Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thoughts from A Freeway Lover

Ever since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated with transportation. Airports, train stations, subway platforms, you name it, I've had a fascination with it.

(This is probably in keeping with my having Aspergers: a lot of people with high-functioning autism tend to be really interested in transport.)

Of all the modes of transportation, the one that held my interest the most was the freeway. Maybe it was growing up the son of autoworkers, but I've always had an interest in the Interstate Highway System. I remember sitting with a Rand McNally map of the United States and just spending time looking at all the routes of the various interstates throughout the country. I would even draw imaginary places that had freeways criss-crossing the area and going to other cities nearby.

I still go to websites to find out things about a certain roadway (such as, Interstate 94 is the longest highway whose number doesn't end in 5 or 0).

I know that many people prefer the classic two lane highway, but they never held the same appeal that that a freeway held for me.

Over time, I've learned that most people don't share the same interest I have in freeways. Where I see order, symmetry and efficiency, others see blight and devastation.

Blogger Tim Lee wrote a post last week about his belief that freeways killed St. Louis. Erik Kain chimed in with a related post sharing his visceral dislike of freeways.

I have mixed feelings on both essays. Freeways have done great harm to many urban areas. For example, when Interstate 94 was being built through St. Paul,MN it was went right through the Rondo neighborhood, which was predominantly African American. It pushed these people out of their homes and left deep wounds in the St. Paul's black community. So, yes, freeways can be detrimental to cities.

But I do they lead to the decline of great cities as both Lee and Kain suggest? I'm not so certain. I could look at my home state of Michigan and look at a city like Detroit. Did Interstate 75 destroy the city? Maybe, but so did the fortunes of the auto industry.

I don't think St. Louis declined simply because they decided to build I-70 through the city. Did a changing economy also have a role as well?

Let's look again at the Twin Cities. Even though we have freeways that go into both urban cores, both cities are rather vital places. While the building of interstates did do damage in specific neighborhoods, they didn't necessarily destroy St. Paul or Minneapolis.

I do think that it would have been better if Interstates had been designed to go around cities instead of through them, but what is done has been done. Yes, there are efforts to remove freeways from some cities and maybe that's a good idea. But I don't know if that alone is going to be the answer to help declining cities. Getting rid of Interstate 475 in my hometown is not going to restore Flint to its former glory.

On the other side, there are costs to not having freeways in the urban core. Washington, DC stopped efforts to have the nation's capital laced with freeways. I think that was probably a good idea, but the result was putting all the traffic on surface streets which, at least when I lived there in the early-90s, was clogged with traffic.

Erik Kain also make a quip about how Phoenix would never be a "great city" because of its freeways. But what makes a great city? Does every city have to be like New York to be come great? If Phoenix isn't a great city, then why have so many people moved there? What if someone has their own idea of what makes a great city?

I will still love freeways, even with their problems. I also admit they have problems and believe there should be some solutions. But Cities live and die for a lot of reasons, not just because someone decided to ram a freeway through.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Palin Effect

I've been saying while Sarah Palin might play well in Republican circles, when it comes to the general public, there isn't much love for her and that will show up come November.

Well, it seems we have one example of how toxic Palin is to GOP candidates. The leading GOP candidate for a Senate seat in New Hampshire is Kelly Ayotte, who had a good following with moderates. She recieved and endorsement from Palin and saw her standing among moderates evaporate:

Kelly Ayotte's seen her appeal to moderate voters crumble in the wake of her endorsement by Sarah Palin and her lead over Paul Hodes has shrunk to its lowest level of any public polling in 2010- she has a 45-42 advantage over him, down from 47-40 in an April PPP poll.

There's not much doubt that the shift in the race is all about Ayotte. Hodes' favorability numbers have seen little change over the last three months. Where 32% of voters saw him positively and 39% negatively in April, now 35% have a favorable opinion of him to 40% with an unfavorable one. But Ayotte's seen a dramatic decline. Her favorability spread of 34/24 in April was the best we've measured for any Republican Senate candidate so far this year but her negatives have risen 15 points since that time while her positives have increased only 2 and she now stands at 36/39...

The Palin endorsement may well be playing a role in this. 51% of voters in the state say they're less likely to back a Palin endorsed candidate to only 26% who say that support would make them more inclined to vote for someone. Among moderates that widens to 65% who say a Palin endorsement would turn them off to 14% who it would make more supportive.

