Monday, August 7, 2006
Juiced: Why does everything President Bush touches turn to steroids? When he bought the Texas Rangers two decades ago, they appeared—like their team namesake—to be an honest, law-abiding squad. Drug scandals were for teams with roguish names, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose favorite dealer was their mascot, a parrot. But in Bush's brief span as owner, Texas apparently became the Colombia of performance-enhancing drugs, exporting users and peddlers throughout the national pastime.
As president, Bush broadened his interests beyond baseball. After a jogging injury, he took up biking. In no time, the once-noble sport of cycling tested positive for synthetic testosterone—of which Bush is perhaps the political world's proudest supplier.
Of course, we can't be sure that President Bush is responsible for the testosterone in Tour de France champion Floyd Landis' urine. So far, Landis' lawyer has offered much fishier explanations for the drug bikers call "T." Landis claims variously that he was dehydrated, took thyroid pills, or drank too much the night before the test.
He Said, Pee Said: But consider the mounting circumstantial evidence against the president. Bush and Landis are both known bikers. Bush has a bad knee; Landis needs a new hip. Bush is old friends with seven-time Tour de France winner, Landis defender, and fellow Texan Lance Armstrong, himself long the subject of unsubstantiated doping rumors. Bush's last Texan friend to find himself in this position, Rafael Palmeiro, told Congress he never used steroids, just weeks before a urine test said he had.
Then there are Landis' Bush-like explanations to the press. "I was the strongest man in the Tour de France, and that is why I am the champion," he said Saturday, apparently straining to prove that he's dripping with real "T." With Bush on vacation, Landis offered his own candidate for Bushism of the Day when he said the testosterone was "natural and produced by my own organism."
What's more, Bush had a clear motive to tamper with the race. At this stage, Bush's best hope for a legacy was to become the first U.S. president in its 100-year history never to lose the Tour de France. Nor can we discount his unquenchable desire to beat the French. Bush may give German leaders backrubs, but long before the World Cup, he had conveyed to the French more or less the same sentiment that the Italian Marco Materazzi used to goad that fatal head butt from Zidane: "I wish your mother and sister an ugly death." Just as Zidane had a history of head butts, Bush has a long history of flexing an unnatural level of synthetic "T" in the Frenchs' general direction.
Mr. T: Unfortunately, voters have no way of knowing whether testosterone is natural or synthetic. We now have anti-doping agencies for every championship except the one where we need it most.
Before cable television turned bicycle racing into a sport for couch potatoes, there was a time when even caring who won the Tour de France was proof positive of a testosterone deficiency. John Kerry might be president today if "Talledega Nights" meant as much to him as "Pyrénées étages." But Lance Armstrong's heroic triumph over cancer inspired millions of men to wear bracelets, in hopes of one day being dumped by Sheryl Crow.
So far, the White House has been as mum as Barry Bonds' trainer. But sooner or later, Team Landis—desperate to salvage his title—will drop its lame explanations in favor of the one excuse the French always believe: Bush did it. ... 12:15 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, August 1, 2006
Heat Wave: As Washington braces for another August of record-breaking heat, the Republican leadership has at last decided on its response to global warming: From now on, Congress will begin its August recess in July.
The success of Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has prompted a flurry of articles on how global warming will transform our politics. Michael Grunwald imagines "a climate-conscious politics … where a policy's atmospheric costs would be evaluated along with its fiscal costs, a politics of inconvenient truths." Clive Crook suggests a long-term plan to lower the long-term impact of climate change, but points out that we'll need policies to adapt to it as well: "Whatever happens, we will have to live with higher temperatures."
Every night since they saw the Gore movie, my children have followed its cue to pray that people have the courage to change. But as both Grunwald and Crook observe, the long term is something Washington just doesn't do. If we want action on climate change, we need to put it in terms that, even in these deeply partisan times, the political world can understand.
Never mind the impact of global warming on the migratory patterns of the black-throated blue warbler. Those concerned about the long-term survival of the Republican species should worry that climate change may fundamentally alter the migratory patterns of the American voter.
