Friday, December 24, 2004

Langston Hughes for our New Year

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
The free?
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

The New York Times > National > Voting Problems in Ohio Spur Call for Overhaul

The New York Times > National > Voting Problems in Ohio Spur Call for Overhaul

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A modern Christmas Story

The following is a near Christmas story that I got from a dedicated Green friend. I am posting it because it seems to me to reflect the anguish and dislocation that the evolution of this greed driven and gluttonous society is causing, in greater or lesser degree, to all of us. If change is painful, change that leads to a diminution of our self-respect, the disruption of our most cherished habits and beliefs, is devastating.

Luckily this story has a good ending. We do have in ourselves the resources and strengths to recover from disaster. Bottom-line thinking and MBA mentality tells us: when you have lemons, make lemonade. Sometimes it is best to throw away the lemons (into the compost heap), plainly refuse the deal that we have been offered, and strike out into a more satisfying kind of life. The end result not only enriches the self but often also the world around us.

There still is hope for all of us. That is why it is a Christmas story. Happy Holidays.


John Robbins

One day in Iowa I met a particular gentleman-and I use that term, gentleman,
frankly, only because I am trying to be polite, for that is certainly not
how I saw him at the time. He owned and ran what he called a "pork
production facility." I, on the other hand, would have called it a pig

The conditions were brutal. The pigs were confined in cages that were barely
larger than their own bodies, with the cages stacked on top of each other in
tiers, three high. The sides and the bottoms of the cages were steel slats,
so that excrement from the animals in the upper and middle tiers dropped
through the slats on to the animals below.

The aforementioned owner of this nightmare weighed, I am sure, at least 240
pounds, but what was even more impressive about his appearance was that he
seemed to be made out of concrete. His movements had all the fluidity and
grace of a brick wall.

What made him even less appealing was that his language seemed to consist
mainly of grunts, many of which sounded alike to me, and none of which were
particularly pleasant to hear. Seeing how rigid he was and sensing the
overall quality of his presence, I-rather brilliantly, I thought-concluded
that his difficulties had not arisen merely because he hadn't had time, that
particular morning, to finish his entire daily yoga routine.

But I wasn't about to divulge my opinions of him or his operation, for I was
undercover, visiting slaughterhouses and feedlots to learn what I could
about modern meat production. There were no bumper stickers on my car, and
my clothes and hairstyle were carefully chosen to give no indication that I
might have philosophical leanings other than those that were common in the
area. I told the farmer matter of factly that I was a researcher writing
about animal agriculture, and asked if he'd mind speaking with me for a few
minutes so that I might have the benefit of his knowledge. In response, he
grunted a few words that I could not decipher, but that I gathered meant I
could ask him questions and he would show me around.

I was at this point not very happy about the situation, and this feeling did
not improve when we entered one of the warehouses that housed his pigs. In
fact, my distress increased, for I was immediately struck by what I can only
call an overpowering olfactory experience. The place reeked like you would
not believe of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other noxious gases that were
the products of the animals' wastes. These, unfortunately, seemed to have
been piling up inside the building for far too long a time.

As nauseating as the stench was for me, I wondered what it must be like for
the animals. The cells that detect scent are known as ethmoidal cells. Pigs,
like dogs, have nearly 200 times the concentration of these cells in their
noses as humans do. In a natural setting, they are able, while rooting
around in the dirt, to detect the scent of an edible root through the earth

Given any kind of a chance, they will never soil their own nests, for they
are actually quite clean animals, despite the reputation we have unfairly
given them. But here they had no contact with the earth, and their noses
were beset by the unceasing odor of their own urine and feces multiplied a
thousand times by the accumulated wastes of the other pigs unfortunate
enough to be caged in that warehouse. I was in the building only for a few
minutes, and the longer I remained in there, the more desperately I wanted
to leave. But the pigs were prisoners there, barely able to take a single
step, forced to endure this stench, and almost completely immobile, 24 hours
a day, seven days a week, and with no time off, I can assure you, for

The man who ran the place was-I'll give him this-kind enough to answer my
questions, which were mainly about the drugs he used to handle problems such
as African Swine Fever, cholera, trichinosis, and other swine diseases that
are fairly common in factory pigs today. But my sentiments about him and his
farm were not becoming any warmer. It didn't help when, in response to a
particularly loud squealing from one of the pigs, he delivered a sudden and
threatening kick to the bars of its cage, causing a loud "clang" to
reverberate through the warehouse and leading to screaming from many of the

Because it was becoming increasingly difficult to hide my distress, it
crossed my mind that I should tell him what I thought of the conditions in
which he kept his pigs, but then I thought better of it. This was a man, it
was obvious, with whom there was no point in arguing.

After maybe 15 minutes, I'd had enough and was preparing to leave, and I
felt sure he was glad to be about to be rid of me. But then something
happened, something that changed my life, forever-and, as it turns out, his
too. It began when his wife came out from the farmhouse and cordially
invited me to stay for dinner.

The pig farmer grimaced when his wife spoke, but he dutifully turned to me
and announced, "The wife would like you to stay for dinner." He always
called her "the wife," by the way, which led me to deduce that he was not,
apparently, on the leading edge of feminist thought in the country today.

I don't know whether you have ever done something without having a clue why,
and to this day I couldn't tell you what prompted me to do it, but I said
Yes, I'd be delighted. And stay for dinner I did, though I didn't eat the
pork they served. The excuse I gave was that my doctor was worried about my
cholesterol. I didn't say that I was a vegetarian, nor that my cholesterol
was 125.

I was trying to be a polite and appropriate dinner guest. I didn't want to
say anything that might lead to any kind of disagreement. The couple (and
their two sons, who were also at the table) were, I could see, being nice to
me, giving me dinner and all, and it was gradually becoming clear to me
that, along with all the rest of it, they could be, in their way, somewhat
decent people. I asked myself, if they were in my town, traveling, and I had
chanced to meet them, would I have invited them to dinner? Not likely, I
knew, not likely at all. Yet here they were, being as hospitable to me as
they could. Yes, I had to admit it. Much as I detested how the pigs were
treated, this pig farmer wasn't actually the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler.
At least not at the moment.

Of course, I still knew that if we were to scratch the surface we'd no doubt
find ourselves in great conflict, and because that was not a direction in
which I wanted to go, as the meal went along I sought to keep things on an
even and constant keel. Perhaps they sensed it too, for among us, we managed
to see that the conversation remained, consistently and resolutely, shallow.

We talked about the weather, about the Little League games in which their
two sons played, and then, of course, about how the weather might affect the
Little League games. We were actually doing rather well at keeping the
conversation superficial and far from any topic around which conflict might
occur. Or so I thought. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, the man pointed
at me forcefully with his finger, and snarled in a voice that I must say
truly frightened me, "Sometimes I wish you animal rights people would just
drop dead."

How on Earth he knew I had any affinity to animal rights I will never know-I
had painstakingly avoided any mention of any such thing-but I do know that
my stomach tightened immediately into a knot. To make matters worse, at that
moment his two sons leapt from the table, tore into the den, slammed the
door behind them, and turned the TV on loud, presumably preparing to drown
out what was to follow. At the same instant, his wife nervously picked up
some dishes and scurried into the kitchen. As I watched the door close
behind her and heard the water begin running, I had a sinking sensation.
They had, there was no mistaking it, left me alone with him.

I was, to put it bluntly, terrified. Under the circumstances, a wrong move
now could be disastrous. Trying to center myself, I tried to find some
semblance of inner calm by watching my breath, but this I could not do, and
for a very simple reason. There wasn't any to watch.

"What are they saying that's so upsetting to you?" I said finally,
pronouncing the words carefully and distinctly, trying not to show my
terror. I was trying very hard at that moment to disassociate myself from
the animal rights movement, a force in our society of which he, evidently,
was not overly fond.

"They accuse me of mistreating my stock," he growled.

"Why would they say a thing like that?" I answered, knowing full well, of
course, why they would, but thinking mostly about my own survival. His
reply, to my surprise, while angry, was actually quite articulate. He told
me precisely what animal rights groups were saying about operations like
his, and exactly why they were opposed to his way of doing things. Then,
without pausing, he launched into a tirade about how he didn't like being
called cruel, and they didn't know anything about the business he was in,
and why couldn't they mind their own business.

As he spoke it, the knot in my stomach was relaxing, because it was becoming
clear, and I was glad of it, that he meant me no harm, but just needed to
vent. Part of his frustration, it seemed, was that even though he didn't
like doing some of the things he did to the animals-cooping them up in such
small cages, using so many drugs, taking the babies away from their mothers
so quickly after their births-he didn't see that he had any choice. He would
be at a disadvantage and unable to compete economically if he didn't do
things that way. This is how it's done today, he told me, and he had to do
it too. He didn't like it, but he liked even less being blamed for doing
what he had to do in order to feed his family.

As it happened, I had just the week before been at a much larger hog
operation, where I learned that it was part of their business strategy to
try to put people like him out of business by going full-tilt into the mass
production of assembly-line pigs, so that small farmers wouldn't be able to
keep up. What I had heard corroborated everything he was saying.

