Monday, March 22, 2010

What Change Looks Like

Two lessons from the great health care debate of 2009-2010: When you have the votes, you have the votes; and, there is nothing like winning.

For too long the horse race as presented to us by the media obscured the Democrats' large majorities in both houses.

Reporters and editors like legislative donnybrooks because they hold readers' attention and make their own jobs more interesting.

And so it is a familiar journalistic habit to focus on certain disgruntled back-benchers, the leftist-rightists of the rightist leftist faction, whose interests diverge from the larger party's.

And, in rare instances where a party is bent on driving over a cliff, you can expect the aforementioned to grab the steering wheel and finish the job in self-demolition.

But the Republican strategy of obstruction, with the sole purpose of provoking the president's failure on a signature initiative, ensured that would not happen.

The liberal elitist in highwayscribery thinks that's because this group of Republicans is not very bright.

While the "New York Times," cooed last week over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Kentucky) masterful melding of his caucus into a useless pile of obstinacy, highwayscribery was thinking that if, let's say, nine Republicans had voted with the Democrats, they might have killed the bill.

But by making it a strictly "party thing," the GOP put wavering Democrats in the position of either betraying their caucus, or squeezing its leadership for a treat.

As an old hand who observes legislative debates with the same intensity he does the World Series, highwayscribery can tell you these holdouts usually want something specific from party leadership... and usually get it.

Meanwhile, ignoring their significant disadvantage in numbers and enjoying their own positive press, Republicans mindlessly stuck to a do-nothing strategy and lost.

Lost ugly.

There was something truly paltry in the dilatory tactics of House Republicans on Sunday. Paltry and puerile. With passage secured, the White Guy Party worked the rules machinery in the chamber with the fury of that fake playing at Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.

It was an unappealing exercise in futility to stave off final passage by what? Four or five hours?

Their link to the viscerally driven Tea Party is not shtick.

Outside the capitol building the rabble were calling black legislators "nigger" and gay legislators "fag." Inside the House chamber someone labeled the man who rallied the Democratic Party's pro-life faction a "baby killer."

Who can buy this bunch as a credible group of leaders?

On the other side of the political spectrum, the infighting over 'lo these many months was intense, but always characterized by the shared goal of keeping an eye on the prize.

While rivers of ink flowed on the Tea Party, the great unwritten story was how well the progressive types who brought Obama to the summit (or followed him, depending on your understanding of such things) held together.

If somebody in the caucus wavered, MoveOn, or Bold Progressive or whomever targeted them with a creditable primary challenge on their left flank in matter of days, raised a million bucks one week afterward, and beat them back in line.

The Tea Partiers make for great photo-ops because they're the ones in the street these days. And not by choice. The liberal left, on the other hand, currently keeps counsel in the halls of power; less theatrically, but more effectively.

NEWS FLASH: The winning 2008 election coalition endures and governs.

Choice words were traded over the public option, single-payer and other issues, but nobody was, in the end, willing to hand the FOX crowd a victory.

It has been so long since progressives won a significant legislative battle that there's hardly anybody alive who remembers how good it makes the team look.

Compare House minority leader John Boehner's red-faced, spittle-spewing condemnation of his "colleagues across the aisle," with Nancy Pelosi's measured, joyous, and forward-looking explanation of why Democrats were spending $900 billion on the American people.

Being constructive comes off much better than does being obstructive.

Now we must reconsider Pelosi's effectiveness as manager of the Democratic rank-and-file, while elevating her place in American political history.

President Obama's steely perseverance and infinite stores of patience will become new topics of analysis and admiration.

And rightfully so.

Republicans say they will base their 2010 campaign on the idea of repealing health care.

It's unlikely. They never really gave a hoot about health care reform. It was merely, as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said so early on the debate, an opportunity to stage-manage Obama's Waterloo.

But let's hope they run on repeal: an anti-idea that expresses perfectly their approach to governance.

There is no greater gift to the ruling party than an opposition looking backwards, asking voters to undo something they lacked the savvy to stop in the first place.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ladybugs or Lovesongs?

highwayscribery has posted an album of songs written and performed by his alter ego, Stephen Siciliano, on a My Space page, called "Ladybugs or Lovesongs?" It's an acoustic, rough-cut recording done one rainy December afternoon at the home of guitarist extraordinaire Omar Torrez, who lent a most able hand. The singer/songwriter's six-year old son, Wesley Siciliano, did the album artwork. Enjoy

Friday, March 05, 2010

My Left (-wing) Foot

Was channel surfing last night when the phone rang and the cable-go-round ground to a halt at FOX.

Not that we never drop in behind enemy lines. It's good to check-in on that alternate universe to marvel at the sameness of the message and the ham-handed delivery.

It's like the soap opera you drop in on after 10 days to find out the whole sordid town of Westport is still suck in the same place.

It's not that highwayscribery doesn't hold conservative principles or drink with conservatives. Not at all. It's just that station is, frankly, beneath him, not good enough.

The mantra and cant are interchangeable, the anti-intellectual bent suffocating.

Conservatism, by its nature, reaches backward and into the past, so that it can't really offer novel ideas so much as old ones in new wrapping.

FOX is the land of the lowest common denominator, a dufus dystopia cluttered with tired buzzwords uttered so often that even "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" seems an acceptable emergency exit.

