Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Truth Hurts

"Theoretical physics can prove an elephant can hang from a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy. But use your eyes, your common sense."

Kevin Costner
JFK (1991)

I know there are Democrats — many of them, in fact — who believe, all evidence to the contrary, that "The One" can do no wrong. Anyone who has the audacity to suggest otherwise must be racist.


Perhaps they will pay attention to the words of Newsweek's Eleanor Clift.

Regular readers of my blog may remember that I referred to Clift in a post last summer. At the time, I pointed out that she is one of those folks in the media who are on Obama's side — "She leans so far to the left," I wrote last July, "that, during the Clinton administration, she was nicknamed 'Eleanor Rodham Clifton.' "

So the usual manipulation that Democrats use to distract and deflect isn't effective when it is used against Clift — even though she has advice for Republicans based on the Obama experience.

She labels it a cautionary tale.

"The election that swept Barack Obama into the White House wasn't about health care," she writes, "even though it seemed that way to a lot of Democrats still smarting over President Clinton's failed effort 16 years earlier. Obama was elected because of the collapsing economy and his opposition to the war in Iraq. And his focus on health–care reform after the election was interpreted by voters as inattention to their paramount concerns: jobs and the economy."

Some people will argue that Obama has not been inattentive, that there have been too many issues to deal with. But most voters, as Clift understands, are not policy wonks. Most voters don't really pay any attention to most of the details of governing. Most voters are interested only in the big picture, the bottom line.

And here's the bottom line on the Obama presidency, in Clift's words: "The White House didn't do enough to connect the dots between health–care reform and economic security, and the Republicans filled in the blanks by frightening voters about the real and imagined impact of a changed system engineered by one–party control in Washington."

Wouldn't you like to think somebody learned the right lesson in the last year? Obama, as Clift observes, didn't learn the right lesson from the election in 2008 — and, apparently, the Republicans didn't learn the right lesson from the experience of 2009.

"[T]he GOP is on track to make big gains in November," she writes, "and they are likely to interpret those gains as affirmation for a strategy that is narrowing the party's appeal and offering no new ideas."

The reality may not be what the voters think it is, but, for many of them, perception is reality. And therein lies the key, I think, to a riddle that, inexplicably, bewilders Democrats whose stock answer to questions about the economy and unemployment is ... "It was Bush's fault."

Democrats, particularly those who feel they are well informed because they follow policy developments so closely, may think that Obama has been actively promoting job creation, but that contradicts what most voters see.

And many voters haven't liked what they've been seeing. Consequently, Obama's approval numbers have declined dramatically — from the stratospherically (and, by definition, unsustainable) high numbers of a year ago to the perilous mid–40s range in February 2010. Newsweek, for example, recently reported that Obama's approval rating has fallen to 43%.

I hate to state the obvious to Democrats who are so well informed, but somebody has to. If they don't want to listen to it, that is their option. But the truth, while painful, is good to know, especially at a time when there is so much pain in America.

And here's some truth for you. The price of health care insurance is way down the list of priorities for unemployed Americans, especially those whose unemployment benefits have run out. They're more concerned about keeping a roof over their heads and putting clothes on their bodies and food in their stomachs.

But back to that "cautionary tale" I mentioned earlier.

"Republicans fault Obama and the Democrats for legislating like they had a bigger mandate than they did," Clift writes, "and now Democrats are paying the price for overreaching."

But the Republicans have an "absence of ideas," Clift says. "You can't claim a mandate if you don't have a platform. If the GOP won control of Congress tomorrow, all they could claim they were elected to do is not pass health'care reform."

Seems to me both parties have things they need to learn between now and Election Day.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Hourglass Presidency

You know how movies and TV shows like to use an hourglass to illustrate how quickly the sands of time run out?

As a matter of fact, I was just thinking the other day that the first time I can remember seeing that particular visual aid used in a movie or TV show was when I was a child and I saw "The Wizard of Oz" on TV for the first time. I must have been about 5 or 6, and the winged monkeys scared the crap out of me. Yes, I was young and gullible, but I got the concept of the hourglass.

It seems to me the analogy applies to presidencies, this presidency in particular.

Last year, it was a big deal for Democrats to get their 60th seat in the Senate because that meant that the Democrats could prevent a Republican filibuster. Procedurally, it meant the Democrats could call the tune and the Republicans would have no choice in the matter.

Having that 60th vote was so important that Ted Kennedy, in his final days, arranged for the law to be changed so the Democratic governor could appoint the senator who would take his place until a special election could be held. Kennedy wanted to make sure, it was said, that there would be no obstacles to health care reform because that was the cause of his life. And, as the Democrats took Kennedy to his grave last August, one after another pledged they would pass health care reform in his memory.

Well, the voters in Kennedy's home state chose a Republican to replace him. That means that the Republicans can filibuster if they want to, and the Democrats won't be able to stop them.

And, currently, political observers like Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball and The Rothenberg Political Report are suggesting that enough Senate seats that are currently held by Democrats are potential takeover targets to make the Democrats nervous about the midterm elections.

Everyone has an opinion on the matter.

Some would encourage Barack Obama to continue a bipartisan approach. The Christian Science Monitor calls this Obama's "Bill Clinton moment," referring to the welfare reform plan he oversaw after the 1994 midterms put both the House and Senate in Republican control.

Ruben Navarette writes, for CNN, that Democrats should not attempt to push anything through without the support of some Republicans.

But I'm inclined to agree with Harold Pollack of The New Republic, who says the time to act is now.

I agree that health care reform is important, but, as I have been saying for many months now, I think jobs are more important. There was a time there, for maybe a week, right after Scott Brown won the special election in Massachusetts when Obama and the Democrats did a fine job of giving lip service to job creation.

But they're back to promoting health care reform.

So if nothing else is going to get done until we've seen health care reform as far as we can, let's finish it off and then turn our attention to promoting job creation.

Because that is what public opinion polls indicate that the voters are most concerned about.

I know, polls are only snapshots of opinion at a particular moment. But the polls have been remarkably consistent.

Any politician who ignores what they're saying does so at his own risk. And, at the moment, those polls are screaming J–O–B–S!

The Democrats had better come up with a strategy soon. The grains of sand are running through the hourglass.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Why I Won't Vote in the Texas Primary

Last month, I wrote that I have turned my back on a lifetime as a Democrat and now consider myself an independent.

Here in Texas, we have open primaries, which means there is no official party registration. I can go to my polling place and simply declare in which party primary I wish to participate. I voted in the Democratic primary in 2008. This year, I could walk into my polling place and tell them I wanted to vote in the Republican primary and I would be allowed to do so. No questions would be asked.

Now, if it turned out that the primary in which I did not vote produced a high–profile runoff, I could not participate in the runoff. Texas isn't that liberal (actually, Texas isn't "liberal" about most things).

It was a different situation when I lived in Oklahoma. When I registered to vote there, I had to declare my party allegiance. If my allegiance changed, I had to go through the procedure of re–registering. It was possible to register as an independent, but, unless the independents held their own primary, you couldn't participate in a state primary if you were registered as one.

It is interesting that many people who have known me most or all of my life — and therefore know that I have been a Democrat all my life — have asked me, upon learning that I now regard myself as an independent, if I am going to vote in the Republican primary or if I support Republicans for various offices.

I can only wonder when being an independent became synonymous with being a member of either political party. Perhaps it has to do with one's disenchantment with one's original party. If it does, then maybe the logic — as twisted as it is — is, well, he's not a Democrat, anymore, so he must be a Republican.

Maybe that would be true of some people today, but I believe I am honest enough (with myself, at least, if not with others as well) to acknowledge if I am actually switching parties. And that is not what I did. I am now an independent.

