Monday, August 23, 2004

Republicans Abandoning Reagan (That Didn't Take Long)

I ran on Monday, rather than Sunday; the editor gave my space to Gloria Feldt, President of Planned Parenthood, and that was fine with me. Gloria, here, was responding to an op-ed from the previous Sunday, here.

Democrats are mocked for overlooking Kerry's flaws, which are that he's not the world's most inspiring speaker and his personal manner can seem stiff. Why are Republicans exempt from scorn, when they are busy overlooking Bush's flaws, which seem much more substantial--and which require Republicans to ignore long-standing beliefs, like their worship of everything Reagan?

The newspaper version of my column is here.

It's the Economy, Stupid

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 23, 2004

It didn’t take long after his funeral for The Tribune to decide that voting for Ronald Reagan meant you were ill-informed.

Reagan framed the 1980 election for voters: “Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” But last Wednesday, The Tribune fretted that “[m]any votes in this election surely will turn on the question: Am I better off or worse off than I was four years ago?”

That’s the very standard by which Reagan asked voters to decide. That would make it a very good question, right? Wrong.

This year, The Tribune says Reagan was wrong, scolding voters who determine their vote using the Gipper standard: “Those won’t be the best informed votes, because they assume the president has more influence over the economy than he possibly can have.”

That’s just the latest contortion that President Bush’s actual record has forced upon good conservatives. First, they’ve abandoned years of decrying deficit spending; Republican Jon Kyl has now voted for budgets with bigger deficits than has Democrat Ed Pastor. Next, they’ve forgotten their opposition to nation-building and humanitarian interventions; Republicans who opposed working with NATO allies to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans now want the U.S. going it essentially alone to foment human rights in Iraq.

Bush’s woeful record now has conservatives abandoning Ronald Reagan’s signature quote. Instead, votes cast as Reagan asked are now “not the best informed.” Is reelecting Bush so important that conservatives are abandoning Reagan, too?

Yet if voters hold George W. Bush responsible for the economy, it’s not just because of Reagan, but also because of Bush himself. The administration pushed through its last round of tax cuts, the ones wildly titled toward the richest tier, by repeatedly calling it a jobs package. It’s the “Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003,” for goodness sake. If Bush (and The Tribune) regret that people blame Bush for the lack of job growth, and that Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs, well, it’s a little late now.

The Bush administration has consistently overestimated job creation. Each year, they’ve issued increasingly overoptimistic forecasts. When their numbers proved far more Dr. Pangloss than Dr. Greenspan, they simply abandoned their prior forecast, plugged in the new lower jobs number -- and then issued another wildly overoptimistic forecast. If voters hold Bush responsible, it’s his own fault.

The Bush administration doesn’t flip-flop, that’s certain. Instead, they tell us things which informed observers say at the time aren’t true, and which turn out to be false. They make predictions that outside experts say have no basis in reality, and which don’t come close to being true. In response, the Bushies just tell us more falsehoods and issue more absurdly optimistic projections, without ever admitting error. (To quote the Master himself: “I don’t want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”)

Bush is welcome to campaign by telling voters that they’re somehow actually better off than they think. That’s a much tougher job than mocking Al Gore, abetted by the national media. Voters just love it when a politician in Washington says he knows better than they do.

As Jacob Hacker of Yale wrote in the Aug. 16 The New Republic, maybe “[v]oters say the economy isn’t getting better because, as far as they’re concerned, it’s not” -- because Americans are “facing rising economic insecurity even as basic economic statistics improve.”

(Read the whole thing -- and begin understanding why economic security matters more than gross domestic product percentages.)

Voters didn’t react positively to overall economic good news in 1994, either. But having reaped that harvest, Republicans have no grounds to complain that people trust their own feelings about their economic future more than abstract economic numbers -- or Bush’s pronouncements about “turning the corner.”

