"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
January 30, 2009
POLITICS: Steele It Is
Congrats to Michael Steele on his victory in the race for Chairman of the Republican National Committee. We'll have an editorial on Steele up at RedState shortly, as soon as we get past the latest site outage.
UPDATE: Our editorial is here.
BASEBALL: The Catchers and the Hall
January 29, 2009
BASEBALL: For All The Cubs Fans
Feel the love:
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His last pitch as a Met:
And, of course:
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January 28, 2009
POLITICS: Obama Merchandising
For those of you who couldn't get enough of the White Sox hat story...Cracked.com has an increasingly bizarre array of Obama merchandise, some of which may not be exactly safe for viewing at work. I simply lost it at "Barack Obaca." There is something seriously wrong with the people who come up with this stuff, some of which would make Turkmenbashi blush.
POLITICS: But It's Different When He Says It!
In case you missed it, a glimmer of hope - and change! - that the Daily Show might yet figure out how it's safe to make fun of Obama:
BASEBALL: The Ethics of Cornering A Thin Market
Jack Marshall at the Hardball Times, after defending in general how Scott Boras does his business, argues that he's violating legal-ethical duties to his clients:
Imagine you are a lawyer who is retained by a parent to sue a school district in a sexual molestation case. You believe you can win and are pretty sure that you have a chance to break the bank and take almost all the assets of the district. Now another client comes to you wanting to sue a school in the same district to get damages for a horrible injury sustained by her child on a defective jungle gym. You can’t take the second case. If you achieve the objective of the first client, there won’t be money left for the second one. If you achieve the goals of one, you can’t possibly achieve the goals of the other.
If the Yankees were the team most likely to contest the Dodgers for Manny Ramirez, in the event that New York did not wrap up Teixeira, Boras was undermining his own client's bargaining power by helping Teixeira reach an agreement with New York. If the Angels signed Sabathia, as was a realistic possibility, it would have made the team an unlikely bidder for Teixeira or Ramirez. Sports commentators, talking heads and bloggers sensed this, speculating that Boras might "steer" Teixeira to an East Coast team to keep open a West Coast landing place for Manny. But Boras cannot ethically manipulate one client's fate to benefit another. For a lawyer, doing so is grounds for bar discipline; for a non-lawyer, it is simply disloyal and wrong.
Read the whole thing. I'm not sure how I come out on this - it's an interesting argument, and it passes the test of being true at a fundamental level - for example, an agent representing Varitek might reasonably have chosen to argue that he was, specifically, a better investment than Rodriguez; representing both, Boras cannot do that. On the other hand, the pond at issue here is so small that if you never represent two players with possibly competing interests, you'd hardly be able to represent more than about 10 players.
LAW/POLITICS: Second Circuit: Second Amendment Doesn't Apply To The States Unless The Supreme Court Tells Us Otherwise
Setback for the Constitutional Right To Bear Nunchaku
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the federal appeals court sitting in Manhattan, rejected this morning a legal challenge by an attorney convicted on Long Island of possession of nunchaku, or chuka sticks, who argued that the Second Amendment protects his right to bear these traditional Okinawan weapons.
The court's decision, however, did not address whether the Second Amendment protects a right to have nunchaku in your home, as it instead disposed of the legal challenge on the considerably more significant grounds that the Second Amendment is not "incorporated" as a restriction on state government by the Fourteenth Amendment:
It is settled law... that the Second Amendment applies only to limitations the federal government seeks to impose on th[e individual] right [to keep and bear arms recognized in Heller]. See, e.g., Presser v. Illinois, 116 U.S. 252, 265 (1886) (stating that the Second Amendment "is a limitation only upon the power of congress and the national government, and not upon that of the state"); Bach v. Pataki, 408 F.3d 75, 84, 86 (2d Cir. 2005) (holding "that the Second Amendment's 'right to keep and bear arms' imposes a limitation on only federal, not state, legislative efforts" and noting that this outcome was compelled by Presser), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1174 (2006). Heller, a case involving a challenge to the District of Columbia's general prohibition on handguns, does not invalidate this longstanding principle. See Heller, 128 S. Ct. at 2813 n.23 (noting that the case did not present the question of whether the Second Amendment applies to the states). And to the extent that Heller might be read to question the continuing validity of this principle, we "must follow Presser" because "[w]here, as here, a Supreme Court precedent 'has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to the Supreme Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.'" Bach, 408 F.3d at 86 (quoting Rodriguez de Quijas v. Shearson/Am. Express, Inc., 490 U.S. 477, 484 (1989))...Thus, N.Y. Penal Law ss265.00 through 265.02 do not violate the Second Amendment.
I will leave it to the Second Amendment scholars to discuss the proper reading of Presser; suffice it to say that judicial conservatives who argued that the Fourteenth Amendment does not incorporate the whole Bill of Rights into prohibitions against the states lost that fight years ago, and it will be an ironic twist if liberal champions of incorporation (including the new Justice Department) suddenly rediscover skepticism about the doctrine to protect state-level gun controls. Conservatives as well will face the issue of how to square the weight of pro-incorporation precedent with arguments for reconsidering the doctrine and limiting its further expansion. But make no mistake: sooner or later the Supreme Court is going to have to return to the issue, and its decision will have vast impact on whether Heller becomes a limitation on state and local gun controls or remains limited to federal gun control.
It also remains to be seen, given the novelty of the weapon involved, whether the Supreme Court will be interested in taking up this question in this case, if a certiorari petition is filed, and what position Obama's Justice Department will take if one is and it is asked by the Court to weigh in. Stay tuned.
January 27, 2009
BASEBALL: Lego Stadia
If there's one thing I am invariably a sucker for, it's Lego geekery. Behold: Major League Stadiums in Legos. We did an Olympic Coliseum and an aircraft carrier when I was a kid (the latter involved just building the deck and hull and sticking a control tower from an airport set on top), but never one of these.
BASEBALL/POLITICS: Mixing The Two
There's a long tradition of your basic ceremonial honors between the White House and the National Pastime, all of which is well and good even during times when you may not like the current occupant of the Oval Office. But really, does the game need to do this?
The Chicago White Sox are aiming to release a President Barack Obama-themed version of their cap in time for the start of spring training.
Even for those of us who love baseball and love politics, it's better to keep the two separate. It's bad enough that Obama* is being merchandised like he's the latest George Lucas character (I swear some of the newspapers are only staving off bankruptcy by selling Obama commemorative memorabilia to his fans), and that businesses all over the place seem completely unaware of the fact that 59 million Americans voted against the guy - but to go and stick Obama logos on the hats of an MLB team is going too far. It would have been cheesy for the Rangers to do that for Bush even though he used to own the team; it's no different with Obama.
* - Kung fu grip not available on all models. Batteries sold separately.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:31 PM | Baseball 2009 | Politics 2009 | Comments (22) | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: Ten Lessons From the Bush Administration
There are many things - good and bad alike - to look back on from the Bush Administration, as befits only the 12th man in our history, and only the 7th since 1837, to serve a full 8 years in the Oval Office. Whether we like the task or not, conservatives need to continue defending the successes and good decisions of the Bush years, as the inauguration of Barack Obama will not cause Bush's critics to relent in their campaign to keep his reputation from recovering and to try to discredit conservative ideas and philosophy with Bush's unpopularity. But that doesn't mean we should fail to draw lessons from Bush's failures.
I'd like to reflect here on ten lessons for future presidents, at least Republican ones, from things that went badly for Bush. (My lessons are different from those of Bob Woodward, who is amusingly unaware that his Lesson #10 would totally eviscerate his Lessons #2 and 4-6, as well as being unaware that saying "[i]nstead of a team of rivals, Bush wound up with a team of back-stabbers with long-running, poisonous disagreements about foreign policy fundamentals" is like saying "instead of a dozen eggs, Bush wound up with twelve eggs.").
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(1) Talk Is Not Cheap
Perhaps the most overarching lesson of the Bush years is that an Administration's ability to communicate is essential to its ability to get things done. The Bush team suffered a triple play of un-communication. The President was not a good speaker. He could turn in solid performances in big set-piece speeches, and he was never as defenseless a debater as his opponents assumed, but Bush's day-to-day communications were always a weak spot. The Vice President was an excellent, no-nonsense communicator, but never gave adequate attention to persuading the public, and his effort to restore the executive branch's ability to keep its internal deliberations secret ended up committing him too often to a course of silence. Eventually, Cheney had become so caricatured that the public tuned him out entirely. And the press shop was often badly run and left out of the loop, most notably under Scott McClellan, a second-rate hack whose efforts to perform the basics of his job were painful to watch. As a result, time and time again, the Administration simply didn't get its side of the story out.
(2) He Who Controls The Past, Controls The Future
This is a corollary to Lesson #1. The Clinton Administration was extremely good at deflecting questions about the past with the mantra that we need to not stop thinking about tomorrow, move on, etc. This approach worked for Bill Clinton in part because of his unusual political gifts and in part because very few really important decisions were made in the Clinton years, so the public was willing to accept the idea that yesterday's news was no longer relevant. Bush seemed to emulate Clinton in this regard, preferring to talk about today's subject to the exclusion of making a forceful case about the recent past - but with almost invariably disastrous results. On story after story - Hurricane Katrina and the decision to go to war in Iraq being the most obvious examples - the Administration permitted its enemies to essentially rewrite history unchallenged, with the end result that a series of storylines about the Administration's past made it impossible to function in the present. Just because you don't want to talk about yesterday's news doesn't mean other people won't change it.
(3) Pick People Who Are Loyal To The Cause, Not The Man
Bush's choices for major staff positions were, as is often the case, a mixed bag, and one that largely (albeit with some exceptions) declined in quality in the second term. But if you run down the list of the best and worst Bush appointees, one thing becomes clear: Bush was much better, more competently and even more loyally served by the people he appointed who were loyal first and foremost to the conservative movement (e.g. Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Tony Snow) than to the people who were appointed mainly for their personal loyalty to Bush and his family (e.g. Gonzales, Miers, Card, McClellan). The reasons for this are not surprising. First, people who are principally loyal to the president's policy goals rather than to him personally are more likely to be people with well-thought-out convictions. Second, presidential administrations burn people out and often require scapegoats. People who are personally loyal to the president will expect the same in return, and may feel spurned when they don't get it and lash out; people who are loyal to a larger movement or set of ideals may be equally bitter, but they will consider the big picture of what the team hopes to accomplish before turning on their former bosses. Compare McClellan's flailing haymakers at his former employer with, say, Rumsfeld, who kept his mouth shut and graciously accepted the role of public scapegoat for the Administration and the Iraq War effort after the 2006 election.
