Monday, December 20, 2004

A Gesture of Assent

Austin, Texas 12/20/2004

In our culture -- in most cultures -- we have numerous ways to wordlessly express our displeasure at the actions of another. Whether it be the one finger salute, the knife hand in the crook of the opposite arm or the forward stroke of the fingers along the bottom of the chin (or countless others) the gestures are unambiguous and well understood.

On the other hand, sometimes people are civil; the oft-maligned `random acts of kindness' are more common than we sometimes think (or perhaps we've heard the whole `it's all going to hell in a handbasket' argument so often we just assume that they're rare). As an example, my family and I was merging into a local expressway during afternoon rush hour and a BMW -- yes a Beamer -- moved over a lane to let us in. This was quite appreciated; unfortunately there is no single gesture of thanks in response that would be unambiguously understood.

A peace sign? No, some people might read it wrong. A simple `thumbs up'? No, not 'round these parts (it could be interpreted as `Gig 'em Aggies' so it wouldn't work here; in some places the interpretation would be even more challenging). A simple wave? Perhaps, but not sufficiently unambiguous.

Maybe if we had a way of expressing, "Gee, thanks. Your simple kindness is appreciated," we'd treat each other better. Just a thought.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Mourning Has Broken

Austin, Texas 12/4/2004

In Jewish tradition there are two primary levels of mourning for a deceased member of one's immediate family. The first, lasting for seven days after the funeral is shiva, during which the mourner retreats from day to day life and is cared for by friends and other family members. The second, lasting until thirty days have passed is shloshim, when the mourner begins the process of getting back to normal responsibilities but avoids things like wearing new clothes or atending social gatherings.

And so has it been since the recent presidential election. The shiva period was -- as is always the case -- difficult and disorienting; months of hope, culminating in borderline euphoria as the initial exit poll results began to leak, had crashed down in the matter of a couple of hours as we watched helplessly. The future had suddenly become too bleak to contemplate. How could it be? How could it have happened? Had someone failed to speak the right incantations? We'd all (well, almost all) agreed to put specific concerns aside; there'd be plenty of time to deal with that later, after the moving vans had departed Washington for Crawford.

It was no time for thinking clearly.

Shloshim -- as expected -- was characterized by a more sober evaluation of what had transpired, as well as a more sober evaluation of what we might expect in the near future. The thinking was clearer, if not yet entirely clear. Recriminations, respectfully held back in the first days, were voiced. Major players blamed or were blamed, mostly both. Tactics that had been regarded as positives were considered to be negatives and vice versa. But the time for useful reflection had not yet arrived.

Now, finally, it has. And, as mourning has indeed broken -- and none too soon, I might add -- it is time for useful reflection. Bury the recriminations in a little box. Hide the blame under the stairs. If it's about strategy or tactics, shred it. There's time for all that; it's just that that time is not now. As the great lurch toward the incumbent's second term continues, slowly but surely the mask will begin to come off. Political debts will be repaid. And the creditors will be quite clear about the kind of currency they will accept.

The reflexive response will be to rail against these creditors. Again, now is not the time. These debts will be repaid. There's nothing that can be done about it. And the current reaction to it does not matter either. What does matter is what happens in twenty three months. Without the specter of (artificial) gains generated by further partisan gerrymandering, the next series of congressional elections will presage the state of politics in America for years to come.

Toward that end -- and at this particular time -- there are only three things that matter: Message, message and message.

Did I mention message?

Though there are two competing basic worldviews that dominate the current political landscape, the nearly down-the-middle split that could be inferred from the recent vote counts is an illusion. The fact is, we're winning. A large majority wants to be left alone in their personal lives while protected from the raw power of the few. It is only through the great skill -- all right, make that great political skill; this game is called politics, after all -- of the other side in terms of crafting its message and image (though not in that order) that it's even a contest. Well, that and the fact that we tend to have an unfortunate habit of playing nice -- as well as a general inability to do a terribly good job at playing nasty (when it seems to be indicated). That can be overcome, but only by directing the major effort at message, as opposed to tactics or strategy.

Why hasn't that been done up to now? Because it's hard, particularly because the things we stand for do not easily admit to seven word phrases screamed at the top of one's lungs. Subtlety is a curse.

So what is that message? Ah, if only I knew...

In any event, I shall hope to make some progress toward defining it in this space as time goes by.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004


Here it is, nearly midnight, and it's looking like the whole shebang may be over before long. Florida has been decided. Ohio remains in doubt, but barely. Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan? Too close to call. No one wants to call the national race just yet, but the general discussion has begun the drift from "what's happening" to "what happened." And the word that keeps coming up is "values."

So, what are these "values" of which they speak? What "values" are being deemed to be making the difference on this long election night?

[MSNBC just called Ohio and Alaska for Bush. For the moment, I can't continue writing. I'll revisit this when the dust has settled -- or begins to fly in earnest.]

[Well, the dust has now settled -- and won't fly. Kerry has conceded, the senate races are decided (55-44-1) and now we move on. I'll revisit this post down the road a piece.]

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

8:45 PM CST

Well, it's now 8:45pm C.S.T. and WSDKAFT.

So, did you figure out the acronym yet?

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida...

Perhaps the upper Midwest will tell us something we didn't know months ago. Or maybe not.

7:30 PM CST

Here we are, 7:30pm C.S.T. -- and we don't know much.

