Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Congressman Rick Renzi to resign by Friday?

Congressman Rick Renzi of Arizona has found himself in a spot of trouble. While it's not a crime to have connections to convicted felon Jack Abramoff, it certainly isn't an indicator of upstanding moral turpitude, and Renzi can class himself as one of Abramoff friends (though he probably wouldn't want to, these days.) Renzi has also been tied to the fired U.S. Attorneys scandal and embattled Department of Justice Secretary Alberto Gonzales.

And now things are going from bad to worse for Renzi. Renzi has until last week help positions on the Financial Services Committee, the Natural Resources Committee and the Select Intelligence Committee in the U.S. House. He's already stepped down from those positions, and according to the Rum, Romanism and Rebellion blog, word on the Washington street has it that Renzi's going to resign on Friday. Others must smell blood in the water, too, since two Democrats and one Republican have already stepped up to bid to replace Renzi's seat in what they suspect is an inevitable special election to finish Renzi's third term in Congress.

There's an epidemic of corruption striking Republicans these days, it seems. Not long before the news about Renzi broke, nine-term California Representative John Doolittle resigned his sole House committee seat, which is on the influential Appropriations Committee. I haven't heard anything about Doolittle stepping down, but it seems kind of likely at this point. Of course, the FBI didn't raid Doolittle's wife's private business offices, while they did raid Renzi's, so maybe Renzi is that much more of a scoundrel than Doolittle.

Getting rid of two corrupt congressmen might not seem like much, but like the ecology movement advised us back in the 1970s: "Every litter bit helps!"

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Remembering what they didn't teach me in high school

In high school we never learned much about the Nazi holocaust and we learned nothing about McCarthyism. Kind of bugged me because I was always curious. I went to school in the 1970s and 1980s, and while I'll say I got a fair grounding in history and a better one in world cultures, I'd credit that more to a personal interest and a few specific individuals who happened to be fantastic, passionate teachers, whom I still remember to this day.

We were taught more about the Nazi holocaust, probably because it was more recent. Still, what we did learn was watered down, and it was a while before I learned that besides six million Jews, there were fourteen million Poles, Czechs, Russians, gays, communists and cripples, among others. It wasn't until a few years ago that my dad told me I had a great aunt who was sent to Auschwitz for no better reason than the fact that she was a Polish woman who'd married a German army officer before Hitler took power and convinced the charmer that his career depended on ditching his non-Aryan wife. That's the only personal connection my family had with the Nazi holocaust; I'm still surprised this was barely talked about while I was growing up.

I might have family history connected to the Crusades, but if I do, no one knows a thing about it anymore. But the Crusades, as well as the Nazis, are important lessons, and have a lot of bearing on the world today. There's value in learning all history, but some lessons are more relevent to some times than others. These count.

Another thing I learned about outside of high school were the McCarthy trials, which were never brought up in any of my high school history classes. The first person I ever heard talking about McCarthyism was, as it happens, a French foreign exchange student. Point of order, I say; point of order.

During my senior year of high school we didn't actually have a history class, but rather three successive classes, each lasting twelve weeks. The first was a hazy economics class, taught by a bitter aging man who only talked about his stock investments and how none of us kids were actually interested in learning anything, anyway. Talk about your self-fulfilling prophecies.

The second twelve weeks were taught by our resident Christian zealot McCarthyist; it was called "Communism," and it taught us how Marx and Engels were bitter sociopaths and how the Communists are out to get you all, and isn't it a shame that they teach English in Russia but they don't teach Russian in America? Clearly the Russians are more interested in coming to get us than we are to get them. We never learned about McCarthy, either.

The third twelve weeks were called "Death and Dying," taught by our McCarthyist again, which was supposed to prepare us for coping with death. In one class, Mr. McCarthyist cited a photo in a Reader's Digest article as evidence that there are angels among us on this earth. We also learned that teachers used to be allowed to have Bibles on their desks, but now they're not, because that crazy atheist lady got them banned and then grew up to not be an atheist anymore, true story, Mr. McCarthyist swore. (I think that might be true about that woman abandoning atheism, but I don't see how that affects our Constitutional right to not have religion subsidized by public schools. My class never got that explained to it, either.)

I heard a rumor that Mr. McCarthyist had a nervous breakdown in 1991. It seems too well timed with the collapse of the Soviet Union to actually be true, but I like to believe it anyway. Sometimes you need faith, you know?

If nothing else, Mr. McCarthyist led me to not be too surprised when I first heard the Rush Limbaugh Show. It was good training, and prepared me for the shock of being exposed not to thoughtful, reflective pondering but to bullies who are more interested in winning than in being right. That kind will always be out there.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine: recovering from car crash.

