Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Ghost of Elbridge Gerry Haunts Montgomery

Elbridge Gerry stands out in several respects among the founding fathers. Gerry, who served as vice president under James Madison, was the first vice president not to seek the presidency himself, although that noncandidacy was occasioned by his death. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Gerry was one of the few delegates to the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the finished product. (He objected to its omission of a bill of rights. That Federalist-driven omission led Gerry to leave them for the Jeffersonian Democrats.) But it was for his actions as governor of Massachusetts that his name entered the Anglophonic political lexicon.

Gerry (who pronounced his name with a hard “g,” as in “guess”) is best known today as the namesake of the gerrymander (with a soft “g” pronounced like “j”). In the 1812 Massachusetts elections, Gerry was the proponent of a districting scheme that created one oddly-shaped district that gathered and isolated many Federalist strongholds, leaving several other districts with narrow Democratic majorities. A political cartoonist of the day attached Gerry’s name to the last two syllables of “salamander” to create the fictional gerrymander.

This history comes home to Alabama as we make our regular post-census trip to the reapportionment table. The Legislature used its two-week break from the regular session to conduct a series of hearings around the state, purportedly seeking citizen input. Now, the current Legislature has made quite a name for itself in ramming through the most partisan, extreme legislation possible on a score of issues, from state employees’ voluntary dues deductions, to teacher tenure abolition, to tax relief for out-of-state corporations. Frankly, nothing they could do with respect to reapportionment would surprise me. My first impression was that the “hearings” would be only a sham, designed to give the GOP the appearance of impartiality and fairness in the pro-Republican media.

And I did not seem to be disappointed. In fact, I am so un-disappointed, that this is the third from-scratch version of everything from this point on in the post. I had just written up what the rumor mill had “confirmed” as the GOP plan, when a very public announcement was made of a different plan. Under the different plan, Tuscaloosa would have been moved into Aderholt’s 4th District, and DeKalb and Etowah Counties would have moved from his district to the 3rd. Montgomery County and the Shoals counties, which had feared being chopped up, would have remained intact.

The next day, the reapportionment joint committee held its formal meeting, and promptly ditched its working plan it had publicly trumpeted the day before. So much for all the Montgomery and Shoals folks who stayed away, thinking they’d won. So much, also, for all the GOP blather about a new openness and honesty in Montgomery under their jackbooted regime. Under the NEW New Plan, the Shoals are indeed split; Tuscaloosa remains much as it was, and the heavily Democratic west side of Montgomery is moved to Terri Sewell’s 7th District, making it even more lopsidedly black - and Democratic. Of course, Montgomerians who are voting for Sewell won’t be around to vote against Republican freshman Martha Roby. The other GOP freshman in the litter, Mo Brooks of the 5th District, loses Democratic Colbert to Aderholt, and takes in its stead the Republican-leaning part of Morgan which had been in the 4th for the last decade.

The ghost of Elbridge Gerry is green with envy at this brash display of partisan hacking.

The voters of the New York 26th Congressional District yesterday upped the ante on the whole Congressional apportionment process. That district, created in the 2000 New York reapportionment (when the GOP controlled the New York Senate and was able to dictate safe GOP seats) is a Republican “firewall” district. Yesterday’s win there by Democrat Kathy Hochul was largely based on her assault on the Republican favorite’s “All In” embrace of the GOP’s Ryan Medicare abolition plan. In terms of structured partisanship, I would have to say the New York 26th has at least as much of a built-in GOP tilt as Jo Bonner’s Alabama 1st. That, friends, is a serious Republican tilt; only Spence Bachus’s 6th is more Republican among Alabama districts. (Which it remains under the NEW New Plan, even though Bachus sacrificed the GOP strongholds of Autauga and Elmore, which one rumor had him gaining, to shore up Roby.)

