Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Does Specter's Switch Really Make a Difference?

Today's announcement by Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter that he was switching parties and running as a Democrat in the 2010 primary didn't come as much of a surprise to me, and truthfully I was expecting him to make this move long before now. Even though he has been flying the Republican banner for the past 30 years, he has voted with Democrats on quite a few occasions - one of the most prominent being the recent vote, along with Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to support the President's $787 billion economic stimulus bill. The more he has voted with his colleagues across the aisle, the more he has turned off the conservative base of the Republican Party.

Now I recognize that there are many situations in which bipartisanship is needed, and as such there are many members who are put in a difficult situation - vote with the party, or vote with your constituency. I'm not entirely familiar with the politics of Pennsylvania, aside from the fact that it is a heavily unionized state with a large blue-collar voter base. Specter has managed to get reelected in this demographic four times for what I can only assume has been voter satisfaction with his moderate stance.

This year, however, more conservative challengers are being run in primaries against Republican moderates in an effort to punish them for their efforts to reach across the aisle. Pat Toomey, who came close to upsetting Specter in the Republican primary five years ago, was polled recently with a 47-21 lead in advance of next year's race. And with such major issues as card check legislation looming on the horizon, Specter found himself walking a very fine line. In the case of card check, does he vote for cloture and lose his Republican support, or does he vote against cloture and birng about the wrath of the unions and Democrat voters.

His course of action? Change the initial behind his name and avoid Toomey - and many of the other issues - until the general election, when he stands a better chance at winning a sixth term. This seems like a baseless accusation at first hearing, but in his afternoon press conference Specter plainly stated that he was doing this because he couldn't win as a Republican.

Consider that for a moment: HE couldn't win as a Republican, so he switched parties. Is he looking out for his constituency, or himself? To me, he's only got one thing in mind - political survival - and it appears he's pretty much guaranteed that.

You'll recall that Senator Lieberman made a similar decision in his last race in Connecticut, but I see a very big difference in what others are trying to paint as a parallel. Lieberman, despite losing the backing of major-league Democrats, continued with his fight in the primary, and when he lost, he took it to the people again and ran as an Independent. He didn't switch parties; he took his moderate views into the center and left it up to all the state's voters, who sent him back to the Senate. I hardly see a parallel with Specter; he saw he couldn't win, but instead of running the race to the end and possibly considering taking the same route as Lieberman he jumped ship. Personally, I see that as a much more cowardly route than that taken by Lieberman.

After the announcement, Specter told the President, "I will be a loyal Democrat." That really shouldn't engender much confidence in either party. First, as a Republican, he supported legislation on several occasions to which his party was opposed. Now, however, as a Democrat, he is saying that he will not change his views and will in fact continue to oppose cloture on such issues as card check - a view opposite that of a majority of his new party mates. As one person commented today, why should the Democrats now trust Specter any more than the Republicans have in recent years?

Another question was raised by consultant Kevin Madden as a Twitter post this afternoon: with Specter's jump, what will this mean for Senators Snowe and Collins, who tend to be as moderate as him? Will they feel mounting pressure to change affiliation and cross the aisle? If so, what will it mean for their reelection chances in their own races in the next few years?

Over the next few days, despite ongoing conversations about Harry Reid drooling over the potential of a filibuster-proof majority, this story will start to wind down. However, the Minnesota race is drawing to a close (pending a state Supreme Court ruling), and the story will be revived at that point. I'm sure that Al Franken is doing his own drooling right now about the fact that he is this close to bringing Democrats to that magic number.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Cup of Tea or a Glass of Indignation?

Knowing that Paul Krugman is an economist (an area about which I know very little) and a liberal (an area about which I know quite a bit) still doesn’t keep me from reading his twice-weekly columns in the New York Times – and, occasionally, his blog on the same site. In my estimation, I disagree with him about 90 percent of the time and find that the more I disagree, the more my blood pressure rises. And yet I keep coming back for more, being a believer that to engage in an effective and substantive political debate, you have to know what both sides of the aisle are saying and writing.

