Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An anecdote ...

I remember an event, roughly twenty years ago, in the presidency of the first George Bush. He had campaigned on “Read my lips, no new taxes”. But at some point I guess he decided the Reagan debt was too much, he needed to raise taxes. He got the Congressional leadership on board, but when it came to a vote, the Congressional rank and file bailed. They split from their leaders and voted no. Sound familiar?

By the way, I believe the tax increase did go through eventually. I just remember that one vote, but the Wikipedia says that the first Bush did raise taxes.

No special point here, really just an observation. There’s more than a little irony, to me, that a similar thing has happened to the son. If we weren’t at risk for another depression, I might chuckle a little louder.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Excesses of (mostly in) the Sunday PG Fourm

Again I have been neglecting my own blog, although I have not been commenting as much on other people’s bogs. No one seems to have reacted to the debates. I think the partisans are upset that their candidates did not deliver a knock out blow to the other candidate. Jack Kelly, in his column this morning in the PG, did not mention the debates at all. I didn’t have my laptop on during the debate, but I would assume Kelly did some live blogging during the debate. I might go look for it later. But no column gloating about how McCain wiped the floor with Obama (even though I am sure the paper would have held his deadline for him), because it was not obvious that either man won. So Kelly satisfied himself with comparing ‘60’s radicals to Nazi war criminals. Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. And according to the PG, so are we.

The PG also carried Chad Hermann’s final shot at Pittsburgh, about how we aren’t smart enough for him. I would write a letter to the editor of the PG, but in part because of my exasperation at Hermann, I shot a letter off last month about bicycling (not in any way my best effort) at the same time Hermann was conducting his assault on bicyclists.

Hermann’s piece on today’s PG’s “Next Page” was absolutely vintage Hermann. He titled it “The Out Post”. I suspect he might have titled it the “Last Post”, but apparently part of the reason he stopped blogging is because he seemed genuinely stung when his flippant criticism of Randy Pausch was so negatively received (he said he received three death threats). The page is laid out in the style of his blog page, complete with the virtual bric a brac on the right (including an “official soundtrack”, an “official muse” and praise from readers).

I think this “Out Post” gives us the quintessential Hermann experience. How he started before everyone else, but not in political blogging. By the time he started, blogging was already a wasteland (he says “Voices rose. Standards fell”). He was begged to ride to our rescue, to open a window to higher culture and thought. He would post to the level of major-paper, op-ed quality. He would not be self-indulgent, but would write every day, “make every word, subject and syllable count”.

Now, anyone who reads my blog knows I have criticized Hermann in the past, but I will confess I enjoyed reading his stuff when he was telling non-political anecdotes. But I have been told a story about how Hermann antagonized a particular political figure during a political event, making whispered comments at this persons back and then feigning innocence when the person turned around. That may neatly capture, for me, the “Hermann” experience.

Hermann takes pains to criticize us all in his “Out Post”. Maybe he is just criticizing me, and the handful of other Pittsburgh bloggers, when he talks about how the philistines are everywhere and winning. He suggests looking at “a few local or national political blogs. If you have a strong stomach, dip into the comment threads. You’ll see why I never allowed them on TWM. And you’ll think you stumbled into an Edward Albee play. Without the wit or erudition.”

And there is the essence of the problem for me. Hermann complained about how people didn’t do him the service of writing “impassioned, respectful” emails, which he said he would respond to, and carry on exchanges. But Hermann says the emails became “bunkered assaults”, and he realized the “reach of my efforts exceeded the grasp of readers willing and able to engage them. As my reputation grew, the caliber of my audience precipitously declined”.

I don’t get a lot of readers, I know. Fewer when I don’t post as often, which is one reason I comment on other people’s blogs. Unfortunately, I drain some of my best ideas in comments, and I am uncomfortable recycling a comment into a post. But I do know I get more readers during the political seasons, like now (and I often post more during the political seasons, finding more inspiration). And I have complained about anonymous comments, and don’t have them on my blog, although commenters simply chose handles, which are more consistent but no less anonymous. But at least I allow comments. I want to do that in part because I want to encourage discussion, and in part because I don’t mind exposing the occasional ignorance of the most partisan of voices, on both sides.

