Neil Patrick Harris can fix the economy

•December 6, 2008 • 3 Comments

On the off chance that you haven’t seen it–

Prop 8– the Musical

Obama, Bobby, and the pragmatic liberal

•November 29, 2008 • 4 Comments

It’s been almost a month since the election.  I promise tomorrow that I’ll get back to talking about President-elect Obama’s domestic priorities (stay tuned, kids, I’m going to talk about infrastructure and public transportation.  I know, I’m excited too), but first I wanted to say a little about Bobby Kennedy.

In a Time Magazine article called “The New Liberal Order”, Peter Beinart argued that American liberalism saw its defeat in the riots of the 1968 Democratic National Convention that took place in Chicago, and its rebirth in the same Chicago this year with the election of Barack Obama. According to Beinart, this was because “liberalism, which average Americans once associated with upheaval, now promises stability instead.”

I should preface this discussion with the fact that I am an Irish-Catholic Democrat, so Bobby Kennedy is basically a saint in my household.  I don’t mean that in the colloquial sense, either.  The best saint stories are not about perfection, but redemption.  No one would claim that Bobby Kennedy was perfect, but his redemption, especially in the 4 1/2 years between his brother’s death and his own, are touching and telling.  His story has always colored my opinions of Obama.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bobby the last few weeks.  Before he even takes office, Obama has faced comparisons to, most commonly, Lincoln and FDR, two pretty big pairs of shoes to fill.  But Obama’s election, and indeed his entire campaign, seems to me to be about the fulfillment of the promise of 1968.  Ethel Kennedy seemed to sense the connection early on.

According to Newsweek’s 7-part “Secrets of the 2008 election”:

“At Coretta Scott King’s funeral in early 2006, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, leaned over to [Obama] and whispered, ‘The torch is being passed to you.’ ‘A chill went up my spine,’ Obama told an aide.”

Barack shares several qualities with Bobby, not the least of which is, Obama is first and foremost not a liberal but a pragmatist.  I don’t mean that to negate the merits of being a liberal—I would consider myself one—or to suggest that those two terms are mutually exclusive.  I mean only to say that Obama does not seem to value symbolic change at the expense of his ability to properly execute actual change.  This sense of pragmatism has long been devalued in the Democratic Party, and it’s a sense that drove RFK.  Bobby wanted to help end the cycle of poverty, and he saw the ineffectiveness of large bureaucracies and the welfare state of the mid to late 1960s.

He advocated changes to them not out of some ideological opposition to governmental involvement, but out of a belief that government could be more effective.  He worked hard to create partnerships with businesses to help rebuild parts of New York, most famously the Bedford-Stuyvesant Corporation project.  His commitment to community development is one that Obama obviously shares– as Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin sneered, Obama was a community organizer.  This commitment is one that is typically associated with conservatism, but it is one that is perfectly adaptable to liberalism.  It reflects a grass-roots understanding of not just elections but of governing.

One of my very favorite of Robert Kennedy’s speeches from his presidential campaign, one he made on March 27, 1968 at Weber State College, tackled the idea of grass-roots and youth involvement, and he spoke about what he called “the spirit of youth.”

“The youthfulness I speak of is not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.  It is the spirit which knows the difference between force and reason.  It does not accept the failures of today as a reason for the cruelties of tomorrow.  It believes that one man can make a difference– and that men of good will, working together, can grasp the future and mold it to our will.”

RFK spoke to minorities and to the poor directly because of the empathetic spirit he developed most especially after his brother died.  The loss of his brother, the cornerstone of his personal and professional life, helped him understand loss.  Cesar Chavez, a very good friend of Bobby’s, wrote that RFK was beloved in the immigrant community because “it was like he was ours.”  He appealed in places other liberals couldn’t dream– places like the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, where he was deeply beloved by the poor.  And while I think Bobby and Barack don’t share much in the way of temperament– RFK was much more Rahm “Rahmbo” Emmanuel than “No Drama” Obama– they share an ability to connect with and understand people that makes for effective coalition building and mobilization.

The loss of Bobby Kennedy to the 1968 scene was about more than just the loss of a candidate, and it was even about more than the loss of his mix of pragmatic methods with idealistic goals; what was truly lost that year was the sense that government should be a partner in social progress, not an enemy of social or economic freedom.  It is difficult to convince people to work for a government that they do not feel cares about or works for them; in 1968, this manifested itself in open rebellion, with riots in Chicago that broke the Democratic Party.  This sense of partnership and ownership in governmental actions, lost in 1968, is liberalism’s greatest asset.

Beinart argued that liberalism has seen a resurgence because of a belief that order and freedom need not be mutually exclusive.  This, I think, hearkens back to RFK’s vision of government as a partner, which places faith in people as it asks people to place faith in it.  In the same way that Obama gave his speech about race with a belief that the American people were capable of understanding complexities and nuances, Bobby Kennedy’s speeches reflect a belief in people, as a whole, to overcome obstacles and build coalitions to combat challenges.  RFK had a way of channeling these idealistic concepts into actual results, and this faith resulted in one of the defining moments of his political career.

On April 4, 1968 Bobby Kennedy was supposed to give a speech to a predominantly black crowd in a rough neighborhood in Indianapolis. As he prepared to leave to give the speech, word came that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis.  His staff told him not to go.  The police told him not to go.  The crowd didn’t know, and RFK would have to tell them.  He wrote notes on the car trip to the speech site, and that’s the speech he gave.  In that speech, he called for understanding.  He quoted a Greek poet.  He chose, at that moment, to place faith in a crowd’s ability to see through their hatred, through their righteous anger, and through their desire for revenge and instead join him in sorrow, but not defeat; he sent the crowd home, asking them to pray for the country and Dr. King.