There was a time, not so long ago, when independents were seen as allies of Democrats. In recent months, though, they have been increasingly seen as friendly to Republicans.

But the reason I am an independent — and the main reason why I will not vote in the Texas primary on Tuesday — is because I am disgusted with both parties.

As I mentioned last month, politicians will have to earn my support by demonstrating satisfactorily that they are acting in my best interest. And I am simply not convinced that any of the candidates on either party's ballot is acting in my best interest.

For awhile, I did think about voting in the Republican primary — but only because Gov. Rick Perry is on the ballot and I loathe him so much that I wanted to vote against him.

Perry was the lieutenant governor when George W. Bush was governor, and Perry became governor when Bush resigned to go to Washington. I think of it as Texas' version of Dumb and Dumber.

If the polls are to be believed, I may get the chance to vote against Perry in November if I want to (I've done that before, though, and it hasn't helped). He's being challenged in Tuesday's primary by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was, at one time, a bigger vote–getter than Bush in Texas. In 2000, more than 4 million Texans voted for her when she ran for a second full term as a U.S. senator. She outpolled Bush, who was running for president that year, by more than 200,000 votes in Texas.

But Hutchison may turn out to be the Martha Coakley of Texas. When she entered the race last year, many polls showed her leading Perry, although her leads were never as impressive as I thought they should be. I heard many political observers speak of her as the inevitable nominee, although I was never convinced that she was inevitable. And, indeed, it seems that lead has disappeared, and Rasmussen Reports says Perry is close to majority support in his bid for the Republican nomination.

Close, but not there yet.

Modern polling techniques are usually pretty reliable so a "Dewey Defeats Truman" moment doesn't really seem likely here, but it's possible that recent polls could be wrong. If they are right, then Perry is a couple of percentage points away from a majority, with Hutchison more than 20 points behind him.

What's more, nearly one out of every 10 Republicans hasn't decided how to vote, Rasmussen says. If the poll is right, Perry still has time to win enough support from the undecided group to secure a majority — and, hence, the nomination — without having to make a pitch for Hutchison's supporters.

Or the supporters of the third candidate, Debra Medina. She's kind of like Texas' Sarah Palin — except she hasn't been elected governor yet and, from the looks of things, won't be the GOP's gubernatorial nominee this year. Probably the less said about her, the better.

For awhile, she seemed to have some momentum, and it looked like she might make this a genuine three–way race. But she started making controversial comments about alleged 9/11 insider conspiracies, and the momentum went away.

I thought about voting for Hutchison and perhaps helping to force Perry into a runoff that he might lose, but I decided that voting against is not something I want to do anymore. I want to vote for someone. I don't see any real difference between Hutchison and Perry so the best reason I could have for voting for Hutchison would be that she isn't Perry. And that isn't enough for me.

The movement from Medina seems to have gone in Perry's direction, and there is a lesson in that for incumbents across the country who have been anticipating an anti–incumbent mood in this midterm election year. Such a fervor does not seem to be evident within either party, except in certain cases, so there isn't likely to be much evidence of an anti–incumbent wave during the spring/summer primary season. Where that is likely to be encountered is in the general election this fall, when independents are thrown into the mix.

Of course, independents can vote in either primary here — and in several other places as well. I could vote in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, but the front–runner, the former mayor of Houston, is far ahead of his opponent.

So I've decided to be merely an interested bystander this spring, then I'll see if either nominee persuades me this fall that he/she is concerned about my best interests. If neither one does, I'll sit that one out, too.

As a bystander, I will say that I find it curious that, regardless of the lead Perry apparently has in the primary, his lead over the presumed Democratic nominee is smaller than Hutchison's. But neither seems to have a majority — yet — in this state that hasn't elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 20 years.

My vote might yet matter to both sides in the fall. It probably means a lot to the candidates in the primaries on Tuesday. But no one has met my standard.

I put too much value on my vote to just give it away to the one who comes closest to living up to my standards. That seems to be one of the problems in America. We seldom get good options, but, because somebody has to win, we give to whichever candidate the voters decide is the "lesser of two evils."

Well, I have voted for the lesser of two evils far more often than I care to remember, and I have decided I simply will not just give my vote away to someone who just partially meets my requirements.

I want an exact match.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

With Friends Like Ben Nelson ...

Last month, I wrote about how Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska told a reporter in his home state that it had been a mistake to take on health care reform before dealing with the economy — even though he had insisted that, because of the congressional compromise on which he worked that permitted the stimulus package to move through Congress a year ago, voters could call him and the others who hammered out the compromise "the jobs squad."

Those jobs haven't materialized, even though Nelson's words implied that they would start showing up quickly.

Well, anyway, fast forward to February 2010. A $15 billion jobs bill apparently sailed through the Senate yesterday by a 70–28 vote. Fifty–five Democrats, two independents and 13 Republicans supported it in what was, as Carl Hulse wrote for the New York Times, "a show of bipartisan consensus that has been rare on Capitol Hill in recent months."

Care to guess who was the sole Democrat to oppose the bill? Yep. Ben Nelson.

Hulse reports that Nelson singled out spending as his primary concern.
"What I'm hearing from Nebraskans is that we don't need to spend more money right now. We need to give the stimulus bill we passed a year ago more time to work — saving and creating jobs, and providing tax relief."

Sen. Ben Nelson

Words fail me — well, almost.

A senator who played a key role in the passage of a trillion–dollar pork–laden stimulus package and then boasted about all the jobs it would create (quick reality check — unemployment was at 8.9% last February, and it had risen to 10.6% by January of this year) now says he isn't supporting a bill that is aimed specifically at creating jobs (but carries a price tag that is a fraction of what the stimulus cost) because a year isn't enough time for the stimulus package to accomplish that.

Just how much time does he think the unemployed can give him and his colleagues to come through on jobs?

Admittedly, this may be more lip service designed to persuade the unemployed that Congress really is trying to help them — when the real goal is to pacify them until they cast their votes for the re–election of endangered Democrats this fall.

But it's something. And something is better than nothing.

And, I guess, if you're a Democrat in a Republican state like Nebraska, you're always endangered.

But roughly one–third of the Senate's Republicans voted for the bill.

So if you're a Republican voter in Nebraska (and 48% of voters in Nebraska are Republicans) and you have a choice in 2012 (when Nelson is scheduled to face the voters again) between a genuine Republican and a Republican Lite, who you gonna choose?

I guess it's a good thing for Nelson that he's got a couple of years to figure that one out.

Too bad the unemployed don't have that luxury.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Cart Before the Horse

Mike Allen reports for Politico that the White House is already making plans for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Things seem to be in an embryonic stage right now. Democratic sources tell Allen "[t]he planning for now consists entirely of private conversations, with Obama aides at all levels indulging occasionally in closed-door 2012 discussions while focusing ferociously on the midterm elections and health care reform." Allen says one official contends "[t]he gathering storm is the 2010 elections," but the president "has given every sign of planning to run again and wants the next campaign to resemble the highly successful 2008 effort."

I think it's going to be hard to recapture that 2008 feeling. Seems to me, if the president is still obsessing about health care reform, he hasn't gotten the message about the urgent need for job creation — lip service to the contrary. And that is going to have an effect on his re–election plans.

Granted, Obama's lowest approval rating (46%) is higher than the lowest such rating recorded by any of his previous eight predecessors, but it took most of them longer to fall to that level. Obama has been in office for 13 months. There are millions of Americans who have been jobless longer than that. And, I would venture to add, many, if not most, of them got good performance assessments.

The Obama campaign staffers aren't printing up bumper stickers or campaign brochures yet, but, if they were, I wonder what Obama would put in his brochure as a justification for a second term. Health care reform? Hasn't been achieved yet, and the prospects seem more remote with each passing day. A Supreme Court nomination? Obama's nominee drew a lot of criticism, but, in the end, opposition to her probably would have been seen as racist or sexist so she was confirmed in spite of any reservations some of the senators may have had.