(4) There Are No Small Jobs
Every Administration finds room for some people who are either not especially qualified or not on the team. Presumably, presidents think, or hope, that they can stow a crony in a job where they won't attract much attention or carry much responsibility, or can pick someone who is popular but not that loyal without risk of blowback. But woe to the president who thinks any appointment carries no risk of adverse consequences.
The poster boy for this problem was Mike Brown as the head of FEMA. Brown had basically no relevant experience when he was hired into a lower-level FEMA position early in the Bush years, and he appeared to all observers to be doing his jobs well enough without incident that when he got promoted to head of the agency, nobody raised a peep, least of all the Democrats who screamed bloody murder over far more qualified picks like Ashcroft. Bush may well have reasoned, if he gave the Brown appointment much thought, that FEMA's job isn't all that hard - basically show up, hand out supplies and cut checks - and it really didn't matter who ran the place. During Katrina, after all, it was the Coast Guard that had the really critical job among the federal agencies, and did it splendidly. Of course, not only did FEMA perform terribly under stress, a failure exacerbated by the chronic mismanagement of state and local government by the New Orleans Democrats, but Brown himself became a national icon of incompetence.
Or consider the two main hat tips to bipartisanship in Bush's original team - Democratic Congressman Norman Mineta as Secretary of Transportation and Bill Clinton's CIA Director, George Tenet. Mineta's job, which involved supervising airport security policies, hardly seemd in early 2001 like it would be a flashpoint for controversy, and Tenet was a veteran bureaucratic operator. Both ended up being long-time thorns in Bush's side, with Tenet embroiled in controversies over both the pre-9/11 and pre-Iraq War intelligence and Mineta pushing for insanely counterproductive restrictions on identifying potential threats among airline passengers.
Then there's William Donaldson. Donaldson, a septaugenarian moderate/liberal New York Republican and long-time Wall Street veteran with a sterling resume, was fairly widely well-received by the media, liberals and industry alike as Bush's appointee to head the SEC in 2003, replacing the embattled Harvey Pitt. There's been a lot of heat and very little light generated by liberal efforts to blame the credit crisis on "deregulation" of the private sector, but as I have noted before, most of the critics founder either on an absence of specifics, a misunderstanding of the capabilities of regulatory bodies to understand a business' risks better than its own people, or in the case of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Community Reinvestment Act regulation, serious obfuscation of the government's role.
That said, the one deregulatory decision that contributed to the crisis and that can fairly be laid at the feet of the Bush Administration was made not by a conservative true believer but by Donaldson, a man almost uniformly regarded as more pro-regulation than Pitt or Chris Cox: the 2004 decision to relax the net capital rule for the big broker-dealers. This rule change, which permitted the broker-dealers to invest more money with less capital and thus make up the difference by borrowing money to invest, contributed only marginally to the credit bubble itself (although allowing more leveraged investments does expand the amount of credit outstanding), but contributed significantly to the bust at the end, as the most heavily leveraged firms were most seriously impaired by even small declines in the value of their mortgage-backed securities. It was the damage to those institutions that spread the wave of panic into the credit markets.
The April 2004 rulemaking was not controversial - the media didn't cover it (they were too busy with Abu Ghraib), Congress and the blogs didn't fume about it, it passed the SEC with the unanimous support of the Commission's Democratic and Republican members. (It wasn't a secret, though - it was published in the Federal Register and noted by securities practitioners, including my own law firm in a publicly available memo to clients). Only a single gadfly commenter from Indiana even objected. And of course, neither Cox nor anybody in Congress tried to reverse the rule. Still, the decision made by Donaldson and the other SEC Commissioners ended up contributing accelerant to the flames. Bush presumably picked Donaldson because he hoped that he would take the SEC out of the newspapers - but that didn't keep the SEC there.
(5) You Can Never Recapture A Moment
In the spring of 2005, the GOP stood in as commanding a position as it has held since before FDR: a freshly re-elected president, an entrenched majority in the House, 55 Republican Senators. There had been hiccups in the transition to Bush's second term (Bernie Kerik), there were scandals beginning to pick up steam (Jack Abramoff) and there were already looming efforts to organize opposition to Bush's Social Security plan, but by and large the opening weeks of the second term were an optimistic time. January and early February 2005 saw the first national elections in Iraq, a post-Arafat election in the Palestinian Authority, and democracy on the march in Lebanon (the Cedar Revolution following the February 14, 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri), and the Ukraine, all in keeping with the ambitious scope of President Bush's Second Inaugural Address.
The moment didn't last, and by September Bush was in ruins following Hurricane Katrina, never to recover. Iraq suffered a series of reversals that accelerated after the February 2006 bombing of the golden mosque. Further setbacks weakened the GOP in late 2005 and early 2006, ranging from Harriet Miers to the Dubai Ports controversy. The moment when Republicans had the wind at their backs was gone.
And during that moment, in the spring of 2005, what did they accomplish? Not nothing - that Congress did pass a number of bills of note - but not anything resembling the kind of ambitious agenda, capped by Social Security reform, that the moment justified. Bush never even introduced legislation to move his plan forward. And instead, nearly a month - most of March 2005 - was swallowed up by the Terri Schiavo controversy, culminating in the passage of federal legislation dealing with Schiavo's case on March 21 and her death at the hands of the State of Florida on March 31.
Gallons of ink and even more pixels have been spilled attacking the people who thought there was something morally intolerable about starving a defenseless woman to death without, at a minimum, unambiguous evidence that this was in accordance with her wishes. I'm not going to demonize the 'oogedy-boogedy' social conservatives for that conviction; I tend to agree that for the Schiavo case in particular, what they did was the right thing. And we can debate another day whether as a matter of federalism, the opponents of starving Mrs. Schiavo should have accepted that the federal government doesn't always intervene in state government even when individual state officials may be making a grave mistake.
But what is clear in hindsight is the lack of perspective involved in drawing the public's attention away from issues affecting many thousands or millions of Americans to a controversy over a single innocent life, however precious. Conservatives will likely need decades of labor to recapture the opportunities we had in March 2005 - and too many of those opportunities were spent in a futile quest to save the life of one woman who was dead by month's end.
2005 wasn't the only wasted moment. There's also what I consider the greatest policy misstep of the Bush years: the failure to ask Congress, in the fall of 2001 when Bush was enjoying an inherently transient ability to get whatever he wanted from Democrats in Congress, to ask for an expansion of the active-duty military. The Administration was, it is true, taking on an enormous number of tasks that fall, so it can't be said that the moment was wasted, but that would have been the time to look down the road, see that the logic of the War on Terror would inevitably require more manpower in potentially multiple theaters of combat, and start building the depth to handle that contingency. The Democrats, of course, would have demanded that a request for more military spending on troops be matched by tax hikes (their answer to everything), and perhaps Bush had bad memories of how his father signed off on tax hikes in exchange for support in the first Gulf War. But Democratic demands to raise taxes in the shaky, traumatized economy of late 2001 could not have gone over well; that's a fight he should have been willing to have. A few years later, with wars already in progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, the political moment to get bipartisan support for a larger active military was not feasible (although a consensus on that front did eventually form later on).
(6) Don't Pick Fights You Are Not Willing To Lose
This is a point I have made before at greater length: there are some political battles that are worth losing, because if you lose you stake out a popular and/or principled position that lets you tell a distinct story with the voting public. And when you pick those battles, the very fact that you are willing to go down swinging can deter your opponents from massing resistance. But too often, the Bush Administration instead picked fights that were only worth the battle if it won - and that, of course, only encourages your opponents to defeat you. Harriet Miers was the obvious example: having neither a base among conservatives nor genuinely broad-based non-ideological appeal, Miers brought no political benefit to Bush unless she sailed through the confirmation process, which of course she did not. Immigration was another - had Bush's comprehensive bill passed, he would at least have been able to tell every faction, from pro-amnesty Mexican groups to border hawks, that he finally resolved a lot of pending proposals and got them something. That was the theory, at least; but by fighting and losing the battle, the GOP got the worst of both worlds, as its border-security faction alienated Latino voters without doing anything to prevent Democrats from subsequently passing such legislation and taking all the credit for it. (The Dubai Ports deal is another example.)
(7) There Are No Points For Going Halfway
In a similar vein, the Bush Administration often ended up being pilloried for having conservative policies without getting the benefit of actually enacting those policies. If you are going to take the heat for something, do it.
Consider: what if Bush had essentially declared martial law in New Orleans for a few days, shot some looters and forcibly restored order? The howls from his opponents on the left would have been deafening - but while it would have caused people who already hated him to hate him more, such an action might have prevented the more damaging impression of Bush being ineffective, which cost him with people who had previously supported him.
Bush's North Korea policy is another example. There are three Bush policies towards North Korea. There was the policy that was caricatured by the Democrats, most recently Obama during the 2008 campaign, as being a policy of not talking to North Korea at all. Then there was the policy of the early Bush years of insisting that any talks be multilateral, a choice designed to compel regional actors like China and Japan to be part of the solution. Then there was the policy of the latter Bush years, under which Condi Rice pursued a policy that was effectively indistinguishable to the old Clinton Administration habit of trading favors to North Korea in exchange for empty, unenforceable promises and with no help from its neighbors. If Bush was going to take heat for being a hardliner on North Korea, he should have stayed one.
(8) There Is No Substitute For Boots On The Ground
The Bush Administration's Iraq policy was, famously, blasted by the critics for years for allegedly not having enough troops; some of those critics felt vindicated when the 'surge' increased troop levels and achieved dramatic success. Others complained about the disbanding of Saddam's army, which left us with a shortage of Iraqi troops that has only recently been rectified. Still others argued that we have long had too few American troops in Afghanistan.
As is often the case with such criticisms, they ignore the downsides of the alternative course of action: more U.S. targets leading to more U.S. casualties, a greater feeling that the U.S. was acting as an occupying power, empowerment of the old Ba'athist oppressors, the centuries-old history of Afghanistan as a graveyard of armies. They also ignore what was or wasn't feasible at particular points in time; the 'surge' was only a small increase in U.S. troop levels (along with new tactics and rules of engagement), but it coincided with the cresting wave of a large increase in the available number of properly trained Iraqi troops.