This speech is, probably, one of the reasons I have always valued Obama’s rhetorical style, and why I have always believed the “ability to give a good speech” is not quite so incidental to success as president as some may think.  It is why I truly believe that words matter, and shape our perception of ourselves and our actions.  It is why I think it is not just necessary, but pragmatic and right to place faith in people in general, even when the actions of individuals may horrify me.

Because that night, when riots broke out in most major cities throughout the country, it was quiet in Indianapolis.

Nate Silver shall rule us all

•November 20, 2008 • 2 Comments

Silver, of course, runs fivethirtyeight.com.  He invented the baseball statistical analysis system called PECOTA and made creepily accurate predictions about the popular vote and electoral vote in the 2008 election.  He is, basically, a nerd god.

A few days ago, he got into what I’m going to call an “argument” with conservative radio show host John Ziegler about a poll Ziegler commishioned through Zogby that Silver believes was a push poll.  (Having seen some of the questions and their construction, and especially after reading through Ziegler’s comments, I’m inclined to agree.  Zogby has never been a particularly reliable pollster, and this really just confirms that the methodology is flawed).  Silver posted the transcript here. It’s worth it just for the final exchange


NS: Thank you, have a good day.
JZ: Go fuck yourself.

Oh, Nate.

Silver is known mostly for number-crunching, but in response to his interview with Ziegler, he posted what I think is an interesting analysis about one of the Republican Party’s problems.

This is an undercurrent of much of the discussion going on about the Party’s future.  It used to be enough for the Republican Party to excite its base, “stimulate” them.  That’s not true anymore.  The Republican base is just not big enough anymore to get away with that.  Gov. Pawlenty of Minnesota pointed out at the Republican Governors’ Association that “Drill, baby, drill” was not, in and of itself, an energy policy– though it does continue the noble American tradition of mindless political chanting.

In any case, I recommend reading both the original interview and Silver’s thoughts on the aftermath.

And now, for something completely different.

•November 18, 2008 • 2 Comments

Taking a break from actual questions of politics for a minute, I wanted to share my immeasurable excitement over the Colbert Christmas Special that is going to air this Sunday on Comedy Central.

Watch these clips and tell me you’re not kind of excited, too:

The Process Story

•November 11, 2008 • 1 Comment

I don’t want to talk about Sarah Palin anymore.  I really don’t.  But, now that she is no longer running for Vice-President, she’s talking to EVERYONE, and everyone is talking about her again.  Tomorrow is the Republican Governors’ Association annual meeting, so I’m sure she’ll dominate even more tomorrow.  Here’s what’s killing me about all of this: the conversation has become nothing more than a process story.

Were McCain’s people MEAN to her?  Are they being mean NOW?  Did she disagree with her handlers?  Is she going to run in 2012?

I know it’s a common criticism of the media– that they’re more interested in the horse-race than anything else– but it’s something that’s driving me crazy about all of this Palin talk.  Most people agree that she is rehabilitating her image

by talking to the media and explaining that NONE OF THIS IS TRUE.  It seems to me that she is rehabilitating her image the same way she “won” the VP debate– ignoring the question and getting, as Amy Poehler-as-Katie Couric put is “increasingly cute.”

It shouldn’t be enough that Governor Palin can put together a coherent sentence when it comes to questions of process.  The reasons she was a horrible choice for VP still stand– she not only lacks mastery of policy issues, she seems to wear her intellectual disengagement as a badge of honor, as a symbol of being a “real american.”  I don’t care where you went to school or what your GPA was, but if you want to lead a country you had better at least attempt to understand the challenges facing it.  Before she could ever “rehabilitate” her image with me, she would need to show some kind of commitment to this, not just a commitment to rehabilitating her image.

Barack Obama: already better than Bush

•November 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I know a many people who aren’t as crazily obsessed with American politics as I, who tend to think that elections don’t really matter that much, because all politicians are alike.   I am shockingly immune to this cynicism, and it looks like my faith might actually be rewarded, as President-elect Obama looks to reverse any number of damaging Executive Orders, including:

  • bans on stem-cell research
  • family-planning bans and requirements on foreign aid
  • expansions of oil drilling

And then there’s Guantanamo Bay– which the AP first reported today would be closed, and the detainees placed into one of three categories.  Since then, the Obama camp has denied the specifics of the report, but agreed that Guantanamo Bay would be a priority for Obama.

These, by the way, are all changes that Obama can make within the “confines” of expanded executive power.  We haven’t even gotten to his legislative agenda.

It’s going to be a very interesting first 100 days.

The Green Giant

•November 8, 2008 • 1 Comment

In the lame duck days between now and January 20, we’ll be talking a lot about President-elect Obama’s priorities.  At his press conference yesterday, he mentioned– not shockingly– that the economy would be his top priority.  It seems obvious, however, that his hope is to effect a permanent change in the economy through a new energy policy.

In an interview several days before the election with Time’s Joe Klein (a fascinating interview all around), Obama said

“There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy.”

During his acceptance speech at the DNC, he made energy policy a central element of his policy discussion, even making a JFK “put a man on the moon” type promise to

“set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East.”

A new energy policy will be Obama’s priority.  It will not be easy, but Obama is right in suggesting that the economy needs a new driving force.  After all, the economic boom of the 90s was tied the growth of information technology.  There is no reason to believe the United States couldn’t be a leader in Green Energy technology, and now is the time where these types of changes are important.

But while it might seem easy to forget that Congress has a will independent of the President’s, I think energy policy is where we’re going to get a first taste of the differences within the Democratic coalition.  President-elect Obama (yes– I will never get tired of referring to him that way) will have his work cut out from him.  Let’s see what he can do.