And there hasn't been any improvement in the unemployment numbers to crow about. In January 2009, when Obama took office, unemployment was at 8.5%. One year later, it is 10.6%.

The way Obama has re–fixated on health care reform suggests to me he only plans to mention unemployment on those occasions when the monthly jobs report shows an aberration — a one–time drop (by a fraction of a percentage point) in the unemployment rate that will, undoubtedly, be erased a month later. But those in power will seize on it as proof that their "policies" are making a difference — when, in reality, they are not.

It has been said by many Democrats, including Bill Clinton, that 2010 will not be as disastrous for the Democrats as 1994 was. They got an early warning, they say, with the jolt they got from the loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

If that is true, they don't seem to be acting on it, which makes me doubt that it is as valuable as an early warning as Clinton and others say it is. After all, if your smoke alarm goes off when there is only the slightest hint of smoke in the air and you do nothing to prevent the destruction that will result, how much benefit did you gain from the advance knowledge that a fire was coming?
  • In Pennsylvania, Shashank Bengali of McClatchy Newspapers reports that Pennsylvania, a state that voted decisively for Obama in 2008, is not entirely in his corner now. And Arlen Specter, the former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party (helping the Democrats achieve a short–lived filibuster–proof majority in the Senate), appears to have some obstacles to overcome in his bid for another term.

  • The Rothenberg Political Report has more bad news for Democrats. California Sen. Barbara Boxer's "poll numbers are less than intimidating," according to the Report, so today it moved Boxer's bid for another term from "Currently Safe" to "Clear Advantage for Incumbent Party."

    Appears the Report will be keeping an eye on the race. Before the special election in Massachusetts, the notion that Boxer might be denied another term might have been unthinkable. But, as the Report says, "The contest is worth watching because of the building GOP wave."

    Who'da thought the Democrats might have to fight to keep a Senate seat in California? Then again, who would have thought unemployment in California would exceed 12%?

  • Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball reports that, if the midterm elections were held today, Republicans would gain seven seats in the Senate and 27 in the House. They would also pick up six governor's offices.
A couple of points here.
  1. On the positive side, it is still February. There is a lot of time between now and November. But there isn't so much time that the Democrats can afford to squander any of it.

  2. On the negative side, that is how things look after one year of Obama, a year that was spent largely in a futile attempt to pass health care reform. How will things look after nearly two years with Obama at the helm?
That is a big piece of the puzzle. It will be a huge factor in 2012.

And that is what should have Obama's undivided attention this year.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Open? Transparent? Hardly

Barack Obama's die–hard supporters continue to insist that his presidency is a departure from the past.

They've always seemed to be especially eager to draw a distinction between the president and his immediate predecessor.

Maybe, when it is over and it is seen in history's rearview mirror, the Obama administration will prove to be the departure they like to say that it is. But, in one sense, at least, it is not an improvement over the presidency of George W. Bush.

As the Washington Times reports, today is the 215th consecutive day since Obama held a formal, televised prime–time press conference. That, the Times observes, is longer than Bush, who was frequently ridiculed for avoiding press conferences, ever went.

As a reminder, Obama's last such press conference came in July. That was the occasion when he said the Cambridge, Mass., police had "acted stupidly" in their handling of a black Harvard professor who broke into his own home. Things sort of spiraled out of control for Obama on that occasion. In fact, when the story of this administration is written, that may well be remembered as the moment when Obama's health care reform campaign really began to unravel.

To be fair, the Times concedes that Obama has given many interviews to reporters. But those are controlled situations and they are seldom televised live or shown in their entirety on tape. Usually, such interviews get whittled down to a few sound bites that may or may not be an accurate portrayal of the essence of the interview.

Fact is, such sound bites are usually chosen because they fit the amount of time that is available or they best serve whatever the news organization's agenda may be — or because they are controversial (i.e., "I am not a crook" or "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"). That does not necessarily mean they are chosen because they address what voters want to hear.

A prime–time presidential press conference, on the other hand, tends to be a freewheeling, unscripted — at times, uncontrolled — affair, in which a dozen or more reporters, representing a variety of news organizations, are allowed to participate. Viewers can see the whole thing as it happens and, if the president is not asked about something viewers want to hear about, they know it wasn't his fault. He was there, and the reporters had the opportunity to ask him. For whatever reason(s), they did not.

But if the president conducts interviews in a private setting and citizens hear no references to a subject they want to hear about when the sound bites are released, what are they to believe — the president's account or the reporter's?

I suppose, if they have sufficient time available, they can go over the transcript of the interview. But how many citizens will use their spare time to do that? It's the kind of thing they depend upon reporters to do.

I am reminded of Obama's criticism of the press following his "jobs summit" in December.

Obama said he gave several interviews during his trip to Asia in November, but he claimed that no one asked him about the issues, that they asked him about Sarah Palin's book but not the economy.

That was false, as observed. reviewed the transcripts of the interviews and "found several examples to contradict Obama's statement."

Here's a quick reality check: The unemployment rate was 9.7% when Obama held his last televised press conference. It was 10.6% in January. He can give plenty of lip service to job creation, which he has done, or how many jobs have been "saved" by his policies, but reporters and voters want details. You don't get many details from cherry–picked sound bites.

Here's something else to think about. Even if Obama ends his televised press conference drought today, if he permits another 215 days to pass before he holds another one, it will be late September before he faces the White House press corps in prime time again, and there will be only 5½ weeks left before the midterm elections. Will that be frequently enough to reassure an increasingly skittish public? Will it be adequate to reverse his declining approval numbers?

Tell me, would two prime–time presidential press conferences in 14 months be change you can believe in?

A president who does things behind closed doors is not living up to his pledge to be open and transparent, flowery oratory to the contrary.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Al Haig

Al Haig on March 30, 1981: "I am in control here."

I was in college the day Ronald Reagan was shot.

CNN was still quite new, and it had been nearly 20 years since the Kennedy assassination, but I learned a truism about broadcasting that day — when the president gets shot, every broadcasting outlet in the country will have someone on hand to report on it.

That isn't as self–evident as you might think. We have only had one successful presidential assassination since TV came on the scene so the ground rules are still emerging. Reagan survived his assassination attempt, and the two "attempts" on Gerald Ford's life are hardly worth mentioning, but, from that (thankfully) limited number of experiences, some things are clear, and the pervasive presence of the media makes me think of what Willie Sutton said about banks. That's where the money is.

I hope this country never has to deal with a presidential assassination again, but if it does, I firmly believe TV Land and the Game Show Channel will send correspondents — even if they're only temps.

Anyway, I don't remember which network I watched the day Reagan was shot. It didn't seem to matter. Regular programming had been interrupted on all of them.

But the thing I still remember to this day is Al Haig seizing the lectern and declaring, "I am in control here."

I was watching with some of my buddies, and I remember how we all looked at each other in amazement. The secretary of state had just elbowed his way past the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore on the official presidential succession list in a single sentence.

Mind you, my friends and I were hardly Reagan supporters. So, in hindsight, it probably isn't surprising that, during what was probably, for many, a time that was made anxious by the uncertainty surrounding the president's condition, we were focused on what we saw as a power grab by Alexander Haig.

Turned out, though, a lot of people got that impression.

I don't mind telling you, I found Haig to be a scary person, even scarier than I found Reagan to be. I didn't like Reagan's political philosophy, but at least he was somewhat amiable. Haig just came across as mean, in my opinion.