It will be interesting to see what will happen in the coming weeks and months when Palin-endorsed candidates will have to face the wider public and not simply the adoring fans of the GOP base. Something tells me my hunches about how Palin will shrink the party instead of grow it will turn out to be correct.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Can Conservatism Be Reformed, Continued

A Reader responds:

I have faith in our political system that eventually the GOP or some other conservative party will be that reformed conservatism that you and I are looking for.

I always felt that 2008 wasn't enough to get rid of all the bad influences and extreme talking points on the right. I had hoped that it would reform but didn't think it would.

No(w) I feel that politics is cyclical, it will take a couple Mondale like thrashing(s) and wandering into the wilderness for sane conservatism to come back. Maybe like liberals will we come out with a new name, maybe ironically classical liberals (or just plain libertarians).

But whatever it is, I just can't see this country staying as it is, demographics and even ideologically the data says it won't. And no I don't believe in a permanent majority of any party. Eventually things change.

But that change might not be for decades and frankly that sucks for you and I.

All you can do is try to speak your views and vote for whoever you feel best represents them.

I think he has a point. At this point, the GOP losses in 2006 and 2008 were only seen as mere bumps in the road, instead of signs for reform. With the economy the way it is and with Obama presently in the doldrums, it seems like a chance for the Republicans and conservatism to strike back with no changes in their agenda.

In some way, I think the GOP is repeating the some of the same mistakes the Democrats made 30 years ago. After losing big time in 1980, the Democrats gained some seats in 1982- a year when the economy was still in the dumps and President Reagan was losing some of his popularity. These signs made them think that nothing had to be changed and former Vice President Mondale became the Democratic nominee in 1984. Mondale went on to be crushed by Reagan in November of that year, winning only 10 electoral votes.

In someways, it feels like history is repeating itself. I can see the Republicans gaining seats in November and feeling overconfident. Believe that nothing need be changed, I can see the GOP nominating someone like Sarah Palin and then going down to a devasting defeat.

Of course, history doesn't repeat as much as it rhymes. Things might change between now and 2012. But I do know that American Conservatism won't change until it enters the wilderness and ends the denial that it is currently in.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Republican Agenda: Subpoena Everybody

For those of us that crave a real Republican agenda, one that deals with issues like, you know the economy, expect to be sadly dissapointed if the GOP takes the House come November. Congresswoman Michelle Bachman said recently that a Republican house would basically issue subpoenas and hold endless hearings:

“Oh, I think that’s all we should do,” Bachmann said. “I think that all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another. And expose all the nonsense that is going on. And it’s very important when we come back that we have constitutional conservative leadership because the American people’s patience is about this big.”

On the one hand, I can't believe she is saying this. On the other hand, I've observed her long enough to know that she would say something this stupid.

Listen, I'm not a big fan of Obama, and I have some issues with the health care plan and some other legislation. But I really don't think it's necessary or wanted to hold basically hold a witch hunt at the people's expense while the economy is still perilously weak.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Can American Conservatism Be Reformed?

I've been reading the ongoing debate about where Libertarians belong with some interest. Folks like Brink Lindsey are aruging that the conservative-libertarian alliance must end, and that libertarians must make their own way. Bloggers like Tim Lee and Mark Thompson go even further, arguing for a left-libertarian alliance (the liberaltarian arugment that Lindsey was a part of until recently). The argument for leaving conservatives behind is the same in both camps: conservatism in America is made up of those who might talk a good game about freedom, but in reality are not interested in freedom when it comes to civil liberties or acceptance of various minorities. This is what Tim Lee says:

Conservatives care about “protecting individual liberty” for some people, but the conservative movement includes many people who are indifferent, if not hostile, to the liberty of foreigners, immigrants, drug users, gays and lesbians, women who want abortions, broadcasters, sex workers, criminal defendants, Muslims, publishers of pornography, atheists, and so forth. It’s true, of course, that you can compile a similar list (gun owners, business owners, etc) on the progressive side. But I see no reason to think the progressive list is longer, or that the people on that list are somehow more important, than the people on the conservative list.

This belief is shared not just by some libertarians, but conservatives and Republicans as well. More than once I've seen people come to the fore with the sunny hopes of presenting a more inclusive vision of conservatism and the GOP, only to give up months later when they encouter some of the darker sides of the American right.

This all leads me to wonder: can American conservatism every be reformed?