Almost despite myself, I began to grasp the poignancy of this man's human
predicament. I was in his home because he and his wife had invited me to be
there. And looking around, it was obvious that they were having a hard time
making ends meet. Things were threadbare. This family was on the edge.

Raising pigs, apparently, was the only way the farmer knew how to make a
living, so he did it even though, as was becoming evident the more we
talked, he didn't like one bit the direction hog farming was going. At
times, as he spoke about how much he hated the modern factory methods of
pork production, he reminded me of the very animal rights people who a few
minutes before he said he wished would drop dead.

As the conversation progressed, I actually began to develop some sense of
respect for this man whom I had earlier judged so harshly. There was decency
in him. There was something within him that meant well. But as I began to
sense a spirit of goodness in him, I could only wonder all the more how he
could treat his pigs the way he did. Little did I know that I was about to
find out. . .

We are talking along, when suddenly he looks troubled. He slumps over, his
head in his hands. He looks broken, and there is a sense of something awful
having happened.

Has he had a heart attack? A stroke? I'm finding it hard to breathe, and
hard to think clearly. "What's happening?" I ask.

It takes him awhile to answer, but finally he does. I am relieved that he is
able to speak, although what he says hardly brings any clarity to the
situation. "It doesn't matter," he says, "and I don't want to talk about
it." As he speaks, he makes a motion with his hand, as if he were pushing
something away.

For the next several minutes we continue to converse, but I'm quite uneasy.
Things seem incomplete and confusing. Something dark has entered the room,
and I don't know what it is or how to deal with it.

Then, as we are speaking, it happens again. Once again a look of despondency
comes over him. Sitting there, I know I'm in the presence of something bleak
and oppressive. I try to be present with what's happening, but it's not
easy. Again I'm finding it hard to breathe.

Finally, he looks at me, and I notice his eyes are teary. "You're right," he
says. I, of course, always like to be told that I am right, but in this
instance I don't have the slightest idea what he's talking about.

He continues. "No animal," he says, "should be treated like that. Especially
hogs. Do you know that they're intelligent animals? They're even friendly,
if you treat 'em right. But I don't."

There are tears welling up in his eyes. And he tells me that he has just had
a memory come back of something that happened in his childhood, something he
hasn't thought of for many years. It's come back in stages, he says.

He grew up, he tells me, on a small farm in rural Missouri, the
old-fashioned kind where animals ran around, with barnyards and pastures,
and where they all had names. I learn, too, that he was an only child, the
son of a powerful father who ran things with an iron fist. With no brothers
or sisters, he often felt lonely, but found companionship among the animals
on the farm, particularly several dogs, who were as friends to him. And, he
tells me, and this I am quite surprised to hear, he had a pet pig.

As he proceeds to tell me about this pig, it is as if he is becoming a
different person. Before he had spoken primarily in a monotone; but now his
voice grows lively. His body language, which until this point seemed to
speak primarily of long suffering, now becomes animated. There is something
fresh taking place.

In the summer, he tells me, he would sleep in the barn. It was cooler there
than in the house, and the pig would come over and sleep alongside him,
asking fondly to have her belly rubbed, which he was glad to do.

There was a pond on their property, he goes on, and he liked to swim in it
when the weather was hot, but one of the dogs would get excited when he did,
and would ruin things. The dog would jump into the water and swim up on top
of him, scratching him with her paws and making things miserable for him. He
was about to give up on swimming, but then, as fate would have it, the pig,
of all people, stepped in and saved the day.

Evidently the pig could swim, for she would plop herself into the water,
swim out where the dog was bothering the boy, and insert herself between
them. She'd stay between the dog and the boy, and keep the dog at bay. She
was, as best I could make out, functioning in the situation something like a
lifeguard, or in this case, perhaps more of a life-pig.

I'm listening to this hog farmer tell me these stories about his pet pig,
and I'm thoroughly enjoying both myself and him, and rather astounded at how
things are transpiring, when once again, it happens. Once again a look of
defeat sweeps across this man's face, and once again I sense the presence of
something very sad. Something in him, I know, is struggling to make its way
toward life through anguish and pain, but I don't know what it is or how,
indeed, to help him.

"What happened to your pig?" I ask.

He sighs, and it's as though the whole world's pain is contained in that
sigh. Then, slowly, he speaks. "My father made me butcher it."

"Did you?" I ask.

"I ran away, but I couldn't hide. They found me."

"What happened?"

"My father gave me a choice."

"What was that?"

"He told me, 'You either slaughter that animal or you're no longer my son.'"

Some choice, I think, feeling the weight of how fathers have so often
trained their sons not to care, to be what they call brave and strong, but
what so often turns out to be callous and closed-hearted.

"So I did it," he says, and now his tears begin to flow, making their way
down his cheeks. I am touched and humbled. This man, whom I had judged to be
without human feeling, is weeping in front of me, a stranger. This man, whom
I had seen as callous and even heartless, is actually someone who cares, and
deeply. How wrong, how profoundly and terribly wrong I had been.

In the minutes that follow, it becomes clear to me what has been happening.
The pig farmer has remembered something that was so painful, that was such a
profound trauma, that he had not been able to cope with it when it had
happened. Something had shut down, then. It was just too much to bear.

Somewhere in his young, formative psyche he made a resolution never to be
that hurt again, never to be that vulnerable again. And he built a wall
around the place where the pain had occurred, which was the place where his
love and attachment to that pig was located, which was his heart. And now
here he was, slaughtering pigs for a living-still, I imagined, seeking his
father's approval. God, what we men will do, I thought, to get our fathers'

I had thought he was a cold and closed human being, but now I saw the truth.
His rigidity was not a result of a lack of feeling, as I had thought it was,
but quite the opposite: it was a sign of how sensitive he was underneath.
For if he had not been so sensitive, he would not have been that hurt, and
he would not have needed to put up so massive a wall. The tension in his
body that was so apparent to me upon first meeting him, the body armor that
he carried, bespoke how hurt he had been, and how much capacity for feeling
he carried still, beneath it all.

I had judged him, and done so, to be honest, mercilessly. But for the rest
of the evening I sat with him, humbled, and grateful for whatever it was in
him that had been strong enough to force this long-buried and deeply painful
memory to the surface. And glad, too, that I had not stayed stuck in my
judgments of him, for if I had, I would not have provided an environment in
which his remembering could have occurred.

We talked that night, for hours, about many things. I was, after all that
had happened, concerned for him. The gap between his feelings and his
lifestyle seemed so tragically vast. What could he do? This was all he knew.
He did not have a high school diploma. He was only partially literate. Who
would hire him if he tried to do something else? Who would invest in him and
train him, at his age?

When finally, I left that evening, these questions were very much on my
mind, and I had no answers to them. Somewhat flippantly, I tried to joke
about it. "Maybe," I said, "you'll grow broccoli or something." He stared at
me, clearly not comprehending what I might be talking about. It occurred to
me, briefly, that he might possibly not know what broccoli was.

We parted that night as friends, and though we rarely see each other now, we
have remained friends as the years have passed. I carry him in my heart and
think of him, in fact, as a hero. Because, as you will soon see, impressed
as I was by the courage it had taken for him to allow such painful memories
to come to the surface, I had not yet seen the extent of his bravery.

When I wrote Diet for a New America, I quoted him and summarized what he had
told me, but I was quite brief and did not mention his name. I thought that,
living as he did among other pig farmers in Iowa, it would not be to his
benefit to be associated with me.

When the book came out, I sent him a copy, saying I hoped he was comfortable
with how I wrote of the evening we had shared, and directing him to the
pages on which my discussion of our time together was to be found.

Several weeks later, I received a letter from him. "Dear Mr. Robbins," it
began. "Thank you for the book. When I saw it, I got a migraine headache."

Now as an author, you do want to have an impact on your readers. This,
however, was not what I had had in mind.

He went on, though, to explain that the headaches had gotten so bad that, as
he put it, "the wife" had suggested to him he should perhaps read the book.
She thought there might be some kind of connection between the headaches and
the book. He told me that this hadn't made much sense to him, but he had
done it because "the wife" was often right about these things.

"You write good," he told me, and I can tell you that his three words of his
meant more to me than when the New York Times praised the book profusely. He
then went on to say that reading the book was very hard for him, because the
light it shone on what he was doing made it clear to him that it was wrong
to continue. The headaches, meanwhile, had been getting worse, until, he
told me, that very morning, when he had finished the book, having stayed up
all night reading, he went into the bathroom, and looked into the mirror. "I
decided, right then," he said, "that I would sell my herd and get out of
this business. I don't know what I will do, though. Maybe I will, like you
said, grow broccoli."

As it happened, he did sell his operation in Iowa and move back to Missouri,
where he bought a small farm. And there he is today, running something of a
model farm. He grows vegetables organically-including, I am sure,
broccoli-that he sells at a local farmer's market. He's got pigs, all right,
but only about 10, and he doesn't cage them, nor does he kill them. Instead,
he's got a contract with local schools; they bring kids out in buses on
field trips to his farm, for his "Pet-a-pig" program. He shows them how
intelligent pigs are and how friendly they can be if you treat them right,
which he now does. He's arranged it so the kids, each one of them, gets a
chance to give a pig a belly rub. He's become nearly a vegetarian himself,
has lost most of his excess weight, and his health has improved
substantially. And, thank goodness, he's actually doing better financially
than he was before.