Which leads me to an interesting observation: if such a solidly Republican district as the New York 26th can be flipped, as voters rebel over Wall Street’s desire to privatize Medicare, what about districts with even better Democratic demographics and local voting trends? Like the 3rd, 4th, and 5th in Alabama? The Eight Republican Rubberstamps (the six Representatives, plus Sessions and Shelby) have largely spoken in favor of the Ryan plan. Of the eight, I suspect only Shelby’s well-developed political antennæ and boundless instinct for self-preservation over party loyalty may lead him to bail on the plan. 4th District lemming Robert Aderholt, in response to a request from George W. Bush, cast the deciding vote for CAFTA in the House in 2005 that sent over 5,000 hosiery mill jobs in Fort Payne scurrying off to Central America. It’s hard to picture him standing up to tanning bed freak Boehner on this one. I suspect that, in the coming weeks, we may see one or more Democratic challengers putting out feelers, who might not have looked over the rim of the foxhole after the 2010 debacle. When they do, let’s encourage them.

One point that was made by the ADC and others in the Republican “open hearings,” that is going nowhere - at least not legislatively - is the prospect of adding a second black-majority Congressional district. Certainly, there should be one. Alabama is 26.3% black, and its House delegation is only 14.3% black. That is an inexcusable disparity. Geographically, it’s a challenge, but not insurmountable. If the 7th District were extended south to include the black precincts of Mobile County, black precincts in Jefferson could be linked to those in Montgomery and Macon. Or the latter could be linked with those in Houston and Henry Counties, and the balance added elsewhere. However, a legislative remedy for this is a dead letter. First, it would require the GOP to sacrifice an incumbent Representative, and I don’t see any candidates for political suicide in the current delegation. You can also count on the RCCC to put a quick lid on any effort to protect Martha Roby in the 2nd and Mike Rogers in the 3rd by isolating them from their present black constituents in a new Democratic district. This is an injustice that will have to be remedied, if at all, in the courts. In Alabama, things always seem to come to that.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect the GOP to resist the temptation to carve Alabama into the most Republican slices possible. Gerrymandering seems to be as old as democracy itself. In establishing popular democracy in Athens after the overthrow of the Spartan-supported tyranny in 507 B.C.E., Cleisthenes in effect “redistricted” the Attic population into ten δήμων (“demes” - a cognate of the name “Democratic”). But rather than make their territories discrete and compact, which he feared would foment rivalry, he took care to spread the territory of each δῆμος among the urban, coastal, and inland districts of Attica. Sadly, today’s Republicans have neither the sagacity nor the public-spiritedness of Cleisthenes. We need sharply, and publicly, to resist their redistricting plan. Particular support should be given to Senator Tammy Irons, and Representative Joe Hubbard, who have worked to keep their communities intact in the process. There are points to be made among the voters of the Shoals and Montgomery whose influence it diminishes.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Republicans Are Disasters, and They Can’t Even Manage One

In my last post, I discussed the inexcusable votes cast by Alabama’s entire Republican Congressional contingent to de-fund a program to replace aging weather satellites. Those satellites played a key role in the advance warnings that, in turn, saved hundreds of Alabamians in the April 27 tornadoes. Those votes were the product of brainless, lockstep GOP party discipline, maintained in the name of preserving Bush tax cuts for multimillionaires; the lives and property of working Alabamians be damned. Today, I want to shift the focus a little, and look at the Republican philosophy of government, as it pertains to a related topic - disaster management.

This is a rich vein for Democrats to mine. It illustrates, in a concrete manner most voters can grasp, the benefits of a competent, professional approach to government, and the folly of the Republican disdain for all things public. When the horror of last month’s storms gives way to a more routine discourse (and given the Republican Legislature’s desire to continue spanking AEA, that will be soon), we need to be in a position to effectively advocate our position.

Return with me to 1992. Under George H.W. Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was directed by Richard Stickney, a New Hampshire GOP hack with no background in emergency management. The agency was roundly criticized for its handling of several national disasters, most notably Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992. A staff report of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee found in the aftermath of Andrew that “FEMA is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, a turkey farm, if you will,” where political cronies could be rewarded.