Of course, anyone who served as chief of staff in the final months of the Nixon presidency was bound to look somewhat menacing. Probably a by–product of keeping your back to every wall in every room in the West Wing while watching for sudden movements in front of you.

It's always possible, I guess, that those were qualities he acquired while he was on MacArthur's staff in Korea or being cited for valor in Vietnam. If so, they came in handy in the Nixon White House, when Haig reportedly kept the ship of state afloat behind the scenes while gently steering Nixon in the direction of resignation. If that is true, the nation probably owes Haig a debt of gratitude for sparing it an unprecedented crisis.

I guess he stayed on after Nixon's resignation out of some sense of loyalty to the nation and/or the presidency. But he left after Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon unleashed a firestorm of criticism, and Haig was replaced by Donald Rumsfeld — yes, THAT Donald Rumsfeld.

(I still don't know whether to blame Ford or Haig for that one.)

Actually, it's been kind of a long time since I gave Haig much thought. He resigned as secretary of state in 1982 and made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. I've heard that he did some TV work in the years since (well, natch, can anyone imagine an emcee who would be cuddlier than Alexander Haig?), but I had mostly forgotten about him until I heard this weekend that he had died at the age of 85.

Apparently, with his military background, he will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

I don't mean to be flippant about Haig's death, but talk of his death and funeral reminds me of a line from Mark Twain.

I forget the context. But it was indisputably Mark Twain.

"I did not attend his funeral," said (or wrote) Twain, "but I wrote a nice letter saying I approved of it."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Bait and Switch

"So much for the pivot to jobs," write James Capretta and Yuval Levin in The Weekly Standard, and I have to agree.

Whether it was for appearances, in the wake of the loss of Ted Kennedy's seat, or whatever, the Obama administration's attention has been diverted from job creation back to its obsession with health care.

In spite of plummeting job approval numbers. In spite of increasing indications that the Democrats are constantly and irreversibly alienating those who helped them gain power.

So, for those millions of Americans who have been hoping the government would do something, anything, to encourage job creation — better luck with the next president.

'Cause this one sure doesn't feel your pain.

And despite the grand talk from Obama and the Democrats about a desire for bipartisanship, as Capretta and Levin observe, "It is now clear that the 'summit' the president has called for February 25 is not intended to consider different approaches to health care financing, but rather to create an illusion of momentum that might just lull disoriented congressional Democrats into ramming the health care bill through the budget reconciliation process."

Maybe he will feel the pain of the unemployed in November — when they march to the polls to vote incumbents out of office. Sure, that will mean Republicans as well as Democrats. But the Democrats will learn that, while some things have changed, other things — like the tendency to punish the party in power in midterm elections — have not changed.

And it ought to send a chill down the spines of everyone in Congress — assuming they get the message and figure out who they're supposed to be working for.

But that won't help those whose names will be on the ballot this year. It might help those who will face the voters in 2012 and 2014 — but only if they're paying attention.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Those Tears Sure Do Sting

As I wrote yesterday, this is a time to forgive.

In my hometown this afternoon, they will bury Jim Johnson.

If you're a regular reader of this blog — but, for whatever reason, have been away lately — let me quickly bring you up to speed. I have written recently about Mr. Johnson's death over the weekend and then, after seeing the angry and bitter things some people in my home state have been writing about him, I felt moved to write about that, too.

I'm not naive enough to think that burying him will put to rest the pain of the past. But it may be the start of healing for those who loved him. And I am one of those.

When I think of Jim Johnson, I don't think of the segregationist whose rhetoric is still remembered, decades later, by people who were offended by it. I think of the man I knew — the devoted father of my childhood friends.

I don't mind saying that I have shed many tears in recent days. I have shed nearly as many tears as I did in the days following my mother's death. I have probably shed nearly as many tears as I will shed when my own father dies.

And I can tell you that tears really do sting.

I don't know why that is. Perhaps there is a chemical explanation for it.

Maybe there is a difference between tears of joy and tears of sorrow. Maybe tears of sorrow have more salt than tears of joy. Because I have shed tears of joy, and I don't remember those tears stinging my eyes the way tears of sorrow do.

Certainly not the way these tears have stung my eyes.

I know there are people in my home state who are unaffected by Mr. Johnson's death. I know there are some who have welcomed it, who have rejoiced in it. And I guess that is inevitable.

But I think many forget — or conveniently overlook — the fact that, behind the death of a controversial figure, there are people who genuinely mourn. That grief has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with human relationships.

Jim Johnson leaves behind three sons. According to the obituary on my hometown newspaper's website, he had eight grandchildren. And he had countless friends, many of whom will almost certainly be at the service this afternoon.

That service is now only a few hours away.

I hope it brings some peace to my friends. I hope the knowledge that the funeral has been held and Mr. Johnson has been buried will bring an end to these tears for me.

But, mostly, I hope those who can't forget the past can at least forgive.

For their sake as well as Mr. Johnson's.

Perhaps tomorrow, I will resume writing about other subjects. But today, my thoughts and my emotions simply won't permit it.

Rest in peace, Mr. Johnson.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I Think It's About ... Forgiveness

"I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about ... forgiveness."

Don Henley
"Heart of the Matter"

On Sunday, I wrote about the death of a man I knew as the father of friends from my childhood in Arkansas.

At the time, I knew little about the circumstances that led to his death. I knew he was 85 and that he had been struggling with health issues, but I didn't know the nature of his health problems. I also knew that he had killed himself and that his body had been discovered on Saturday morning.

In recent days, I've learned more details. I have learned that the funeral will be tomorrow afternoon. And I have read numerous articles about the life and career of this man — Justice Jim Johnson. He was something of a notorious Southern political figure when I was a child, an outspoken segregationist, and I've been reading comments that have been posted on blogs in my home state in the days since his death.

When I was young, I guess I was aware of how controversial he was. I knew more about that as I got older, but by that time his political career was pretty much over.

I don't remember ever listening to one of his political speeches or observing him on the campaign trail so I never really saw him as a politician. From the accounts that I have read, he was pretty fiery in campaigns so it doesn't surprise me, on the occasion of his death, that some people still harbor resentments that are decades old.

What has surprised — and, frankly, shocked — me is the venom that many people have unleashed. Never mind that a man is dead and his family and friends are grieving.

Last night, I encountered a lot of this venom at a blog on the Arkansas Times website. I learned some specifics about Justice Jim's last days — and I also learned that his son, Danny, my childhood schoolmate/playmate, had been staying with him and apparently was the one who discovered his father's body.

It is an image I cannot shake from my mind. The article says Danny didn't hear the gunshot during the night so I presume that, when he got up that morning, he didn't have any idea what awaited him.

In my mind, I can see him walking into his father's bedroom, perhaps asking his father if he was hungry and stopping in the middle of his sentence after seeing his father's bloody and lifeless body. I can imagine his sharp intake of breath as his mind tried to absorb what he was seeing, followed by a barely audible, "Oh, Daddy." Then what? Did he sit down and weep for his father before picking up the phone to call the authorities? Did he call his brothers first?

If he didn't call his brothers before the authorities were summoned, was his mind working overtime, going over all the things that needed to be done, all the people he needed to contact, while he told the officers what he knew?

I don't know.

Maybe it seems strange that my memories of Jim Johnson are not political, but, really, they aren't. They're personal. It was that way even the last time that I was in contact with Jim and Virginia. It was nearly 15 years ago, when my mother died in a flash flood. I stayed with my father that summer, and we received a beautiful letter from Jim and Virginia. I was so touched that I sent a grateful reply, which prompted them to send another letter.

Neither of their letters said anything about politics. Both were relatively brief, but the conclusions said everything old friends needed to hear at such a time — "We love you."

Not long after that, Danny's twin brother, David, called. It was the first time we had spoken in several years, but we must have talked for a couple of hours that night. Two old friends talking. One doing his best to ease the other's burden.

