Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Generally Speaking

In today's New York Post, columnist Ralph Peters, who unlike most pundits actually knows something about the military, provides some useful insights into the general on general violence that Rumsfeld has triggered. Rather than rehashing the evidence of Rumsfeld's sins yet again, Peters looks at the make-up and motivations of the SecDef's multi-starred critics and defenders, and finds that the contrast in credibility is quite telling.

The retired generals calling for Rumsfeld's resignation are recent combat commanders, veterans of Iraq and Middle East experts. They're the men who led from the front and who signed the condolence letters to bereaved families (and they didn't use an autograph machine).

Generals such as John Batiste, Gregory Newbold, Paul Eaton and Tony Zinni have something else in common, too: They're leaders respected by their peers for flawless integrity. Their reputations within their services - the Army and Marines - could not be higher. They are not and never have been political generals.

And these men have much to lose by going public with their criticism. They'll never get the lucrative defense-industry jobs in corporations whose profits depend on the favor of the Pentagon. They're not going to be offered plum appointments in any future administration, Republican or Democrat. They'll be frozen out of the Washington-insider's club. They face organized political attacks upon their personal reputations.

And yet they feel it their duty to speak to their fellow citizens, no matter the cost. . .

As for the generals who rush to defend the SecDef - using those OSD-disseminated talking points - they fall into three categories:

* Pathetic, aged retirees who desperately want to believe they're still Washington players and who will do anything for a scrap of official attention.

* Air Force generals - while the Army and Marines fought, Rumsfeld funded all of the Air Force's toys and can count on its support.

* And, most troublingly, serving officers selected by the SecDef for the military's highest offices.

From where I sit, this whole embarrassing episode says far more about the President than Rumsfeld, by putting the lie to the myth of Bush as a strong leader.

Any commmander-in-chief who actually cared about serving the national interest more than covering their own ass -- and who actually cared about the concept of accountability in government -- would have long ago fired a Secretary of Defense who had lost the trust of his military commanders, Congress and most of the public (let alone repeatedly demonstrated their incompetence).

But this is a president is so weak in character and leadership that he would rather sacrifice our troops and even paralyze his own presidency rather than admit he made a mistake -- or give the impression he was kowtowing to whiny liberal critics.

It's almost as if Bush has a deep-seated compulsion to excuse or rationalize his subordinates' fuck-ups (and thus his own) -- witness his awarding a medal to the CIA director who was responsible for one of the great intelligence failures in American history. That's not personal loyalty -- that's a political pathology.

One of the great mysteries for political scientists and historians to consider over the next generation will be how Bush was able to sustain the "strong leader" charade for as long as he did. Was it primarily the mesmerizing effect of 9/11 and its afterglow? The weakness of White House press corps? The patheticness of the Democratic opposition? Over to you, Garry Wills.....

Thursday, April 13, 2006


Dreaming with Dean

Like a lot of my fellow Democrats, I have been wondering for some time where the heck the party is headed, what is our strategy for becoming a majority party again is, whether any of our leaders are even thinking in these terms, etc. I have also been quite open with my deep reservations about Howard Dean's fitness to be DNC chairman. But judging from an article out this week by New Republic writer Noam Scheiber, maybe things are not as bleak as they seem.

Scheiber takes a peak inside the DNC at Dean's approach for rebuilding the party from the ground up, and finds that Dean is, true to form, upsetting a lot of 700 series apple carts. Instead of following the shakedown artist model of his predecessors, spending most of his time sucking up to big donors and preparing the bankroll for the next presidential candidate, Dean is apparently thinking bigger and broader about the party's long-term competitive standing. According to Scheiber:

Dean's goal is nothing less than saving the party by laying the groundwork for a future Democratic majority. The way he has pursued it is by giving states money and power that Washington had been hogging for decades. Not long after taking over at the DNC, for example, Dean quickly committed millions to hiring operatives--organizers, strategists, spokesmen--in each of the 50 states that didn't already have these personnel.