Yet, there's also a kernel of truth and one that has broader lessons inside and outside the world of infantry combat: sometimes, there's no substitute for manpower. The Iraqi boots on the ground did, ultimately, make a huge difference in their own country that we could not have achieved without them. The critics of the invasion as being 'unilateral' because of the absence of the French, Germans, Russians and Chinese were always all wet, as they misunderstood why power politics, internal demographics and commercial interests (including bribery) made it impossible for those governments to ever support removing Saddam. But I continue to believe that it really was a failure of U.S. diplomacy that contributed (among other factors) to the unwillingness of Turkey to participate in the invasion. And the absence of the Turks had real impact, as it kept the mobile, mechanized U.S. Fourth Infantry Division from opening a full-blown second front in the heavily Sunni north and thus engaging in open combat many of the people who later became insurgents. And the failure of diplomacy that led to Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil as a staging ground was itself the result of a lack of personal contact, as Secretary of State Powell - due in part to illness and perhaps in part as well to a disinclination to leave Washington during periods of bureaucratic infighting - rarely traveled to foreign capitals to meet in person with foreign leaders and gain a first-hand understanding of the conditions.
Finally, of course, there's Katrina again. If President Bush had cancelled all his other events and personally landed in the flood-affected areas, it wouldn't have done a thing to improve the conditions - but it would nonetheless have been a powerful symbol, just like his famous bullhorn appearance at Ground Zero, of his solidarity with the people suffering from the hurricane's effects, and would have left him less vulnerable to the charge of being disengaged or disinterested in their plight.
(9) Spending Matters
This one is more policy specific, but it's an overarching issue. Bush entered office promising tax cuts without spending cuts, and promising as well a massive expansion in Medicare. That was perhaps plausible enough in the surplus conditions of the late 1990s, but those conditions were never sustainable. Bush's record of restraining federal spending growth by particular agencies wasn't always as bad as the image, but his overall record ended up eroding his credibility whenever he invoked traditional Republican rhetoric about the dangers of an overlarge government, and contributed to the loss of the GOP's Congressional majorities. And as noted above, his inability to restrain domestic spending ended up limiting his national security options as well. The end result will probably require future Republicans to sell a more clear and aggressive plan of spending cuts before future tax cuts can be enacted. Democrats, perhaps, can ignore federal spending restraint as they please (the current group certainly will try), but Republicans get elected to keep it in line.
(10) War Is Never Free
This is perhaps obvious in its most basic form (i.e., the costs of wars to the men who fight them), but it is a lingering reminder nonetheless as a political matter. The first President Bush piled up tremendous, but passing, popularity from the Gulf War. But that's the exception, not the rule; even highly successful and obviously necessary wars end up consuming much of the attention and political capital a president might use for domestic policy (think of FDR and the New Deal). The relentless assault on the Iraq War by its domestic opponents was ultimately unsuccessful in its stated aim: the war continued, and troops will not be withdrawn rapidly even under a new president who opposed the war. And victory is now at hand, the best efforts of the doomsayers to the contrary. But the political sacrifices made by the Bush Administration to hold the line in Iraq ended up being enormous. The same can be said of the War on Terror more broadly: improvements in surveillance and new interrogation and detention policies needed to be composed; doing nothing was never an option. Yet these efforts led to one public relations setback after another, sometimes inevitably because the information needed to defend the policies wasn't able to be discussed in public. At home, Republicans who may otherwise have been more restive about the growth of government generally bit their tongues in the 2001-05 period, worried about further damaging an Administration that needed loyal supporters for the war effort, until it was too late. Perhaps there's nothing that could have been done differently, given the national security decisions that had to be made. But the cause of conservatism at home ended up weakened by the need to put the Right's chips behind defending the nation.
President Bush made a lot of decisions in eight years, and we'll be picking over the good and the bad for decades to come. His virtues were often underestimated, though they may grow clearer in contrast to his successor. But had he learned some of these lessons earlier in his presidency, he might have left behind a more durable positive legacy.
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January 26, 2009
POLITICS: You, Too, Can Date A Maxim Model
On the one hand, I should be proud of Favreau as a fellow Holy Cross grad. On the other, well, the Obama camp spent the election season spreading the fiction to gullible supporters and reporters that Obama writes his own vague, unmemorable, substanceless speeches, so any attention Favreau gets is a source of amusement all its own.
POLITICS: Focus on FOCA
I am pleased to announce that my political commentary will now be appearing at yet another outlet, the brand-newly-launched The New Ledger. More on TNL to follow.
As I have noted before, and as we saw previewed with Barack Obama's executive order repealing the ban on taxpayer funding for international groups that perform abortions and Democratic plans to put federal matching funds for abortions and contraception into the stimulus package, there is no question that the new Democratic majority in Washington intends to go on the offensive in the culture wars in general, and in particular to use federal taxpayer money to subsidize and incentivize more abortions while bulldozing democratically-enacted state law restrictions on the practice and cracking down on private conscientious objectors who do not wish to participate in abortions. TNL contributor Christopher Badeaux takes an in-depth look at the Freedom of Choice Act, what it means and how it is likely to be pushed in Washington in stages rather than as a single omnibus assault that would trigger massive opposition by the Catholic Church, among others.
BASEBALL: Hey, Why Not?
The Royal Treatment looks at KC's audacious, desperate effort to move Mark Teahen to second base. Stranger things have happened, but usually to organizations with a better idea what they are doing.
BUSINESS: The Doctor is Making Street Calls
Our old friend and occasional guest blogger Dr. Manhattan is back, this time blogging at The Atlantic's Business section. Adjust your bookmarks accordingly. His first entry cautions against oversimplifying the argument, now in vogue, that the root of Wall Street's downfall was public ownership (i.e., firms capitalized with shareholder money rather than owner-operated), noting that closely held hedge funds have also fallen prey at times to excessive and imprudent risk-taking:
[S]uppose we have an employee-owned investment firm, organized as a private partnership, which aims to become a major financial institution. In Lewis' formulation, it should be the least likely candidate to run excessive leverage and blow itself up with untrammeled risk-taking. In fact, it might spare no expense on the risk-management side and only use the most highly sophisticated analysis to protect the franchise.
Read the whole thing. This is a useful caution, but I'm skeptical of argument by anecdote (and I note here that Dr. Manhattan is simply marshalling one anecdote against a handful deployed by Michael Lewis), as all it does is demonstrate that partnerships are not wholly immune to the problem. In fact, defenders of free markets will almost always tell you that the whole point of a free market system is that you can get a variety of different responses to the same set of incentives, and inevitably some of them will be successful responses and some will be failures. Like democracy itself, the free market is designed not to be error-free but error-correcting; by contrast, replacing free market systems with concentrated, centralized decisionmaking does nothing to reduce the natural tendency to human error, but simply reduces the number of decisionmakers working on a problem, restricts the range of possible innovations and removes the mechanism for flushing erroneous decisions out of the system.
If you accept for the sake of argument that (1) large and thinly-evaluated risks are bad and (2) publicly owned firms are more likely to take them than private partnerships, you can make the case that publicly traded financial firms are riskier than privately held ones without necessarily having to shoulder the burden of proving that privately held firms are always prudent in managing risk. That's a point that at the end of the day is one for systematic study, not anecdote.
BASEBALL: Losing A Little Steam
The House That Dewey Built looks at Papelbon's first/second half splits. The results are clear but far from dramatic, and are consistent with the way a lot of closers are. I'd be more concerned if it were not for his 25 career innings in the postseason, in which Papelbon has a 0.00 ERA, 7 saves and has struck out 22 batters while allowing just 16 baserunners. If he was just burning out at year end, he wouldn't be doing that. The lesson instead is that, as the Yankees have done with Rivera most years, Papelbon's workload should be held down in the regular season even at the cost of the occasional game to ensure he remains fresh enough to keep dominating in October.
BASEBALL: Cold Stove
In baseball, as in politics, my blog posts generally come from two sources: one, I have ideas that I put into research and produce a longer or more labor-intensive end product; two, I react to the news of the day, to what I read online, get emailed to me or talk about.
I've got some of the former on the burner at present, but the latter has really been slim pickings lately. It feels like the pilot light went out on the hot stove league this year. You can read up on Ben Sheets' medical report, but I'm not a doctor so your guess is as good as mine. After carrying a heavy workload from age 23-25, Sheets averaged just 21 starts and 135 IP a year from 2005-2007. Last year was supposed to be his salary drive and he still fell a hair short of 200 IP and finished badly. Sheets is pretty much the classic guy who will be either a bargain or a total waste of money because it's impossible to put a reliable value on his health.
POLITICS: "I have nothing against white male construction workers," but....
H/T (I prefer a little less commentary on videos like this, but the transcriptions are useful).
Not that he's calling for repealing the Jim Crow era Davis-Bacon Act, either. You know, there's sort of an economic case for the government trying to do infrastructure investments counter-cyclically (i.e., spend more building roads and the like during periods of recession), when labor and materials are cheaper...but that case goes out the window when you have a statutory mandate like Davis-Bacon that precludes the federal government from taking advantage of a weak labor market to save taxpayer dollars.
January 23, 2009
BLOG: Lost in Transcription
WAR/HISTORY: Remembering Paris
The peace we seek in the world is not the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come.
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Those were the words of Richard Nixon's Second Inaugural Address on January 20, 1973. Two days later, on January 22, the first business day of the new term, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. And the following day, on January 23 - 36 years ago today - a second event of that week we should memorialize: the Nixon Administration and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending the war in Vietnam (the South signed the agreement on January 27, the date of the cease fire). The Paris peace holds a perilous lesson for the Obama Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To make a very long story short, peace between the U.S. and North Vietnam was the inevitable result, by early 1973, of mutual exhaustion: the U.S. had already withdrawn the bulk of its troops to mollify a war-weary public and Congress (contributing significantly to Nixon's landslide re-election in November 1972), while the war had gone gradually worse for the North since the 1968 Tet offensive. Aggressive bombing campaigns in 1972, combined with U.S. rapprochment with the North's Chinese and Soviet sponsors and efforts to cut off the North's use of neighboring nations to resupply its forces had impressed on the North the need to reach an accomodation with the Americans. The Paris Peace Accords didn't guarantee South Vietnam's territorial integrity or even recognize it as an independent state, but if the agreement had been honored, it would have accomplished the principal goal of the war: end North Vietnam's efforts to militarily conquer the South.
Of course, the North, being a Stalinist tyranny, never intended to honor the agreement; Le Duc Tho even went so far as to refuse to accept the Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to him and to Henry Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger can be accused of many things, but a lack of cynical realpolitik is not one of them; they of course recognized that their adversaries were not dealing in good faith. But they promised the South Vietnamese continuing support if the North resumed hostilities. The South's very existence was left to depend on the word, and the constancy and commitment, of the United States. Nixon's speech pledged to the world:
[T]he terms of the agreement must be scrupulously adhered to. We shall do everything the agreement requires of us and we shall expect the other parties to do everything it requires of them. We shall also expect other interested nations to help insure that the agreement is carried out and peace is maintained.