There aren't many details from that conversation that have stayed with me, but I do remember talking about the flood that took my mother's life and the things that I had been doing to help my father, who had been injured in the flood.

And I remember telling David, "I hope you never have to go through anything like this." I meant that. But, in spite of my best wishes, I have to think he and his brothers have now been through worse. They lost their mother to lung cancer a few years ago, and now they've lost their father to suicide.

I wish I could be at the funeral tomorrow, if only to give them some of the comfort their parents' letters gave me. I'd like to tell them that I love them and that I loved their parents. But I'm sure they already know. And I'm equally sure that many people will be there. I have no doubt that the Johnsons will feel the love of many, many friends tomorrow and in the days, weeks and months ahead.

So today, my hope is for all the people in my home state who continue to hold grudges against Jim Johnson. I hope they will find it in their hearts to forgive him.

Because, in the words of the Don Henley song, that is what I think it's about. Forgiveness.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Et Tu, Bayh?

Evan Bayh is the latest congressional Democrat
who doesn't want to work for votes in 2010.

Evan Bayh's decision not to seek re–election as a senator from Indiana is yet another blow to Democrats in what is shaping up to be a tougher–than–expected year for the president's party.

Well, it seems to me — given Indiana's electoral history — a Democrat, even a centrist Democrat, has to work pretty hard to win there, even when the circumstances are favorable for them. And, so far, circumstances in 2010 haven't been looking favorable for Democrats, be they leftists or centrists.

It's hard for me to know what will happen now — and it's looking like it's tough for a lot of people to make sense of it. According to Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully, the filing deadline is this week, probably too late for a heavyweight in either party to get on the primary ballot. Thus, the Republicans are left with a field of weak prospects — and Democrats have no one, since the expectation that Bayh would run seems to have driven off any Democrats who might have run if they had known Bayh was going to retire.

So Tully speculates that Indiana's Democratic leaders will select a nominee. It's not the ideal solution, but it seems to be their only option.

And Tully laments the fact that "each election cycle the system claims not those politicians on the far edges of the spectrum, but the voices in the middle."

"At a time when moderates are mocked as wishy–washy, and insiders talk of purity tests," Tully writes, "die–hards in both parties love their moderates only on Election Day."

As Tully observes, "[I]n a rational world, the idea of a middle–aged man tiring of the political system and deciding to move on should make perfect sense."

But it clearly doesn't make sense to some. In fact, Bayh's decision appears to come as a surprise to many. Two recent polls — Daily Kos/Research 2000 Indiana Poll and Rasmussen Reports — showed that Bayh was competitive, if not leading.

British blogger Michael Tomasky thinks Bayh owed his fellow Democrats better than he gave them. Charles Lane of the Washington Post says Bayh's announcement amounted to saying "screw you" to Barack Obama and Harry Reid.

Yesterday, The Rothenberg Political Report — which previously believed the Democrats had a narrow advantage in their bid to hold the seat with Bayh on the ballot — moved the seat to "Toss–Up" status.

When one considers the Democratic seats that Rothenberg rates as leaning to Republicans or as toss–ups, it becomes clear that the idea of Republicans claiming a majority in the Senate this year is not nearly as far–fetched as it seemed a year ago.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says Bayh was the "clear favorite ... that’s why this is such a setback for Democrats" — and he, too, has moved the race to "Toss Up" status. Sabato is respected in political circles, and his current assessment is that Republicans will capture seven Senate seats, 27 House seats and six gubernatorial races this year.

That wouldn't be enough to give the GOP the majority in either house of Congres — but it would make things very interesting for the last half of Obama's term in office.

Now, not everyone sees this development as a sign of an impending disaster for the Democrats. My hometown newspaper opined that "[i]t's highly probable that a few Democrats will lose valuable seats in November, but a clean sweep by Republicans isn't likely." Maybe, but that sounds an awful lot like what I was hearing in 1994.

We'll see how things play out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents Day

A fellow blogger, who I have mentioned here on several occasions, John McIntyre, provides something of a rundown on the background of Presidents Day in his blog, You Don't Say, today.

I don't have much to add to that. I will say that I remember when the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were observed separately.

When I was in elementary school, February was noteworthy for three things — first Lincoln's birthday on Feb. 12, then Valentine's Day, then Washington's birthday on Feb. 22. Then, when I was in second or third grade, I guess, we began observing "Presidents Day" on the third Monday in February — which never coincided with Lincoln's actual birthday and only occasionally fell on Washington's actual birthday.

And, ever since, instead of honoring two of the greatest presidents in American history on their birthdays, we now honor all the men who have held the title of president — the great, the near–great and the not–so–great alike — on a single day.

I guess the most contemporary way to put it is this: You may have voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and you may hate George W. Bush with a passion. Or you may have voted for John McCain and you may hate Obama with a passion. But today, we honor all our presidents, whether we liked 'em or not, whether we voted for 'em or not.

Today, I hear a lot of talk about "greatness." And I have lived long enough to know that it is true that time really does heal all wounds. Well, most of them, anyway. Time may not heal the wounds that some married couples inflict on each other on the path to — or even during — divorce proceedings, but people do seem to be more forgiving of their presidents.

In my experience, the verdict of history is rarely rendered in full. Presidents who were hardly popular when they left office enjoyed better reputations by the time they died — and some have come to be seen as positively visionary for decisions or statements they made that were regarded as foolish or foolhardy when they were in office.

Perhaps that knowledge will encourage Bush and his supporters.

On this date last year, I wrote about historians' rankings of the presidents. I wrote about a list that had just been released and ranked all the ex–presidents, even George W. Bush (who had only been out of office for about a month).

I observed that any president whose term had ended less than 20 years before the rankings were compiled should be exempt — on the grounds that not enough time had passed.

I still feel that way — so it shouldn't be a surprise that I definitely don't think it is appropriate at this point to say whether the Obama presidency is a success or a failure. If he's a one–termer, check back with me around 2033. If he's a two–termer, make that 2037.

I do have opinions about the administration's priorities and its policies. That's probably why I was interested in Steven Thomma's piece for McClatchy Newspapers, the premise of which is that Obama's chance of achieving his goal of being a transformational figure "may be slipping from his grasp."

"Obama's quest to usher in a new liberal era — one with major new policies and a growing Democratic voter majority punctuating a shift away from the conservative era that Reagan ushered in — is in trouble and may be disintegrating," Thomma writes.

That's the kind of conclusion that you can only reach in hindsight. During the Reagan presidency, it was far from clear that a transformation that would last long after he left the White House was occurring. But, seen from 2010, we can see that Thomma's conclusion about the conservative era is valid.

If, for good or bad, his name is going to be mentioned in the "transformative figure" conversation, I believe Obama will need a second term. Note that I am not saying that he has earned a second term or that he deserves a second term. That is a decision that will be made in 2012 — and it seems likely to me that the decision will be based on things that haven't happened yet.

I think he was wrong when he said he would rather be a great one–term president than a mediocre two–term president. It doesn't work that way. History often serves to confirm the verdict that is rendered by the people at the polls. And if they reject a president who is seeking re–election, history's conclusion follows their lead.

When you look at the rankings of the presidents, inevitably the thing that jumps out at you is the fact that the great presidents — well, most of them — served more than a single term. Most two–term presidents tend to be remembered with fondness. Unless one is elected president after promising not to seek a second term, being a one–term president is not likely to qualify him for the label of "transformative figure."

I think Obama needs to be more responsive to the immediate needs of the American people. He may think he has been. His defenders may think he has been. But the public opinion polls tell a different story.