Southward, Ho!: One of the defining trends of the past 40 years has been the dramatic shift in population from the Frost Belt to the Sunbelt. In 1960, the three largest northeastern states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts had a combined 93 electoral votes. Now they have 64. People voted with their feet, and we know where they went: In 1960, Texas and Florida had a total of 34 electoral votes; now those two states have 61.
Climate wasn't the only reason the U.S. population shifted from north to south, but it was a significant one. For Arizona to grow from 4 electoral votes in 1960 to 10 today, while Iowa shrank from 10 to 7, plenty of people must have been willing to brave the desert summer to escape another winter on the plains.
The southern migration of American politics has brought on a long, painful drought for the Democratic Party. For a century, the South had been a Democratic stronghold. But the Sunbelt's population began to explode just as the South was turning away, punishing Democrats for doing the right thing in the '60s by standing up for civil rights and opposing the war in Vietnam.
Apart from a few states on the Pacific Coast and in the mid-Atlantic, Democrats are now a captive party of the Northern Tier. We haven't won an electoral vote in the South so far this century.
Seeing Red: In fact, the electoral map looks increasingly like the weather map in USA Today: Most red and orange states are red; most blue and green states are blue. If you chart the average temperature since 1960, you might as well be looking at Karl Rove's list of target states.
By my calculations, 21 of the 27 states with an average temperature over the last half century of more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit voted for Bush in 2004, providing 241 of his 286 electoral votes. In the 23 states with an average temperature below 50 degrees, by contrast, Democrats cleaned up in the electoral vote, 141 to 45.
The political climate is the same in the House of Representatives. Democrats actually have a 10-seat majority in cold states—and Democratic hopes for reclaiming the House in 2006 rest in large part on seats in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere in the Northeast.
Republicans owe their current House majority to a nearly 40-seat advantage in hot states, as symbolized by two notorious sons of the Sunbelt, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay. The margin would be even more lopsided if not for California, the Democrats' one significant inroad into milder climes.
Flying North: Republican strategists will no doubt try to persuade themselves that global warming is good for them—that if the country gets hot enough, every state will hurt red. But what will happen to Americans' migratory patterns if northern winters become easier to bear and southern summers become unbearable? After half a century, will all the snowbirds who've flocked to Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California suddenly turn around and head north?
If temperature alone is not enough to tip the balance, hurricanes might. Let us hope that we never see another forced resettlement like the aftermath of Katrina. Yet it's not hard to imagine the next wave of retirees foregoing the drama of Florida and other southeastern coastal states in favor of colder but calmer places up north.
A significant population shift to higher latitudes would help offset a current hitch in Democrats' northern strategy: We have to carry nearly every northern state (and most of both coasts) to win.
Of course, turning the North back into the center of electoral gravity won't save Democrats if we don't do a better job of winning over Americans who vote with their feet. For two decades in the '70s and '80s, we consistently lost suburban voters until Bill Clinton won them back. In this decade, we've lost voters who moved from the suburbs to the exurbs – although some, like Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, have shown how to win them back.
High Hopes: While Democrats have lost ground in most growing areas, the party has won big in the coldest ones—ski towns. Sun Valley, Idaho, made the highest donations per capita to John Kerry of any community in America. Aspen was the only county where Kerry ran ahead of Colorado's popular new Democratic senator, Ken Salazar. Kerry's snowboard strategy worked, after all—there just weren't enough snowboarders in Ohio.
Demographics aren't destiny, and neither is climate. As even Rove realizes, the Republican species cannot survive in its current form. And Democrats certainly shouldn't wait to win an election until the North stops freezing over.
Still, with the thermometer running 60 points higher than Bush's popularity, it's worth reminding Republicans to change now, before their margins melt away—not to mention their planet. We won't see Tom DeLay's like again once folks have surfboards in Sugar Land, Texas. ... 10:39 A.M. (link)
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Losers Walk: By the time the polls closed in Georgia last Tuesday, I had come to terms with either possible outcome. If my evil twin Ralph Reed lost the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, I would lead the national sigh of relief, from Democrats as well as thoughtful conservatives alarmed at the moral drift of the Republican Party. If he won, I would await the results of the general election before deciding whether to colonize another planet.