  • Virginia too close to call
  • North Carolina finally called for Bush -- but it took a while
  • Big exit poll numbers for Kerry from the under-30s
  • South Carolina Senate seat still up in the air.
  • Oklahoma Senate seat -- Coburn is a terrible candidate, but Oklahoma is a tough nut to crack.
  • Pennsylvania still too close to call.
And, of course, it all comes down to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida -- just like we figured months ago.

I've been watching these things since '64 (all right, I wasn't eight yet -- but pretty savvy) and I still find it among the most amazing experiences. Hang on, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Board of Directors

Austin, Texas 10/24/2004

If the federal government is a corporation with the President as its CEO (a flawed, but sometimes useful metaphor), the Supreme Court is its Board of Directors. They sit on the sidelines, out of the fray, but exert their collective will on the most important questions and disputes -- or at least the ones they consider to be most important. And, barring some sort of overt criminal behavior, they're there until retirement or death.

Indeed, from a political standpoint, they can be the gift that keeps on giving; the lagging indicator of worldview.

If you happen to be from my side of the political divide, that `lagging' served us well for several decades; the lagging culture was one that respected the public space. But now what happens if a second Bush administration ensues? Well, given their ideological outlook (for the President to say `no litmus test' would be rather like stating `no height requirement' when the field from which you draw is made up solely of NBA forwards) and the history of court appointments made by Republican administrations in the latter half of the twentieth century (Warren, Brennan, Stevens, Souter), you can be sure that whoever is nominated will be very well vetted, scoured for any presence of "incorrect" thinking.

Which brings up a different point -- and a confession. For years now, since the Nixon administration, the right has made much noise about wanting "strict constructionists" who won't "legislate from the bench". Ah, that elusive "strict interpretation of the law". The left has denied the charge. Well, here's the confession. They do. They all do. Left or right -- it doesn't matter.

And that's why it's so important. The Supreme Court justices appointed over the next presidential term (likely three, but only time will tell) are likely to be shaping American law at a time when my grandchildren are capable of following the story.

(By the way, I have one child, a son. He's not quite two and a half.)

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Strict Interpreter

Austin, Texas 10/28/2004

The campaign is almost over and the great ad blitz is in full swing.

No, I'm not talking about the presidential race; I'm not even talking about the various legislative races that are going on, filled with claim, counterclaim and hyperbole as they are (putting the most virulent of the national ads to shame, by the way). I'm talking about judges.

Here in Texas, judges are elected. Most seats are not particularly contested (as I said, this is Texas), but the rhetoric still flies. And time after time, what you hear sounds something like this:

"He shares our values. He'll be tough on crime. He'll strictly interpret the laws, not legislate from the bench."

As they say in the land of my birth, "Gimme a break!" Judges, of whatever stripe, legislate from the bench all the time. All the time. It's what they do. Left or right -- it doesn't matter. And, seriously, there's nothing wrong with that. It's the very reason why we even bother to subject judges to the political process (whether it be by election, legislative confirmation or any other method). Otherwise, we'd just have some faceless technocrat -- a legal engineer, as it were -- making these decisions. We don't; it's obviously too important.

It's high time we 'fess up on this, from both sides, at the very least in the name of honesty. (We do want honest judges, don't we? Oh wait, don't answer that). Wouldn't it be nice to hear something like:

"When he's elected he'll make sure that every possible step will be taken to imprison people who you, the voting public, find scary -- no matter what the demonstrable facts are. He treasures the values of the common people -- who can tell who's guilty just by lookin' at 'em. He'll make sure to make things right for people like us"

Same message -- we've just broken the code.

So let's cut out this "strict interpretation" stuff, OK?

Friday, October 22, 2004

11 Days Out

Austin, Texas 10/22/2004

So here we are. Eleven days left until the election. And the polls are as clear as mud.

The great Lawrence Peter Berra said, "In baseball, you don't know nothin'." And so it is in this year's presidential race. Well, that's not entirely accurate. There are a few things we know:
  • George W. Bush will get at least 40% of the national vote. Even the proverbial dead girl or live boy wouldn't get him much below 35%.
  • John Kerry will get at least 40% of the vote, similarly.
  • George W. Bush will win with huge majorities in several states.
  • John Kerry will win with huge majorities in several states.
  • In some states, the error rate inherent in whatever particular voting system they use will exceed the margin of victory.
  • No matter who has won by November 3rd -- if anyone -- a significant plurality of the American public will be angry. Really angry.
In fact, we probably know about as much about the outcome of the election as we know about what the weather will be like -- right there where you live -- on November 2nd. And, given the nature of this particular election, the two may be inextricably intertwined. If there's one thing that most people seem to agree upon this year, it's that turnout will be crucial. And it's not only turnout, but exactly who turns out.

Will many who had previously not voted (therefore not showing up as "likely voters" in most polls) turn out? If so, which ones? Traditionalist evangelicals? The "Sex in the City" vote? The slacker vote? The inner city vote (particularly in swing states)? Does anyone know? Can anyone know?

Even among the "likely voter" category, turnout is crucial. Whose kids will be sick? Whose car won't start? Whose bus will be late? Who will have an argument with a spouse/significant other? Who will get stuck in traffic?

And then there's the weather. If there are storms will they hit Miami or Pensacola? Cincinatti or Toledo? Madison or Eau Claire? It may well come down to the weather map.

Two disparate groups are making forecasts concerning November 2nd. One of them, the meteorologists, make no particular claim concerning their accuracy -- eleven days out.