Some times Chad Hermann would reprint parts of an email sent to him, usually to ridicule the ignorance of the sender. But we had no idea about whether we were seeing the whole email, or whether it was altered. Those who blog know you can not alter the comments on your blog, only delete them, and then the deleted comment leaves a visible hole you would feel obliged to explain, to retain the trust of your readers. But not Chad Hermann. He would have us believe he was carrying on (hidden) email exchanges with the intelligentsia of Pittsburgh, something us common folk could only dream about. When I emailed Hermann, I rarely got a response.

My blog, and the comments on my blog, stand or fall on their own. The Burgh Report, with its occasional breaking story and its established base, Two Political Junkies and The Pittsburgh Comet all have more readers than me, I am sure. Other blogs are up and coming. But I am satisfied with my place in the world, and think that I could get more readers if I wanted to. I don’t see any point in calling people stupid because they don’t praise me. I may rip apart national political figures because of their diction. But you will be able to insert you own comment about it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

A McCain Presidency ...

Well, I apologize for neglecting my own blog. I have been busy commenting on other people’s blogs, plus engaging in real life sometimes. But I have an idea I have mentioned in comments, that I want to mention here too.

What exactly would happen if John McCain were elected. I don’t expect the Senate or House to move very much in their respective majorities. I don’t think the Senate will lose it’s Democratic majority, in fact I have heard here and there that the Democrats might pick up a seat or two. No one expects the Democrats to make it to 60 seats though. Even if the Democrats lose the Senate, I would expect the House to remain in Democratic hands.

So McCain is unlikely to be able to move as agenda through Congress. The Democrats in Congress also may not be able to move an agenda, considering the success of Senate Republicans in either blocking votes or blocking legislation. The only promise McCain may be able to keep legislatively is block earmarks. Since earmarks are buried in appropriations bills, and since Congressmen and women really depend on those to deliver favors to their districts, Congress (Republicans and Democrats) would likely fight McCain on that. We might see some veto proof majorities, but I see no reason for such bi-partisanship to last long. I think ultimately we would end up with White House/Congressional gridlock. Actually, we have that now in the Senate to some extent, but I think it would be much worse with a President McCain. What the Senate Republicans failed to kill, the President would.

Congress always finds it easier not to take action, and then blame someone else. The higher the stakes, the greater the cost of pissing a group of organized fringe constituents off, especially for Senators. An opposition President, particularly one like John McCain, whose campaign staff has been vilifying the Democrats even as McCain himself loudly proclaims his independence from the Republicans, would stand against everyone. He might cause a war or negotiate a peace, all to little avail. By the time of the midterms, Congressional incumbents might be thrown out by the bucket full, but to be replaced by who? Perhaps the Mickey Mouse party. They could hardly be worse.

I do think Obama would have a better chance of advancing an agenda (although the behavior of the current Senate makes me worry about the future). If Obama does achieve some goals, that brings a whole different set of consequences, which would be the topic for a different post.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Of suburbs and exurbs

I talked to my brother on Sunday. Being brothers, we talk not about family or jobs, but about bicycles and cars. I talked about a new bike and my old bike, and how my newish car has a ventilation system issue I am having addressed. He talked about how he has gotten as high as 30 mpg on the highway in his car (using the air conditioner). He has a six cylinder VW Passat (I believe, maybe a Jetta) with this in dash computer that will tell him his mileage. It’s a stick, in fact I think it is sort of a German muscle car. He told me something else I fouind frankly amazing, but before I repeat it I should back up a bit. My brother lives in Peachtree City, Georgia. He works for NCR, which has an operation 3 miles from his house. Peachtree City is a planned community dating back to the 60’s. It has an extensive walking/bike path network that parallels and crosses the street network, so that people can travel throughout the city only occasionally crossing streets and dealing with cars. Peachtree City is an affluent town, home to many Delta pilots and their families because of its relatively close proximity to the Atlanta airport. It also has the highest per capita number of golf carts in the country, or something (or so my brother says, I tend to believe him).