Dean's approach has a powerful logic to it. Consider a state like Texas. In 2004, the political birthplace of George W. Bush became a majority minority state. But, because the Texas Democratic Party was basically defunct--it didn't boast a single full-time staffer--Democrats had next to no ability to reach out to the local black and Latino population. Since 2005, however, the DNC has hired three permanent staffers in Texas, who have in turn recruited dozens of local volunteers. The state is unlikely to swing Democratic in 2008. But there's no reason it couldn't do so by 2020.

Scheiber's article includes lots of squawking from party mucketymucks and megadonors about the over-reaching of Dean's 50-state strategy and the risk of looking beyond and sacrificing the 2008 cycle. These tactical gripes may have some validity. But its not hard to come away with the impression that the criticisms are much more about ego-stroking than vote-boosting -- and that discomfiture of the insiders means Dean is probably onto something.

Indeed, it seems pretty clear from the outside that DNC's short-term obsession with fundraising has been short-changing our infrastructure and by extension our ability to compete outside of the safe blue state zones. Dean not only gets that, but unlike the conventional thinkers who tend to predominate and proliferate in Washington, he has shown he is not afraid to take some risks to shake things up and move in a different, more innovative direction.

I still think Dean is the wrong guy at the wrong time to lead the party. That's because I believe that the party's biggest problem at this moment is our message deficit -- our inability to present the voters who are not with us with a compelling agenda to move them to our side -- and that Dean has unfortunately shown he's incapable of building a consensus for filling this vision vacuum.

The fact is, we can develop the best political infrastructure man ever imagined, but it will be useless unless we first flesh a case for governing that we can organize around and sell to the voters who have made twice made Bush president. Neither Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid seem equipped to meet this challenge, which makes it all the more imperative to have a DNC chair who can. And even Dean himself has recognized he's not the answer either -- he's largely foresworn making policy pronouncements since getting his hand slapped a few times in the early days of his tenure for making questionable comments.

All of that said, I have to say I am intrigued by the structural changes Dean is making as chairman, and I am eager to see what kind of fruit they bear in the next couple years (and beyond).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Immigration Meditation

One of the fringe benefits of having a retired, tech-savvy professor for a father is you get lots of interesting articles and commentaries electronically pushed your way. One of the best pieces my dad sent me recently was a column by Fareed Zakaria in Monday's Washington Post, which provides a rather unique and refreshingly trope-free perspective on the immigration brouhaha that is gripping the country right now.

Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and former green card holder, eschews the minutia of the policy fight going on in Congress for a far broader and philosophical discussion. In doing so, he warns against the folly of falling for Europe's alienating approach to immigration, as many American critics have done, making the case that the U.S. is handling the integration challenge far better than our nattering nabobs of nativism suggest.

Guest workers, penalties, sanctions and deportation are all a part of Europe's mode of dealing with immigrants. The results of this approach have been on display recently in France, where rioting migrant youths again burned cars last week. Across Europe one sees disaffected, alienated immigrants, ripe for radicalism. The immigrant communities deserve their fair share of blame for this, but there's a cycle at work. European societies exclude the immigrants, who become alienated and reject their societies.

One puzzle about post-Sept. 11 America is that it has not had a subsequent terror attack -- not even a small backpack bomb in a movie theater -- while there have been dozens in Europe. My own explanation is that American immigrant communities, even Arab and Muslim ones, are not very radicalized. (Even if such an attack does take place, the fact that 4 1/2 years have gone by without one provides some proof of this contention.) Compared with every other country in the world, America does immigration superbly. Do we really want to junk that for the French approach?

We can huff and puff all we want about tightening border security, Zakaria suggests, but that won't change the irrevocable laws of supply and demand. As Stanford historian David Kennedy points out, "The income gap between the United States and Mexico is the largest between any two contiguous countries in the world," and that disparity is producing massive demand in the U.S. for cheap labor and massive supply of it from our southern neighbor. "Whenever governments try to come between these two forces -- think of drugs -- simply increasing enforcement does not work."

But ultimately, Zakaria argues, there is an issue here that transcends economics and defines America -- to itself, to its immigrants and to the world.