Do you see why I carry this man with me in my heart? Do you see why he is
such a hero to me? He dared to leap, to risk everything, to leave what was
killing his spirit even though he didn't know what was next. He left behind
a way of life that he knew was wrong, and he found one that he knows is

When I look at many of the things happening in our world, I sometimes fear
we won't make it. But when I remember this man and the power of his spirit,
and when I remember that there are many others whose hearts beat to the same
quickening pulse, I think we will.

I can get tricked into thinking there aren't enough of us to turn the tide,
but then I remember how wrong I was about the pig farmer when I first met
him, and I realize that there are heroes afoot everywhere. Only I can't
recognize them because I think they are supposed to look or act a certain
way. How blinded I can be by my own beliefs.

The man is one of my heroes because he reminds me that we can depart from
the cages we build for ourselves and for each other, and become something
much better. He is one of my heroes because he reminds me of what I hope
someday to become.

When I first met him, I would not have thought it possible that I would ever
say the things I am saying here. But this only goes to show how amazing life
can be, and how you never really know what to expect. The pig farmer has
become, for me, a reminder never to underestimate the power of the human

I consider myself privileged to have spent that day with him, and grateful
that I was allowed to be a catalyst for the unfolding of his spirit. I know
my presence served him in some way, but I also know, and know full well,
that I received far more than I gave.

To me, this is grace-to have the veils lifted from our eyes so that we can
recognize and serve the goodness in each other. Others may wish for great
riches or for ecstatic journeys to mystical planes, but to me, this is the
magic of human life.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Which of these candidates will engage your imagination?

Honorable Mentions
by Reihan Salam

The day after the election, Slate's William Saletan laid out the task facing Democrats: "Find a compelling salesman and get him ready to run for president in 2008. Put aside your quibbles about preparation, stature, expertise, nuance, and all that other hyper-sophisticated garbage that caused you to nominate Kerry." This, of course, is exactly what Republicans did after their congressional setbacks in 1998: They coalesced around Texas Governor George W. Bush, and they've never looked back. (For better or for worse, one hastens to add.) Saletan sees John Edwards as the logical choice, but he is hardly alone in having already declared his preference. Joining him are the always-reliable band of Hillary boosters, the battle-scarred Deaniacs, and the still fresh-faced and starry-eyed Obamaphiles.

Somehow this all seems too pat. There's something too insidery about the humdrum list of '08 contenders that already passes for conventional wisdom. As Taco Bell, makers of our nation's finest tacos, instructs us regularly, we need to "think outside the bun." Yes, the names on the short list are there for a reason, and many of those on the short list have, simply put, "nice buns," plus the name recognition it takes to make a splash. But will this be enough? Remember: As Ron Brownstein recently wrote, Democrats need a "red-blooded candidate," the kind of guy or gal who can "widen the electoral battlefield." With that in mind, TNR Online grades the 2008 Democratic contenders who haven't made anyone's shortlist--yet.

First, though, a warning: TNR Online doesn't believe in grade inflation. If you don't like your grade, suck it up, hunker down, and try studying for a change. Boozing it up with the popular kids is a load of laughs--until midterms.

In addition to letter grades, we've identified some areas of improvement for each candidate, based on the following key:

* Try growing a personality in the lab, with the aid of revolutionary advances in stem-cell research.
^ Accomplish much? Accomplishing something, anything, might help.
$ How will you finance your campaign, with a bake sale? Good luck.
@ No coattails? Listen pal, you're naked without coattails, and it's 30 below zero. You just frostbit the dust. What have you done for Democrats lately?
~ There's such a thing as being ideologically out of step, but you're doing some kind of shim-sham freestyle tap dance while the rest of us are doing the foxtrot. Feliz Navidad, you maniac.
~ I know I'm from the Northeast or the West Coast, but I can't help it!

Phil Bredesen. The Democratic governor of Tennessee is a star. Let's start with the obvious: He is the Democratic governor of Tennessee. What's more, he was elected in 2002, a year during which the Republican tide was tsunami-like. What better way to widen the electoral battlefield than to nominate a proven vote-getter from deep in the heart of Red America?
It's a bit more complicated than that, of course. Bredesen, a native of upstate New York, began his political career in Massachusetts, several thousand miles from the mainstream. In Tennessee, he's been tarred by opponents as a Yankee, but to little effect. Having reinvented himself as a dynamic, go-getting face of the New South, he's managed to bridge a pesky regional divide in a way that might come in handy: Along with millions of other middle-of-the-road Americans, Bredesen picked up and migrated from the Frostbelt to the Sunbelt--a journey that parallels that of the Bush family, minus the inherited fortune.
Speaking of fortunes, Bredesen belongs to the choicest, most desirable of minority groups: the self-made millionaires--vastly more popular with the folks at home than those who've married irascible heiresses. Like fellow millionaire Jon Corzine, he's demonstrated fund-raising prowess and, more importantly, managerial talent. Alas, Bredesen made his filthy lucre in the less-than-popular HMO sector--but the same problem certainly hasn't stopped fellow Tennessean Bill Frist.
More troubling is that Bredesen suffers from the same malady that afflicted Tennessee Democrat Al Gore: He's seen as cerebral and standoffish, anything but a backslapping pol. During his successful run for mayor of Nashville in 1991, Bredesen described himself as "a fairly shy, fairly low-key person. ... I think I come across to people as fairly distant." This is touching. One only hopes Bredesen hasn't hired Naomi Wolf as a color consultant. That said, he comes from an appealingly humble background that ought to offset his Harvard pedigree.
Bredesen has also proved resilient. As a very young man, he vied for a State Senate seat in Massachusetts and lost. He ran twice for mayor of Nashville before winning on the third try. He also lost the first time he ran for governor of Tennessee, in 1994. But he returned to beat a bitterly divided Republican Party by swearing off a state income tax, pet project of his unpopular Republican predecessor, and promising a leaner, more efficient, and more responsive state government, with a particular focus on expanding access to health care for children. (And really, who is opposed to that?)
Since his 2002 victory, Bredesen has delivered, rescuing the state from an impending fiscal crisis by sharply cutting spending--not raising taxes--and demonstrating a knack for bipartisan problem-solving. This statement, from a Bredesen interview with Gannett's Larry Bivins, says it all: "My politics, more than Democrat or Republican, is small town." Of course, the left won't love his politics; but, then again, the left didn't love the Man from Hope either. If Bredesen doesn't make Democrats swoon, something has gone terribly wrong.

Overall Grade: A-
Things to Work On: * @

Mike Easley. Why stop at one conservative Democratic governor from the South? Easley was reelected two weeks ago in North Carolina, on the same day the very well-financed Erskine Bowles bit the dust in his Senate bid, and native son John Edwards failed to even come close to carrying the state for John Kerry. Unlike Bredesen, Easley was born in the South. Also unlike Bredesen, he's known as a real charmer. Not at the level of a Clinton or an Edwards, but enough to melt hearts with a sugary drawl. Easley began his career in public life as a famously tough prosecutor. (By night, he roamed the streets as Batman. No, not really. I digress.) As attorney general, like so many other enterprising New Democrats, he personally wrestled convicted felons into a headlock, or rather promoted a "throw away the key" approach to law enforcement.
When the 2000 gubernatorial race rolled around, and after quickly dispatching with a more liberal primary challenger, Easley looked like a shoe-in. The trouble was that the Democratic label, tough talk notwithstanding, proved a formidable obstacle, and Easley's opponent, Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, tried to tar him by association with President Clinton. This despite the fact that Easley conspicuously avoided any open involvement with the Gore-Lieberman ticket, declining even to appear at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. (While debating Vinroot, Easley was forced to say, emphatically: "I'm not Al Gore. I'm Mike Easley.") Easley was no pushover--he alleged, unfairly, that Vinroot was anti-police--but the Republicans' tactic worked, for a time, and the Easley campaign was reeling in the final weeks. In the end, though, Easley's rural roots carried him to victory with 52 percent of the vote.
Without a Democratic administration in Washington hanging around his neck, Easley spent his first term fighting for spending increases in health and education and dealing with a rapidly deteriorating fiscal picture, relying heavily on projected revenue from a planned state lottery. He suffered a political reversal during midterm legislative elections, when the GOP made gains. This led to six Republicans vying for their party's gubernatorial nod this year. Patrick Ballantine was the last man standing, and he was badly underfinanced, not to mention, get this, a bit too moderate. Despite economic difficulties, Easley was reelected two weeks ago with an even wider margin. Once again, he distanced himself from the national party and performed particularly well in the same rural areas that went for Republicans up and down the ballot.
Does Easley make sense as a Democratic presidential contender? His reluctance to identify with the national party suggests that he might have a tough time winning primaries outside North Carolina. Plus, the state is an anomaly in that it has been sending Democrats to the governor's mansion pretty consistently while trending Republican on the national level; as a result, it might not be the best bellwether. Still, Easley's rural, red-state appeal--increasingly unusual among Dems--probably makes him worth a look.