I would like to think that Michael Shear's article in the Washington Post, in which he reports that the White House is "retooling" its communications apparatus, is a sign of a renewed sense of seriousness that is being given to a vital part of the president's strategy.

But I'm not convinced. Not yet.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

News From Home

I grew up in Conway, Ark. It was a small town when I was a child, outwardly not much different from many towns in Arkansas in those days.

Today, it is at least five times, maybe six times, as large as it was then, and it is noteworthy for having been the home, even if for a short time, of some prominent people. Actress Mary Steenburgen, for example, went to college there. So did Scottie Pippen, who went on to play pro basketball with Michael Jordan. Football player Peyton Hillis was born and raised there, then attended my alma mater, the University of Arkansas. Last May, I wrote about Conway when Kris Allen was a finalist on American Idol.

But before any of those people came along, Conway was known — at least in Arkansas — as the home of Justice Jim Johnson.

Earlier today, an old friend of mine sent me an e–mail. Justice Jim died yesterday at the age of 85. Authorities are saying that he killed himself. Reportedly, he had had some health issues, and a rifle was found near his body.

When he was a young man, Justice Jim was an Arkansas Supreme Court justice. That's where the "Justice" part of his name came from. He had twin sons, Danny and David, who were my age and my almost–constant playmates. They lived just down the road from us so, when we were kids, it seemed the three of us were always at the Johnsons' house or mine.

Justice Jim was part of the state Supreme Court until 1966, when Orval Faubus chose not to seek another term as governor. Justice Jim sought and won the Democratic nomination for governor, and apparently, he did so using the segregationist rhetoric that was all too common among Southern Democrats at that time (I say "apparently" because I was too young to sit through or comprehend a politician's speech so I never, to my knowledge, heard anything he said during that campaign).

That fall, I enrolled in first grade. Justice Jim's sons were in my class, and the camera crews from the TV stations in Little Rock were on hand to film the event. The reporters were interested in seeing Justice Jim's sons in school with blacks.

I don't recall if Justice Jim was there or if his wife handled the matter of enrolling their sons. I just remember the disruptive influence those reporters and cameras had. The kids, as I remember, got along fine. Eventually, my first grade teacher had to shoo the adults away so she could get down to business with her pupils.

Later that year, Justice Jim lost the governor's race to Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican elected governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction.

In those days, Arkansas elected its governor to two–year terms so, two years later, Rockefeller ran for re–election. Once again, there was a Johnson in the race. Only this time, it was Justice Jim's wife, Virginia. She was unsuccessful in her race for the nomination, but she was a pioneer — the first woman to run for governor in Arkansas' history.

At the same time, Justice Jim challenged Sen. J.W. Fulbright, who was seeking re–election. Fulbright was nominated, then re–elected, and the Johnsons returned to their home in Conway. I can still remember walking through their home in those days and seeing leftover yard signs from their respective campaigns.

Justice Jim was an ally of George Wallace. I remember sitting at his kitchen table the day Wallace was shot and a reporter from the Arkansas Gazette called to get a quote. Justice Jim gave him one. It was a "dastardly act," he said. After he hung up the phone, he looked at his sons and me, grinned and said, "That sounded like a bad word, didn't it?"

Justice Jim and I seldom discussed politics. He knew that my parents didn't agree with most of what he said, and that was OK. He was protective of me like a son. He didn't say things to me that he knew would create a conflict in my young head. He only said things to me that he knew would be all right with my parents. He told me to do right. He told me to be respectful and to be fair. He was always courteous, the very image of a Southern gentleman, to my parents and me, indeed, to everyone with whom he came in contact.

And I have tried to follow his instructions and his example.

I've heard that Bill Clinton once told Justice Jim, "You make me ashamed to be from Arkansas." I never felt that way. I have always been proud to be from Arkansas, and Justice Jim was a big part of that. Not because of his politics, but because of the man he was.

I can't help but think of the ironies, though. Justice Jim, opponent of desegregation, dies during the first presidential term that was won by a black man.

If I had ever speculated about when it would all end for Justice Jim, I never would have expected that.

I certainly never would have predicted that he would die by his own hand.

But I don't judge him for the choices he made — or that were made for him.

A couple of years ago, I was talking to one of his sons on the phone. He was telling me that his father had changed, that he had been a product of the times in which he was born and raised and that he regretted some of the things he had said in the heat of his political battles. I tried to reassure my friend that I didn't hold any of his father's political statements against him, no matter how much I may have disagreed with him.

And I don't judge him for choosing the option he chose. I've never had the gift of being able to look into a man's head and heart and know the pressure he felt or the demons he fought.

I pray for his sons — Mark, David and Dan — that they will have the strength to endure this ordeal, coming only a few years after Virginia's death. I'm sure they will.

And I also pray that Justice Jim has found the peace that eluded him in life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Political Landscape

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has released the findings of an intriguing survey that should be of interest to anyone who wants to get a handle on the 2010 electorate's state of mind.

As always, though, it seems the American voters are conflicted in this midterm election season.

In November 2008, there was a distinct impression that the Republican Party had fallen out of favor with American voters, expanding a trend that appeared to begin in 2006 — although, actually, that trend may well have begun in 2004. I know George W. Bush was re–elected president that year, and Republicans gained four Senate seats and two House seats. But less than a week before the election, Bush's job approval rating was less than 50% in two polls of likely voters.

So why did Bush win re–election a few days later? There were several reasons for that, but I think one of the often overlooked reasons for it may have been the release of a video tape of Osama bin Laden only days before the election, in which bin Laden took responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, criticized Bush's response to them and claimed the attacks were part of his ongoing campaign against the West.

With that message fresh on their minds, I think many voters who might have voted for John Kerry voted instead for Bush.

And, if I am correct, it shows just how fluid the American voter is. And it might also indicate how rocky the political landscape can be.

There was a time in American history when an incumbent president who was on the ballot could count on the coattail effect helping some members of his party win House or Senate seats. But those days seem to be long gone:
  • In 1996, when Bill Clinton was re–elected, his party lost three Senate seats and won three House seats.

  • In 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost his bid for re–election, Republicans lost a seat in the Senate but gained nine seats in the House.

  • In 1984, when Ronald Reagan was re–elected in a popular and electoral vote landslide, the GOP lost a Senate seat but gained 16 House seats.

  • In 1980, when Jimmy Carter was denied a second term, his party lost 12 seats in the Senate and 35 seats in the House.

  • In 1976, when Gerald Ford lost his bid for a full term, neither party made gains in the Senate and Democrats picked up one seat in the House.

  • In 1972, as Richard Nixon was being re–elected in a landslide, Democrats gained two Senate seats and lost 13 House seats.
In fact, you would have to go all the way back to 1948, when Harry Truman was elected to a full term as president, to find the last time an election in which the presence of an incumbent president on the ballot seems to have reaped significant dividends for his party in both houses of Congress.

Well, that speaks to the difficulty that incumbent presidents have had in transferring their personal popularity to others in their party in elections in which they were on the ballot. But 2010 is a midterm election — and, as I have observed before, that is a completely different kind of animal. And it is one that tends to be hostile to the president's party.

Barack Obama is the first black president so it is tempting for many of his supporters to blame his problems on racism. And that can be a difficult charge to counter. But, true to the nature of midterm elections, the administration't party is facing problems — problems that, the Pew survey suggests, are unrelated to Obama's personal popularity.

In fact, Pew says, "Obama's job approval rating holds steady ... in the latest survey ... [and his] ratings have been mostly unchanged over the last six months, though there have been some significant shifts in opinion among independents."

Obama's problem, it seems to me, is directly related to one of his greatest assets in 2008. He won with the help of virtually unprecedented participation by demographic groups that do not normally vote — minorities, liberals, young people. Those voters did not participate in large numbers in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey last November, and they did not participate in the special election in Massachusetts last month.