Among the Arkansans who followed Bill Clinton to Washington was James Lee Witt, who had served under then-Governor Clinton as head of Arkansas’s state emergency management agency. Witt was the first director of FEMA with a professional background in emergency management. Witt changed the entire atmosphere at FEMA. Senior jobs were rewarded not to political patrons, but to emergency management professionals. The agency’s historical emphasis on preparedness - remember all those fallout shelters in the 50’s and 60’s? - was renewed. As a professional, Witt knew that preparedness dollars go a lot further than mitigation dollars.

In 2000, we all remember what happened. Millions of voters five Republican judges decided that America had had enough of peace and prosperity, and put George W. Bush in the White House. After an interlude, FEMA found itself being run by the famous Michael D. Brown. Brown’s emergency management experience consisted of a brief term on the city council of Edmond, Oklahoma, and his tenure as Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Given the scandal that led to his resignation from that job, and the insolvent Association’s takeover by a rival group, perhaps that can be considered “disaster” experience.

Brown, of course, is best known as the head of FEMA during its utter failure to respond in a timely and effective fashion to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Brown’s entry into the political lexicon, to the delight of Jay Leno and David Letterman, came in the form of George W. Bush’s praise of Brown’s ineptitude in - of all places - Alabama. The famous phrase, “Heck of a job, Brownie,” was uttered at the Mobile airport, where Bush had stopped on a tour of stricken areas four days after the hurricane hit.

In 2009, Barack Obama and the Return of Competence led to the appointment of W. Craig Fugate as the administrator of FEMA. Unlike his Republican predecessors, Fugate is a career emergency responder. He began as a volunteer firefighter in his Florida hometown, and in true Horatio Alger fashion, worked his way up to the top post of Florida’s emergency management agency, before being tapped by Obama. Fugate has brought back Witt’s emphasis on preparedness, and infused FEMA with a sense of hustle that Alabamians normally only demand from their college football players.

This emphasis on experience and competence paid dividends for afflicted Alabamians in recent weeks, as FEMA crews were opening aid centers in places like Hamilton, Tuscaloosa and Rainsville almost before the debris had all hit the ground. Compared to the near-week it took Bush to leave his Texas ranch to survey Katrina damage, Obama was on the ground in Tuscaloosa within 40 hours of the tornadoes. This is even more impressive, now that we know he was simultaneously keeping track of the developments that led to the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

We all remember what a key role the American public’s revulsion at Bush’s incompetent response to Katrina played in significant Democratic gains in the 2006 elections. This fact, having strong visceral appeal, and being amenable to as brief a message as a 30-second ad, was recognized as a key to the Democratic wins that year, both at the time, and in subsequent review and analysis of the results.

Unfortunately, the absence of Katrina-scale incompetence is not so easily encapsulated in a television spot. (Though with over a year to work on it, something may come to us.) Generally, the distinction between the parties is a little more fact-intensive, and requires more than 60 seconds. There is, however, one medium in which this would be a killer theme. I am thinking of the manifold speeches given by Democratic nominees and Party officers every election cycle to civic and business groups like Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, Jaycees, and chambers of commerce. It’s tempting, in such a venue, for a nominee to focus on “me, me, me," at the expense of the Party message. But unless a Democratic nominee can persuade these business and professional types that there are reasons to vote for any Democrat, the nominee’s time is wasted giving the speech. The Republican predominance in such audiences - and don’t doubt that predominance for a minute - rests in large part on the GOP’s ur-message that “we are good managers, like you successful businessmen, and the Democrats aren’t.” Nothing could put the lie to that story line like a 20 minute talk that starts out, “Let me tell you ladies and gentlemen why I am a Democrat ...,” and then outlines the above information. Nominees, take note: you have to open their minds to voting for a Democrat before they’ll listen to your pitch to vote for you. And if we start picking up votes in that generally secure, if not affluent, cohort, the GOP is in deep Macaca.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Roby, Aderholt, and Brooks Vote for Kill Alabamians Act of 2011

I have a friend, a very bright fellow actually, who has a tendency to go through intellectual phases. A couple of years ago, he “discovered” libertarianism, and occasionally got preachy about how we Democrats were as intrusive as the Republicans, with our “nanny state.” It became a recurring theme of our conversations for me to rib him about his opposition to fire stations. (I think he was mainly excised about government prohibition of his preferred method of relaxation, and am happy to note he no longer is that hostile to us. Bush 43 taught him the folly of protest votes.)