Naturally, I was hoping to remain on Earth and take my chances with global warming. Yet leaving had its own logic. I had always assumed that Ralph and I looked alike so people could make jokes at our expense, the way Brian Williams did by suggesting that we both had necks so skinny, he worried our heads would fall off. But perhaps our resemblance revealed a larger truth. Since the two political parties often appear to exist in parallel realities, it seemed possible that Ralph and I could be the first glimpse behind the curtain of the political universe. Maybe every person in a blue state has an identical red twin, and Ralph and I are just the first to realize it.
Happily, the voters of Georgia spared me from having to lead the exodus to a blue planet. In fact, Ralph's stinging defeat was a rare triumph for both parties. Democrats need no longer fear the Republican spin that scandal means only having to say you're sorry. Republicans can take heart that even in conservative strongholds, the tide may have turned against the soulless hardball that empowered Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and Ralph Reed to doom all three terms of the two Bush presidencies.
Despite my overwhelming sense of relief, I couldn't enjoy the spectacle of Ralph's defeat as much as I'd hoped. Watching the public political death of my mirror image, I felt like a character being given a glimpse of his alternative destiny—a dire warning from the Ghost of Christmas Future: There, but for the ground game of God, go I.
So far, I have avoided Capitol Hill, for fear of the averted glances, hushed whispers, and mad Republican rush to cross the street to avoid awkward encounters with a loser. At first, I flinched at headlines that blared, "Reed Beaten." Luckily, none of the election analyses singled out looks as the reason for Ralph's defeat.
He's Back: But after a week of coming to terms with the loss of the twin I never wanted, I now live in perpetual fear of the one scenario I wasn't prepared for—Ralph Reed's political comeback.
By any objective standard, Ralph should be a dead man walking. Despite a national following, years of political chits, and a lifetime spent building a machine of evangelical voters, he lost in a landslide to a state senator you've never heard of. Casey Cagle won nine of the 10 largest counties in Georgia and two-thirds of the counties overall. The head of the Georgia Right to Life PAC told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "We haven't seen this much conservative disaffection in—well, I would say this is a new experience."
Yet the Reed squad scarcely let three days pass before setting out to resurrect Ralph's political career. "Friends say it is too soon to write off Mr. Reed," David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times reported Saturday in a piece menacingly called, "What Next for Ralph Reed?" Kirkpatrick pointed out that while Ralph had promised in his concession speech that he was "not focused on being a candidate in the future," he hinted otherwise in an interview. "First bids for elected office are always tough, and I am not the first to lose a first campaign," he said, citing Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich as Comeback Kids.
According to the Associated Press, Ralph may be "simply too young and talented to stay off the ballot for long." The chair of the Christian Coalition urged him to "come back to fight again another day" because "he is far too bright and has far too much promise to count him out." Stephen Hess of Brookings told AP, "You never count out anybody who has got politics in their DNA. And certainly Ralph Reed does."
Upon closer inspection, Ralph may have been laying out his path to redemption even as he was losing on the campaign trail. "God uses our mistakes to draw us closer to him," he said, looking for a more sympathetic Co-Conspirator. Unfortunately, Ralph hadn't sent God as many e-mails as Jack Abramoff.
I Am Not a Ralph: When Richard Nixon lost the California governor's race in 1962, Nixon look-alikes who had suffered since the 1940s probably let their guard down, thinking that their long nightmare was over. I won't make that mistake. We don't know how many crises it will take to end Ralph's political career—so if any gambling interests out there are looking for an overpaid strategist to champion their cause behind the scenes, start sending Ralph your money now. He may be reluctant to sin again so soon, but remind him that transgression is the first stop on the road to forgiveness and redemption.
It would be too easy to say you won't have Reed to kick around anymore. He's still alive, so keep kicking! When the worm turns, and the Republican Party is once again hungry for a leader with the naked ambition, cunning, and hypocrisy to lead it out of the wilderness, we want to make sure Ralph is sinned, rested, and ready. ... 1:50 P.M. (link)
Monday, July 17, 2006
Doubletake:The other day, a Republican acquaintance introduced me to his wife the same way Republicans almost always do. "Honey," he said, "This is Ralph Reed."