There really isn't a strong movement in the United States that is committed to a more moderate version of conservatism. There are a few groups, but there is not strong reformist presence within what makes up the American Right in the same way that there is in the United Kingdom. Across the pond, the Tory Reform Group has been around for 35 years representing a more moderate brand of conservatism and they can be credited for helping get the Conservative Party back in power.

But the impulse here in the States among those on the Right who are disatisfied with the state of things, is to simply walk away. Whether its Brink Lindsey now touting a "libertarian centrism" or Tim Lee flirting with the Left, the usual result of frustrated folks on the right is not to change things, but to leave and look for greener pastures.

Why is that? Why is there no impulse to change the Right?

I think I have a few reasons.

The first is the word "conservative." When someone uses that word it is almost always about the more negative aspects of human nature. If a community or person has issues with same-sex marriage we tend to say that they are "conservative." Conversely, the word "liberal" tends to have more positive connotations. All the philosphical meanings of conservatism that came from people like Edmund Burke or Russel Kirk are never thought of in common parlance. If being a conservative means being anti-gay or suspicious of immigrants, well, who would want to be a part of that, let alone try to reform it?

Related to that, is how we see conservatism. If conservatism is made up of bigots, whom we believe can't change, then why bother trying to reform anything?

Finally, I think there has been so little impulse for a renewed conservatism, because there has not been a keen vision of what a renewed conservatism would look like. While there has been some attempt to start this project,
for the most part there really has not been any strong desire to frame a new conservatism for the 21st century. There's a lot of talk about what conservatism was like in the 1980s under Reagan, or about the moderate Republicanism of the 1950s through 70s, but very few have said this is what conservatism should look like today.

If you are someone under say, 40 years old who believes in limited goverment, but sees a conservatism that is filled with bigots and with no one really crafting a more positive vision, then you would probably want to ignore the conservatives and leave them to their fate.

For me, the question is not can American conservatism reform, but should it reform and I believe wholeheartedly that it should. The reason I believe it has to reform has to do with the fact that unless something radical happens, we live in a two-party system. While many folks have left the conservative movement, there are still a fair number that remain and they are more radical than ever. It is less thoughtful and deeply suspicious of anyone that doesn't think or see things in the way they do. It is a movement that is built more on resentment than on the sunny conservatism that Ronald Reagan once espoused. On paper, a party like this should be on the margins, but because of our two party system, they are the alternative to Obama and the liberals. As the alternative, it means they have a greater shot at winning. As Jeffrey Goldberg has noted in his blog posts on Sarah Palin and the New York mosque controversy, a simple-minded conservatism is dangerous to the health of our democracy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

From the Better Late Than Never Dept.

In March of this year, anti-gay state Senator Roy Ashburn got caught driving drunk after leaving a gay bar in Sacremento. Since then, it appears he has finally come out of the closet and offers a mea culpa:

I should begin with an apology. I am sincerely sorry for the votes I cast and the actions I took that harmed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Just as important to me, I am sorry for not stepping forward and speaking up as an elected official on behalf of equal treatment for all people. For nearly 26 years, the voters in my area of California trusted me as their elected representative. I look back now knowing there is so much more I could have done to inform the public about LGBT people and to fight for equal rights under the law. Regrettably and selfishly, I took another path in my life and political career—I chose to conceal who I truly am and to then actually vote against the best interests of people like me. All this was done because I was afraid–terrified, really–that somehow I would be revealed as gay...

Gay people being treated with respect and having the same opportunities for a good life regardless of sexual orientation should not be topics of political debate. How can it possibly be that there is a partisan political divide over equal rights in America? At a time when our country is deeply divided over the proper size and scope of government, when people are hurting in a bad economy and when we face real threats from terrorists determined to end our way of life, shouldn’t we be united on at least one principal–that equality for all Americans is fundamental to who we are as a nation of freedom-loving people?

Now, I am somewhat of a novelty in politics. I am a gay Republican. I have always been a Republican, even as an eight-year-old boy with an intense interest in campaigning, elections and government. To me, Republican principles hold that each individual is special and unique; each individual should have the maximum freedom and opportunity under our Constitution; that government has no business in the private lives of our citizens.

It would have been nice had never took part in ways to hurt the gay community, but at least he is admiting his wrong and trying to start anew. It's good to have another strong Republican advocate for equality.