Overall Grade: B-
Things to Work On: @ ~

Kathleen Sebelius. The fact that Sebelius won the governorship of Kansas, which gave 62 percent of its votes to President Bush this year, itself suggests that something strange was afoot in 2002. That something strange was a civil war within the state's Republican Party, which has raged for over a decade. In 1998, TNR editor Peter Beinart described this as a "battle for the 'burbs" that pitted an old guard of "frugal, tough-minded pragmatists" against a new generation of suburban evangelicals. Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, frames it as a conflict between affluent voters (he calls them "Mods") keenly focused on their economic interests, often embracing the same lifestyle liberalism as the "secular elites" on the coasts, and an army of lower-middle-class voters (he calls them "Cons") dedicated to their religious convictions to the exclusion of all else. This has allowed a handful of capable Democrats to cobble together a coalition with moderate Republicans to win elections. Sebelius is one of them.
Because Democrats have so few seats in Kansas's legislature, Sebelius has relatively little to show for her tenure thus far. She's proposed a tax package to finance school improvements, but it's gone nowhere. Moreover, Sebelius has failed to strengthen Democrats' numbers in the legislature. In fact, Democrats lost seats in the lower house in the 2004 election. As a result of these setbacks, it's probably unwise to bet the farm on Sebelius winning national office.

Overall Grade: D+
Things to Work On: ^ $ @

Jim Doyle. After knocking off Scott McCallum--successor to the legendary Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, who reshaped the state's politics during his long tenure as governor--Doyle has done his best to get out from under Thompson's mammoth shadow. Ever since Doyle's election as attorney general in 1990, the two men have feuded bitterly, thus adding an element of local rivalry to the race for Wisconsin's electoral votes this year. Thompson, an affable man under most circumstances and more popular to this day than Doyle in his home state, seemed determined to deliver the prize to Bush. That Doyle successfully defended his turf--unlike a host of would-be Democratic contenders--may merit him a closer look between now and 2008.
For whatever reason, Wisconsin's economic expansion has been fairly robust for the past year, with considerable, if not stellar, job growth and a slow but steady recovery in the manufacturing sector. The Bush camp certainly tried to claim credit. Doyle wouldn't let them. In a stunning display of self-sacrifice, he claimed the credit for himself. Nice work.
Some of Doyle's toughest battles have been with other Democrats in the state, particularly the ambitious attorney general, Peg Lautenschlager. His outspoken opposition to school choice has placed him at loggerheads with some Milwaukee Democrats, but this, coupled with political capital spent in opposition to a concealed weapons law, might strengthen his hand with some on the left of the party. At the same time, Doyle's efforts to close the state's budget gap have centered on reducing the size of the public sector workforce, he's emphasized his opposition to raising taxes, and he's gone out on a limb in favor of open trade with China. In other words, he's an ideologically mixed bag--which could make for a winning combination, particularly if Democrats find themselves polarized between liberals and moderates in 2008.
There's only one catch: Doyle won in 2002 with the help of one Ed Thompson, Tommy Thompson's eccentric brother. Doyle beat McCallum by a decent margin, 45 percent to 42 percent, but Brother Ed, on the Libertarian line, managed to garner a whopping 11 percent of the vote, much of which would have gone to McCallum. And Doyle's approval ratings are hardly earth-shattering. Worst of all, like a distressingly high proportion of promising Democrats, he has a degree from that bastion of Northeastern elitism, Harvard.

Overall Grade: C
Things to Work On: * ^ @

Ed Rendell. For whatever reason, Rendell isn't being taken very seriously as a presidential contender, despite being the moderate Democratic governor of a populous swing state that sends two Republicans to the U.S. Senate. It could be that he's seen as too much a product of the Northeast. Indeed, as a Jewish Ivy Leaguer born and raised in Manhattan, with all the brashness that comes with having been a long-serving district attorney in Philadelphia, he could be seen as too culturally alien for Southern or Midwestern consumption. Strangely enough, Republicans coalescing around Rudolph Giuliani, another New York-bred former prosecutor with a mercurial streak a mile wide, don't seem to accept this logic. Like Giuliani, Rendell is known for his outsized personality, which could be a winning formula against taciturn, tight-lipped competition. There's no doubt that he's charming, and that he helped deliver a key swing state in 2000 and 2004.
On the other side of the ledger, Rendell was lucky to win the governorship. A 53 to 44 percent margin might not look narrow to the untrained eye, but Rendell was running against lackluster Attorney General Mike Fisher and not incumbent Governor Mark Schweiker. Schweiker, popular successor to the very popular Tom Ridge, may well have thrashed Rendell, sending him howling back to Philadelphia. But Schweiker, bless his heart, wanted to spend more time with his family, and he meant it. Rare in this business, but what can you do. He handed Pennsylvania to Rendell on a platter. The Democrat scored lopsided margins in the Philadelphia suburbs, where pro-choice Republicans (now known as "Rendellicans") crossed over in large numbers rather than vote for the pro-life Fisher. Rendell didn't win by taking a majority in the culturally conservative center of the state. This is like winning big in the blue states and getting clocked everywhere else. In Pennsylvania, this makes you governor; in the United States, thanks to the Electoral College, this makes you a loser. Also, is there any way for Rendell to replicate his success with suburban Republicans in areas of the country that aren't as polarized by the politics of abortion? At least for now, a Republican legislature has made it difficult for him to rack up marquee accomplishments. The concern is that Rendell, with his outsized personality, is all cheese and no steak.

Overall Grade: B
Things to Work On: ~

Dick Durbin. If the left of the party demands a forthright and aggressive advocate, Durbin might be just what the doctor ordered. Though he's in the Senate, toxic for most presidential nominees, he has the combative personality it takes to separate himself from the pack. Now that he's been named minority whip, he's going to become even more visible. His origins in gritty East St. Louis make it difficult to caricature him as a spoiled son of privilege, thus lending authenticity to his hard-edged brand of economic populism. If left-wing Democrats are right that "progressive centrism" will prove a nonstarter with white working-class voters, then expect a Durbin boomlet.

Overall Grade: C-
Things to Work On: ^ $ ~ @

Phil Angelides. California's state treasurer is largely unknown outside the Golden State. Right now, he's gearing up to challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. Angelides's main beef with Schwarzenegger is that the governor's budget proposal simply shifts the debt burden in lieu of tackling it through increased taxes. He's also called for reversing the infamous Proposition 13, which sharply limited California property taxes. If by some mysterious turn of events there's a groundswell for higher taxes over the next four years, Angelides might be the right man to sell that message on a national scale. Known for a zesty speaking style and outsized ambition, it's faintly possible that he'll beat Schwarzenegger in 2006, instantly propelling him to national name recognition. That, plus megabucks derived from years spent as a real estate developer, might make him a formidable player. Stranger things have happened--but not much stranger.

Overall Grade: D-
Things to Work On: ^ @ ~

Jennifer Granholm. Another candidate who might be helped along by Schwarzenegger's national stature is the British Columbia-born governor of Michigan (also, disturbingly, a graduate of Harvard Law School). If Schwarzenegger devotees manage to pass a constitutional amendment to get their man on the presidential ballot in 2008, Granholm might make a serious run for the White House. She has impressed a wide array of journalists, including TNR's Jonathan Cohn, a man known for his nose for political talent. (See Dean, Howard.)
Unfortunately, like many of the Democratic governors on this list, she performed less well than expected against an unimpressive Republican nominee in 2002. Just as Rendell relied on the Philadelphia suburbs to win in an otherwise reddish state, Granholm received overwhelming support in Detroit, without which she would have lost.
Granholm has won praise for dealing aggressively with an appalling fiscal situation, and for her political moderation. Otherwise, a Republican legislature and a less-than-stellar economic picture have made passing bold initiatives tough. Assuming the stars align and Granholm is even eligible for the presidency, it's far too easy to imagine her getting--wait for it--"terminated." (I am so ashamed.)

Overall Grade: B-
Things to Work On: ^ @

Mark Warner. The Virginia governor has hardly gone unnoticed (yes, we're cheating by including him on this list) but it's safe to say that he ought to be noticed more often. He's very clearly positioning himself for higher office--serving as chairman of the National Governors Association doesn't hurt--and while he's not yet in the first tier of would-be presidential candidates, he soon will be.
Best known for his rural appeal, partly a function of his willingness to conspicuously embrace conservative positions on gun rights and abortion, Warner is the first Democrat to be elected governor of Virginia since his mentor, L. Douglas Wilder, another moderate with national ambitions. After Wilder left office, his brief presidential run having fizzled, Republicans, including the very popular George Allen, dominated state politics for the next eight years.
Despite Warner's whisker-thin victory in 2001, Republicans continue to hold a firm grip on the legislature and the state's electoral votes, the increasingly leftward tilt of northern Virginia notwithstanding. Like Bredesen and Easley, Warner has been swimming against a Republican tide. Perhaps his major accomplishment was to split Virginia's Republicans down the middle, with zealous anti-tax rebels on one side, working against him, and pragmatists from infrastructure-hungry growing suburbs working with him, cooperating on various "pro-business" initiatives.
However promising Warner may seem, there are serious risks. He is, for one thing, a self-made multimillionaire with a degree from Harvard--shades of Bredesen. But when not combined with Bredesen's self-effacement, this isn't always political gold. Warner won the gubernatorial race by spending massive amounts of money against then-Attorney General Mark Earley--and by a far narrower margin than had been anticipated. This was partly attributable to the 9/11 attacks, which happened two months before the election, but also to the strength of the state GOP and Warner's own weaknesses. Just as Wesley Clark, a charismatically challenged cerebral type, was no plainspoken Eisenhower, Warner is not the second coming of Bill Clinton by a longshot. That said, he's won some tough battles and is worthy of consideration.