As night follows day, the North violated the agreement and eventually escalated to a full invasion designed to conquer and enslave the South. By this time, Nixon was crippled and ultimately driven from office by Watergate, and liberal Democrats were in full command of Congress. Liberals who had spent years arguing that peace could be negotiated with the North didn't react by angrily demanding that the United States hold the North to the treaty it negotiated with us, nor did they honor our own treaty commitments; instead, they cut off funding for the U.S. to support the South, condemning it to the darkness of a brutal tyranny and the entire Indochina region to another half a decade of war and genocide.
Part of the legacy of Paris is that other countries have learned the hard way the lesson taught by those Democrats: America may not keep its word when it promises support, and it may not impose any consequences when you break your word to America. That dynamic, in turn, was a major factor in how we got into Iraq: Saddam didn't believe we'd protect Kuwait in 1990, and after we abandoned Iraqis who rose against Saddam in 1991, nobody in Iraq thought there would be consequences if Saddam violated the cease-fire agreements that ended the first Gulf War. So Saddam violated them, repeatedly and in multiple ways, with minimal consequence for 12 years. And so, when the second President Bush finally decided that the violations of the cease fire (among other things) justified resuming hostilities, it took years of perseverance before Americans won the trust of ordinary Iraqis that we would, in fact, not do to them as we did to our South Vietnamese allies who relied on the false peace of Paris. This, from August 2008, sums up the trust that has finally been won even among our adversaries in Iraq:
Last month, in the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, once the nexus of the Sunni insurgency, the newest political player emerged. Leaders of al-Nassir Salah al-Din Army, a Sunni militant group, declared they would renounce violence and form a political party called the National Front of Iraq's Liberals to compete in elections. "We found out that armed action will not get the United States out of Iraq," said Majid Ali Enad, the group's leader. "After five years of directing painful blows to them, they did not budge from a single meter in the country."
That last, by the way, should go on George W. Bush's tombstone.
The lesson of Paris for Iraq and Afghanistan today is not that the United States needs to commit to perpetual war in Iraq, or even to a perpetual troop presence, although as Defense Secretary Gates notes, we will be escalating our presence in Afghanistan in the near term and will have a substantial number of boots on the ground in both places for "years to come," and would have regardless of the outcome of the 2008 election:
To be blunt, to fail -- or to be seen to fail -- in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies and among potential adversaries...there will continue to be some kind of U.S. advisory and counterterrorism effort in Iraq for years to come...
The new Obama Administration will undoubtedly be tempted by the sentiments in Nixon's Second Inaugural: focus on America's limitations and the role of our allies in stepping up to take their own share of the burden. All of which is fine in and of itself, but it doesn't remove the essential lesson of Paris: our friends and our enemies alike need to know at all times that America's promises are honored, and that broken promises to America are punished. Every decision made about the extent of continuing U.S. commitment to these nations must reflect the danger of eroding the respect for American credibility in keeping its word that the Bush Administration has worked so hard, and American troops have sacrificed so much, to restore.
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January 22, 2009
BLOG: This Means War!
POLITICS: A Dissenting Note on Gillibrand
Gillibrand's father, Doug Rutnik, is an Albany insider and lobbyist whose ties to former GOP powerhouses Joe Bruno, George Pataki and Al D'Amato are legendary. In fact, Gillibrand won her seat when a state police domestic violence report about the GOP incumbent, John Sweeney, was mysteriously leaked, ostensibly with the acquiescence of the Pataki administration, which had its own reasons to oppose Sweeney.
Wayne Barrett also looks at where Gillibrand's voting record has diverged from her own party (his commenters are already hopping as well on Gillibrand's opposition to same-sex marriage):
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Gillibrand has described her own voting record as "one of the most conservative in the state." She opposes any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, supports renewing the Bush tax cuts for individuals earning up to $1 million annually, and voted for the Bush-backed FISA bill that permits wiretapping of international calls. She was one of four Democratic freshmen in the country, and the only Democrat in the New York delegation, to vote for the Bush administration's bill to extend funding for the Iraq war shortly after she entered congress in 2007. While she now contends that she's always opposed the war and has voted for bills to end it, one upstate paper reported when she first ran for the seat: "She said she supports the war in Iraq." In addition to her vote to extend funding, she also missed a key vote to override a Bush veto of a Democratic bill with Iraq timetables.
Read the whole thing, including a look at where Gillibrand's money comes from. Meanwhile, anti-gun crusading Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, elected after her husband was killed in the LIRR shooting, says she will challenge Gillibrand in a primary in 2010 or support someone else who will.
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FOOTBALL: It's An Epidemic!
POLITICS: Looks Like Gillibrand
The New York Senate selection process, while not as big a disaster for the Democrats as in Illinois, has looked at times like a family soap opera, as Basil Paterson's son had to decide who should replace Bill Clinton's wife in the Senate: John F. Kennedy's daughter? Mario Cuomo's son, who was once married to Robert F. Kennedy's daughter? We also had the amusing spectacle of Democrats, fresh off the Obama victory, having to explain yet again why a completely unqualified candidate should get the job, and of the Kennedy family feeling cheated that Caroline wouldn't get to join Uncle Ted in the Senate (he inherited his seat years ago) because she had tax and nanny problems.
Now, multiple sources are reporting that Albany-area two-term Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, who isn't related to anybody (but did work for Andrew Cuomo at HUD in the late 1990s), will be Paterson's pick. As I have discussed before, this is a ticket-balancing choice: Paterson is a black urban liberal from Harlem (if that's not redundant); to win statewide, he needs to draw support from upstate and reach out to white voters, while Gillibrand is relatively young (42), telegenic, Catholic, a mother of two young children and represents a traditionally Republican district she won in 2006 from the excessively hard-partying John Sweeney. Gillibrand might want to get out of Dodge - her district is sooner or later going to give her a tough re-election battle (in 2008, Gillibrand and her self-funding opponent combined to raise more money than the combatants in any other Congressional district in the country), and her district may be eliminated anyway in 2012, as New York is likely to lose Congressional seats. Democrats are reportedly shrugging off the possible loss of her seat on the grounds that hey, they have enough seats already, similar to the view they took in sacrificing the Governorship of Arizona and removing an incumbent Senator in Colorado.
Liberals may not that be happy with Gillibrand, who is no centrist but nonetheless in her career so far bears about the same relationship to a deep-blue-state liberal that Lindsey Graham does to a deep-red-state conservative: she's a member of the Blue Dog caucus with a 100% rating from the NRA, opposed Eliot Spitzer's plan to give drivers' licenses to illegal aliens, is a sponsor of the SAVE Act and of employer verification of legal status of workers and, supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent. I'd expect her to drift leftward in the Senate, but if you're a Democrat looking to install someone in a safe seat, you might want someone more reliable. On the other hand, her moderate positions on a few issues may make her a tough opponent in 2010, when she has to run for the last two years of Hillary's term.
You can read the latest writeup here on possible GOP challengers for Gillibrand's House seat.
POLITICS: Deficit Disconnect: A Farewell to Rubinomics
Riddle me this. One argument you hear tossed around these days is that Bush's tax cuts somehow had something to do with the currently poor state of the economy. The argument is almost never backed by any serious attempt to explain how this is, simply that because the Bush critics don't like his tax policy it must be to blame.
More to the point, the case for blaming low taxes for the economic downturn is diametrically opposed to the "Rubinomics" line that liberals everywhere spent the first seven years of Bush's Administration pushing. The argument, at the time, was that low taxes would lead to big deficits, and big deficits would push up interest rates by "crowding out" private access to credit as safe federal borrowing sopped up all the available credit.
In fact, the conventional economic wisdom today is that precisely the opposite happened - that we had a credit bubble, and in particular a housing credit bubble, because interest rates were artificially low and private access to credit got too cheap, resulting in too many loans being made at rates that were not sufficient to cover the credit risks, especially systemic risks, being taken. When credit finally did get expensive, after the bubble burst and a lot of the lenders got essentially wiped out, the problem was less a market-wide lack of capital than a lack of faith in the ability to identify credit-worthy borrowers - interest rates didn't shoot up uniformly so much as they rose in comparison to the rates for sovereign borrowers like Uncle Sam (in the parlance of the markets, spreads widened). And even that only happened after years of overexpansion of private credit side by side with low taxes and high deficits.
In other words, the Rubinomics crowd, who claimed so much credit for the tech boom of the 1990s on the theory that eliminating the deficit had created prosperity by lowering interest rates, turned out to have their diagnosis completely wrong, or at any rate so oversimplified given the many other variables involved as to be meaningless. Which was pretty much what the supply-siders had been saying all along: not that deficits are a good thing, but that in the grand scheme of things, the economic effects of deficits on access to cheap private credit is not one of the major drivers of economic prosperity, nor of economic downturns.
Of course, Rubinomics won't have much if any influence in the Obama Administration, which is turning its back on the economic theory and practice of the post-1940 period and heading for old-fashioned Keynesian 'pump priming' and trillion-dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. And the onetime disciples of Rubin will simply declare that this is what they have always believed in, and that it still means low taxes are bad. Change, after all, means never having to say you're sorry.
BASEBALL: Professional Hitter
David Pinto looks at Edgar Martinez as a Hall of Fame candidate. There's really no doubt that Edgar was a better hitter than at least two thirds of the position players in the Hall. His career OPS+ of 147 is equal to those of Mike Schmidt, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell, and among the 40 players ahead of him on that list, only 8 are not in the Hall of Fame - three flawed players from the 1880s (Pete Browning, Dave Orr and Charley Jones), Federal League star Benny Kauff (who was later banned, at least informally, from baseball), short-career sluggers Charlie Keller and Gavvy Cravath, and Mark McGwire and Dick Allen. Martinez' peak years were especially fearsome.
But you know, somebody has to be the best hitter not in the Hall, and if you were to design a player to fit that bill, it would look a lot like Edgar:
-No defensive value (after a couple early years at third base, he spent the bulk of his career as a DH).
-Relatively short career; Martinez was more or less in his prime from 1990-92 and 1995-2003, which does add up to twelve really good years, albeit separated by a lot of time lost to injury in 1993-94. There's not a lot outside that. His real peak was seven seasons from 1995-2001. That said, his 8672 career plate appearances dwarfs the totals for guys like Keller and Cravath, and indeed is more than anyone above Fred McGriff on that chart.
-Not really as good as his raw numbers; Martinez played in a hitter's era, and until 2000 played in a hitter's park.
-Injury-prone; besides the 1993-94 period, Martinez missed more than a third of the season in 2002 and missed at least 20 games in 1992, 1996, 1999 and 2001.