Neither should The Tribune. After all, it’s what Ronald Reagan asked us to do.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Friday, August 20, 2004

The GOP Standard for Truth-Telling

From today's New York Times:
Ms. Spaeth said, "The answer is 'no,' unless you refresh my memory."

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Unleashing the H-Bomb

Not timeless, but still, I hope, timely. This column originally ran on July 25th. It was in response to a column by The Tribune's Paul Green, who argued that Kerry talking about his military service all the time was just what Hitler used to do; I thought that was a bit much. This column was written back in the misty distant days of July, when people weren't criticizing Kerry's military service. Now, of course, we've managed to breach that wall as well. The nerve of anybody, as Andy Borowitz noted, deciding to enlist in the Navy during the Vietnam War to avoid serving in the Alabama National Guard!

Neither Green's original column nor mine are available on the web anymore.

Even if you don't want to read the entire column, you really should read the last paragraph for the punch line. Thanks to B. in Denver for the idea. I did get one upset letter from a reader who didn't understand the point of the joke, and I had to email her to explain that the point of a joke is the joke. Don't get me started.

Crossing Swords over Service

East Valley Tribune, July 25, 2004

Last week, The Tribune's Paul Green declared himself the Miss Manners of permissible military memory. Green, who served in the military here in the U.S., decided exactly how much a Vietnam veteran running for public office should discuss of his or her service in that war. If you're John Kerry, Green believes any mention is one mention too many. According to Green's standards of etiquette, because Kerry talks about his military experiences more than Green deems appropriate, Kerry's not just a boor, he's pathological.

Green deployed three seamy rhetorical tactics against Kerry. First, contrary to Green, Kerry actually doesn't talk about his military record all that much -- and surely not much more than Bob Dole's campaign discussed his WWII service during the 1996 campaign. Other surrogates discuss Kerry's Vietnam service more often than Kerry himself. Actually, that's a problem for the Kerry campaign; others (John Edwards, Max Cleland) talk about John Kerry far more colorfully than John Kerry himself can.

Second, forget civility; too many people can't discuss their political opponents without attacking either the opponents' sanity or patriotism. Put Paul Green squarely in that camp. Green doesn't think it's enough to oppose Kerry's position on this issue or that program, or even to mock his personal foibles humorously. Instead, Green finds it necessary to slur Kerry as a flawed, if not worthless, if not deviant personality (note especially Green's "lack of manhood" insinuations). And if you don't agree with me on this point, then you obviously hate America.

Third, it's not enough for Green to say that Kerry talks about his military service too much. Green misuses the writings of military historian John Keegan, who posited several different styles of military leadership. In one style, the leader personalizes the national war aims, using his own personal service as both spur and bludgeon. Keegan put Hitler -- and numerous others, but naturally Hitler was the one chosen by Green for his incendiary column -- in that category. Therefore, because Green says Kerry talks more than Green would like about past military service, Green says Kerry is just like Hitler.

You might think that there might be more required to trot out the Hitler analogy than a political candidate's references to his own military service. You might think that with the Bush campaign regularly going ballistic about some anonymous person not affiliated with the Kerry campaign using the Hitler analogy (but not ballistic enough to resist then running their own web ad linking Hitler and Kerry), that Bush supporters like Green might not wallow in the hypocrisy of making such remote and random Hitler analogies. But you'd be wrong.

If John Kerry, or all Democrats, have to apologize because somebody (we still don't know who) submitted a homemade ad that linked Bush to Hitler to a contest, then shouldn't George Bush and all Republicans have to apologize for Green's casual and totally unnecessary use of the Hitler analogy? Don't hold your breath waiting for the apology.

In the Paul Green parallel universe, Kerry talking about what he actually did in the Navy, or his medals for courage and military service -- that's a personal failing. When Bush dressed up in a flight suit and landed on that carrier, underneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner, pretending to do what Kerry actually did -- hey, that's just fine.

See, Republicans can make Hitler analogies with impunity. It's just part of their birthright or something. But let any Democrat anywhere make a Hitler analogy and every Democrat everywhere needs to apologize.