So on Friday, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was in a car crash on the Garden State Parkway. Corzine wasn't driving, and it wasn't even the fault of the driver of the car the governor was in. Regardless, Corzine was banged up terribly, with most of his ribs broken, as well as his femur, in two places. He'll live, but he won't walk normally for a while.

Corzine wasn't wearing his seatbelt, it turns out. As someone who would probably have died in a car crash when I was a passenger in one at age fifteen, I just want to put out there that you really ought to wear your seatbelt; they really do work. They saved my mother's life once, too—from the passenger's seat, again. Not wearing a seatbelt is simply idiotic.

Why fire Imus?

I admit that I've never been a Don Imus fan. I've long been aware of him, but I've never actually listened to his show. All of what I know about him comes from reports from others, or stories I've read about him. Still, since I have a blog, my opinion is clearly meaningful, so much to your inevitable gratitude, I'll give it.

I understand CBS dropping Imus for his "nappy-headed hos" crack. Sure, Imus is a "shock jock," and he's made all kinds of racially charged comments in the past, I understand, so this one isn't really out of character. I guess Imus was following women's college basketball and fired what he imagined was a generic insult at the team he was not rooting for. "Nappy-headed" is a loaded adjective in the black community, which is why so many people are upset. I'll admit that as a balding white guy, it doesn't mean much to me, but commenting on the "nappiness" of a black person's hair does carry a lot of cultural baggage. It's up there with calling a black person filthy and unkempt. As one of the Rutgers' basketball women said, "Nappy? But I comb my hair!" Imus clearly didn't understand what this word really means, just as I'm sure he didn't understand the meaning of "ho," because I don't believe he meant to suggest that these women were sexually loose or crass.

And that's really the point. Don Imus was utterly ignorant of the offense he was giving, which makes it inappropriate for him to have a forum like he did. Sure, he's got every right to be ignorant of America's racial politics, just like he's got every right to be a racist. I don't think he's a racist; he's just woefully out of touch with the subjects he was talking about. So when people started complaining, and when advertisers started pulling out, it was just a sound business decision on the part of CBS to unceremoniously drop the guy's program. Those who would complain about the complainers seem to be content to allow anyone to speak their minds, as long as no action (like the firing of Don Imus) results.

On today's episode of NPR's sports show Only a Game, it was observed by sports journailst Charlie Pierce referred to Imus's famous remark as "a camel carrying a great many straws." Imus had long made many comments about blacks as well as Jews and other ethnic groups in the past—it was part of his shtick. But it finally wore too thin, and we see Don Imus revealed: he doesn't understand what he's talking about, which is why he's such a liability. And I don't just mean he's a commercial liability for CBS; he's also a liability to our national discourse. We want Imus to shock us, sure, but is that all we want? Clearly not. Otherwise we'd be clamoring for him and other Archie Bunker-like instigators to crowd our airwaves.

This is a symptom of how crass and polluted our political discourse has gotten over the past fifteen years. Another symptom is Ann Coulter, who's a regularly erupting pustule of vulgar, non-constructive comments. When she called for America to kill foreign leaders and convert them to Christianity, the National Review summarily dropped her, much to their credit. Later on, when Coulter referred to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards as a "faggot," a number of papers dropped her column. Shock and controversy are fine, but this is going too far.

I think the common thread between Imus and Coulter is that both are out there to stir people up, but neither really knows what they think or what they're talking about. Coulter is the worst of the two; her books are poorly-strung-together non sequitur jeremiads against liberals and the Democratic Party. Imus at least makes sense much of the time and, I understand, has earned the cachet of being classy enough to attract presidential candidates and other politicans to his sound booth. Still, if you want to speak to the public, you can't afford to be tone deaf. Not anymore, at least—after six years of George W. Bush, it looks as though the American people have lost their tolerance for tone deafness.

Ours is an age of overnight success and overnight failure, when celebrity isn't a result of what you've done but rather a goal in and of itself. While I think Don Imus didn't really know what he was doing (or Ann Coulter, for that matter,) it's time for the pantheon of America's thoughtful people to be populated with people who actually do. So keep writing those letters: words matter, and complaints do make a difference.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Senate elections 2008: who's vulnerable?

Next year there are 33 more Senate seats up for reëlection: 21 Republicans, 12 Democrats. The fact that the Democrats are defending fewer seats than the Republicans are is a big advantage for them, but there are other things going for the Democrats, as well. The Iraq occupation is dragging down politicians who have publicly and firmly stood by President Bush in the past, and the general malaise that's settled in around Republicans about their current president and their 2008 candidates for president will only serve to sap energy from their candidates for other offices.