-Played for teams that seemed to chronically underachieve, not winning a single pennant with Griffey, A-Rod, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer and Jay Buhner, and then going belly-up in the ALCS after winning 116 games in 2001.
Martinez isn't a friviolous Hall candidate, and in fact you could make some of the same points about McGwire, who I regard as above the line, but I just think he has too many strikes against him.
January 21, 2009
POLITICS: All Class
WAR: Metaphor Overdose
Tough day for the Al D'Amato of Europe.
POLITICS: Welcome To The Big Rock Candy Mountain
Do you think this woman might possibly be disappointed in Obama a year from now?
January 20, 2009
POLITICS: "So Help You God?"
Hail to the Chief:
POLITICS: A Farewell to Bush & Cheney
Our latest editorial over at RedState. Not a comprehensive look back, by any means.
POLITICS: Fashion Question of the Day
Simply put, some scholars think the comparisons have gone a bit over the top hat.
Actually, he has yet to prove he's not the Harold Miner of presidential politics.
POLITICS: The Only Appropriate Tribute
January 18, 2009
WAR/POLITICS: Vetting Not Included
One hopes the new Administration's homeland security policy will be less porous than its inauguration invite list:
One of the religious leaders invited to address Barack Obama’s inaugural prayer service Wednesday heads an Islamic group named by federal prosecutors as a co-conspirator in a terrorism-fundraising trial in Texas.
There are two possibilities here. One is that the Obama people simply didn't check out Ms. Mattson's background, which seems doubly implausible given that she spoke at the Convention in August. The other is that they have deliberately taken sides against DOJ's view of the Holy Land case (that's surely how the targets of that investigation will view the invitation - as a vindication that their activities are no longer frowned upon), and implicitly against the broader project of Justice's efforts to shut down the laundering of funds through Islamic charity groups inside the U.S. That's a very dangerous signal indeed.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:21 PM | Law 2009-14 | Politics 2009 | War 2007-14 | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
POLITICS: Never Considering The Consequences
My RedState colleague Moe Lane has http://www.redstate.com/moe_lane/2009/01/18/what-republics-really-cant-survive-happening-proscription-lists/an excellent point about efforts to criminalize differences over national security policy now that the Democrats have unchecked political power and are convinced they will never lose it:
I submit to all of you that the true reason that the American Republic has endured, public bribing by the legislature or no, is because of a very simple rule: political defeats do not end the game.
Folks who think that Republicans, upon returning to power, would have no possible basis for throwing a lot of Democrats in jail over policy differences...well, they're the same people who back in about 1991 would have told you that sexual harrassment charges and the Independent Counsel statute would never be turned against the people who brought them into national politics.
January 15, 2009
BASEBALL: Biggie or Smallie?
David Pinto notes, contrary to reports on the dimensions of Citi Field, that the hitters who have tried the place out in the winter think it will be a launching pad. I don't see any reason why that would be true, but we'll see how it plays during the season.
WAR: Out of Bluff
McQ rounds up commentary from Armed Liberal and Spencer Ackerman on how the ascension of Obama to the presidency means anti-Iraq-War left-wingers (Obama included) are going to have to put up or shut up on choosing between their natural anti-war inclinations and their rhetoric about how important Afghanistan is.
This is part of a broader phenomenon I've noted before in left/liberal political argumentation: the tendency to be hawkish about whoever the United States is not in immediate conflict with, and the subsequent tendency to back down when a conflict actually approaches. The Democratic shift from hawkishness on Iran in 2002-04 to dovishness on Iran in 2005-present (see here for one example) is one of the more glaring examples. (It's not actually limited to foreign policy, but that's another day's argument). For all the huffing and puffing about Saudi Arabia, for example, you can be sure the left would drop all its complaints about the Saudis in a nanosecond if the United States actually tried to confront them.
January 14, 2009
BASEBALL: Trivia Question of the Day
Name the only post-1900 player to score 300 runs over his last 3 seasons in the major leagues.
The feat was done 4 times in the 19th century: Jim McTamany, who ended his career when the American Association went out of business, scored 369 runs in 1889-91; Hall of Famer John Ward scored 338 runs in 1892-94; Mike Griffin scored 325 runs in 1869-98, and the 19th century's best third baseman, Bill Joyce, scored 321 runs also in 1896-98. There are a variety of reasons why careers tended to end abruptly back then, in these cases generally due to economics (guys like Ward and Joyce could make better money doing something else). But can you name the lone post-1900 player to hang it up after averaging 100 runs scored a year for his last 3 years? Answer below the fold.
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Yeah, I was surprised too that it wasn't someone more obvious - Albert Belle and Joe Sewell both got pretty close (292 runs for Belle), and Ray Chapman, Kirby Puckett and Joe Jackson all had a fair number of runs, but Jackson had missed time in 1918 for World War I.
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January 13, 2009
BASEBALL: Buy Lowe
Derek Lowe has reportedly signed with the Braves for 4 years and $60 million. The Braves can use a durable rotation anchor, and Lowe has averaged 212 innings a year in his four years in LA, so this isn't entirely a terrible idea. But it's not a good one. The Dodgers got a lot of value out of their 4-year, $36 million deal with Lowe, but signing an extreme groundball pitcher without great strikeout rates from age 32-35 is one thing; signing him from age 36-39 is another. Lowe benefitted tremendously from Dodger Stadium; he has a 4.68 ERA on the road over the past six seasons, with 2005 being the only year below 4.10 in that period. Even if you just look at his Dodger years, Lowe averaged a 4.03 ERA on the road (4.89 runs per 9 - Lowe always allows a lot of unearned runs), 5.69 K/9, 2.68 BB/9, and 0.75 HR/9, not bad on any count none of those particularly impressive enough numbers to suggest a guy who will be worth $15 million a year when he's 38. The signing turns the screws on the Mets by raising the market price for Oliver Perez, but if they end up with Perez instead of Lowe, I'll be happy.
POLITICS: Recount Limbo
My State Senator is still in limbo due to Democratic recounts and court challenges to his election. While we hear a lot of complaints these days about needing to have one president at a time, at least we have one; Frank Padavan's constituents don't entirely have a State Senator at all, nor do Norm Coleman's constituents have a U.S. Senator. And it's January 13.
You know, I haven't followed all the twists and turns of the battle over Padavan's seat, but one thing I have concluded from watching it, and the Al Franken, Christine Gregoire and Al Gore efforts to overturn Election Day results, is that we really do not have any way as a system to deal with these kinds of challenges in a way that gives the supporters of the losing candidate - especially a candidate who was ahead on Election Day - even the slightest bit of confidence that counting decisions made after the election, under the auspices of lawyers and partisans, are at all fair and honest. Which is, as I have been saying for 8 years now, the real point of the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore opinion. There are, to be sure, opportunities for ballot fraud and other shenanigans before and during an election, and the system has to provide some remedy for those, at least in provably serious cases. But before 2000 there was an ethos - not always respected, by any means, but to which politicians (most famously Nixon in 1960) at least needed to pay tribute - that the loser of an election did not open a second scorched-earth front designed at refighting every ballot that could conceivably be quibbled over, and that you needed a really serious reason to try to overturn the Election Day Count. That is Al Gore's lasting legacy to our democracy, and it's a deeply malignant one.
Machines, of course, can make mistakes, and if we had confidence that the counts produced by heavily lawyered recounting processes were really a more accurate and precise count, it would be worth the cost in money, time, disruption of transitions and hard feelings about democracy to review them. But we have no such confidence; we are, as a society, simply throwing resources at a series of additional counts that give us no reason to think they are any more accurate, and many reasons to think they are much less impartial than a machine count. A machine count is done behind your basic Rawlsian veil of ignorance: both sides may know they stand a chance of getting a raw deal in a close race, but they know it's basically an even chance. When lawyers and partisan vote-counters get involved, all that goes out the window, and the race to amass a superior quantity of umbrage is on.
Or think about it this way: up until the day of an election, the forces of partisanship have limited resources, less than perfect information about which elections will be closest, and face the reality of having to spread those resources over races for different offices that may be close in different geographic locations. Thus, the sheer effort that has to go into stealing elections will naturally be disbursed. That doesn't stop election fraud from happening, but it mitigates its influence, making it less practical to use as a routine tool of nationwide partisan combat. But recounts are just the opposite: once the initial counts are in, both sides know exactly which race results can be overturned in the courts, and exactly how many vote changes they need to do it. This is unhealthy in the extreme.
Restoring public confidence in the electoral system requires work on a lot of different fronts, but one major candidate should be a serious effort in state and federal races across the country to raise the showing required to trigger a recount or lawsuit over election results, to preserve the option only for the most serious and severe cases of malfeasance. The current system is unsustainable and ultimately dangerous to democracy.
BASEBALL: Book Review: But Didn't We Have Fun?
Morris focuses on two angles: a historical narrative of how the game progressed, and an effort to bring to life the spirit and atmosphere of mid-19th century amateur and semi-amateur baseball. My interest in the book was mainly in the former, though the latter consumed a great deal of the book and offered a lot of fascinating detail. Morris' view is that baseball developed through a process of basically Darwinian evolution, a series of sudden mutations that sometimes (but not always) superseded the old ways because they provided inherent advantages, thus forming breaks in the historical continuity from older games to baseball, and from early amateur baseball to the professional game.
There are several of these critical junctures Morris identifies, including the sudden explosion of interest in baseball in 1857-59 with the 1-2 punch of the growth of rail transport and the widespread distribution of written rules, the first professional player (probably primeval pitcher Jim Creighton for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1859, although it would be a decade before players were paid openly), and the key tours by various clubs. But two are particularly crucial.
First, Morris argues that baseball was, in essence, invented by 25-year-old Alexander Cartwright and the other members of the New York Knickerbockers (Cartwright was not the leader of the club) around 1845, by adopting a set of written rules that made two key innovations that separated baseball from myriad earlier games like "town ball" (versions of which existed with extensive variations in many locales) to say nothing of more distant cousins like cricket and rounders (Morris discusses at some length the extent to which baseball did and did not owe a debt to various of those other games). One of these rules was the creation of foul territory, which had a couple of significant effects: it allowed the game to be played on smaller fields more suited to urban areas (as Morris makes clear, baseball was always, despite its pastoral mythology, an urban game that began in New York City and spread outward from the larger cities to rural areas), and it forced the ball into the field of play, thus putting a premium on fielding the ball rather than just chasing it. (Like many early baseball innovations, Morris explains that this one was to some extent driven by the exigencies of the available land, which at the time was a limited space in Hoboken). The second and really crucial innovation, providing the dramatic break from "town ball" and its ilk and effectively creating the new game of baseball, was the decision to eliminate the practice of throwing out baserunners by hitting them with a thrown ball. As Morris explains, this didn't just change a single rule to make the game more resemble its modern counterpart; it was revolutionary because it singlehandedly (1) placed a premium on fielding skill, (2) eliminated a significant source of injuries, and (3) enabled the use of a harder ball that would travel further when hit (you needed a really soft ball if you were throwing it at men wearing no protective gear), thus creating a faster-paced, higher-scoring game. Morris spends a lot of time discussing the early game's equipment in the days before manufacturers existed to turn out baseballs, bats and bases and before fields were dedicated to play; the ball was hard to make and replace (he has one amusing anecdote about a town where the baseball cores were made from fish eyes), and so was a precious thing - it's not hard to see why men like Albert Spalding saw a great business opportunity in sporting goods by the 1870s.