It's a crazy world. Men having sex with men requires a constitutional amendment. Women having sex with women sells a lot of beer. Go figure.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Education on the Cheap

The newspaper version of the column is available, at least for a while, here. The Rep. Rosati quotes are for real, and you can read the rest of the sorry story here. I especially liked the part about the Goldwater Institute complimenting her work in education. That's like the Emperor Nero complimenting efforts in fire protection, or (as previously noted) wolves saluting work helping sheep.

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 15, 2004

Another school year started this past week, which means I learned once again how much a “free” public education actually costs.

Our kids attend the Scottsdale Unified District, which I consider (like all parents everywhere) one of the state’s top districts, and which also, not coincidentally, has one of the state’s best tax bases. But despite those relative advantages, each year we still write a series of checks -- for activity fees, to each school’s PTO, to the neighborhood schools foundation, for state income tax credit contributions. And that’s before the gift wrap sales and band fundraisers.

Our local schools are relatively well-off, and many fellow parents contribute much time and money. But PTO and school newsletters make it obvious that public funds just aren’t enough to pay for the education we expect -- and so volunteers try to fill the gap.

Still, I’d feel better knowing that schools where parents simply can’t write those extra checks, or whose jobs don’t provide time off to volunteer, weren’t even needier of extra money and help. If our system doesn’t provide schools in good areas with necessary resources, what happens to schools in far rougher neighborhoods?

Look at the state income tax credit. The Isaac School District has over 90 percent of its students at or below poverty level; 62 percent don’t live in English-speaking homes. In 2002, Isaac received about $3.17 per student in tax credit donations, compared to $34.49 for Mesa Unified and $59.90 for Scottsdale Unified. Yes, people in Mesa and Scottsdale should give more, but why give schools in Isaac, with a much, much tougher job, and where the parents don’t have money to contribute, fewer resources?

Who would ever countenance such a system? Naturally, it’s the Arizona Legislature, where members like Rep. Colette Rosati would rather impugn the lack of children of her primary election opponent (whose wife just happened to have suffered three miscarriages, then cancer, and then a hysterectomy) than make sure that every child attends a school with adequate resources.

I’m sure Rep. Rosati, when not accusing political opponents without spouses or children of being members of the “dark side” who frequent “certain types of bars” (Rosati apparently confuses life with Douglas Sirk movie), really thinks that you can educate kids with ideological band-aids instead of cash. But slogans don’t educate kids. It takes hard work, and people, and money -- money our legislature doesn’t seem willing to spend.

Even their pet ideological nostrums cost a lot of money, a development that awaits our legislators when the new session begins in January. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that lots of voters supported Prop. 203, the “English-only” initiative, thinking that instructing students solely in English must be cheaper than bilingual education. (Yes, people sure flock into bilingual education jobs for the big bucks. Yeah, right.)

Well, it turns out (at least preliminarily; final numbers aren’t in yet) that the consultant hired by the legislature estimates that it will cost about $1,200 per student more to educate them in the English Language Learner immersion program. That’s an average figure; the costs are higher for students with greater needs, and less for those with greater English proficiency.

And that’s just the English proficiency part. The consultant didn’t examine the need to keep instructing students in content as well. If we don’t find a way to instruct students in their academic subjects while they spend two years learning English, then the ELL program will create fluent English speakers who are two years behind in any substantive content.

Teaching kids to speak English without giving them any substantive knowledge may prepare them to be callers to talk-radio programs, but it’s not much help in finding a job or succeeding in life.

So welcome the new school year, with the same old Legislature serving up the same lack of resources and the same ideological hokum. Want to buy some gift wrap?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Last Month's Democratic National Convention Column

We're catching up. My web subscription to The Tribune kicked in yesterday, so I could retrieve the column that ran on Monday, Aug. 2. The newspaper version is available here, for a while, anyway.