So what is Krugman saying this week (or rather, what did he say yesterday)? In short, Republicans are an embarrassing lot that deserve to be made fun of (even though he doesn’t feel quite comfortable doing it because, “…it doesn’t feel right to make fun of crazy people”) and a bizarre group who are unable to engage in true grassroots activity if big business and big money aren’t behind it. These are the points he makes in his latest column, “Tea Parties Forever,” concerning the anti-tax parties which – to a great extent – will be held in cities all across the country tomorrow, April 15.

If nothing else, Krugman offers arguments that will no doubt get both sides revved up, but in this particular instance he apparently feels the best effort he can put forth is to offer cheap shots and tired arguments to back up his claim of a lunatic fringe on the right. Here are a few examples:

“Better, perhaps, to focus on the real policy debates, which are all among Democrats.” Yes, Republicans in Congress have been chastised of late as the “party of no,” but their opposition is in large part based on principle. Democrats by no means have offered anything close to a real policy debate, and the fact he feels that the debates are “among Democrats” is just confirmation of how fall short House and Senate leadership have fallen in meeting their promise of a new spirit of bipartisanship. (In fairness, this promise has been made by the top dogs in both parties for the past several decades, and it never changes; it is hardly a Democrat problem.) Where was the real policy debate in advance of the behemoth 648-page energy and climate change bill released earlier this month by Henry Waxman and Ed Markey – or consultation with the numerous groups which will be impacted by whatever version is finally enacted? Where was the real policy debate on the economic stimulus bill which was jammed down our throats, aside from the war of words waged in front of the cameras?

“It turns out the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf events, manufactured by the usual suspects.” When I last checked, the Republican or Democrat labels worn by many didn’t impact their feelings about the issue of taxes – aside from the fact that conservatives believe in lower taxes and liberals believe (for the most part) in higher taxes to support government programs, as long as it’s the other person paying the higher taxes. I've seen interviews with several self-professed Democrats who intend to actively participate in tomorrow's activities. And many of these tea parties have been organized at the grassroots level, using nothing more sophisticated at the outset than an email address book and the tools offered by such sites as MeetUp.com. Where was Krugman’s sense of outrage over the George Soros-financed groups who sponsored anti-war and anti-Bush demonstrations which were hyped to no end by CNN and MSNBC, among others? Oh, that’s right; it’s that danged belief system again – like with taxes – that it’s okay as long as we’re not the ones doing it.

All of this is to say that none of what Krugman puts forth in this column surprises me, and I’ll continue to return to his writing for my twice-weekly dose of adrenaline. Politics is a game of perception, of what people want to focus on and what they want to ignore or gloss over, and the media is a game of what to focus on and what will draw the biggest ratings and highest revenue. Yes, Fox News is heavily promoting the April 15 tea parties, but flip over the coin and you’ll find the Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermanns of the world milking them for an appropriate sense of righteous indignation and outrage.

Just as the famous children’s song says, “The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round,” the wheels on the political bus are still spinning – but the bus can’t move forward when all the wheels are trying to turn in different directions.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Costa Rican Success Story; Why Not Here?

Saturday's New York times included the latest column by Thomas Friedman, entitled "(No) Drill, Baby, Drill." Friedman discusses the tremendous progress made in Costa Rica over the past 20 years with regard to that country's move towards reliance on renewable energy, and he brings out some interesting facts, including:
  • As of today, 95 percent of the country's energy is generated through renewable sources;

  • Five years ago, the country discovered oil, but refused to drill so as not to impact either the national political scene or the environment; and

  • A 3.5 percent carbon tax now provides dividends and assistance to over 7,000 citizens.

Friedman closes with this admonition:

As we debate a new energy future, we need to remember that nature provides this incredible range of economic services — from carbon-fixation to water filtration to natural beauty for tourism. If government policies don’t recognize those services and pay the people who sustain nature’s ability to provide them, things go haywire. We end up impoverishing both nature and people. Worse, we start racking up a bill in the form of climate-changing greenhouse gases, petro-dictatorships and bio-diversity loss that gets charged on our kids’ Visa cards to be paid by them later. Well, later is over. Later is when it will be too late.

The Costa Rican environmental situation is certainly a best-case scenario, but what Friedman does not cover is the cost that the government incurred as a result of its switch from a 5o percent oil/50 percent hydro base of energy production to the current level of 95 percent renewable sources. In a country the size of Costa Rica, the costs were probably significant in relation to its economy - but when compared with a nation the size of the United States, how would those costs transfer?