Of course, the third and most significant of all the decisions made by Cartwright was to write the rules down, enabling the "New York game" to be memorialized and spread around the country just at the moment when an explosion of newspaper circulation and inter-city transportation were creating the first true mass national market for entertainment. Morris is at great pains to explain that the Knickerbockers' goal was not to do anything but formalize rules for a club that had already been playing ball for two years but struggled to keep its members' interest, and indeed the first decade after 1845 showed little growth in the game before those changes in the nation's communications and transportation networks created the conditions for it to spread. One of the core themes of his book is to remind the reader, sometimes by repetition to a fault, that the point of the early game was to have fun and that its participants had quite a lot of fun despite the stuffy formality of the style in which their rules were written down.
The second milestone was the construction of the first enclosed ballpark, the Union Grounds in Brooklyn in 1862. Morris follows a long series of steps that led the way from the organized amateur game to professionalization, but the critical one was that professional teams needed steadier sources of revenue than member dues or wealthy patrons, and that meant charging growing crowds for admission - which in turn meant enclosing the field so such charges could be enforced. As with college football or the Olympics, you can use all the subterfuges you want to hide the compensation of the players, but there's nothing "under the table" about the game's sources of revenue, and once the stadiums were built at considerable expense even for a fairly primitive park (Morris noted that the very first park had a pagoda in center field for the owner and guests, effectively the first luxury box), a club had no choice but to put its best efforts into fielding an entertainingly competitive team, making professionalization inevitable.
Morris' book goes into a lot of additional, colorful detail on the games, the rituals that surrounded them, and the many logistical difficulties faced by early baseball, such as road trips in the days before trains had reliable schedules. He explains how the first team to travel west of the Alleghenies, the original Nationals of Washington in 1867, were aptly named because they were essentially financed by the federal government (in those days before civil service reform, the head of the club was able to hire several players to patronage jobs in the Treasury Department). I have a few criticisms. First, as I said, Morris works a little too hard to remind the reader how much fun the early players were having and how important their rituals were to them. Second, some stories felt undertold - Cartwright himself gets only the most passing treatment - appearing on just two pages of the book - compared to the more fleshed-out portraits of key figures like Henry Chadwick and Harry Wright, and while Jim Creighton is a pivotal figure, the tragic story of his death at age 21 in 1862 (the same year, probably not coincidentally, that Brooklyn was building the Union Grounds) is scattered in footnotes rather than being given a full treatment.
Morris credits the diminutive Creighton with being the first man to change the pitching position from an ordinary fielder to a baffler of batters, with his tricks for increasing velocity and movement and his penchant for throwing pitches that trailed away from the hitter (with terrible physical costs to himself - in the absence of ball/strike calls, hitters would just wait him out, in one instance cited by Morris leading Creighton to throw over 330 pitches in three innings). Here are two accounts of Creighton's death; Morris suggests that his death from a home run swing may be apocryphal, but he doesn't offer an alternative theory. First:
On October 18, 1862, playing against the Union Club of Morrisania, NY, Creighton hit a home run. John Chapman, who was on-deck, heard something snap during Creighton's swing. After Jim crossed home plate he assured Chapman that his belt had broken. Four days later the Excelsior star was dead having ruptured his spleen or bladder in the process. He had bled to death of internal injuries. Jim Creighton was 21.
He swung so mighty a blow in the manner of the day, with hands separated on the bat, little or no turn of the wrists, and incredible torque applied by the twisting motion of the upper body, that it was reported he ruptured his bladder (later review of the circumstances, aided by modern medical understanding, pointed to a ruptured inguinal hernia).
(You can read an 1887 recounting of Creighton's death here).
But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in how the game of baseball came to be, and how it became a professional game, will be interested in Morris' book.
January 12, 2009
BASEBALL: The Schneid
Adam Rubin looks at some data, in relatively small samples (we're talking 50-60 at bats in some cases, although the selected items all point the same way) suggesting that Mets relievers and some of their starters were markedly less successful with Brian Schneider catching than Ramon Castro. (I got the link from Bill James Online; James is skeptical of how dramatic the data is). The difference seems mostly to be in home runs allowed, as no homers were hit off Heilman, Wagner, Sanchez or Feliciano with Castro catching, and markedly fewer off Pedro and Santana. Of course, one has to consider alternative explanations: for example, Castro started only 4 games in September, when several key relievers were tired and wearing out, and Castro played more of his games at pitcher-friendly Shea (22 starts at home, 18 on the road). And Keith Woolner, who has studied the issue with deep math, is unconvinced that catcher effects on ERA are anything more than random chance (more here). That said, it's a question that merits further examination, since Schneider's defensive value is the main reason he has a job.
So, with that in mind, let's look at the overall numbers for ERAs with Schneider catching and not catching, based on the Hardball Times numbers for Catching ERA over the past five seasons:
Looks to me like there's not a significant effect teamwide in 2008, and even less of one over the long term, although individual seasons seem to show Schneider as a huge net positive in 2004 and a large negative one in 2006-07. Granted, the opposition-slugging data in the article may be more probative for the relievers than ERA, but even so, where are the OBPs? This suggests some cherry-picking of the data here, and honestly given that the source of the data is guys who work for agents, I have to wonder if they have an agenda in passing along the selection they are sending Rubin.
POP CULTURE/HISTORY: Valkyrie
Via Jonathan Last, an interview with Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of "Valkyrie" (which I have not seen, although I think I can guess how it ends). A lot of interesting stuff; I liked this:
Q. ... Saw "Valkyrie" and really enjoyed it. What struck me was that the film is a throwback to a time before "Saving Private Ryan" -- when movies about World War II didn't have to be Big Important Statements and could just be thrillers.
BASEBALL: Bartlett Off His Game
Rays Index looks at Jason Bartlett's defensive decline in 2008. (H/T Pinto). I find it kind of surprising that Bartlett's numbers were not good - the Rays as a team improved dramatically with the glove in 2008, by far the largest factor in their one-year improvement, and Bartlett was leading the AL in Zone Rating when I looked at the individual members of their defense in late May. ESPN no longer appears to carry Zone Ratings, but while his Zone Rating was .859 at the time, the Hardball Times has his Revised Zone Rating at .807 for the year, sixth among AL Shortstops; that would appear to support the interpretation that Bartlett's injuries took a toll on his defense over the year. It's also a testimony to the resilency of the Rays - Bartlett's glovework, like Eric Hinske's power bat, was a key factor in the Rays' early success that deserted them as the season went on, yet they kept plugging in different contributions from different people as the season ran on.
BASEBALL: Rickey and Rice
So the Hall of Fame has inducted Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice, and has yet again snubbed Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines.
My quick take:
2. Rice, I would not have voted for but I regard him as right on the bubble and not a particular embarrassment to the Hall. I came down against Rice for the reasons set forth here (more on Andre Dawson, a comparable but much weaker candidate here) but I had previously supported Rice, who was a genuinely fearsome slugger for 12 years even adjusting for the context of his home park and his proclivity for GIDP.
3. Blyleven, of course, should be in; I stand by what I wrote 8 years ago on Blyleven, Morris and Tommy John.
4. McGwire belongs in the Hall, it's just too late in the day to set a standard for the Hall other than excellence on the field.
5. I discussed Alan Trammell here.
Here's the voting trends for the long-term candidates (Henderson got 94.8% of the vote, meaning 5.2% of the BBWAA is unfamiliar with Major League Baseball), I'll be updating the chart as I get the full tallies:
Six Year Voting Trend:
Note that other than Mattingly dropping below Parker, the order of the candidates in terms of vote totals was unchanged (I left off Dale Murphy and Harold Baines, both of whom are trapped in the area between 5-15% of the vote). Tommy John now drops off the ballot after 15 years, and all the first-time candidates properly drop off for lack of the 5% minimum other than Henderson (David Cone was a HoF quality pitcher in a number of seasons, and Mo Vaughn in his prime was a comparable hitter to Rice, but neither had the kind of durability needed to make a serious Hall case for players of their quality).
UPDATE: One final thought about Rice: the one thing I really hope is that the election of Rice is not used as precedent to put in Dawson.
LAW: Billable Hourly
The American Lawyer continues that hardy perennial of legal journalism, "the death of the billable hour is at hand!", with a look at some clients ditching hourly billing in the UK. But even the article admits that replacing the billable hour requires swimming against the tide in the UK:
In the United Kingdom, lawyers and clients have never had the same all-consuming obsession with hourly billing as their American peers. Still, over the last 20 years hourly rates have become the dominant currency here as well...
As I have argued before here and here, while it's true that lawyers and clients alike tend to despise hourly billing (albeit for different reasons), at the end of the day, (1) it persists because you can't replace it without alternatives that have serious potential problems of their own, and (2) no matter how creative lawyers may be in proposing alternative billing structures, they will only catch on if clients provide the impetus for change, which in turn will happen only if clients are comfortable that they are able to meaningfully evaluate the cost-effectiveness of lawyer services, which most clients can do with hourly bills from long experience. The vast amounts of ink spilled on this topic every year almost always fail to grapple with those basic dynamics.
Edmund Burke, the great conservative theorist, famously remarked that "[a] state without some means of change is without the means of its conservation," and that's as true in the law or any business as it is in government or culture - an attitude that all change is always bad is a very dangerous one. But the fact remains that in trying to change any entrenched practice, you have to start by asking why things are the way they are and how your proposed alternative is going to deal with those conditions. We'd all love to see the hoary old billable hour interred, but legal journalism that advocates change in the industry without grappling with those realities doesn't end up accomplishing very much for the profession of law.
January 9, 2009
POLITICS: Poe v Palin
Gov. Palin draws a challenger. I'm sure he'll have basically a license to print money in national fundraising from left-wing blogs (assuming he's the Democratic nominee).