The column ran with a charcoal drawing of speakers at the Democratic Convention, a pyramid with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the bottom, then Teresa Heinz Kerry and John Edwards, and then John Kerry. Because it's The Tribune, they put a fuzzy drawing, in a box, at the bottom of the pyramid; it appears to be Ted Kennedy. Maybe you have to be a 'winger and get the email to know for sure. Not the best "pull quote" but that's the way it goes.

Convention Wrap-Up
If you follow politics, you've decided on your candidate; if you haven't decided, you don't care

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 2, 2004

I watched the Democratic National Convention on CNN because of Larry King, the sovereign of the non sequitur. I pitied CNN’s “convention comedian” Mo Rocca. How do you seem amusing when your straight man is funnier -- even if inadvertently?

Worse, Mo was only CNN’s third-funniest guy. He got edged out by both Larry and by Bob Dole, who sounds increasingly like his Saturday Night Live imitation. Maybe going to Senate spouse events with Bill Clinton helps Dole hone his self-imitation.

Dole’s essential task was to repeat the GOP talking points, and he performed his job gamely. His comments became increasingly compressed, a few buzzwords thrown up resignedly against the relentless cheerleading of the designated Democrats. (This year, there are no informed impartial observers. People who know anything about politics have made up their minds. People who haven’t made up their minds don’t follow politics.)

Dole first would growl the backhanded compliment that’s the currently-required opener to a full-fledged political put-down. As each evening wore on, Dole’s comments got briefer and more cryptic: “Military service nice, but flip-flopped on Iraq. Flip-flopper, Larry.”

That’s a shorthand preview of the primary GOP attack: John Kerry flip-flopped on Iraq. Sure, anybody thinking in sentences longer than four words might seem hopelessly complex next to George (“I’m a war president.” “Good versus evil.” “Bring it on.”) Bush.

Kerry indeed did say much about Iraq, very little compressible into four words. But maybe the problem isn’t Kerry’s. Maybe it’s that the Bush administration keeps changing the reason for the war, so Kerry’s position on one reason doesn’t make sense once Bush changes his justification again.

Bush has been constant on only one thing, that we must invade Iraq. He’s been all over the lot explaining why we went to war -- so don’t blame Kerry if his position on one version of Bush’s war isn’t the same as on another.

Bush gave so many different reasons for the Iraq war that it’s difficult to remember them all. The administration led people to believe that Iraq was connected to 9/11, al Queda, or the anthrax letters (remember those?). Now only Dick Cheney thinks there’s any connection -- and even he only says that nobody has proven, to his satisfaction, that one didn’t exist.

We had the atomic Iraq war, with claims that Iraq had nuclear weapons, or a program, or the ingredients for a program, or plans for the ingredients of a program. Again, nobody who isn’t recycling Ahmed Chalabi rumors believes that anymore.

Then we had the WMD war, claims that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons ready for use, that could be delivered against the U.S., either directly or through terror groups. That hasn’t panned out, either.

Then we had the democracy-for-Iraq war, which required believing that giving Iraqis a new government was more vital than stopping North Korea or Iran from developing nuclear weapons, or finding Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, or stopping genocide in Sudan. But we’ve installed an Iraqi president with connections both to the CIA and the former Baathist regime, who is busily imposing emergency decrees and generally acting more like Juan Peron than George Washington. The democracy justification isn’t looking too healthy, either.

Given how it’s turning out, shouldn’t everybody have doubts about the war? So before accusing Kerry of flip-flopping, first specify exactly which of Bush’s many different Iraq wars you mean. Then explain why Kerry having different positions on Bush’s ever-changing justifications is bad, while Bush being repeatedly wrong about Iraq, but refusing to reconsider his policies, is good.

Maybe reasons to go to war needn’t be timeless. But is expecting one to last a whole year too much to ask?

Monday, August 09, 2004

Lousy President -- But a Great Talk-Show Host

I can't do better for a headline than my editor did this week, so I'll reuse it.