In general, it looks like a good year for Democrats. All 12 Democratic senators have announced they're seeking reëlection, so all the Democrats will have the benefit of incumbency. For the Republicans, only one has announced his retirement, but all sitting Republican senators haven't yet declared an intention to run again, so it's harder to say how much that will affect the Republican races this year.

I'm going to present analysis of the races that either are interesting right now or could get interesting later on.

Maine (R) Senator Susan Collins said she believed in self-imposed term limits when she ran for the Senate in 1996, promising not to serve more than two terms. However, Senator Collins has since discovered the value of experience, and has decided not to deprive her constituents of that benefit, and is breaking her two-term pledge, effectively giving the finger to all those who believed in term limits back in 1996. Collins is facing a challenge from Democratic Representative Tom Allen, who will no doubt remind voters of Collins' broken promise, as well of her unwavering support for George W. Bush. Can Collins hold onto her moderate image in very blue Maine? Or will her own voting record sink her?

New Hampshire (R) Senator John Sununu's family has been friends of the Bush family for years. This helped Sununu when he ran against conservative Republican Senator Bob Smith in the 2002 Republican primary, winning the nomination and later winning a close election against Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen. While Shaheen could probably have done well in a rematch, word is that she isn't running. Young Turk (French-Canadian, actually) Steve Marchand is stepping up to the plate, and is a real threat to Sununu, who has already been literally running away from reporters asking him about his record voting for Bush's 2003 attack on Iraq. This looks like a pretty good opportunity for the Democrats, particularly in light of the fact that both houses of New Hampshire's state legislature flipped from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic in last year's elections. New Hampshire, long the most Republican state in New England, is rapidly trending Democratic. That's bad news for Sununu.

New Jersey (D) New Jerseyans hate their politicians, which is never helpful for any incumbent, and Senator Frank Lautenburg's numbers haven't been stellar since he returned to the Senate in 2002. However, with no really strong Republican candidates emerging, Lautenburg looks to be relatively safe in this very Democratic state—but New Jersey's known for its surprises. So don't be surprised if you're surprised. Or something like that.

Virginia (R) Virginia Senator John Warner hasn't said he's retiring, but there's some doubt out there that he's seeking another term next year. Some insiders think that Warner's holding off on announcing his retirement for as long as possible, as part of a strategy to discourage many Republican challengers for his seat, making it easier for Republican Representative Tom Davis to step up to the plate. Warner will be 70 in 2008, which wouldn't make him the oldest senator, but he'd be up there. Some feel that a strong Democratic challenger would scare Warner off—particularly if former Democratic Governor Mark Warner (no relation) stepped in. Word is that Mark Warner might be staying away from the Senate race because he's waiting to see if he can't land a spot as someone's running mate next year, or perhaps he might run for governor again in 2009. Rumors of ousted Senator George Allen running for the Senate again feed the notion that John Warner might be retiring, so if he retires, the question is: what other Democrats might run? There's the rub. That could prove to be one of the most interesting variables this year.

North Carolina (R) Senator Elizabeth Dole has put to bed the rumors that she might retire due to health concerns. Dole is seeking a second term. Her approval numbers are pretty low, though, indicating that some Democrat could step in and knock her out—but who? Some have suggested popular Governor Mike Easley, but Easley has said he's not interested. Hopefully someone will step up; so far, there hasn't been much in the way of Democratic challengers identified in North Carolina.

Alabama (R) Senator Jeff Sessions should have an easy race for reëlection, but that might change if the wildly popular (and populist) Alabama Secretary of Agriculture Ron Sparks steps in. There's no guarantee he'll do it, but if Sparks challenges Sessions, we could be looking at one hell of an upset. Conventional wisdom has it that Sparks is more likely to run for governor, but if he gets into the Senate race, then all bets are off.

Minnesota (R) Senator Norm Coleman managed to slip into this seat after Senator Paul Wellstone died while campaigning just over a week before the election. Democrats in Minnesota and elsewhere are bitter over Coleman's exploitation of Wellstone's untimely death to win the election and are said to be energized in this strongly Democratic state. Coleman's approval has been pretty limp, largely due to Coleman's strong support for Bush administration policies, so the terrain is ripe for a Democrat to come along and pick him off. The only declared candidate thus far has been comedian Al Franken, but it's likely that others will join the fray before long, since Franken isn't viewed as the strongest possible candidate, though he's been well received at his campaign stops around Minnesota.