Posted by Baseball Crank at 6:50 PM | Politics 2009 | Politics 2010 | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)
LAW: Nice Try
The Ninth Circuit rejects the Unabomber's lawsuit to get his bomb-making materials and manuals back. I'm sure that was a tough call.
January 8, 2009
BASEBALL: Ahistorical Comment
Neil Best of Newsday informs us that Hall of Fame pitcher Addie Joss "became a sportswriter after he retired!" I find it hard to think that anyone who knows anything about Joss is unaware that he died in mid-career. Maybe there's a bizarre inside joke there I'm missing.
UPDATE: Well, we all make mistakes. Best has issued a correction, as noted in the comments here.
BASEBALL: Welcome to the Big Citi
Eric Simon at Amazin Avenue talks to Greg Rybarczyk about his theory that Citi Field is going to be a very hard place to hit home runs, which if true is terrible news for Delgado in particular (he's suffered enough from Shea) but great news, of course, for Johan Santana. (H/T) Assuming that Rybarczyk is right about the dimensions, it certainly won't be a hitter's haven like Citizen's Bank Park (on the Bill James Handbook's list of guys with the shortest average home run distance, the top six are three Phillies and three Astros), but besides altitude, which remains constant, the two biggest reasons for Shea being a pitcher's park were visibility and wind, and while the new park is more enclosed and appears to have better lighting, it's premature to guess exactly how those will play out. Still, that large power alley in right center (where Wright hits a lot of his opposite-field shots) and deep straightaway right field suggests a Mets future where you need a CF & RF with good range and not to rely on lefthanded power hitters unless they really specialize in pulling the ball straight down the line.
FOOTBALL: Bill James vs the BCS
The master takes on college football's arcane ranking system: "It is very difficult to objectively measure anything if you don't know what it is you are measuring." I'm enough of a Bill James geek to recognize this passage as a slight rephrasing of a piece of the Oakland A's comment in the 1984 Abstract:
[T]he rankings are routinely described as "computer" rankings. Computers, like automobiles and airplanes, do only what people tell them to do. If you're driving to Cleveland and you get lost and wind up in Youngstown, you don't blame your car. If you're doing a ranking system and you wind up with Murray State in western Kentucky as the national football champion, you don't blame the computer.
And so, "whenever the computer rankings don't jibe with the 'human polls,' they fix the computers." He gets crabbier after that, in classic Bill James style.
BASEBALL/POP CULTURE: Posnanski Rocks
Joe Posnanski, the best working baseball writer, has a fine Hall of Fame column (although I seriously disagree with him on Tommy John, and kinda disagree on Grich and Trammell), with a marvelous digression about Barry Manilow and the songs of the 1980s. His earlier effort on the Hall was good too, and has some interesting historical walk data - basically, the recent high tide of walk rates in 1994-2000 in the AL (in the NL it was just 1999-2000) has largely receded to historical levels akin to those of the 1969-93 period (walks have always been less common in the NL, even before the DH; the all-time high was the AL in the late 40s, with the NL season high set in 1894).
POLITICS/HISTORY: Deep Throat's Puppets
I had meant to link to this earlier - Stratfor had a tremendous writeup, on the occasion of the death of Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, on the real meaning of the revelation that Felt was Woodward & Bernstein's source. Basically, it's a reminder that anonymous sourcing is just another way for the media to be beholden to powerful figures, usually in the government, who are often acting in unsavory ways even when they tell the truth (and when a news report is anonymously sourced, there's no way to have any conifdence that it is true). Stratfor focuses on the fact that Woodward and Bernstein were basically naive pawns in Felt's continuation of J. Edgar Hoover's power game - particpants in, not opponents of, the dirty tricks of the era. Here's the key takeaway:
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The only way Felt could have the knowledge he did was if the FBI had been systematically spying on the White House, on the Committee to Re-elect the President and on all of the other elements involved in Watergate. Felt was not simply feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein; he was using the intelligence product emanating from a section of the FBI to shape The Washington Post's coverage.
...The FBI was carrying out espionage against the president of the United States, not for any later prosecution of Nixon for a specific crime (the spying had to have been going on well before the break-in), but to increase the FBI's control over Nixon. Woodward, Bernstein and above all, Bradlee, knew what was going on. Woodward and Bernstein might have been young and naive, but Bradlee was an old Washington hand who knew exactly who Felt was, knew the FBI playbook and understood that Felt could not have played the role he did without a focused FBI operation against the president. Bradlee knew perfectly well that Woodward and Bernstein were not breaking the story, but were having it spoon-fed to them by a master. He knew that the president of the United States, guilty or not, was being destroyed by Hoover's jilted heir.
Of course, there are powerful parallels to our own day, including both the media's role in giving a platform to Joe Wilson while concealing his ties to sources within the CIA, and the media's subsequent role in blowing the whistle on those ties while concealing the source of their information, to say nothing of the many other purported anonymous sources (we have no way of knowing if they exist, if they're all the same guy, etc.) used to attack the Bush Administration's national security policies. Heck, the left blogosphere adopted as its motto the ironic (or maybe not so ironic) phrase "reality-based community," derived from an anonymous quotation that may or may not have been said by a still-unnamed person; the use of the motto is itself a declaration of willingness to believe without proof, to accept sympathetic storylines that can't be verified. They may find that adopting a posture of believing anything attributed to an anonymous source can be a 2-edged sword, the way they learned in the 1990s that a doctrine of considering the accuser in a sexual harrassment case to be coated in an irrebuttable presumption of truthfulness to be a 2-edged sword.
The WaPo's story wasn't about 'speaking truth to power,' but speaking power to power, and taking sides in a turf war:
The Felt experience is part of an ongoing story in which journalists' guarantees of anonymity to sources allow leakers to control the news process. Protecting Deep Throat's identity kept us from understanding the full dynamic of Watergate. We did not know that Deep Throat was running the FBI, we did not know the FBI was conducting surveillance on the White House, and we did not know that the Watergate scandal emerged not by dint of enterprising journalism, but because Felt had selected Woodward and Bernstein as his vehicle to bring Nixon down. And we did not know that the editor of The Washington Post allowed this to happen. We had a profoundly defective picture of the situation, as defective as the idea that Bob Woodward looks like Robert Redford.
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POLITICS: Harry Reid Can't Spot The Sucker
Strange New Respect time: like Moe and Glenn (and the people Glenn links to), I find myself astounded to be in complete agreement with this post by the usually loathesome Jane Hamsher. If Harry Reid says something's not going to happen, that's usually a sign that it is just around the corner.
January 7, 2009
BASEBALL: Burrell and Abreu and More
Joe Sheehan looks at the corner outfield options in the free agent market, comparing those who have signed (Pat Burrell with the Rays for 2 years at $8 million per, Milton Bradley with the Cubs and Raul Ibanez with the Phillies, each for 3 years at $10 million per) to the guys still unsigned (Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn). Pretty much none of these guys can play much defense at this stage of their careers - Sheehan notes the Bill James/Fielding Bible +/- ratings and UZR have them all deep in the negatives except Bradley, who is too brittle to play the field but will have to anyway with the Cubs. I was surprised that Burrell is actually a year older than Bradley.
As a Mets fan, I have to say I was thrilled to see Burrell sign with the Rays; it will be worth a win or two a year just for the Mets to have him out of their division. The deal looks like a bargain for the Rays, who get him much cheaper than the more fragile Bradley or than Ibanez, who is five years older; Burrell brings power and patience balance, although I should note that despite a reputation as an aggressive, athletic team, the Rays were second in the AL in walks last year and fourth in homers.
Burrell has benefitted a lot from Citizens Bank Park, but his road numbers are not shabby. Here are the three-year road totals for the corner OF/1B who are free agents, were traded or got renewed this offseason, ranked by road OPS:
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*Manny remains the class of that field, although his age remains a risk factor.
*I'm still at a gut level convinced that re-signing Delgado was a bad idea, but he sure looks good in this company.
*The Phillies are going to end up regretting having Ibanez instead of Burrell, given Ibanez' age and the fact that Burrell was already a better hitter.
*I'm actually wondering if the Mets might be able to swoop in and sign Abreu on the cheap. I know the Mets are mostly focusing on the pitching, I know he's not the kind of gung-ho personality Omar seems to think they need, and I know he's not the offensive machine he was in his heyday, but (1) getting on base makes up for a multitude of sins, (2) the Mets really are not that well-stocked in the corners and (3) after watching Church wreck his season running into people last year and watching the Mike Cameron-Carlos Beltran collision, they could do much worse than a guy who doesn't run into people or things and shows up every day ready to suit up. A healthier Moises Alou type could be a great addition. Abreu has a reputation as a shrinking violet, but the man has driven in 100 runs six years running. I wouldn't rule out Manny either if he's desperate, but I hate to plunk down a huge amount of money on him at this stage.
UPDATE: Of course, Abreu will be 35 next year, and most of his historical comps didn't fare too well past that point.
Last note: Joy of Sox looks at how the Yankees wooed Teixeira by playing Twisted Sister for his wife. Or something like that.
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January 6, 2009
POLITICS: The Democrats Play To Type
I argued during the general election campaign that the single most scandalously under-covered story of the campaign was Barack Obama's thorough immersion in machine politics in Chicago. And I confidently predicted, on November 3, that Obama, if elected, would continue to be haunted in office by those and other ties to his Chicago past. But even I didn't imagine that the continuing saga of Chicago political corruption and Obama's role as a willing tool of machine politicians would explode so quickly that the Governor of Illinois would be arrested for trying to sell Obama's Senate seat just five weeks after Election Day. Now, we have Bill Richardson withdrawing from his appointment as Obama's Secretary of Commerce due to a federal grand jury investigation of pay-to-play practices in his administration in New Mexico. Of course, while the exact nature and timing of the Blagojevich and Richardson scandals came as a surprise, it was inevitable that the foul odor of political corruption - and not just from Chicago - was going to settle over Democrat-controlled Washington. It would have been shocking if it didn't. Anyone who believed that the election of Obama would mean even the slightest bit of "new politics" was a fool of the highest order; Obama's constant harping on that theme, given his longstanding willingness to avoid rocking the boat in Chicago and DC, was simply a cynical fraud.