For the past 15 years, I have lived under the ultimate political curse: I think like Bill Clinton, but I look like Ralph Reed.
When politicos first started confusing Ralph and me, it was merely a glitch in their mental Rolodex. With the same last name, we were political homonyms, like John Kerry and Bob Kerrey. When a pundit wrote about "Bruce Reed's Christian Coalition," he didn't even know what I looked like; his mind just pulled up the first entry under the right last name.
But after Ralph's face appeared on the cover of Time in 1995, it became harder to deny the similarity. We met for the first time at a White House Correspondents Dinner—both of us guests at the same table and dressed in black tie. It was a little like the scene in The Parent Trap when twins separated since birth meet at summer camp—except that in the movie, the same actress plays both characters. Ralph and I looked at each other with absolutely no desire to see the resemblance.
Over time, I got used to being accidentally called Ralph whenever I accidentally wandered into conservative territory, especially in the South. I even thought we could try debating each other on cable, to see what happens when you cross a Doublemint commercial and Crossfire. Still, I was secretly delighted when Ralph left the Christian Coalition to start his own consulting firm, accepting a lower profile in return for higher pay.
The Shadow: Alas, Ralph did not go quietly. He worked so hard making money—"humping in corporate accounts," he called it in an e-mail to Jack Abramoff—that he became a profile in scandal. Then he decided to double his bet by becoming a scandal-plagued candidate for lieutenant governor in Georgia, which holds its primary tomorrow.
By any objective standard, the evidence mounting against Ralph Reed should be enough to stop him in the primary and doom him in the general. So far, his campaign has been one long apology for smarmy, hypocritical avarice that in retrospect he regrets.
When you're Ralph Reed's doppelganger, however, you lose no matter what. If somehow Ralph wins the primary and rides the incumbent Republican governor's coattails to victory in November, he'll be the odds-on favorite to become governor of Georgia in 2010 and seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 or 2016. That's bad news for Georgia, the country—and me. It will only be a matter of time before I snap after some youngster sees me hiding behind a newspaper and shouts, "Mommy, there's President Reed!"
But the shadow of Ralph will dog me even if he loses. Every day, I live in fear that one of the tribes that Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff shafted will come settle their debt with me by mistake.
Or, let's say that as the Abramoff probe continues, Ralph is convicted of a crime. When my children watch the news or read the paper, they'll think their father is marching off to jail. The same politicians who rushed to shun Abramoff will rush to shun me, denying that they've ever met me—which in this case, will be the truth.
Don't Look: Win or lose, indicted or unindicted, it's the physical descriptions that will hurt the worst. When you bear a passing resemblance to a well-known figure, you can't help noticing the adjectives used to describe the person. Unlike, say, Brad Pitt, Ralph Reed is hardly the archetype of physical beauty that many would choose to resemble. For $4 million, you might be able to get someone to say he's handsome, but to me, he just looks average.
As a result, the adjectives that reporters use to describe Ralph have less to do with his actual appearance than with his apparent political fortunes. For Ralph and his look-alikes, the trend is not good. Consider Sean Flynn's profile, "The Sins of Ralph Reed," in the August issue of GQ.
At the outset of his article, Flynn writes that when Ralph was a Time magazine cover boy, journalists covered him like this:
He was young and smart and erudite, and he had that face, that unlined diamond under a swoop of Big Boy hair that had writers struggling for something, anything, other than choirboy or altar boy or angelic to describe it.
Compare that with the words Flynn uses at the end of the piece to describe Ralph today:
Reed morphs into a lizard, a big, grinning lizard.
At this rate, in another 10 years, Ralph will have us looking like eels.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Sidney Carton achieves literary immortality by sacrificing his life to spare the life of his look-alike, Charles Darnay, as a way to prove his devotion to Darnay's wife, Lucie Manette. Rest assured: If I ever have a far-far-better-thing-that-I-do-than-I-have-ever-done moment, it won't be with Ralph Reed. ... 4:48 P.M. (link)
Monday, July 10, 2006
John Sparrow: As Mexico's disputed election heads toward constitutional crisis, nobody's asking the big question: How will the U.S. Supreme Court decide this one?