I haven't posted for a while because of vacation and travel schedules; we always try to put a hold on our papers while out of town, and my electronic subscription to The Tribune hasn't started yet. (Based on my experience with their customer service, I sure hope the editorial page doesn't complain about government inefficiency for a while.) So I've had a couple columns run but don't have copies of what was published (as opposed to what I submitted) and haven't had a chance to go to the public library and get copies.

Anyway, this column--meant as both a protest against the Bush campaign's unparalleled ability to lower expectations of the President of the United States, and as a warning to Democrats--generated more angry email than usual. Part was the expected diatribes from the right wingers, but I also got a couple emails from Democrats who were outraged that anybody could think "well" of Bush as I do in this column.

My editor Bob Schuster called me after getting the column just to make sure I'd actually written it. The block quote in the newspaper version is highlighted below.

The Character Issue

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 8, 2004

Chris Suellentrop of Slate watched President Bush campaign in Ohio last week, and saw first-hand why Bush will be very, very hard to beat. Bush may be a lousy president, but he’s a great talk-show host, revival-tent preacher, and stand-up comic.

In today’s politics, that may be more than enough.

As Suellentrop notes, Bush’s manner explains how people, despite his wealth, his elite education, and his family connections, consider Bush a "regular guy." Nobody -- least of all me -- should count him out until after all votes are counted or the Supreme Court decides, whichever last occurs.

Bush has always been charming, self-deprecating, and funny. In 2000, the media lapped it up, and while reporters may have soured somewhat since, to many voters it’s still a fresh act.

Bush is incredibly quick, not with facts or in-depth knowledge, but with a snappy and disarming joke. He’s the embodiment of prep-school virtues: not too smart, a good conversationalist, completely unthreatening. He’s perfect for a dinner party needing one more male guest. He’s also without peer in believing things that just aren’t true (like WMD, who got the tax cuts, et cetera) so sincerely that it’s somehow not his fault that he’s wrong. It’s both Reaganesque and Clintonian, simultaneously.

These are not necessarily the character traits that make for good presidents. Preppies also are noted for lack of long-term vision, for overemphasizing the superficial, and for loving the status quo. They do know the social graces, though, and if 90 percent of life is just showing up, much of the remaining 10 percent is good manners and breeding -- Bush’s strong suit.

That’s why, as Andrew Tobias noted on his website, President Bush has never lost a debate. He didn’t lose his debate against Ann Richards -- and have you ever not been impressed when Ann Richards speaks? I once had to follow her at a tribute to Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), and I worried for weeks about what I’d done to offend the organizers so grievously. (I eventually figured out that they assumed that of all the other speakers, I had the least to lose.)

President Bush certainly didn’t lose his debates with Al Gore. Gore may have been more knowledgeable and qualified, but it didn’t matter because of Bush’s unique ability to change the terms of debate, as it were, into a contest of likeability and charm. If in today’s America what you say matters less than making people fell comfortable while you’re saying it, then our politics has no better debater than George W. Bush.

Bush also has a masterful touch with religious phrases and themes, which he can weave into his speech in a way that a Jewish guy like me, or even many mainline Protestants, simply can’t. It’s not clear an Eastern Catholic like Kerry can shake his Eastern-ness enough to emphasize the Catholicism, so our guy may not be able to invoke the same familiar and comforting themes with the same expertise as the incumbent.

Finally, Bush’s staff is also world-class at lowering expectations, but nobody should fall for that anymore. Bush has perfected what Tobias calls a "killer aw-shucks debating style." Bush’s well-honed technique makes his opponents look overbearing, over-prepared, and eventually overmatched. Yes, President Bush has never lost a debate; he’s a champion debater, and as skilled as they come in his own way of turning the tables to his advantage.

And after four years experience as president, shouldn’t he do even better this fall? We Democrats just have to hope that John Kerry can just be competitive, especially before the hometown folks at the debate at ASU in Tempe on Oct. 13.