In Blagojevich's case, the first instinct of various Democrats has been to argue that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Obama. Other than, among other things, the fact that Obama endorsed Blago for re-election in 2006, knowing full well that Blagojevich was up to his eyeballs in corruption probes (go watch Blagojevich's opponent's final commercial from that campaign, to say nothing of the extent to which those probes focused on Obama's and Blago's mutual close patron Tony Rezko, eventually convicted of corrupting the Blagojevich Administration); while Illinois' Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, among others, declined to endorse Blago at that point, Obama assured the voters that "We've got a governor in Rod Blagojevich who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois" and told the press that "If the governor asks me to work on his behalf, I'll be happy to do it." Then there's the fact that it was Obama's own Senate seat for sale, or that one of the apparent prospective buyers was Jesse Jackson Jr., recently seen as the national co-chair of Obama's campaign. Or that Obama political guru David Axelrod, who got himself in hot water by admitting to contacts between Obama and Blago, is a former adviser to Blagojevich and Rahm Emanuel as well as Mayor Daley's spokesman on corruption issues (a busy job if ever there was one). Or that Emanuel, Obama's very first staff hire and himself Mayor Daley's former chief fundraiser, was in close contact with Blago and had taken over Blago's House seat in 2002 with the help of Blago's other main patron (at the time), his powerful father-in-law Alderman Dick Mell (Rahm apparently inherited a good bit of Blago's Congressional staff) and was talking to Blago about arranging another transfer of their House seat to a stooge who would keep it warm (note: this was the seat vacated by Dan Rostenkowski's federal conviction). Meanwhile, Obama had been pressing initially to give the Senate seat to Valerie Jarrett, another Rezko-linked housing developer who got Michelle Obama her first political job working for Mayor Daley.
The more you spin this stuff out, the more you are forcefully reminded that what was most of all missing from the media's pre-election reportage was context, the kind of context that makes the disparate threads of this stuff hang together. (See this Michael Barone column for an example of how that works). Look at this NY Times article on Chicago's dolorous history of political corruption and ask why it could not have run before the election.
1999: Congressman Bobby Rush challenges Mayor Daley in a primary. Daley's great fear is a candidate who will unify the African-American vote; Rush, who is black, fails to defeat Daley.
2000: Obama retaliates against Rush by running against Rush in a primary for his seat. Obama loses, and is saddled with large campaign debts after having put surplus campaign expenses on his personal credit card.
2001: Obama, a sitting State Senator with a background as a "civil rights litigator", gets $8,000 a month to provide unspecified legal advice to Robert Blackwell, a Chicago entrepeneur - more than Obama's State Senate salary and 81% of Obama's income from his law practice. Campaign debts get paid off.
2002-04: Obama helps steer $320,000 in earmarked state grants to Blackwell's company to subsidize ping-pong tournaments.
If you pull together these facts - and I didn't see a single mainstream media outlet put them all in one place the whole campaign - they present a pretty clear picture of Obama as a cog doing the bidding of the Daley machine, being paid back for his duty and then paying off the backer with public money: old-school Chicago politics that fit in neatly with the similar stories that play out over and over in the careers of Daley, Blagojevich and other Obama allies like Emil Jones. And when you have the context, the actions of Obama and Emanuel over the years regarding Blagojevich are not so easily explained away. Illinois has a corrupt governor, and now possibly a Senator selected by that governor, in part because men like Obama saw nothing wrong with keeping one, as well as because Illinois Democrats refused to strip Blagojevich of his appointment power even after his arrest. Harry Reid's hilarious effort to avoid seating the man Blago finally chose may be incompetent or simply a charade, but in neither case does it excuse how we came to this pass.
Perhaps the most ridiculous effort to distance liberalism and the Democrats from Blagojevich was penned a few weeks ago by Thomas Frank for the Wall Street Journal. Frank's column is perhaps the most egregious example of partisan hackery I have seen in recent years, and that's a field that includes powerful competition; it's the kind of column filled with things that make you think 'I know why he would say that, I just don't know why anyone would believe it.'
First, Frank argued that Blagojevich isn't really a liberal. The same Blago who jacked up the Illinois minimum wage, making it the highest in the nation. The same Blago who in 2007 proposed a $7.6 billion tax hike package, the largest in Illinois history, to pay for increased education, healthcare and pension spending during a state financial crisis. Blago's tax hike proposal was so far left it caused an open rift with Mayor Daley, who blasted it as business-unfriendly, and was essentially unanimously rejected by Illinois' Democrat-controlled legislature. He's also the same Blagojevich who was involved in a very public and successful shakedown of a major national bank just the day before he was arrested (see here and here), with what sounded (when translated out of typically gaseous Obama-ese) like the tacit support of Obama. Blagojevich may not be far enough left for Thomas Frank's taste, but if words like 'liberal' and 'progressive' have any meaning to the rest of us, Blagojevich certainly qualifies, at least as far as his fiscal and economic policies are concerned.
Frank's second and even more hilarious contention is that the Blagojevich scandal "interrupts, in spectacular fashion, a long stretch in which most of the Beltway scandal-makers had an "R" after their names." Now, certainly the Capitol Hill Republicans had more than their fair share of scandals the last four years, for which they have been duly punished, but to suggest that Hill Democrats are a clean-government crowd is just laughable. Without mentioning Frank by name, Kimberley Strassel ran a column in the WSJ a few days later naming a sampling of the Congressional Democrats with serious ethics problems right now - Rangel, Jefferson, Mollohan, Dodd, Guitierrez, Reyes, Kanjorski, Murtha (she missed Tim Mahoney, who got booted over a sex scandal just two years after winning his seat due to a Mark Foley sex scandal that Rahm Emanuel helped keep quiet until a month before Election Day). And that's just Congress. We at RedState.com started up a "Corrupt Democrat Watch" last summer, samples here and here, and we eventually had to put it on ice for a while for lack of manpower; the sheer volume of this stuff from Democratic governors, Mayors, state legislatures and city councils is practically a full-time job to follow (we never did get around to a full roundup on corrupt Mayors like Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit of Sheila Dixon of Baltimore or late-breaking news on Birmingham's Larry Langford). And now, of course, Bill Richardson. The best you can say of Frank's argument is that most of the recent scandals trumpeted by the media involved Republicans.
In the final analysis, Blago's style of graft, while heavier-handed than usual, is inseparable from liberalism as a political ideology and the Democratic Party as an institution. Government, by its very nature, involves giving some people power over the liberty and property of others. Because some government is necessary and because human nature is what it is, there will always be some people who abuse that power, and many of those will do so for personal gain. As a result, we will always have some level of scandal on both sides of the aisle. The root of influence peddling, after all, is the influence, not the peddling.
But there are a number of features of liberalism and the Democratic Party that make them especially and uniquely prone to corruption, always have and always will:
Ideology and Power: Contemporary liberal/progressive ideology stresses, at every turn, that government officials should be given an ever-increasing share of public money to control and disperse, and an ever-increasing role in telling people and businesses how they can use the money and property they are left with. Government officials are, we are to believe, better able to make the 'right' decisions about who gets what and how businesses are permitted to operate. A lot of this is out-and-out substitution of government for the private sector, but for the most part, rather than an avowedly socialist model (in which the state owns resources and their distribution is directly controlled by the politically powerful), American liberals/progressives since Woodrow Wilson have preferred to run what remains of the private sector through a corporatist model in which Big Government and Big Labor, acting in tandem, purport to get the buy-in of Big Business to 'responsible' business regulation. In practice, no matter which system is used, it ends up being a short step from believing you have the right and wisdom to direct other people's property to more deserving recipients and better uses to believing that you are one of the more deserving recipients, and a short trip from telling business how to do its business to telling it who to do business with based on the desire to reward yourself and your friends. The root of money in politics, after all, is politics in money.
Accountability: Republicans, as a rule, get elected by promising to be more faithful stewards of public money (Republicans promise to leave people alone, and it's hard to bribe a man with his own money), and so naturally they tend to get un-elected when they fail to deliver that. Also, even in high-watermarks of Republican power like the 2002-06 period, there are a lot fewer long-term one-party GOP strongholds than there are Democratic ones. By contrast, Democrats who get elected by promising to give people free stuff with other people's money are a lot harder to hold accountable simply because they gave some of it to different people. If you look at a list of Republicans felled by scandal in the past decade, few of them would have lost their jobs if they'd been Democrats.
Urban Machine Politics: It's always been true of American (and not only American) politics that big-city governments are bigger, more intrusive and more corrupt, and it's also always been true that Democrats have, at any given time, long-term headlocks on the great majority of such governments. Machines of that nature are not so much ideological as they are coalitions of self-interest in which political power and political favor are inseparable. Michelle Obama grew up in such a machine - her father worked a coveted City job and worked for the Democratic ward - and it was only natural when she went to work herself for Mayor Daley, and from then on served as a conduit of favors between her career, her husband's career and the Daley machine. It's no accident that the list of corrupt Democrats is usually dominated by big-city politicians who are insulated from challenge to their job security. And of course, the best way to get such insulation, as machine politicians since Tammany Hall have known, is to run on ethnic/racial solidarity, since it's easier to stay Irish (or black, or whatever) than it is to stay honest or competent at your job. Regardless of what the Democratic party's brain may want at any given time, its body is an organism composed of political favor-trading with other people's money.
All of which is why Blagojevich and Richardson should not in any way be seen as an anomaly, any more than Charlie Rangel (the political successor of Adam Clayton Powell, who the House unsuccessfully tried to expel for corruption) and Chris Dodd (whose father was censured by the Senate on ethics grounds) are anomalies among Congressional Democrats. These two scandals at the outset of Obama's term (as well as those held over from Clinton Administration scandals) are not the end of scandal under Obama, or even the beginning of the end; they are, as Churchill would say, only the end of the beginning.
January 2, 2009
POP CULTURE: Cooped Up
I watched the ball drop New Year's Eve on CNN (we decided we'd had enough of Dick Clark's Rockin' New Years Deathbed Watch), and I have to say, the co-hosting team of Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin had to have the worst chemistry of any on-air partners since the heyday of Monday Night Football's bad booths. I'm not a terribly big fan of Cooper, but he's a Jennings/Brokaw type, a newsman who tries to take his job seriously and has a dry, deadpan sense of humor - and they had him matched up with the unwatchable and unfunny Griffin, whose shtick is slapstick and saying inappropriate things. All she did was step on and undermine his lines, and I swear on several occasions Cooper looked like he wanted to punch her in the mouth, and I'm not sure too many of the viewers wouldn't have sympathized with him. Talk about terrible programming. (She added insult to injury with some heavy-handedly staged flirting with Cooper - a little semi-flirtatious banter is sort of expected in a male-female TV pairing like that, but c'mon, at least half the audience knows Cooper is gay). Meanwhile they sent Erica Hill, Cooper's usual co-host and who normally is on the same wavelength with him, down to the street in a vain effort to get frozen revelers to say something interesting (one area where Griffin's shtick as a provocateur might have at least caused something unexpected to happen). Terribly incompetent TV.