Anything to escape the simple land where things are true just because Simon says they are. Where Sarah Palin has an intellect, President Obama is stupid, the world is blessed with infinite natural resources, and liberals stole the wooden swing off rural America's front porch.

Now, highwayscribery doesn't typically groove on the ugly back and forth of American politics. FOX can walk alone to hell. But the scribe needed Wednesday night's "Hannity" show as launching point for a post on an obscure British politician who just died by the name of Michael Foot.

Hannity was simple-Simoning his way through another hour of color-by-numbers propaganda when he pulled out his shopworn charge that Obama has put the United States on the road to "SOCIALISM."

That's a big, nasty, dirty word that Fox refused to let die when the communist world did.

Now it is applied to ideas such as preventing banks that enjoy federal deposit insurance from investing in hedge funds and private equity funds, or increasing the minimum wage.

When Hannity slams a Democratic politician with "Socialism" it is expected that person run for cover or begin blubbering about the market, jobs, small-business entrepreneurs: all teflon terminologies in the American political lexicon.

Michael Foot, on the other hand, draped himself in the term. If you stuck a finger in this guy's chest and said "Socialist!" you got a smile and a thumbs up.

"The New York Times," obituary quotes him as saying, and we re-quote:

"We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress. No, we are here to provide for all those hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves. That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth, and if you ask me about those insoluble economic problems that may arise if the top is derived of their initiative, I would answer, 'To hell with them.' The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves. They always do."

That is something more like socialism. You can hear more than intellect in it. Passion perhaps, or a chip on the shoulder Foot, apparently, carried with him an entire career.

When the highway scribe was loitering for years with the far left of Spain's politics learning for his novel "Vedette: or Conversations with the Flamenco Shadows," he once saw a stage speaker say some very distasteful things about Che Guevara.

When they were done, an acquaintance by the name of Antonio Saseta, an architectural professor actually, stood up in the audience and told the person who said such unkind things, "If you were a little closer, and we weren't in such fine company, I'd sock you right in the jaw." (In Spanish, of course)

The point being that if Hannity thinks Obama and the Democratic Party are socialists -- and we don't think Sean really does -- he'd have no jaw.

Upon reading the afore-linked obituary, highwayscribery remembered Foot vaguely from his disastrous campaign to unseat Margaret Thatcher in 1983.

At the time, for those who cared, there was hope at this end of the pond, fueled by a great English Beat song called "Stand Down Margaret." And if the band's singer "Rankin' Roger" had led the Labour ticket that year, he would have probably fared better than did our subject.

Foot, if memory serves, hurt his foot during the campaign and hobbled around on crutches for a while. Not sure whether it was the right foot or the left, but either way it ploughed ample fields for the sowing of metaphors mostly cruel.

A few years later, Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his work in a movie entitled, "My Left Foot," which the highway scribe went to see, thinking it was about, well, Foot.

But we digress.

"The Times," quotes Labourite Gerald Kaufman calling the party's manifesto from the ill-fated 1983 effort as "the longest suicide note in history."

Hyperbole aside, that manifesto, drafted by trade and industrial union folks, and the party functionaries who did their bidding, was what you would call "Socialist."

Foot campaigned on a platform of -- and dig this -- higher taxes, a more interventionist industrial policy, unilateral disarmament, nationalization of the banking system, and scrapping the hoary House of Lords.

Does the highway scribe really believe in those things?

Why not? An adult lifetime both chronicling (as journalist) and enduring (as citizen) our world's experiment with the marvelous and unfettered market has yielded a nauseating cycle of irrational bubbles followed by disastrous bursts.

They seem to leave nothing behind but a few lucky slimeballs with giant sacks of money living behind gates. As Foot said, "The top is greedy and mean and will always find a way to take care of themselves."

We enter Goldman Sachs, its post-bailout bonuses and perpetual middle-finger directed at the rest of us, as Exhibit A.

It's all been downhill in the scribe's lifetime. From the early heady days of the "Reagan Revolution," when government got out of the business of caring, through the recent weeks of relentless obstruction, less help, greater complexity, deeper insecurity, outdated infrastructure, invisible public engagement or assistance, homelessness, and illusory runs of prosperity have been the order of each day.

The "invisible hand" of the market has proven, again and again, to be a crooked one that mostly feeds the body it's attached to.

The great money-making machine of Wall St. has never produced a single widget the common person might take home and use to improve their small lot. It does not embarrass highwayscribery to admit he does not know what it is they do there.

Yet somehow Wall Street's unproductive white collars draw money upward until the bottom is emptied and the whole edifice tumbles down on innocents and rubes.

Yours truly included.

Finally, we honor Foot here, because he was also of a special breed prized by highwayscribery: The Politician Poet.

On top of doing the endless round of political luncheons, party meetings, factory walkabouts, backroom dealings, and parliamentary sessions, Foot wrote a number of books worthy of praise in "The London Times," for their "neat, economical, and muscular prose."

He wrote a two-volume biography of his own Labourite hero, Aneurin Bevan: 1897-1960, The Politics of Paradise: A Vindication of Byron, H. G.: The History of Mr Wells, and Uncollected Michael Foot: Essays Old and New 1953 -2003, among others.

And we must always honor men and women who make us wonder where they find the time to lead in two fields, when climbing the tall mountain in just one exhausts the rest of us.

Fare thee well, Mr. Foot, and may your politics, poetry and prose be missed somewhere.