Louisiana (D) Senator Mary Landrieu has been viewed as the most vulnerable Senate Democrat for the 2008 cycle, but her numbers have been surprisingly good. Landrieu also lacks a strong Republican challenger, but it's hard to say if that will stay true. Representative Bobby Jindal is seeking the governor's job this year, and would only run for Senate if he loses. Of course, if he loses, he'll be tagged as a loser, which he'd have to overcome in a Senate bid, and Jindal could well lose the gubernatorial race if former Democratic Senator John Breaux manages to settle his residency requirements and run for the job. Landrieu looks as though she's going to be all right next year.

Texas (R) Senator John Cornyn, longtime Bush crony, is hurting because of his closeness to the president—but this is Texas, after all, so it can't hurt him that much—probably. State Representative Rick Noriega has been cited as a possibly tough Democratic challenger to Cornyn, but the odds still lean toward the Reds in this race. Still, if the Republicans have a weak enough presidential nominee, all bets are off in Texas...

Nebraska (R) If Senator Chuck Hagel breaks his two-year term-limit pledge and seeks a third term, he'll probably win reëlection. However, if his seat is open next year, the Democrats have a crack at it. A favorite is last year's political newcomer and near-miss for the Nebraska's Third Congressional District, farmer Scott Kleeb, who did much better than anyone expected. Former Lieutenant Governor Maxine Moul could also be a strong candidate, though even if the seat is open, the Republicans are favored here. But a Democratic switch is possible.

South Dakota (D) Senator Tim Johnson is rather popular, but his recent brain hemorrhage gave cause to think that he'd be stepping down. However, he's made a full recovery and is back in the Senate, and looks strong for reëlection. Conservative Republican Governor Mike Rounds is a possible challenger for his seat, but word is that Rounds is afraid of running against the popular Johnson, partly out of fear of appearing to be exploiting Johnson's health condition. Rounds hasn't made many noises about running for the seat, and Johnson's popularity remains firm, so while South Dakota is probably the best chance for a Republican pickup after Louisiana, it still doesn't look that great for them.

Colorado (R) Senator Wayne Allard is unusual for a Republican: he made a pledge not to run for more than two terms, and he's actually sticking to it. Allard is stepping down, leaving this seat open. Representative Mark Udall is the Democrats' candidate, hailing from a popular political family in the interior west. The Republicans don't have any strong candidates in this Democratic-trending state, so the early observers have Colorado as a likely Democratic pickup.

New Mexico (R) Senator Pete Domenici has been a New Mexico institution and no one saw him as vulnerable at all until this year, when his involvement with the U.S. Attorneys scandal came to light. This could bring Domenici down, or at least inspire him to retire early. Tom Udall, brother of Mark in Colorado, is running for this seat already, making it possible for the Democrats to pick this seat up.

Idaho (R) Senator Larry Craig is up for reëlection this year, but rumors that he's gay might hound him into retirement. Already a right winger has announced a primary challenge to Craig, and Democrat Larry LaRocco is pretty strong for an Idaho Democrat. LaRocco might be able to take advantage of the situation, but then, Idaho hasn't been much for electing Democrats lately, even when their Republican candidate is a stark-raving loon, as they proved last year when they elected Bill Sali over Democrat Larry Grant in the First Congressional District. With Grant seeking a rematch, LaRocco might enjoy a boost, maybe returning the Gem of the Mountains to the heady days of Senator Frank Church? It's possible, but I wouldn't hold my breath...

Oregon (R) Senator Gordon Smith was a moderate until he decided to support George W. Bush every step of the way. Now Smith is facing a right-wing primary challenge, courtesy of Club For Growth, plus the prospect of spirited Democratic Representative Pete DeFazio in the general election. Smith is a pretty vulnerable incumbent, and DeFazio is popular statewide. Considering how firmly Democratic Oregon has become (not voting for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984,) this is a very good place for a Democratic pickup.

I left a few states off the list because I don't think there will be strong challenges in them this year. They're still holding elections, though. Those states, vulnerability subject to change, are:

Democratic seats
Massachusetts—John Kerry
Rhode Island—Jack Reed
Delaware—Joe Biden
West Virginia—Robert Byrd
Michigan—Carl Levin
Iowa—Tom Harkin
Illinois—Dick Durbin
Arkansas—Mark Pryor
Montana—Max Baucus

Republican seats
South Carolina—Lindsey Graham
Georgia—Saxby Chambliss
Mississippi—Thad Cochran (some rumors of retirement...)
Tennessee—Lamar! Alexander
Kentucky—Mitch McConnell
Oklahoma—James Inhofe
Kansas—Pat Roberts
Wyoming—John Enzi
Alaska—Ted Stevens