So far, the most striking aspect of John Roberts' performance as chief justice is that we still have another quarter century or two to mull it over. At 51, he's a boy king who has yet to show whether he's Prince Hal on his way to becoming Henry V or George W. on his way to being George W.
The early report cards on the Roberts Court are all over the lot. In the New York Times, Adam Cohen writes that this term, Roberts reserved his much-ballyhooed "judicial modesty" for cases when Democrats and criminal defendants wanted judicial action. Whenever conservative principles were on the line, Cohen says, Roberts became "a raging judicial activist."
Here in Slate, Rodger Citron credits Roberts for honoring his pledge to be a process-oriented minimalist by reducing dissent and by resolving more cases without deciding them. Give Roberts time, and perhaps eventually he can persuade the entire court to agree to decide nothing.
Back at the Times, longtime court reporter Linda Greenhouse cites legal praise for Roberts' real passion, which is not modesty but punctuation. As proof, Yale professor Akhil Amar points to one line from a recent Roberts opinion: "The state did—nothing." Amar tells Greenhouse, "That little dash is brilliant."
Happily, I don't read Supreme Court opinions for a living, so I'm in no position to judge whether that little sentence is above average. But the next 30 years could be a long slog if the measure of judicial success is doing nothing, and the measure of judicial literary brilliance is a pause for effect that means—nothing.
Dash of Brilliance?: To check on the boy king's progress, I decided to read his opinion in the case of the brilliant dash.
The only explanation for how this matter ended up on the court docket is that conservative clerks couldn't resist taking up an inconsequential Arkansas case named Jones v. Flowers. The case involves an Arkansas man named Jones who failed to pay property tax for several years on a Little Rock house that he no longer lived in because he'd left his wife. The state twice sent him notice by certified mail that his house would be sold to pay back taxes, but no one was home to sign for the letters, and no one showed up at the Post Office to claim them. The state then sold the house to a woman named Flowers, and Jones sued, claiming he hadn't received sufficient notice. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled for Flowers, citing a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that actual notice is not required so long as the state makes a reasonable effort.
In a rare break with his conservative allies on the court, Roberts joined a 5-3 majority in asserting that Jones deserved "a bit more" notice. The "new wrinkle" in this case, he writes, is that because Arkansas used certified mail, the state knew its notice never reached Jones.
The issue sounds more like a boring hypothetical in Civil Procedure than a burning question for the Supreme Court, but Jones does at least have a claim. Unfortunately, Roberts doesn't have much of an answer. He writes that Arkansas should have sent the letter a third time by regular mail or addressed it to "occupant" on the theory that the same ex- who twice ignored notice of a certified letter for Jones would be more likely to read it if it were disguised as junk mail.
Keeping Up With the Joneses: Those hoping that Jones v. Flowers might usher in a new era for due process will have their hopes—dashed. Roberts says it would be too much of a burden to expect the state to actually find Jones by looking up his new address in the Little Rock phone book. Apparently, he shared the state's view that "there are a lot of Joneses in the phone book, and a lot of phone books." The chief justice doesn't care whether state agencies find their man, as long as state bureaucrats cover their bits and pieces. His opinion suggests that there is a third way between judicial modesty and judicial activism: judicial nudginess.
You'd think that if anyone were leaping to defend property rights from bureaucratic overreach, justices Thomas and Scalia would go first. But those two join Justice Kennedy in arguing that their new colleague's scheme is "burdensome, impractical, and no more likely to effect notice than the methods actually employed by the State."
Shockingly, they could be right. Far from clearing anything up, Roberts' opinion is so narrow that it will probably just produce more confusion about how much nonnotice is enough—and force more judges to step into bureaucrats' shoes.
Greenhouse cites another case in which Roberts second-guessed the bureaucracy, ruling that a federal narcotics law didn't apply to a Brazilian religious group that imported hallucinogenic tea: "The government's argument echoes the classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I'll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions." Roberts seems to like one-off cases where the exception proves to be the ruling.