If Obama can only energize those voters when he is on the ballot, that does not bode well for Democrats this year. And it has nothing to do with his race.

But can the Republicans capitalize on what appears to be an opportunity to make gains in 2010? That is far from certain. Pew reports that neither party is seen as offering solutions.

"Just 29% of Americans say the Republican Party has done a good job of offering solutions to the country's problems over the past year — twice that number (60%) say they have done a poor job," Pew reports. "The Democratic Party does only somewhat better — 40% good job, 52% poor job."

With roughly nine–tenths of Republicans and Democrats indicating that they favor the congressional candidates from their own party, the battle in 2010 appears to depend on independent voters. The independents, Pew reports, currently favor Republicans, but their support is fluid. Only 40% of independents express a preference for Republican candidates while 33% favor Democrats. The remaining 27% appear to be up for grabs.

This probably should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following political developments in America, but Pew concludes that the "wild card" this year is anti–incumbent sentiment, "which is as extensive as it has been in 16 years of Pew Research Center surveys."

"The only recent midterm campaigns when anti–incumbent sentiment equaled its current levels were in 2006 and 1994," Pew reports, "which culminated in elections that changed the balance of power on Capitol Hill."

The balance of congressional power may well shift this year, too. That remains to be seen. Clearly, there are some House districts that are so heavily tilted to one side or another that they are almost certain not to shift.

One such district is Arizona's Third, which is currently represented by Republican John Shadegg. Shadegg chose not to seek another term, but his district appears to be decidedly Republican, so Shadegg's retirement does not mean the open seat is a realistic target for Democrats.

However, there might be a spirited campaign for the Republican nomination. And one of the candidates for that nomination apparently will be the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, Benjamin Quayle.

It could be a very interesting year in American politics.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stormy Weather

They've been getting a lot of snow north of here this winter.

And through much of it, Dallas has been spared.

That is, in fact, typical. There have been winters when we had little, if any, measurable snowfall around here. You can find people who can tell you about Februarys — Januarys, too, for that matter — when the temperatures were in the 70s, even 80s, and men wore short sleeves and women wore shorts.

But this year has been an exception. We've had several snow "events" this winter — my pastor says five, and I haven't been keeping count so I will assume he is correct.

Every such "event" has had a significance of its own. One snow event was special, not because it left much of a trace of itself but because it represented (as I recall) more days in which snow fell on Dallas than any other winter since they started keeping track of these things.

For the first time since I've been living here, we had a white Christmas — and I've lived here since 1996 plus my family came here to visit my grandparents on just about every Christmas of my childhood.

And yesterday was the mother of all snow events in Dallas. We had snow or snow mixed with rain just about all day yesterday. Until it got dark, the temperatures hovered at or just above freezing. The streets were wet, but they weren't slick. Meanwhile, some snow accumulated in tree branches and on lawns as the day proceeded.

I usually meet my father for dinner on Thursday nights, and we didn't let the weather interfere with our plans this week, but, as I was driving to meet him, I heard a man on the radio report that we were only a fraction of an inch away from setting a record for the most snowfall in a day. All I had to do was look through my windshield to know we would break that record.

And we did. The Fort Worth Star–Telegram says we bettered the existing record by about 3½ inches. It was still snowing when Dad and I left the restaurant. And it was still snowing several hours later. I was a witness to it. I had been home for about an hour when the lights began to flicker, then went out. So I went into the bedroom, opened the blinds and gazed out my window at the snow as it continued to fall. It was beginning to accumulate on the street, and traffic was moving slower.

I guess I was luckier than many folks. My power was restored about 90 minutes after it went out. By that time, it was getting cold in my apartment, but it warmed up when the power came back on. The Dallas Morning News reports that crews were still trying to restore service to 180,000 customers today, and it is said the repair work could "stretch into the weekend."

Residents have been asked to minimize water use. Hundreds of flights have been canceled. High school sports events have been canceled or postponed.

It was about as close as one is apt to get to a "blizzard" around here — assuming one is not referring to the ice cream treat at Dairy Queen.

I don't think the folks in Minneapolis would call it a blizzard. Nor would the folks in Pittsburgh or Chicago or New York or Boston. Those folks know what a blizzard is.

But folks in Dallas — well, the lifelong residents, anyway — have no idea what a blizzard is.

I do have an idea what it is. I went to school in the Ozarks, where we got snow and lots of it in the winter. I remember walking to campus in blizzards, and I remember walking along streets only hours after a blizzard had ended. I remember the solitary sound my boots made as they crunched the snow. I remember that, unlike my experience growing up in the lowlands of central Arkansas, snow in northwest Arkansas didn't melt off by midday, and it often stayed long enough to be topped by a fresh layer of snow several days later.

In Dallas, I am a few hundred miles farther south than I was when I was in elementary school. It is even more common around here for snow to fall during the night, then be gone by lunch, than it was in my hometown.

And it's true that the snow is gone from the streets this afternoon. Traffic seems to be moving normally, although there probably won't be as much of it as usual since so many businesses and schools did not open today.

But there's still quite a bit of snow in yards. You can't always tell how much there is, but you can look at footprints in the snow and see that it is still quite deep in some places — certainly more than the dusting we're accustomed to.

Well, it should all be gone tomorrow. It's supposed to get up to 49°. A week from now, I've heard that a high of near 60° is expected.

Now that is what folks in Dallas expect this time of year.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

In the minds of most people living today, there is no memory of a time when a Kennedy did not serve in Congress.

When Edward Kennedy died last year, it was the first time in nearly half a century that a Kennedy did not sit in the U.S. Senate. But his youngest son, Patrick, continued the family tradition as a member of the House, serving Rhode Island's First District.

Now, however, Patrick Kennedy has announced that he will not seek re–election this year. And, as the last Kennedy in Congress makes preparations to leave, it is reasonable to wonder if the Kennedy family will ever send another one of its own to Washington.

Undoubtedly, there are Republicans who are wondering today if Kennedy's open House seat could be picked off in the midterm elections. My initial inclination would be to say no. Kennedy was first elected in the Republican year of 1994 with 54% of the vote, and he was routinely re–elected seven times, usually with two–thirds of the voters supporting him.

The district seems to be solidly Democratic. In the last 70 years, it has been represented by a Republican for only six. In 2008, when the district gave Kennedy 69% of the vote, it gave Barack Obama 65%. In fact, in the last 10 presidential elections, Kennedy's district has only supported the Republican nominee twice — and by very narrow margins (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Richard Nixon in 1972).

But appearances can be deceiving. Maybe Kennedy owed much of his success to the magic of the Kennedy name. Maybe Rhode Island Republicans, who seem — on the surface and from a distance — to have more in common with the "Rockefeller Republicans," the liberals and centrists who once had influence in their party, than the vast majority of Republicans today, can be competitive in 2010.

John Mulligan of the Providence Journal writes that "Kennedy's surprise decision ... instantly raises the prospects for the congressman's Republican opponent ... and may spur a fight among Democratic contenders for the seat.

"But Kennedy's decision 'absolutely, unequivocally has nothing to do with' the congressman's poor showing in recent polls, the shocking election of another little–known Republican state legislator, Scott Brown, to his father's Senate seat or the generally grim mood of voters in Rhode Island and around the country, according to ... the congressman's former chief of staff."

I have heard speculation today that Kennedy's decision was inevitable after his father died, and, indeed, there were indications in his eulogy last August of how deeply he was affected by the loss. He spoke of his childhood struggle with asthma and how it was a blessing for "a child who craved his father's love and attention." He spoke, on that occasion, of how his father remained a "magical figure" in his eyes as he grew up, of how his father found a loophole that permitted Patrick to sail on his crew.