Overall Grade: B+
Things to Work On: *

Tom Vilsack. The governor of Iowa has made no secret of his ambitions. Of the Dems on Kerry's rumored vice-presidential shortlist, Vilsack was the only sitting governor. He's also the only one still in office. As Vilsack told The Des Moines Register last Sunday, "I think I've got some ideas and thoughts I'd like to share." Which is fantastic. Ideas and thoughts are always welcome. But before declaring Vilsack a shoe-in for the Oval Office, one ought to keep a few things in mind.
Vilsack has thrived as governor of a socially conservative, Midwestern state, and his life story--he is the adopted son of alcoholic parents--is inspiring to say the least. He has a reputation for competence and, better yet, political courage. Vilsack's courage has been particularly evident in his unpopular stands on social issues--vetoing a waiting period on abortions and vetoing an effort to repeal an anti-discrimination law that protected gays and lesbians. The catch: Could more effective, charismatic opponents have used this against him? Vilsack's victories in Iowa have been solid--52 percent in 1998 and 53 percent in 2002--but he's run against poor candidates in both cases. In 1998, for instance, he was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of name recognition against Representative Jim Ross Lightfoot; but Lightfoot was a very, very strange fellow and a poor campaigner by any standard. On top of that, the Iowa economy has seen better days.

Overall Grade: C+
Things to Work On: @

Final thought: It's true. We've been harsh. Perhaps too harsh. But it's only because we care. Years from now, when these folks are on the campaign trail, they'll thank us profusely. And when, whether in 2008 or 2012 or 3076, one of them is elected president, we fully expect to be granted suzerainty over Hawaii.

Correction: In 2001, Mark Warner defeated Mark Earley, not James Gilmore as this article originally stated. We regret the error.

Reihan Salam is a former TNR reporter-researcher.

Stop Loss
Hillary can't win. Better get used to that now.

Party Planning
Cryogenically freezing Barack Obama, and other plans to save the DNC.

Not Credible
The Incredibles explains why Democrats keep losing.

Polls Apart
The more liberals denigrate Middle America, the more Middle America will despise them.

Copyright 2004, The New Republic

TNR Online | Science Fiction (print)

TNR Online | Science Fiction (print)

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Watch how they spent their money before you spend yours.

Buy Blue Current Campaign
While you are spending your Christmas money you should know who is on your side. Do we want to fund the next Republican campaign?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Water for Saratoga Springs

Because the water meeting scheduled on December 14th, 7 pm at the City Center, is coming up fast, it is worth posting again the main talking points of the "Saratoga Lake as Saratoga Springs supplementary water source" issue.
Here goes:

Cost to taxpayers: $17 million for Saratoga Lake option; $78 million for the County water ‘plan.’ The $78 million for the County water plan has the following problems: there is no real plan yet in place; the cost includes a water filtration plant which Saratoga Springs already has; the cost is only for the first part of the ‘plan’ which is to be followed within ten years by a second and equally costly project. Saratoga Lake would remain in our jurisdiction and the control would lie in the hands of the city residents. We would be charged for only what we use and not be required to use more than we need. It is a far more environmentally sound option in terms of water conservation.

Local control of Saratoga Springs’ destiny would be maintained by using Saratoga Lake.
Because we as a City would be able to determine how much or how little water we need, we would not be subject to County surcharges and fees. This would allow us to control our destiny in terms of managed ‘smart’ development and avoid the excessive urban sprawl that would result from having a water pipe running up and down Route 9.

Using Saratoga Lake as a water source will not impact its water level. Currently 250 million gallons of water run out of Saratoga Lake through Kayaderosseras Creek on a daily basis. Other flow out of the lake is controlled by a man-powered dam. Saratoga Springs is looking for one or two million gallons of water during the tourist season to supplement our current supply of water. If we do need to turn to the lake for our main source of water in the future, we would still take only 11 million gallons per day – only 4.4% or 4/100ths of what currently flows out of the lake.

The safety of our water supply and our quality of life are crucial.
Currently the location the County pinpointed for water access in the Hudson River contains PCBs. The water has been tested as suitable, but that will not remain the case once the riverbed is stirred up. Most of the PCB contamination lies in the sediment and soil beneath the water and will be released when digging for a pipeline occurs. The risk is not worth it.

Saratoga Lake has been deemed suitable for use as drinking water by the New York State Department of Health. The NYS Department of Health approved the plan drawn up by the engineer consulting firm of Barton and Lojuidice. In a letter responding to the DEIS Michael Montysko of the health department's water supply bureau stated, " ... we see no need for special restrictions beyond the current requirements imposed on the lake, except in the immediate area of the intake, where swimming should be prohibited and the anchoring of boats should be restricted" (The Saratogian 7 July 2003). The fears of lake residents that the lake will be off limits for recreational purposes have no basis in reality. In fact once the lake is utilized as a water source, it will be perceived as being cleaner which will actually raise the residents’ property values.


The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Inventing a Crisis

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Inventing a Crisis

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: The Suicide Supply Chain

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: The Suicide Supply Chain

Sunday, December 05, 2004 | What happens if the dollar devalues further? | World economy - Kerik's credentials to be USA's top cop - News Columnists

The brighter side of Nov. 2nd

Asking people to look on the bright side of Election 2004 is, to quote Kristina Wilfore of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, "a little like asking Mrs. Lincoln how the show was." Progressives are reeling and grasping for bearings after a confusing and upsetting loss on Nov. 2. And why shouldn't they be? For millions, it was the first time they'd dared to hope in a long, long time.

But there are reasons to remain hopeful. Despite the high-profile electoral losses and the passage of 11 anti-gay measures, there were dozens of successes and encouraging trends for the progressive cause ; most of which came at the local level. Poor Dr. King; he's always turned to when things look bleakest ; and now is no different. The latest of his inspiring words making the rounds in post-election e-mails: "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice."

This story is about focusing for a moment on some of the important successes from this past Tuesday. And "success" isn't simply code for "where Democrats won." Success, for the purposes of this article is defined by initiatives, candidates and trends that favor anti-war stances, a strong defense of the environment, sane drug policies, and a movement toward a just and tolerant America.

Down to business.

Conscience and Politics Can Play Nice Together

The seven Democratic senators who voted against the Iraq war all won re-election ; and they did it by an average margin of nearly 30%.

Anti-war Democrat senators who won:

Barbara Boxer ; California ; 58%-38%
Daniel Inouye ; Hawaii ; 76%-21%
Barbara Mikulski ; Maryland ; 65%-34%
Patty Murray ; Washington ; 55%-43%
Russ Feingold ; Wisconsin ; 56%-44%
Ron Wyden ; Oregon ; 63%-32%
Pat Leahy ; Vermont ; 71%-25%

Zoom in and the point becomes even clearer. In Oregon, where Kerry, who voted for the war, won by a mere 4 percent, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden won by over 30 percent "despite" his vote against it. Wisconsin, which was too close to call on election night, didn't take very long to declare Russ Feingold, who voted against the war (ignoring warnings from his staff), the winner. He won by 11 percent. Writer John Stauber concludes, "The lesson is this: Russ Feingold proves that an anti-war, populist Democrat, a maverick campaigning to get big money out of politics, can win and win big."

These statistics should strike fear out of the Democrats the next time issues of war and peace are on the table. Maybe, just maybe, if they can persuade the Democratic establishment to disabuse itself of the mistaken belief that reelection comes to those who adopt the safest position, rather than to those who make a strong case for the values they hold most dear, it has a shot at being relevant in the 21st century.

Dean Dozen

Howard Dean supporters were devastated when their man was taken down after the press, doing a fine impersonation of a pack of wolves, disingenuously played and replayed "the scream" 633 times ; before apologizing for it. Curiously you didn't hear the press dub themselves "flip-floppers."

But Dean didn't just drop out and angle for a cabinet position. He quickly threw his weight, and organizational structure, into a new group called Democracy for America (DFA) whose mission is to support progressive-minded candidates in primarily local elections "from city council or local school boards to U.S. Senate," and to ensure that every race is contested.

Every two weeks, a pool of 12 candidates was chosen from races around the nation, dubbed the "Dean Dozen," and given public support by the governor himself ; though sometimes, the group's spokesperson Laura Gross conceded, "it was a baker's dozen, or two dozen; it depended."