We may wait decades to learn whether Roberts will keep his promise not to use his judicial perch to be a legislator. He never said he wouldn't be a bureaucrat. In the meantime, those concerned about judicial activism may begin to wonder which is worse: legislating from the bench—or punctuating. ... 11:09 A.M. (link)
Thursday, July 6, 2006
The Big 6-0: On his 55th birthday, reporters asked President Bush if he would shoot his age in golf. This year, as he turns 60 today, the question is whether his age will keep up with his disapproval ratings.
In an apparent sign of human progress, not a single newsmagazine marked the president's 60th by putting the Baby Boom generation on the cover. There was a time when you didn't need a calendar to know the year ended in "6." Time told us when the Baby Boom turned 40. Life told us when Boomers hit 50.
Of course, the case for human progress might be stronger if Newsweek hadn't jumped the gun back in November 2005, with a cover called "Ready or Not, Boomers Turn 60." If one newsmagazine can commemorate the Baby Boom's conception, perhaps another ought to preview its demise. U.S. News could save its cover on "The Baby Boom at 100" for 2046, but why wait and run the risk that neither newsweeklies nor our generation will still be around? Boomers are the target audience for these covers, so we should have the chance to read them before we've forgotten which generational cohort we belong to.
One newsmag cover per decade hardly does America's largest generation justice. As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel points out, "Every seven seconds, a baby boomer turns 60—a phenomenon that will continue for the next 18 years." Boomernet.com says you're not getting older—after 21,915 days, you've lost count.
Self-Hating Boom: Not to be outdone, Slate skips ahead to the long overdue question, "Was the Baby Boom a Hoax?"
Obviously, the Baby Boom was an irrefutable demographic fact. But as a political matter, was it ever really the generational movement that endless commentary has imposed upon it? Or was it just simulated to look that way, like the moon landing?
As a late-model Boomer, I should know the answer, but I don't. I'm too conflicted by my membership in an even iffier generation, the Baby Bust. We were born between 1958 and 1964, missed out on the idealism of the '60s, and went straight to the disillusionment of the '70s. Our cohort has produced Jeffrey Dahmer, David Koresh, and Timothy McVeigh—and we're still in our 40s.
One demographer told USA Today, "Bush and Clinton, both leading-edge boomers, show the diversity of opinions and philosophies of the baby boom generation." Another described the current divide between red and blue states as the direct result of boomers: "The culture wars of today are a boomer vs. boomer phenomenon, and Bush and Clinton are good examples of that generation."
In other words, the Baby Boom generation is 78 million people born over a span of 18 years who live in the same country, grew up watching the same TV shows, suffer the same aches and pains, and disagree about almost everything else.
Middle Kingdom: A generation so big that every member felt like a middle child was bound to grow up craving attention. But the Baby Boom's political self-consciousness may have saddled it with more burdens than it deserved. George W. Bush tried to exploit that self-image in the snarkiest, most disingenuous passage of his 2000 convention speech, when—after years of pretending not to have been part of the Baby Boom generation, he signed back up simply to criticize Bill Clinton for letting boomers down: "Our current president embodied the potential of a generation—so many talents, so much charm, such great skill. ... So much promise to no great purpose."
Let us hope that there is never a president who embodies squandered purpose as much as George W. Bush. But those shortcomings are all his own, not his generation's. The New York Times may be right to call Bush "America's most powerful baby boomer," but there is little evidence that he ever really identified with his generation, or that most Americans between the ages of 42 and 60 even still think of ourselves as a generation, if we ever did. After two baby-boom presidents born six weeks apart 60 years ago whose records and world views could scarcely be more different, we can safely eliminate generation as a dominant political factor.
The torch has been passed—no, wait, that's not a torch, just an awful lot of birthday candles. ... 12:28 P.M. (link)
Friday, June 30, 2006
Flying Saucers: If the Founders got together for a reunion this July 4, they'd have much to celebrate. Trading King George III for George Washington turned out to be the greatest straight player swap of all time. Bailing on the British Empire in favor of the American experiment showed investment foresight worthy of Warren Buffett. The Declaration of Independence changed the world, and even if the current administration sometimes forgets it exists, the Constitution is still going strong, too.