"Just as proud as I was to be a crew on his sailboat, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have worked with him in the United States Congress as his colleague," Patrick said in his eulogy. "I used to hang on to his T–shirt and his coat sleeve on the Capitol when I was just a little boy. So when I got a chance to serve with him on Capitol Hill, all I needed to do was set my compass to the principles of his life."

Since his father's death, I have had the sense that Patrick's compass increasingly was pointing him in different directions — away from memories of sharing something special with his father.

"I will really miss working with Dad," Patrick said the day his father was buried. "I will miss my Dad's wonderful sense of self–deprecating humor. When the far right made Dad their poster child for their attack ads, he used to say, 'We Kennedys sure bring out the best in people!' "

I don't know where Patrick Kennedy will go at this point in his life, but I hope he finds the fulfillment that will bring out the best in him.

Like his father did.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Insignificant Are We?

The late George Carlin once pondered the many movements to "save" endangered species on this planet and observed, "We're so self–important."

To gain an appreciation for just how self–important we are, perhaps it is necessary to get some distance. Maybe that is the best way to gain some perspective and get an idea where we really fit in to the grand scheme of things.

That really isn't as difficult as it sounds. Twenty years ago, the space probe Voyager 1 did the leg work for us.

A little background here: Voyager 1 was launched in early September 1977. Originally, it was designed to visit and send back photographs of Jupiter and Saturn, but its mission was extended and it continued toward the boundaries of the solar system.

On Valentine's Day 1990, as Voyager was about to leave the solar system, NASA transmitted instructions to it to shoot photos of earth and the rest of the planets, which it did. From those photos, NASA compiled a mosaic of the planets in our solar system that has been dubbed the "Family Portrait."

The probe sent back 60 photos. In one photo, called the "Pale Blue Dot," the earth shows up as little more than a speck about halfway across a brown band.

Look at the picture attached to this post. See the speck? That's the earth, as seen from a distance of about 3.7 billion miles. In 1990, there were about 5.2 billion people on that speck. There are more than 6.7 billion now.

Yet, from the boundaries of our solar system, the planet is almost too small to be seen. And astronomers tell us that our solar system is merely a fragment, a crumb on the intergalactic table, a morsel in the vastness of space.

In our frame of reference, America is a vast land, and the earth is not such a small world after all.

But by cosmic standards, we are Lilliputians, waiting for our Gulliver to arrive.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

"When I think back on all the crap
I learned in high school
It's a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall."

Paul Simon

A year ago, I was an advocate of the stimulus package — probably mostly for selfish reasons. I've been out of work since August 2008, and I hoped the stimulus would create jobs.

I can't say I believed it would create jobs. But I knew it was the only thing being proposed that had even a sliver of a chance of creating jobs.

And, in the unlikely event that you have forgotten, the economy was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs every month in those days. I wanted the stimulus to create jobs so much that I was even dreaming about it. There was no escape from reality for me, even when I shut my eyes at night and drifted off to sleep.

I guess that was to be expected. The previous six months of my life had been a nightmare. The month I was terminated, the national unemployment rate was 6.0%. Six months later, it was 8.5% — and it has been well over 9.0% for close to a year.

I have never experienced a time in my life that was more hellish. And if there was anything that made it even more frustrating for the unemployed, it was the complete absence of any attempt to do anything by the outgoing administration. Even in November and December of 2008, when unemployment followed a breathtakingly steep trajectory that took it from around 6.5% to 8.5% in a matter of weeks, nothing was done by the Bush administration.

For those who were looking for work at that time, it was like trying to climb a mountain while an avalanche came down around you.

But there was, as I say, a glimmer of hope coming from the stimulus. When congressional leaders hammered out a compromise of the House and Senate versions, Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson strutted for the cameras and said, "Call us the jobs squad."

Barack Obama signed the legislation into law and said, "Today does not mark the end of our economic troubles. But it does mark the beginning of the end — the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans scrambling in the wake of layoffs; to provide relief for families worried they won't be able to pay next month's bills; and to set our economy on a firmer foundation."

It's hard to imagine, looking back over the last year, that the stimulus has created any jobs. The latest unemployment rate is lower than it's been, although the numbers show that 20,000 jobs were lost in January.

To be fair, though, I guess the stimulus did create some jobs. It must have. The conservative Washington Times reports that Republican lawmakers secretly sought stimulus funds for projects in their states even while they were criticizing it in public.

I assume that the projects that received stimulus funds did create some jobs. Other than that, though, I can't imagine how the stimulus did much to ease the joblessness problem in this country.

And, frankly, it's tough to prove that the stimulus funds created any jobs. It might even be tougher to prove than it is to prove that jobs have been saved.

Recently, I've been hearing talk about a second stimulus. Actually, I've been hearing that kind of talk since last summer. And I think it is going to be a tough sell for some centrist Democrats in the Senate who face tough re–election campaigns.

Especially if they are from one of the 35 states where employers are having to pay more for unemployment insurance taxes, a development that seems certain to restrict hiring.

But what else can be done when jobless claims have exploded and unemployment funds have been unable to keep up?

It's part of the price to be paid for neglecting unemployment, and I think incumbents in both parties should be held accountable by the voters. But many of them probably won't be.

Today, in spite of all his talk about emphasizing jobs and the urgency of putting America back to work, Obama indicated he was willing to take "incremental steps" on job creation legislation — which sounds a lot like more delay, more squandering of precious time.

I can understand how now, in the hostile midterm environment, it is a smart political move to get as many Republicans on board as possible. It's political cover, if nothing else.

But I'm skeptical, given their record, that any Republicans will go along on this ride down the Bispartisanhip Trail. The Democrats may have to take this trip alone, even though I'm sure they would rather not.

In this economy — combined with this political environment — I guess the majority only gets one chance to do something with the help of the minority. The Democrats didn't get as much help as they would have liked, but now, with elections on the horizon, it seems ridiculous for them to think they might get Republican assistance on just about anything.

I guess, if they had been blessed with the gift of seeing the future, the Democrats would have done something to encourage job creation long before Republicans won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

They could have done something sooner. They should have done something sooner.

But they didn't.

Monday, February 8, 2010

John Murtha Dies

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., died at the age of 77 today of complications from gall bladder surgery.

He was a former Marine and the first combat veteran from the Vietnam War who was elected to Congress. He is probably best known for opposing the continuation of the war in Iraq, much to the consternation of many in the Bush administration.

I suppose you could call Murtha a "Watergate baby." He was really the first Democrat who was swept into office in the anti–Republican tide of 1974, winning a special election in February 1974 to replace the incumbent Republican who died in late 1973. His margin of victory was only 242 votes, but it was the first clear indication that America really wanted to be rid of Richard Nixon.

Later that year, Murtha was joined in the House by two other Vietnam veterans, Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa and Republican Larry Pressler of South Dakota. Both went on to serve in the Senate. Harkin is still there.

Pressler and Murtha both were offered bribes by undercover FBI agents in the 1980 ABSCAM investigations. They both turned down the bribes, but Pressler reported the offer to the FBI. Murtha, on the other hand, indicated that he was interested in future offers.

He supported Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination in 2008, then supported Barack Obama in the general election campaign.

The western Pennsylvania district that Murtha represented in the House for 36 years was represented by Republicans for more than 30 years before Murtha was elected; it tended to be more Democratic than the rest of the country in presidential elections after he became its congressman, but it had the distinction of voting for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 and then supporting Republican John McCain four years later, both times by relatively narrow margins.

It will be interesting now to see which way the district goes with a vacancy to fill. After winning the special election, Murtha never received less than 58% of the popular vote and usually got more than 60%.

Was that due to his personal popularity or did it reflect a genuine shift to the left in his constituents?