How do we want to treat those who are already in this country, working and living with us? How do we want to treat those who come in on visas or guest permits? These people must have some hope, some reasonable path to becoming Americans. Otherwise we are sending a signal that there are groups of people who are somehow unfit to be Americans, that these newcomers are not really welcome and that what we want are workers, not potential citizens. And we will end up with immigrants who have similarly cold feelings about America.


Today's LSOTA (Latest Sign Of The Apocalypse)

Sign of cultural decay? Who knows. But if this keeps up, the writers at the Onion might soon be out of a job. . .

3 Arrested at Mass. Baby Shower Brawl
Apr 05 1:17 PM US/Eastern

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) -- A baby shower erupted into a fight among guests in which one man was shot and several other people, including the seven-months-pregnant guest of honor, were beaten with a stick, police say.

Three people were arrested after the brawl, described by police as a "baby shower gone bad."


Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Feedback on Black Males Left Behind

I have gotten some very thoughtful responses to my post on the growing disconnection of black men in America and the state of black leadership today. One in particular I wanted to share was from an African-American friend of mine from college named Jerome Maddox, who is now a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He raises some important questions, which I would welcome feedback on.

I saw your blog comments on the New York Times story and the depressing data on black males. I wanted to comment on three things.

First, as you know, it is important to note that there is a lot of variation in the experinces of black males. I would like to know more about the relationship between parental income and male outcomes. Here in Philly, the experience and goals of black males in Mt. Airy, Chestnul Hill, and West Oak Lane are very different from those of kids in brutally depressed areas like Strawberry Mansion and Tioga. Test score data for 2005 shows that pretty clearly, though females do better than males.

This is not to diminish a huge problem, but to note that a specific subpopulation of black males are disconnected. Indeed, the graphics and comments attached to the piece point to the prospects of dropouts and non-college attendees. I would wager that these are tied to parental educational attainment and income. The problem is pressing, but I wonder whether this is a black male crisis, an urban black male crisis, or a child of poverty black male crisis.

Second, I'm leery of efforts by any person to claim to some self-appointed leadership role for the black community. My concerns are general and specific to this problem. In general, except in unusual circumstances, I don't know how anyone can legitimately claim to represent people absent some form of election or grass roots movement.

Consider how hard it is for someone to claim space in the press, even if they wanted to assert such a position. The Democratic Party, full of ambitious, elected people, struggles to find meaningful national leadership. I don't think that this is because of a lack of potential leaders, but because it is so difficult to amass the kind of media coverage and presence that allows a person to convey a national message. (Note that Republicans expressed the same concerns about lack of leadership while in the minority.) You've been in Washington, how hard is it to get national coverage when in the minority?

Now, consider how hard it would be to get national coverage on issues of race and poverty, no matter how hard you worked. Specific to this issue, do you think the black males we are talking about are going to pay attention to the efforts of so-called leaders? Will they even here them? Their problem is a problem of disconnection. I don't know that external leadership is the issue. They don't get much attention, but there are a lot of voices in black communities that talk about the importance of education and developing useful social skills. If you want to argue that a national voice for building grass roots movements would be helpful, I would agree, but it's not clear that an individual "leader" is going to alter behavior through the force of rhetoric. Such a person might make us feel better, but I have doubts about effectiveness. (By the way, what percentage of blacks do you think read or were directly influenced by Frederick Douglass in his time? I say it
was low.)

Third, there are lots of institutions that are in place that could help, but need more support. My wife Val's dad runs an organization called Project Forward Leap that is an academic enrichment program for 6th-8th graders from Philly and a few smaller cities in Southeastern PA. They provide support through the high school years as well. Their record is remarkable; extremely high high school graduation rates, high college attendance, and low criminal and other social problems. I'm
actually amazed at the number of similar programs out there. Helping these folks in local communities might be more valuable than national leadership.

I somethimes wonder if one of the larger problems is that once young men get ensnared in the crimnial justice system, it's just too hard to become employable or is just too scarring (culturally, emotionally, physically). I can't help but wonder what would happen if we legalized and regulated drugs, removing the lucrative, but risky, drug trade that serves as an entry to the criminal justice system. I know it won't
happen, but incarceration for petty drug offenses is an enormous waste.

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