But if the Founders could do it all over again, might they look at the House of Representatives today and wonder, "What were we thinking?"
The Founders had high hopes for the House's contribution to democracy. They made House members stand for election every two years so they would reflect popular opinion. Senators were given the luxury of six-year terms so they could deliberate with less eye to electoral whim. The Senate was the saucer to cool the House's coffee.
For better or worse, that's more or less how Congress behaved for the first couple centuries. Fifty years ago, the biggest obstacle to social and political progress in America was the U.S. Senate. Back when it took 67 votes to break a filibuster, the Senate was less the saucer than the little round hole in the Starbucks trash bin where the House's coffee was thrown out.
In the last decade or two, however, the House and Senate have reversed roles. Because Senators are elected statewide and Senate rules force members to work out their differences, the Senate tends to more accurately reflect the broader public's view. Because House members are elected in increasingly polarized districts and House rules forbid members from working out their differences, the House has become the world's greatest deliberative trash bin.
Red Card: To make matters worse, in recent years, the political ethos of the House has infected the rest of the body politic. Take-no-prisoners politics began wrecking the House in the late '80s. It sank to unimaginable depths with impeachment in the late '90s and evolved into a brass-knuckled shakedown under Tom DeLay in the early '00s. When House members graduated to the Senate, some of them brought its harsh partisan instincts to the upper chamber.
In the House, DeLay launched an unprecedented and successful effort to redraw congressional districts year after year to maximize partisan advantage. If DeLay had gone on to the Senate, he no doubt would have tried to rewrite state boundaries every few years to achieve the highest possible number of red states.
The Supreme Court's refusal this week to overturn the DeLay gerrymander in Texas suggests that another firewall has fallen. From now on, both parties will feel compelled to take the same politics that has brought down the House to every state capital in America. Instead of doing the job people elected them to do, state legislators will spend all their time fighting over how to write safe congressional districts so that members of Congress don't have to do the job people elect them to do.
Redistricting was at the root of DeLay's downfall, and may well be at the root of Washington's as well. In recent years, redistricting has made districts more polarized, homogenous, and friendly to entrenched incumbents. Competitive districts in which incumbents actually have to earn re-election are becoming an endangered species.
What Would Thomas Jefferson Do? As Juliet Eilperin noted, Rep. John Tanner, a thoughtful Democratic congressman from Tennessee, has proposed legislation to require every state to take the politics out of redistricting. Under Tanner's plan, each state would have to appoint an independent commission that couldn't take partisan outcomes into account.
Stopping the spread of DeLayism may demand even more far-reaching measures. When Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Tom Davis proposed a bipartisan plan to give new House seats to both the District of Columbia and the state of Utah, they suggested avoiding a middecade redistricting battle by having the new Utah member run statewide.
Why not go all the way and turn half of all House seats into at-large districts? If half of every congressional delegation had to run statewide, it would sharply reduce the potential for gerrymandering, and every member would have to compete in a bigger, less homogenous district.
Such a system would likely have little or no predictable impact on the partisan breakdown of the House. In the seven small states with at-large members today, both parties have done proportionally better at breaking the red-blue barrier in the House than in the Senate. Two of the five at-large members from red states are Democrats, compared to just 16 out of 62 Senators from red states. One of the two at-large members from blue states is Republican, compared with only nine out of 38 Senators.
Running statewide or in larger districts would make all candidates work harder to earn their keep. This year, Democratic Senate challengers face an uphill battle, but they have Republicans on the run in tough states like Missouri and Tennessee. In the House, Democrats could end up running a great campaign, win the popular vote, and still fall short of a majority because of the way districts are drawn.
In the new journal Democracy, former Rep. Brad Carson reviews a new history of the House, which he says "reads like a chonicle of degeneration, a well-wrought record of the decay of American politics and, perhaps, of American character." Carson proposes another solution: Send members home for good, let them vote electronically from their districts, and increase the size of the House to reflect that the nation has tripled in population since the House reached its current size.