The Passion of Charlie Crist

Newsweek has a glowing article about Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who is leading the field in the race for a Senate seat even though he bolted the GOP and is running as an independent.  Crist is lifted up as a model for centrism in an age of extremism, especially right-wing extremism.

Now I do think that Crist's lead in the Senate race over GOP challenger Marc Rubio, highlights something I've said for a while: that while the Tea Party might play well in Republicanland, it will not do as well among the general public.  Rubio is too far to the right to be acceptable in such a purple state as Florida, the GOP should have got behind a centrist candidate.

That said, I don't think Charlie Crist is a great model for centrism.  As I've said before, Crist is basically an opportunist who makes decisions based on the political winds of the moment.  I've faulted the GOP for basically putting people in ideological straightjackets and I stand by what I've said in the past. But having no principles is no better than clinging to principles too tightly.

Liberals like E.J. Dionne and the writers at Newsweek are giddy at Crist's centrism, but that's because he is spuring the GOP and he is agreeing with them on various issues like offshore oil drilling. What happens if he wins and then changes his positions (again) when the political winds shift right? Something tells me that all the accolades from the Left would stop.

I just think centrism or moderate politicians have to be about more than just being rank opportunism. If that is what being a moderate is all about, then no thanks.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Race and the Tea Parties

Matt Bai's column today about race and the Tea Party movement seem to answer two issues that have been making the news as of late.

The first is of course, the latest round in the "Is the Tea Party racist?" meme.  The answer to that question is not a simple yes/no answer. While I think there are racists that have shown up at Tea Party rallies and while I don't think the Tea Parties are helpful to the Republican Party, I tend to think that on the whole the Tea Party is not racist.

That said, I don't always get the impression that the Tea Partiers or the wider conservative movement goes out of its way to actively welcome minorities. So, no, the Tea Party is some modern incarnation of the Klan, but it isn't Sesame Street either.

Of course, I'm also a 40 year-old African American that's never really dealt with the racist animosity that my father dealt with.  I have a feeling that if you asked my 80 year-old Dad, he would probably say that this movement is racist.

And that's what Bai is getting at in his article today.  The recent spat between the NAACP and the Tea Party might seem on the surface to be about race, but it what's really going on is an argument between two aging groups, with younger generations sitting on the sidelines.

This is how Bai describes the make up of the Tea Parties:

...the insidious presence of racism within some quarters of the movement — or, maybe more accurately in some cases, an utter indifference toward racial sensitivities — shouldn’t really surprise anyone. That’s not necessarily because a subset of these antigovernment ideologues are racist, per se, but in part because they are just plain old — at least relatively speaking. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously. A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.

This does not mean that there aren’t hateful 25-year-olds coming to Tea Party rallies and letting fly racial slurs. What it does mean is that a sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys. (This is true for a lot of older, urban Democrats, too, who consider themselves liberal but whose racial commentary causes their grandchildren to recoil.)

And the NAACP is also showing its age:

White Americans of that generation are not the only ones whose longstanding views on race seem increasingly dated. The N.A.A.C.P. has over the years lost its currency among younger, more educated African-Americans, whose sense of opportunity is such that they are less convinced of their need for a traditional civil rights organization (let alone one with the word “colored” in its title). A lot of older civil rights leaders and black politicians have been frustrated with President Obama for not advancing a specific agenda for his fellow black Americans, a grievance that seems not to bother many younger African-Americans, for whom the civil rights movement is a chapter in a history text, rather than a searing memory.

Bai's article brings up a lot of thoughts about how this plays into the future of the GOP. The Tea Party and the GOP tend to overlap in members and both tend to be both white and old. While these older folks have excited the GOP and might give them a good shot at taking Congress in the fall, one has to wonder how sustainable this all can be as younger generations come to the fore. While neither the Tea Party nor the GOP is inherently racist, there has been a whole lot of indifference towards minorities (and when it comes to immigration some hostility). That's been a turnoff for minorities, but it is also a big turn off for younger whites who have grown up with diversity as a norm. I've seen a lot of young white folks, especially under the age of 30, who might be fiscally more conservative, shun the GOP because of its standoffish approach when it comes to diversity.

The GOP has a problem in the long run. While it might enjoy the energy of the Tea Party now, these aging men and women can't help the Republicans down the road. Conservatives are going to have to find ways to actively welcome minorities and the young. That will also mean creating policies that will help minority communities.