On the premise that "Democrats can't be afraid to run in certain places like Montana and Georgia and Texas, just because they're so-called red states," DFA campaigned for candidates who would otherwise have been left to the wolves or who may never have run at all. "We never said we'd win all the races," Gross said, "but you've got to start somewhere and you can't be shy about running, and that's what we did."

Amazingly, in what were not cherry-picked races designed for a boastful post-election press release, 31 of the 102 of the Dean Dozen candidates were victorious. An amazing 15 of the 32 had never run for office before. Among the highlights:

The mayor of Republican-dominated Salt Lake City, Utah, is now a Democrat.
Openly gay candidate, Nicole LeFeveur, won a seat in the Idaho state legislature.
In heavily Republican Alabama, progressive Anita Kelly was elected as Circuit Court Judge.
In Florida, a first time, Dean-inspired candidate, Susan Clary, won as Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor.
Montana's governor is now a Democrat, Brian Schweitzer.
Heavily Republican New Hampshire elected Democrat John Lynch, kicking the incumbent and ethically challenged Gov. Benson out of office.
Arthur Anderson won the race for supervisor of elections in electorally-challenged Palm Beach County, Fla.
Suzanne Williams won a state senate seat in Colorado, giving the upper house a Democratic majority.
In North Carolina, openly gay Julia Boseman was one of several Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents to take back control of the State House.

According to Gross, "These are all types of people: male, female, black, white, Latino ... when people talk about rebuilding the Democratic party, that's the start of it. You have to start at the base of this organization, the grass roots level and build your way up. That's what the Christian Coalition did 30 or 40 years ago and hey, they're obviously pretty successful."

And DFA's activists? Gross said that "after the election, our people were more energized than ever. There were 450 meet-ups on Wednesday night. Our blog traffic is up 300 percent, our site traffic is up 300 percent. People don't want to have this 'woe is me attitude.' They want to get up and get active again."

Taking the Initiative

The received wisdom spewing from pundits and papers that the nation is overwhelmingly conservative and that the election constituted a "mandate" for the Bush agenda. But the reality is of course more complex than that. This view is buttressed by the number of progressive initiatives that managed to pass across the nation.

Residents of the "red" states of Florida and Nevada, for example, voted overwhelmingly in favor of something Bush refuses to even consider: raising the minimum wage. Despite "intense opposition from pro-business groups," not to mention Florida Gov.Jeb Bush in his neck of the woods, both states raised their minimum wage by a dollar to $6.15. In Nevada, 68 percent of voters went voted for it; in Florida, the number was 71 percent. Meghan Scott, the communications director for Floridians for All, the group that sponsored the Florida initiative, said, "Once people heard what Amendment 5 was and what it would do for Florida's working poor, people really got it."

On education, the story was similar. Bush passed, yet perenially underfunds, the much-mocked "No Child Left Behind" program. So, while voters in the "red" states of Arkansas, North Carolina, and Nevada supported their president, they also felt the need to support initiatives that strengthened their education systems beyond No Child's parameters. Whether it was the Nevada voters' majority decision to require lawmakers to fund K-12 before anything else, Arkansan's decision to use lottery revenue for education, or North Carolinians' decision to use money collected from fines for schools (they also chose to have a more equitable distribution of funds between schools), voters demanded that their tax dollars fund their public schools. Once again, a progressive value supported by "red" state majorities.

In California, voters supported a stem cell research initiative at which, on the federal level, Bush barely throws pennies. While California tends to be more liberal on social issues, it's difficult to overstate the importance of this measure. Due to its size, and thus the size of the measure's funding ($3 billion), California support for stem cell research effectively is U.S. support for stem cell funding. Call this a smart investment. Watch how California's state economy will be further diversified and enriched when the dividends from this potentially life-saving research start coming in. Speaking to the L.A. Times, Berkeley professor Bruce Cain noted that this initiative, "really highlights how California has become the capital of the 'second nation' and is going to the left when the rest of the country goes right ..."

But the "second nation" didn't stop there. Californians also passed a measure that goes against the prevailing wisdom of the Bush tax cuts. In order to expand mental health programs, those earning more than $1 million per year will see their income tax rise by an earth shattering 1 percent. The San Andreas Fault is expected to survive the hike.

In a similar move, Maine voters opposed a cap on property taxes. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this vote as well. Flying in the face of the think tanks, pundits and rhetoric of the right, citizens who vote to keep the door to further taxation open are citizens who understand the true meaning of family. Taxes are each American's contribution to the well-being of all Americans. If this isn't a victory for progressive values, it's difficult to say what is.

Going Green

The environment, according to (and thanks in big part to) the League of Conservation Voters, was a big winner. Of the LCV's 18 "Environmental Champions," all 18 won. Of the "Dirty Dozen," four went down in flames. In the eight congressional races into which significant LCV resources were invested, the LCV won seven of them. Sure, a candidate like Barack Obama was destined for victory, but others like Ken Salazar, who beat millionaire Pete Coors by just three percent, were surely given a boost by the LCV's effort to expose Coors' anti-environment agenda which, in addition to helping elect the greener candidate, may make others reluctant to embrace an anti-environment agenda. And indeed, LCV president Deb Callahan asserted, "LCV will now take this successful electoral blueprint and apply it in both elections and policy debates around the country. We will not rest until all three branches of our government are represented by pro-environment public servants."

Writing about drug policy initiatives that were on the ballot this November, Steve Wishnia notes that, "Even as 59 percent of (Montana's) voters were going for George W. Bush and two-thirds opting to ban gay marriage, Montanans were approving Initiative 148, which would allow medical marijuana use by patients with a doctor's recommendation, by a 62-38 percent margin." Basic initiatives (like decriminalization and/or medical use) also succeeded locally, in Oakland and, surprisingly, in Columbia, Miss. Bolder initiatives like full legalization or less restrictive medical use laws, were only narrowly defeated in Oregon and Alaska ; an amazing trend in a nation weaned on DARE and the drug war.

The Ultimate Measure

Conventional wisdom holds that Americans voted against their best interests on Nov. 2. While focusing only on the broad stroke does lean toward that conclusion, a careful analysis reveals a more complex picture. Progressive issues and candidates won by big margins at a state and local level. On many of the issues that would positively effect the majority of Americans: minimum wage, the environment, taxes, and sane drug laws, for example, significant advances were made when put straight to the electorate. Sure, there is the daunting cultural divide with respect to gay civil rights and women's rights but it's certainly not the wholesale "values" difference we're led to believe.

Likewise, if voters' support for those who voted against the Iraq War teaches us anything about the ability to present a diverse electorate with an attractive progressive platform it's that progressive candidates must articulate the fact that all issues are reflective of our values and not simply questions of gays or abortion. Sure, they'll lose blocs of voters devoted to single issues, but those voters simply seeking to elect the candidate they can believe in will follow the candidate who firmly believes in their own position. And they'll do it every time.

Did we miss some examples of progressive victories on Nov.2? Send them in to,

Evan Derkacz is a New York-based writer and contributor to AlterNet.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Water from Saratoga Lake: the highlights

Saratoga Springs Water Issue: Talking Points

Cost to taxpayers: $17 million for Saratoga Lake option; $78 million for the County water ‘plan.’
The $78 million for the County water plan has the following problems: there is no real plan yet in place; the cost includes a water filtration plant which Saratoga Springs already has; the cost is only for the first part of the ‘plan’ which is to be followed within ten years by a second and equally costly project. Saratoga Lake would remain in our jurisdiction and the control would lie in the hands of the city residents. We would be charged for only what we use and not be required to use more than we need. It is a far more environmentally sound option in terms of water conservation.

Local control of Saratoga Springs’ destiny would be maintained by using Saratoga Lake.
Because we as a City would be able to determine how much or how little water we need, we would not be subject to County surcharges and fees. This would allow us to control our destiny in terms of managed ‘smart’ development and avoid the excessive urban sprawl that would result from having a water pipe running up and down Route 9.

Using Saratoga Lake as a water source will not impact its water level.
Currently 258 million gallons of water run out of Saratoga Lake through Kayaderosseras Creek on a daily basis. Other flow out of the lake is controlled by a man-powered damn. Saratoga Springs is looking for one or two million gallons of water during the tourist season to supplement our current supply of water. If we do need to turn to the lake for our main source of water in the future, we would still take only a maximum of 11 million gallons per day – only 4.2% or 6/100ths of what currently flows out of the lake.

The safety of our water supply and our quality of life are crucial.
Currently the location the County pinpointed for water access in the Hudson River contains PCBs. The water has been tested as suitable, but that will not remain the case once the riverbed is stirred up. Most of the PCB contamination lies in the sediment and soil beneath the water and will be released when digging for a pipeline occurs. The risk is not worth it.

Saratoga Lake has been deemed suitable for use as drinking water by the New York State Department of Health.
The NYS Department of Health approved the plan drawn up by the engineer consulting firm of Barton and Lojuidice. In a letter responding to the DEIS Michael Montysko of the health department's water supply bureau stated, " ... we see no need for special restrictions beyond the current requirements imposed on the lake, except in the immediate area of the intake, where swimming should be prohibited and the anchoring of boats should be restricted" (The Saratogian 7 July 2003). The fears of lake residents that the lake will be off limits for recreational purposes have no basis in reality. In fact once the lake is utilized as a water source, it will be perceived as being cleaner which will actually raise the residents’ property values.