Current Republican hostility to government, on the other hand, seems to know no bounds. A more sensible generation of Republicans like Eisenhower, Rockefeller, and even Nixon maintained a healthy skepticism about government programs. That skepticism and vigilance, in our Constitutional structure, forced progressive Democratic programs to be designed and run in a more cost-effective manner. At the end of the day, these Republicans were pragmatists; Nixon sought to fine-tune Johnson’s Great Society, not abolish it.

Then came Reagan. The Party of Slow became the Party of No.

You would think that simple concerns of electoral viability would moderate those impulses. But you would be wrong.

No, there is not in fact a bill entitled the “Kill Alabamians Act of 2011.” It is known as HR1, and is somewhat more innocuously titled as the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011. This is the linchpin of the budget debates, and shutdown threats, about which you have been reading in the news. Among its provisions is one that, had it been in effect a few years earlier, could have turned the horrible-enough tornadic events of Wednesday, April 27, 2011, into something so much worse, it barely bears contemplating.

To appreciate this, you have to look back to the newscasts and weather reports of the 48 to 72 hours before the devastation erupted. Forecasts were calling for strong storms that long before catastrophe hit. Then, hours before the actual onslaught, the National Weather Service issued a rare “high risk” warning that put the entire state of Alabama on a war footing. Schools canceled classes and sent children home, people turned on their radios and televisions, and everyone from the governor to volunteer firemen and Red Cross volunteers began leaning in the right direction to respond more promptly to what eventually transpired. Those preparations saved countless hundreds of lives.

Many things make those life-saving warnings possible. Supercomputers crunch weather data at a rate that
makes my head spin to contemplate. Research has greatly improved the mathematical models the computers use. But all the computers and all the formulae are worthless without the proper data to process. And a very large part of that data comes from weather satellites, which can track and measure atmospheric conditions everywhere and continuously, without relying on infrequent updates from discrete reporting stations.

Satellites, unfortunately, are like your car, or your microwave oven. They wear out or break down. In the case of geosynchronous satellites, they run out of the maneuvering fuel necessary to maintain their orbiting station. In other words, they have to be replaced. That replacement, of course, involves the expenditure of government funds.

Which is where Representatives Roby, Brooks and Aderholt (along with the remaining Republican members of Congress from Alabama) come in. To a man and woman, they voted for HR1. You will recall that the GOP House has insisted that the continuing esolution contain deficit-reducing cuts, as the Bush tax breaks for billionaires are considered sacrosanct. One of those cuts is that of a $700,000,000 program to replace the aging and failing weather satellite fleet of the National Weather Service. An expenditure that amounts to a couple of bucks for each person in America. When an EF-4 tornado (which may be upgraded to EF-5) passed within about 4 miles of me last week, killing over 30 people, I was at home, in a central hallway, not on the road as I might have been at that hour. I had put a fresh battery in my NOAA weather radio (and even it succumbed that night to the continuous alarms sounded). Was that “high risk” warning hours earlier worth two bucks to me? Would the average voter think it was worth two bucks to him? To quote a fast-falling star of the GOP, “you betcha!”