The surprising thing my brother said is that he had used only one tank of gas the whole summer. He backed off a little on that later (I think) and maybe allowed two tanks. What he does is bike to and from work (and home for lunch), and he has bought himself an electric golf cart. So he does all his grocery shopping with the golf cart, he visits his girl friend in the golf cart, they go to concerts or dinner or bars in the golf cart, and he charges it overnight.

Now, he says that he is pretty much one the few bike riders on the paths, and his is the only bike at the bike rack at his work, but the parking lot is full of golf carts. Golf carts crowd free public concerts, and of course use the walking/biking paths extensively. So this is not an excessively healthy or green town. Still, like my brother, they have the ability to live without using gas excessively if they happen to work locally. This is the sort of suburb that is likely to survive if gas prices skyrocket. Especially in the “sunny” South, he could install solar panels and certainly power the golf cart, if not his whole house. If his local Kroger would stock locally grown food, he could reduce his carbon footprint (should he choose to) significantly. If you compare that even to urban residents such as myself, he could potentially achieve what would be much more difficult for me. Of course, city residents such as myself could be served by wind farms or solar panel arrays for our electricity, and the size of a place like Pittsburgh makes it a good market for local farmers at the always busy farmer’s markets.

But it is interesting to me that a carefully planned community can yield as unexpected spin off benefit of a more green lifestyle.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The have it both ways campaign

When you compare John McCain to John Kerry, both of whom being in the navy, you look at two different definitions of hero.

Kerry joined the navy when the draft board denied a request for a deferment so he could spend a year in France, and also because some of his classmates had joined the navy. Kerry spent some time on a guided missile frigate picking up downed aviators off the coast of Vietnam but then requested an assignment on the “Swift boats” (at the time, he thought it would be a safe assignment). As we know, Kerry had several encounters with the Vietcong or North Vietnamese, and was wounded three times. He later protested the war.

John McCain was planning to be a career man in the Navy. After graduating Annapolis and then flight school, he requested a combat assignment during Vietnam, and flew bombing missions over Vietnam. Everybody pretty much knows he was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese. His father, an admiral, became the commander of the Vietnamese theater of operations shortly there after, and the North Vietnamese offered John McCain a release, to show that children of privileged parents were taking advantage of their status. McCain said no, not until all POW’s were released. He stayed a prisoner for I believe around five years, helping some of his fellow prisoners keep their spirits up.

McCain’s heroic status comes from having been a POW, which is different than how we usually look at hero’s. Kerry’s heroic status is more conventional, although he was somewhat uncomfortable with it and of course it was called into question.

McCain is portrayed as a man who served his country with distinction, but at least one reality is that he was a competent but not great pilot, and the most significant feature of his military career was having been a POW. He left the military because he realized he would never be a full admiral like his father and grandfather (although he might have made the lesser rank of rear admiral).

Another reality is that John McCain married a former model as a young man, before going to Vietnam. When he returned from Vietnam, he came home to a wife who had been in an auto accident and had become less attractive. He started having extramarital affairs and eventually divorced her. He then married a former beauty pageant contestant who was (and is) also rich. How should we compare this behavior with Bill Clinton’s, or does the POW status excuse anything.

John McCain’s presidential candidacy this time has become a situation where his campaign staff viciously attacks his opponent while John McCain acts as though he is above it all. Mark Salter handed out tire gauges labeled “Obama’s Energy Plan” back in late July, although McCain later admitted that keeping your tire pressure up to recommended levels is a fine idea. Someone else in the McCain campaign called Obama an “arugula eating, pointy headed professor type”, yet John McCain said in his nomination speech that he would end partisan rancor. These are the have it both ways people.

This is the issue for voters to reconcile. Obama is proposing a lot of policy. Maybe too much. He wants to increase the amount and range of the EIC, he wants to double the hope credit, he wanted to implement an extension of the Social Security payroll tax on people making $250.000 (the tax currently is on incomes up to $102,000). He want to provide a tax cut for essentially everybody with incomes under 250,000 and raise taxes for people with incomes over $250,000. His own people project a three and a half trillion deficit by 2014 (I believe it was). And of course a universal health care plan with no mandates.

There is a chance Obama will get a lot of that, and we shouldn’t rely on Congress to reign him in.