Will the GOP realize this in time? 

As I said earlier, this article answer two questions.  More on the second one later.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Standing Up for TARP

Call me old fashioned, but I expect politicians to make hard decisions.  It doesn't matter if I voted for them or not, I tend to think that Senators, Representatives, Governors and Presidents are elected with the implict trust of the people that they will do their level best to govern.  Sometimes that means doing things I might disagree with, but I tend to understand that they were called on to make the hard decisions and that's what they did.

I see the vote for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) as one of those hard votes.  A lot of people found it rather disgusting that we had to save the very people who helped bring the economy down, but it was either that or see the economy implode. It's a vote that I can imagine many a lawmaker had to hold their nose and vote for, but I trust that they did the right thing. 

The sad thing is that Republicans who voted for TARP are catching heat from Tea Party folks for their vote.  As Jeb Gonklin notes, the recent losses by Bob Bennett and Bob Iglis were because of their support for TARP.

So, what would those opposed to TARP would have done?  The thing is, they have never given an answer.  At least nothing more than doing nothing.

Of course, the Federal Reserve chose to do nothing when Lehman Brothers collasped and many (including myself) thought it was a good idea.  We had to let Wall Street know that Washington would not always come to their rescue.  Then, a few days later, the markets went into free fall.  The idea of letting the market handle it was not working. 

None of this seems to matter to some people.  Even though the perferred "let the markets handle it" was failing big time, many in the Tea Party still think their approach was the right one.

Again, I expect lawmakers to make the hard decisions.  That's what leadership is all about.  Leadership is about making those decisions and not simply pleasing the rabid base.  We need people who are not simply bound to their ideology, but are able to govern with their brains and in the interest of all the people.  A lawmaker that never makes hard decisions and only follows the party line, is not leadership.  As Gonklin notes, its high time Republicans in tight primary battles to go on the offensive and not only defend their vote on TARP but challenge their opponents to explain what they would have done.  If the opponent says the market would handle it, then they shouldn't have the priviledge of serving in Congress.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Bullworth" Republicans, Revistied

Remember when I said that Republicans rarely speak the truth until after they are out of office?  Well, a good friend reminded me of Lindsey Graham's interview recently in the New York Times where the South Carolina Senator does speak rather freely.  My bad.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The "Bullworth" Republicans

In the space of 24 hours, two stories have come out about two Republican lawmakers who lost their chances for re-election.  The first is from Congressman Bob Inglis who had some choice words for "demogogues" like Sarah Palin.  The outgoing Utah Senator Bob Bennett said that incumbent Democrat Harry Reid will probably win in the Nevada Senate race over Republican/Tea Party challenger Sharon Angle. 

All of this truth-telling by Republicans having to look for new jobs has some people wondering why they never said anything while in office.  This is what one person said responding to a blog post at the Moderate Republican:

So, Bob Inglis finally joined Bob Bennett and Dede Scozzafava in going "full Bulworth." I'm conflicted...

While he expresses opinions that are clearly shared by a significant portion of what remains of moderate Republicanism, I have to stop short of calling him "brave" for stating them.

Brave will be a politician that lets us in on what they're really thinking while they're STILL in office, not after they've left, or as a lame duck. When that starts happening, we may get somewhere.

There is a bit of truth here. It's pretty common for Republican politicians to spill the beans only after they are out office. The become "Bullworth" Republicans, named after the 1998 movie about a senator that has a nervous breakdown and starts telling the truth. But they tell the truth from a place of safety.

I'm  a little wary of judging these politicians too harshly.  I don't think it's very easy these days to be a Republican legislator that, well...wants to legislate.  I tend to think there is a climate of fear among these politicians, and they know that if they do anything that upsets the base, they will get a challenger come election time.

On the other hand, what have they got to lose?  Yes, they could lose their office, but that's politics.

At some point, a Republican in office is going have to say "enough."  They are going to have to stop living in fear and having to say the stupidest things just to keep the Tea Partiers at bay.  They might go down in defeat, but if one GOP office holder speaks up and then another, and then another...well, we might have a revolution on our hands.

I commend Inglis and Bennett for saying what they said, but give me some legislator that says this while in office. 

Friday, July 09, 2010

The July Pause

Sorry for the lack of posts lately.  I work for the local governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and have been busy with the General Assembly which has been meeting here in Minneapolis all week.  Expect more posts soon.