Anyone who thinks we can just beat DeLay at his own game is only playing into the hands of DeLayism. Despite the Founders' best efforts, the game is rigged. It's time to give the people their House back. ... 12:32 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Moose and Squirrel: Stop the presses—Karl Rove is switching parties.
For a quarter-century or more, Rove has been telling friends that he would be the next Mark Hanna—the industrialist turned political boss who elected William McKinley president, only to see his successor, Teddy Roosevelt, become a reform crusader. Three years ago, an old friend of Rove's told Ron Suskind of Esquire, "Some kids want to grow up to be president. Karl wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna. We'd talk about it all the time. We'd say, 'Jesus, Karl, what kind of kid wants to grow up to be Mark Hanna?' "
When George W. Bush ran for president, Rove used his fancy for McKinley and Hanna to distract reporters from more obvious historical parallels—such as that Bush's father was a failed, one-term president, or that the elder Bush would nickname his son "Quincy" in honor of two other failed, one-term presidents.
In Rove's mind, McKinley was the first compassionate conservative. "He saw that the issues that had dominated American politics since the 1860s had sort of worn themselves out," Rove told the Washington Postin 2000. "Neither party could successfully appeal upon the basis of their Civil War allegiances." Bush and Rove weren't in any rush to put the Civil War behind them, so compassionate conservatism was the next best thing: flying the Confederate flag, but at half mast.
The urge to elect another McKinley (and to be the next Hanna) was a strangely mediocre ambition. It's hard to imagine the late Lloyd Bentsen winning a debate by declaring, "I knew Bill McKinley. Bill McKinley was a friend of mine. And governor, you're no Bill McKinley."
Nonetheless, Rove stayed loyal to the 1896 analogy. As James Traub noted last week in the New York Times, Rove gave a speech in 2002 about how much McKinley had done to draw new voting blocs to the Republican Party. Earlier this month, Rove's eye wandered a bit, when he told the New Hampshire GOP that his favorite presidential quote was from Warren Harding. Yet Harding was in the McKinley-Hanna mold—all three were undistinguished Republicans who might have done more damage had they not died in office.
But as Jacob Weisberg foresaw last November in a piece called "Karl Rove's Dying Dream," you can't party like it's 1896 forever. Instead of the Republican realignment Rove had promised, Bush began dragging his party down with him. In effect, conservatives were telling Bush the cruelest words Rove had ever heard: "You're no Bill McKinley."
Bullies: This week, we have proof that Rove's dream is as dead as McKinley. In fact, Rove wrote the obituary himself.
In a fawning Time essay that would make Mark Hanna roll over in his grave, Karl Rove finds a new hero—Hanna's nemesis, Teddy Roosevelt, who left the Republican fold in 1912 to found the Bull Moose Party. Rove sounds as Bully as Marshall Wittmann: "Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most remarkable figures in America's story. ... He was among our most consequential Presidents."
Rove tries hard to portray TR with the official White House talking points about Bush: character, leadership, animated by big ideas, "makes ardent friends and bitter enemies." But as even Rove must realize, that moose won't hunt. Roosevelt is consequential for all the reasons Bush is not: Unlike the current president, TR stood up for the common man, took on established interests, and showed a boundless energy for solving the nation's problems.
Why, nearly a century after McKinley's and Hanna's deaths, would Karl Rove suddenly throw them over? Unlike Roosevelt, Rove never stopped any bullets, but he has been sweating plenty of them. Perhaps all those grand jury appearances made Rove see the light and realize that Hanna was wrong to worship what goes on behind closed doors.
More likely, Rove is enough of a history buff to know that he's on the wrong side of it. TR-ism, not W-ism, is the only viable future for the Republican Party. Rove wants historians to give Bush credit for a new Republican era, even if—like Hanna—Rove himself became one of its greatest obstacles. With the primaries coming up, Karen Hughes is already working on Bush's new slogan: He's not an enemy of reform; he's a "Roosevelt with results." ... 11:11 A.M. (link)