Still, McCain is worse. His fiscal proposals include making the Bush tax cuts permanent, removing the tax free status of employer provided healthcare and a couple of more. It is truly difficult seeing a Democratic Congress doing any of that.

McCain seems more interested in trying to kill earmarks and reduce DC corruption. That’s fine, and more likely something he could actually do while in office, but the Country needs (and should want) more. We need someone to look at income inequality, and do all the government can do about that. We need someone to tackle the mortgage crisis, Social Security and Medicare. We need a detail President, and John McCain is not that man. Even Sarah Palin is not that woman. They are flashy people, jetting into a crisis and then jetting out. You know, celebrities.

McCain is back to even in the polls, though. Apparently a lot of people whose interests are congruent with barrack Obama’s are saying they will not vote for him. Some people on the Burgh Report say how other people they know are excited by McCain’s POW record. Sure, it gives you a reason not to vote for Obama.

I hope people will actually listen to the words and think, can this guy achieve this working with a Democratic Congress? And will it be good for me?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Personality versus issues

I caught the roundtable part of This Week on ABC and the Meet the Press on NBC this Sunday. This Week had a Republican strategist Mathew Dowd on, who said something startling to me, until I realized he was not so much describing as trying to direct. He said the election would not be about issues, it would be about the experience and values of the candidates. Well, sure, McCain wants the only issue to be that he will maintain the status quo, and Obama will raise taxes and change things. Whenever you can make it seem like a black man is saying “things gonna change ’round here”, you can make some large segment of the population nervous. McCain is going after the Republican base, the evangelicals (those presumably not already part of the Republican base) and independent and conservative white Democratic voters with no more than a high school degree. Obama presumably is going after educated white Democratic, independent and even Republican voters, as well as the Democratic base and a fair number of young voters. Mathew Dowd was at pains to say that many voters had no participated in the primaries (even though Democrats reported record turnouts) and that the young people who voted in the primaries would not turnout for the general.

There is a fair danger that Mathew Dowd is correct. It is pretty difficult to get and/or keep undereducated voters to focus on issues. They internalize character issues and scandal more easily (a lot of the time so too do educated voters). Obama is getting help from the NYTimes on this front, but even that is a double edged sword, reinforcing accusations that Obama is elitist. I suspect the unions will help. Despite the fact the Democrats felt somewhat betrayed by Clinton in 1992, I don’t think they want to risk losing Congress again.

If McCain is elected, he will likely face a Democratic Congress that still does not have a veto proof majority in the Senate. He will have to decide, if the Congress does decide to pass a universal health insurance bill (and in this situation they could pass Edwards’ plan as easily as Obama’s), would he veto it. If the Congress passed tax cuts for the middle class and poor, and let the Bush tax cuts expire, would McCain veto those. Honestly I have no idea, but certainly a return to government gridlock, for at least two years until the midterms, could be possible.

What’s interesting is that conservatives are partly right in talking about how liberal are talking about McCain. He used to be the Democrats best friend outside their own party. He attacked the Bush tax cuts, he supported Tom Daschle who wanted to investigate what the administration knew about 9/11 and he sponsored and passed the anti-torture bill. But McCain has backpedaled on quite a bit. He now wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent (Congress passed them as temporary) and he agrees with the administration’s definition of torture.

I think John McCain has the potential to be another Ronald Reagan, a plain spoken guy, this time a genuine hero (although a person being a hero for being a POW is a bit dubious), and someone liked even by some liberals like Jon Stewart. But I think if Obama sticks to talking about the issues, about how policy affects real people, he can keep the election focused where it needs to be - on us, not on the personalities or characteristics of the candidates.

One more brief note. Sarah Palin is described as an expert on energy policy. Maria Bartiromo said as much, based on Palin’s two years as governor, and unknown time on the State Oil and Gas board as the ethic commissioner. She resigned the board after sometime, complaining about the ethics of her fellow (Republican) commissioners. I note she raised the tax on oil and gas production at some point during the last two years. She placed the interests of 600,000 Alaskans over 299,400,000 lower 48 and 1 island Americans. This is an indication of her expertise?