The Costa Rican government laid some strong groundwork early on by combining several energy-related positions into one office, and by making immediate investment in conversion away from an oil-based economy. Two things to keep in mind, however, are that the process there was started 20 years ago, and the national costs overall would have been lower. Here in this country, we are already decades behind the curve; there has been no effort to consolidate those with oversight over the environment and energy sectors, and to this point - other than talk in broad terms - there has been no serious effort to look at renewable energy. And with all of the talk about our energy independence, why has there been no consensus among the Republicans and Democrats over the best way to achieve - much less even try for - reaching that goal and getting off foreign oil (as advocated most heavily in recent months by T. Boone Pickens)?

So we come to the current discussion about cap-and-trade and carbon tax as a way of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions in this country. As a consumer, my biggest concern about either of them is that it will result in higher energy costs; the money energy producers will need to pay to refurbish plants, install GHG monitoring and recording equipment, upgrade carbon recapture technology, pay taxes on the tonnage of GHG emissions, and/or purchase carbon allowances from producers who fall below the mandatory cap will all be tacked on to the bills you and I get in the mail for power consumption - and at the gas pump. On top of that, why should we be responsible for paying for aggressive energy policy when India, Russia and China produce significant higher levels of GHG.

Despite the ineqality in size (with population, budget, and overall land area) between Costa Rica and the United States, Friedman does do a great job of pointing out the sucess story that occurred when the Costa Rican government put its mind to solving environmental problems. My question, aside from wondering why he didn't figure the costs of such a program into his column, is when our government will get serious about ways of solving the problems we face here? Saying that we're going to get off foreign oil, rely on our own production sources, etc. etc. is great - but talk, unlike the solutions, is cheap.

We should start now (actually, should have started thirty years ago) if we're going to come close to matching 1/10 of the success of our neighbor to the south.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Great New Campaign Insider Book Released

One of the great things about being a political junkie is that there is a never-ending supply of reading material on campaigns, political strategy, candidates, tactics - and on and on and on. Once a campaign ends - particularly one of the presidential variety - the flood of books and analytical articles and essays provides enough material to keep me occupied for quite some time.

Behind-the-scenes books from the perspective of a key staffer, consultant or insider always provide the most interesting reads, and in recent days I found out about one that should be just as interesting. Written by Katherine Morrison, An Independent Call follows the 2008 Republican primary in New Hampshire and continues through the general election, and does so from the point of view of an independent voter who becomes involved in the process as a campaign volunteer. As Katherine said when telling me about the book, "It relates my experience in attending the Republican National Convention as well as becoming a blogger. An overview of the role the internet played during the election (along with a nod to some of the McCain volunteer groups), as well as a critique of the most biased media performance seen in recent years, is also included. Yet much of 'An Independent Call' relates the amusing experiences that occur during a campaign, and it is a humorous look at my personal experience of being rather ill-suited for the political arena."

The book has only been out a short time but is already being well received by the residents of the state who figure so prominently through the course of the narrative. Even elected officials are enthusiastic about Katherine's book; Rockingham County Commissioner Maureen Barrows has praised it as "a must read for anyone interested in the day to day life of a volunteer in a political campaign...attention to detail is brilliant."

If this sort of campaign/political narrative appeals to you, I would encourage you to take a look at An Independent Call; I think you'll find it very enjoyable. To help tempt you further, information on ordering the book as well as excerpts from a few of the chapters can be found by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Chairman Frank Goes to School

I sometimes feel that students in this country are not taken seriously by their elders -- or elected officials -- when it comes to matters of politics, finance or public policy. As such, I'm always extremely pleased when anyone takes advantage of the opportunity -- and their right -- to question their elected officials and if warranted call them to the mat.

Harvard Law School student Joel Pollak did that very thing when Congressman Barney Frank appeared on campus on April 6 to give a talk to a group of students. Pollak took the opportunity to question the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee about a variety of issues relating to the nation's current financial situation, and refused to back down when Frank tried to belittle, dismiss and generally talk down to him. As Frank says in the video (prior to yet another insult), students do have a First Amendment right to ask questions -- and I'm so glad Pollak did just that.