Simply put, without the irreplaceable data provided by these satellites, the National Weather Service, within a few short years, will be deprived of the ability to make the sort of predictions that saved countless lives last week. With those warnings, we mourn hundreds, but we could have been mourning a thousand or more. Any member of Congress who voted to subject voters to this risk, and any political party that so advocated, should be made to pay the political price for it. No one can say when, or exactly where, but within a few years, people will lose their lives to tornadoes because Representatives Roby, Aderholt and Brooks thought that tax breaks for their multimillionaire supporters were more important than the safety of their constituents. That is almost a mathematical certainty. I shouldn’t even have to mention that accurate weather forecasts are of extreme value and importance to American troops, sailors and airmen fighting around the world.

There will be voices that will say we must not “exploit” the tragedy of April 27 for political ends. We can be sure that the first mention of these irresponsible votes will garner squeals of “exploitation!” and “politics!” from the other party. To be sure, the issue must be discussed in a manner that respects the feelings of those who have lost homes and loved ones. “Bloody shirt” visuals are not necessary to make the point, and would not be appropriate. But it would be a greater disservice to those who suffered loss not to raise the issue, and raise it forcefully.

As to precedent, there is only one issue a society debates that is more important than quotidian public safety, and that is the decision to go to war. I do not have to remind any reader of the absolute politicization of the War on Terror that Bush, Cheney and Rove deployed in the 2002 and 2004 elections. Any Democrat, regardless of his or her record, was subjected to accusations of cowardice, disloyalty, and incompetence. Write letters to the editor calling these members of Congress, and their party, to answer for their votes. Come 2012, some negative paid media is in order. We cannot let them get away with hamming it up before TV news cameras and expressing their “concern” for tornado victims, while casting votes that assure there will be hundreds more of them in the future.

Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, was the subject of 2002 ads pairing his picture with those of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein; he was narrowly defeated by Republican Saxby Chambliss. If the Republicans do not hesitate to engage in tasteless lies, we must not hesitate to make forceful, truthful arguments about their records. Perhaps not this week, but throughout the remainder of the spring tornado season, we should all make this point.

Lest anyone think this is a “regional” argument only applicable in North Alabama’s Tornado Alley, we mustn’t forget that accurate weather forecasts are a vital interest of the other end of the state, including the GOP stronghold of Baldwin County.

More on the disaster of Republican disaster philosophy in my next post.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I Say Obama, You Say Osama, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Wow. What a difference a few hours makes in politics.

As a wise Democratic street fighter of my close acquaintance noted on Facebook early this morning, “I hate to allude to Ross Perot, but ... the giant sucking sound you hear is the wind exiting 80 GOP freshman Congressmen, who are contemplating an Obama approval rating of 91%.”

Is this wishful thinking, or sound political analysis?

Let’s look at the inexorable downhill slope that was George W. Bush’s Gallup Poll approval rating:

Bush’s approval had dropped near 50% on the day before the 9/11 attacks. In their immediate aftermath, they reached for the sky, topping near 90%. As Bush failed to produce the cooling body of bin Laden, permitted his escape at Tora Bora, and was ridiculed for declaring “Mission Accomplished,” that number began to drop until his invasion of Iraq in 2003. The American instinct to support the volunteer troops of a democratic republic pushed him back up to around 70% at the start of the ill-advised Iraq invasion. After events like Abu Grahib became public knowledge and the American people watched Bush’s understaffed occupation allow an insurgency to blossom, his approval dropped again to around 50% - low for a wartime President.

Following the capture of Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003, Bush saw a quick uptick to about 64%, a gain of 14% or so. It would not regain that point for the remainder of his term, and made only transient reversals of the overall downhill trend. So, which of the gains in popularity does Obama’s potential upswing most resemble?

Bush’s 9/11 leap of near 40% was a natural response to a national crisis, and probably can be largely attributed to a rally-around-the-flag sentiment, not unlike that enjoyed by President Carter in the immediate aftermath of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Iran. The 14% Bush jump in the aftermath of Saddam’s capture was impressive. While Saddam was never been popular in the United States, opposition to the Bush diversion into Iraq tempered that dislike among all groups except die-hard, fact-immune Republicans.