Gazette Editorial on Saratoga Springs water

See reason at Saratoga Lake

One of the oddities of the water-supply debate in Saratoga County is that it is the purportedly conservative Republicans who are pushing an expensive biggovernment solution, while the supposedly liberal Democrats favor the much cheaper and simpler option of tapping Saratoga Lake.
Even more odd is the attitude of many landowners around the lake, whose representatives have been vehement in opposing use of it for the Saratoga Springs water supply. That would mean the end of recreation on the lake, they said, even though lakes of similar size, such as Lake Placid, are used as a water supply without affecting boating or other recreation. (Although the use of any lake — e.g. Lake George — for drinking water does help protect it by raising awareness of the need to avoid contamination.)
Last week, the state Health Department said using Saratoga Lake water for the city would have no effect on recreation use, but it remains to be seen if this expression of common sense will have any more effect than previous ones on overcoming irrational prejudice.
The real threat to Saratoga Lake is ongoing development of its watershed, which threatens to increase pollution and worsen water quality. The threat would be made much worse by the big-government solution, pumping water from the Hudson in Moreau through much of the county. That plan of the county Republicans would open the way to more sprawl development, increasing already strong development pressure. It would mean more farms being paved over and forest cut down, and more pollution runoff into the lake.
Rep. John Sweeney should not be delivering millions in federal funding to pay a small fraction of the cost of this boondoggle. Nor should Republicans in Saratoga Springs be trying to saddle their constituents with this big-spending, high-cost plan, as opposed to the much more easily accomplished and environmentally friendly Saratoga Lake solution.

Saratoga County wants to draw water from where....?

The Saratogian

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

To Hell with values!!

To Hell With Values

Michael Kinsley

It's been less than a month since the gods decreed that, due to the election results, American political life henceforth must be all about something called "values." And I gave it my best. Honest. But I'm sick of talking about values, sick of pretending I have them or care more about them than I really do. Sick of bending and twisting the political causes I do care about to make them qualify as "values." News stories about values-mongers caught with their values down used to make my day. Now, the tale of Bill O'Reilly and phone sex induces barely a flicker of schadenfreude.

Why does an ideological position become sacrosanct just because it gets labeled as a "value"? There are serious arguments and sincere passions on both sides of the gay marriage debate. For some reason, the views of those who feel that marriage requires a man and a woman are considered to be a "value," while the views of those who believe that gay relationships deserve the same legal standing as straight ones bely qualifies as an opinion.

Those labels don't confer any logical advantage. But they confer two big advantages in the propaganda war. First, a value just seems inherently more compelling than a mere opinion. That's a big head start. Second, the holder of a value is automatically more sensitive to slights than the holder of an opinion. An opinion can't just slug away at a value. It must be solicitous and understanding. A value may tackle an opinion, meanwhile, with no such constraint.

No doubt there are strategists all over Washington busily reconfiguring their issues to look like values. Highway construction funds? Needed to help people get to Grandma's house for Christmas. You got something against family values, buddy? Or Christmas?

Especially humiliating are efforts by liberals to reposition the issues they care about as conservative and therefore, we hope, transform them into values. Welfare? It (like nearly everything else) is about families, of course. And affirmative action is about work and opportunity. Liberals' actual motivation — the instinct that a prosperous society ought to mitigate the unfairness of life to some reasonable extent — isn't considered a value. So let's keep that one among ourselves.

Why should anyone care, or care so much, whether the people running the government have good values? Shouldn't we prefer a bit of competence, if forced to choose? For example, suppose we had a government that was capable of assuring enough flu vaccine to go around, like the governments of every other developed country in the world. Wouldn't that be nice? And if we could have that kind of government, would anyone really mind if a few more of its leaders secretly enjoyed Janet Jackson's halftime show at the Super Bowl?

The Republican congressional leadership says a clause giving congressional committee chairmen the power to examine anybody's tax returns just slipped into a big spending bill by accident. Whoops! OK, it's the holiday season: I'll buy that. Maybe. But if so — and call me a valueless heathen, if you must — I would like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from now on to read the laws he intends to impose on the nation, even if he does it on Sunday mornings and has to miss church as a result.

It's not just a question of values getting in the way of more pressing or relevant matters. It's also a question of how much you want the government to be worrying about your values. My answer: not very much. My values are my own business. True, they are influenced by private and public institutions and by the culture at large — no doubt in unhealthy ways, very often. But I don't relish the idea of government getting involved to rectify that. And I thought most conservatives would agree. But politicians elected because of their values will probably see values as part of their mandate. That's ominous.

Values have a wonderful quality not shared by other political issues that are more reality-based, such as the war in Iraq or the growing national debt: They can be nearly cost-free. This is often true in the simple economic sense that practical problems cost money whereas spiritual problems, even if real, usually don't. It's also true in the political sense that value-based issues usually don't require much of a trade-off on the part of voters. You can be as pro-family as you want, without concern that you're giving up valuable anti-family values.

A country whose political dialogue is all about values is either a country with no serious problems or a country hiding from its serious problems. When I want values, I go to Wal-Mart.

Water for Saratoga: the reasons

Saratoga Springs Water Issue: Talking Points

Cost to taxpayers: $17 million for Saratoga Lake option; $78 million for the County water ‘plan.’ The $78 million for the County water plan has the following problems: there is no real plan yet in place; the cost includes a water filtration plant which Saratoga Springs already has; the cost is only for the first part of the ‘plan’ which is to be followed within ten years by a second and equally costly project. Saratoga Lake would remain in our jurisdiction and the control would lie in the hands of the city residents. We would be charged for only what we use and not be required to use more than we need. It is a far more environmentally sound option in terms of water conservation.

Local control of Saratoga Springs’ destiny would be maintained by using Saratoga Lake.
Because we as a City would be able to determine how much or how little water we need, we would not be subject to County surcharges and fees. This would allow us to control our destiny in terms of managed ‘smart’ development and avoid the excessive urban sprawl that would result from having a water pipe running up and down Route 9.

Using Saratoga Lake as a water source will not impact its water level. Currently 180 million gallons of water run out of Saratoga Lake through Kayaderosseras Creek on a daily basis. Other flow out of the lake is controlled by a man-powered damn. Saratoga Springs is looking for one or two million gallons of water during the tourist season to supplement our current supply of water. If we do need to turn to the lake for our main source of water in the future, we would still take only 11 million gallons per day – only 6.1% or 6/100ths of what currently flows out of the lake.

The safety of our water supply and our quality of life are crucial.
Currently the location the County pinpointed for water access in the Hudson River contains PCBs. The water has been tested as suitable, but that will not remain the case once the riverbed is stirred up. Most of the PCB contamination lies in the sediment and soil beneath the water and will be released when digging for a pipeline occurs. The risk is not worth it.

Saratoga Lake has been deemed suitable for use as drinking water by the New York State Department of Health. The NYS Department of Health approved the plan drawn up by the engineer consulting firm of Barton and Lojuidice. In a letter responding to the DEIS Michael Montysko of the health department's water supply bureau stated, " ... we see no need for special restrictions beyond the current requirements imposed on the lake, except in the immediate area of the intake, where swimming should be prohibited and the anchoring of boats should be restricted" (The Saratogian 7 July 2003). The fears of lake residents that the lake will be off limits for recreational purposes have no basis in reality. In fact once the lake is utilized as a water source, it will be perceived as being cleaner which will actually raise the residents’ property values.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Rolling Back Women's Rights

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Rolling Back Women's Rights

and, because it is so important, when the link runs out, here is the text again:

ispensing with legislative niceties like holding hearings or full and open debate, President Bush and the Republican Congress have used the cover of a must-pass spending bill to mount a disgraceful sneak attack on women's health and freedom.

Tucked into the $388 billion budget measure just approved by the House and Senate is a sweeping provision that has nothing to do with the task Congress had at hand - providing money for the government. In essence, it tells health care companies, hospitals and insurance companies they are free to ignore Roe v. Wade and state and local laws and regulations currently on the books to make certain that women's access to reproductive health services includes access to abortion.

It remains to be seen exactly how the measure will work in practice. But the intention, plainly, is to curtail further already dwindling access to abortion and even to counseling that mentions abortion as a legal option. It denies federal financing to government agencies that "discriminate" against health care providers who choose for any reason to disregard state mandates to offer abortion-related services. This represents a vast expansion of the "conscience protection" that federal law currently gives to individual doctors who do not want to undergo abortion training.

The affront to women's rights, moreover, should not obscure the serious threat to the First Amendment involved in enacting what is likely to evolve into a domestic "gag rule" as, one by one, health care providers order doctors they employ not to provide patients with information about the abortion option. This echoes the way Mr. Bush reimposed a blanket Reagan-era gag rule for providers of reproductive health services abroad on his first full day in office back in 2001.

Unfortunately, vocal opposition from Democrats and a handful of Republican moderates was not enough to stop the pernicious assault on the rights of millions of women from becoming law in the rush to pass the spending bill. At least Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, won a promise from the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, to permit a direct vote on a bill repealing this measure not long into the new Congressional session. In the meantime, Americans, and American women in particular, are officially on notice that post-election, the Republican war on reproductive rights has entered an ominous new phase.

