ice, I’m going to listen to the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.” I’m just saying.  I understand that this is a deeply personal matter, so I won’t be prescriptive about what constitutes good warmup music.  But maybe we can generate some suggestions as to which songs should be banned from all athletic competitions, or depictions or reproductions thereof, for the rest of recorded time.  I’ll open with “Eye of the Tiger,” “One Moment in Time,” and “In the Air Tonight.” You folks can take it from there.

Posted by Michael on 05/13 at 11:16 AM
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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Bookkeeping

OK, the stats from April came in a while ago, and we somehow transferred 90.7 gigabytes of information last month, just slightly exceeding our allotment of 10 GB.  But here’s the really cool part.  pMachine was going to charge us $3 per excess gigabyte, and they did, but first, they automatically upgraded our plan to allow 80 GB per month, and then they charged us for the upgrade and the excess 10.7 gigs.  This basically cut our overage bill in half, and then some.

So what I want to know is, how cool is that? And what other corporate entity can you imagine behaving in this way?  Can you see Verizon or T-Mobile getting in touch with you and saying, “hey, you were $300 over your plan last month, so we just went ahead and modified the plan for you to accommodate your higher level of usage”?  Can you imagine your gas or electric company saying, “look, last month was a little weird, weather-wise, so we trimmed our rates to make sure you wouldn’t get hit with a monster bill out of nowhere”?

Thanks, pMachine people.  And thanks to all the readers who wrote in with bandwidth-saving suggestions back when this bandwidth-devouring blog was reduced to citing other bloggers’ nasty remarks about us in order to try to drive readers away.

In other news, Jamie and I are off this afternoon to Waterloo, Ontario for the 2005 conference of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society.  No, we’re not thinking of emigrating just yet—I’m serving as tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker, and Jamie is joining the 13-17-year-old group for fun and games.  He is so excited about that.  He also likes the fact that the Waterloo Inn has a pool.  I’ll post tomorrow’s Arbitrary but Fun Value Judgment whenever I get a chance.

Posted by Michael on 05/12 at 11:24 AM
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