Osama, on the other hand, had a 97% unfavorable rating in an ABC News/Washington Post poll in late 2001 (I want to find the other 3%), and he never enjoyed a similar attenuation of that disgust. Any President could have had a live Osama given the Edward II treatment at Ground Zero without serious public blowback. If Bush got a 14% boost from catching Saddam, it stands to reason that the death of the undisputed culprit of 9/11 will give Obama a substantially larger boost. Given that the 90% Bush rating in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 probably represents an historical ceiling in Presidential “popularity,” and that Obama’s current approval rating, pre-Abbottabad, was about 46%, a figure in the mid-80’s is perfectly reasonable. Remember, while Obama has suffered some recent political wounds (a few, as I have noted, self-inflicted), Bush was toting a lot of political baggage on 9/10, and his numbers were not much better than Obama’s on April 30. If you watch (or watched) the visuals of cheering thousands in Lafayette Park and Times Square at 3:00 a.m. this morning, you will agree the mid-80’s figure is sensible.

This can be a game changer, for the entire arc of his administration, if Obama finds the wit (and the killer instinct so far lacking) to use it. I would dread this week at work, were I a fundraiser for Romney or Pawlenty. Or for the RCCC. While Bush’s meteoric rise in September 2001 was reflexive on the part of voters, Obama’s is going to be substantive, and merit-based. More to the point, it’s going to come at the expense of Karl Rove’s favorite bullet point since 2000: that Democrats in general, and Obama at the moment, are soft, and unwilling to pull the trigger in the name of national security. This morning, that talking point is sharing the same briny grave as Osama. Being substantive, it should be far more durable than Bush’s 9/11 boost - and that popularity spike was still at a healthy 69% on Election Day 2002. Remember, gentle reader, that the GOP scored a gain of two Senate seats and eight House seats that day, as well as gaining stealing the Alabama governorship.

From a policy perspective, the potential parallel to classical Athenian history is hard to resist. In the aftermath of the Athenians’ triumph over the Megarians for possession of Salamis, c. 600 BCE, they were experiencing grievous turmoil between their wealthy oligarchs, and their growing population of disfranchised workers, debt slaves and tenant farmers. Solon had been the hero of the recent Athenian victory over Megara, and like the Americans to Washington in 1788, the Athenians turned to Solon to arbitrate their differences. What Solon accomplished made a true single payer health plan look like small potatoes. Using his military popularity as a springboard, he abolished debt slavery (freeing thousands), reformed citizenship laws to allow immigrants to attain citizenship, redistributed the property of large landowners to small farmers, and gave the poorest workers, the Θήται, voting rights, effectively founding Athenian - and Western - democracy. While worried, I am hopeful that Obama has actually read his Herodotus.

From a practical perspective, we Democrats have opportunities from this morning’s good news. Our talking points in the weeks ahead need to make several facts clear to voters:

  • Bush and the Republicans pulled the Special Forces and other elite units out of Tora Bora in 2001, allowing Osama to escape. Obama sent the SEALs into Abbottabad.
  • Competence and smarts - increasingly a Democratic monopoly - are more effective than swagger and bullying bravado in maintaining national security.
  • While we certainly give due credit to the skills and courage of the military and intelligence personnel, without whom this could not have happened, any reasonable person has to give credit to the resolve, determination, and - try not to use this in your letters to the editor - cojones of the President, who rolled the dice, pulled the trigger, and engaged in any other positive metaphor applicable in the premises.

Should we use this for political advantage? One last time, I quote my acquaintance who was busy last night on Facebook. After some probable Dittohead chastised him for one of the earlier quotes, he responded:

Mr. XXXXXXX, I am touched by your gentle rebuke. I shall refrain from further political comment on this great national occasion - to the full and same extent that the Bush Administration and the Republican Party refrained from politicizing the war on terror in the 2002 elections, and painted everyone who questioned their competence as traitors and cowards. (insufferably smug grin)
Preach on, brother.