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Apocalypse (Almost) Now

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Apocalypse (Almost) Now

Friday, November 19, 2004

Bush Administration's personnel policy. From the New Republic

Bush Administration’s hackery

TOWARD A UNIFIED THEORY OF BUSH ADMINISTRATION HACKERY: I count two schools of thought on why the Bush administration tends to reward people who screw up (Condoleezza Rice, Don Rumsfeld, Stephen Hadley, etc.) while dismissing those who speak out when they see mistakes being made (Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill, much of the upper ranks of the CIA). In one camp are those, like the editors of TNR , who argue that, since the administration values loyalty above all else, it's only natural that it would promote or extend the tenures of toadies and yes-men while showing internal critics the door. In the other camp are those, like Matt Yglesias , who argue that the administration has to hang on to the screw-ups because to fire them would be to admit mistakes, something this administration is incapable of doing.

But there's a third, hybrid option I don't think anyone's considered: What if the administration sticks with people who've screwed up because having screwed up makes you even more loyal to the administration, while having not screwed up would tend to make you disloyal. This occurred to me while reading yesterday's profile of Hadley in The Washington Post . Hadley, you may recall, is the guy who took responsibility for the erroneous uranium-from-Niger claim in the president's 2003 State of the Union Address. In most cases, that would not only be a firing offense, it'd be the kind of thing that prevented you from working for future administrations--maybe even limited your career options outside government.

But, then, maybe that's exactly the point as far as this White House is concerned. Because Hadley is such damaged goods, he owes much more to this administration than would someone who had other employment options, meaning he'll be even more loyal than even your standard administration yes-man. I don't think it's crazy to suspect that the White House actually prefers people whose career prospects would be grim the second they fell out of the president's good graces. Conversely, the people who manage to keep their reputations intact and avoid screwing up must scare the hell out of this White House, since they don't owe the president anything and since, for that matter, it's in their interest to distance themselves from any screwing up that goes on there in order to preserve future career options.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Morally correct? from the New Republic

Morally Correct
by Peter Beinart
Once upon a time, conservatives considered "sensitivity" a dirty word. In the 1980s and 1990s, when African Americans and other campus minorities claimed they were victims of racism and demanded greater respect from white students and faculty, conservatives popularized a term for this group whining: political correctness. They gasped when campus radicals tried to silence criticism of affirmative action by saying it created a hostile climate for black students. They worried aloud that university administrators--in their efforts to spare minority students' feelings--were stifling debate. For a time, combating this culture of punitive sensitivity was one of the right's primary concerns. 

Not anymore. In the wake of their recent triumph at the polls, conservatives have found their own supposedly disrespected minority: evangelicals. And they are playing victim politics with a gusto that would make campus radicals proud. 

One of the things that galled the right during the "political correctness" wars was the way leftists casually threw around terms like "racist" and "bigot." For conservatives, some of whom knew firsthand how much harm those accusations could cause, it became axiomatic that such pejoratives should be reserved for only the most egregious, clear-cut examples of racial or ethnic animus. After Trent Lott--a man who had long consorted with white supremacists--praised Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential bid, many conservatives called him dumb and embarrassing. (To their credit, some called for his removal as Senate leader.) But very few were willing to call him a bigot. Few would pin the label even on Jesse Helms or Thurmond himself. Extreme scrupulousness about such epithets seemed like a touchstone of the conservative worldview. 

That's how it seemed, anyhow. In recent weeks, prominent conservatives have been anything but scrupulous in charging Democrats with bigotry against people of faith. Just before the election, Christian Right leader James Dobson called Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy a "God's people hater." On November 8, talk-show host Joe Scarborough condemned "Democrats who take solace in their bigoted anti-Christian screeds." Right-wing pundit Michelle Malkin recently blurbed a book titled Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity, noting that "Persecution exposes the hypocrisy and bigotry of the secular, anti-Christian Left." And, last Sunday, Mary Matalin chimed in on "Meet the Press," claiming that "people of faith, in the election process, they have been demonized and they have been treated with disdain and contempt." Imagine if James Carville, who was seated next to her on the show, had made the same claim about African Americans (who, although they are one of the most religious groups in America, vote Democratic, and thus don't fall under Matalin's "people of faith" rubric). Within 15 minutes, the conservative blogosphere would have accused him of politically correct demagoguery. 

To be fair, occasionally liberals do treat evangelical Christians with condescension and scorn. Conservatives frequently, and justifiably, expressed outrage at a Washington Post news story that called followers of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." (They tend not to note that the story is eleven years old, and the Post issued an immediate retraction.) On November 4, in The New York Times, Garry Wills suggested that America now resembles the theocracies of the Muslim world more than it resembles Western Europe, which is offensive, not to mention absurd. 

But, most of the time, what conservatives call anti-evangelical bigotry is simply harsh criticism of the Christian Right's agenda. Scarborough seized on a recent column by Maureen Dowd, which accused President Bush of "replacing science with religion, and facts with faith," leading America into "another dark age." The Weekly Standard recently pilloried Thomas Friedman for criticizing "Christian fundamentalists" who "promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad," and Howell Raines, for saying the Christian Right wants to enact "theologically based cultural norms." 

This isn't bigotry. What these (and most other) liberals are saying is that the Christian Right sees politics through the prism of theology, and there's something dangerous in that. And they're right. It's fine if religion influences your moral values. But, when you make public arguments, you have to ground them--as much as possible--in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise, you can't persuade other people, and they can't persuade you. In a diverse democracy, there must be a common political language, and that language can't be theological. 

Sometimes, conservative evangelicals grasp this and find nonreligious justifications for their views. (Christian conservatives sometimes argue that embryonic stem cells hold little scientific promise, or that gay marriage leads to fewer straight ones. On abortion, they sometimes cite medical advances to show that fetuses are more like infants than pro-choicers recognize. Such arguments are accessible to all, and thus permit fruitful debate.) But, since the election, the airwaves have been full of a different kind of argument. What many conservatives are now saying is that, since certain views are part of evangelicals' identity, harshly criticizing those views represents discrimination. It's no different than when some feminists say that, since the right to abortion is a critical part of their identity, opposing abortion disrespects them as women. When George Stephanopoulos asked Dobson to justify his charge that Senator Leahy is an anti-Christian bigot, he replied that the Vermont senator "has been in opposition to most of the things that I believe." In other words, disagree with me and you're a racist. Al Sharpton couldn't have said it better. 

Identity politics is a powerful thing--a way of short-circuiting debate by claiming that your views aren't merely views; they are an integral part of who you are. And who you are must be respected. But harsh criticism is not disrespect--and to claim it is undermines democratic debate by denying opponents the right to aggressively, even impolitely, disagree. That is what conservatives are doing when they accuse liberals of religious bigotry merely for demanding that the Christian Right defend their viewpoints with facts, not faith. Once upon a time, conservatives knew better. I hope some still do. 

Peter Beinart is the editor of TNR.

Scaary!! All those undecideds: The downside of democracy.

Decision Makers
by Christopher Hayes
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 11.17.04

For those who follow politics, there are few things more mysterious, more inscrutable, more maddening than the mind of the undecided voter. In this year's election, when the choice was so stark and the differences between the candidates were so obvious, how could any halfway intelligent human remain undecided for long? "These people," Jonah Goldberg once wrote of undecided voters, on a rare occasion when he probably spoke for the entire political class, "can't make up their minds, in all likelihood, because either they don't care or they don't know anything."

And that was more or less how I felt before I decided to spend the last seven weeks of the campaign talking to swing voters in Wisconsin. In September, I signed up to work for the League of Conservation Voters' Environmental Victory Project--a canvassing operation that recruited volunteers in five states to knock on doors in "swing wards" with high concentrations of undecided or persuadable voters. During my time in suburban Dane County, which surrounds Madison, I knocked on more than 1,000 doors and talked to hundreds of Wisconsin residents. Our mission was simple: to identify undecided voters and convince them to vote for John Kerry.

My seven weeks in Wisconsin left me with a number of observations (all of them highly anecdotal, to be sure) about swing voters, which I explain below. But those small obsFervations add up to one overarching contention: that the caricature of undecided voters favored by liberals and conservatives alike doesn't do justice to the complexity, indeed the oddity, of undecided voters themselves. None of this is to say that undecided voters are completely undeserving of the derision that the political class has heaped on them--just that Jonah Goldberg, and the rest of us, may well be deriding them for the wrong reasons.

Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think. Members of the political class may disparage undecided voters, but we at least tend to impute to them a basic rationality. We're giving them too much credit. I met voters who told me they were voting for Bush, but who named their most important issue as the environment. One man told me he voted for Bush in 2000 because he thought that with Cheney, an oilman, on the ticket, the administration would finally be able to make us independent from foreign oil. A colleague spoke to a voter who had been a big Howard Dean fan, but had switched to supporting Bush after Dean lost the nomination. After half an hour in the man's house, she still couldn't make sense of his decision. Then there was the woman who called our office a few weeks before the election to tell us that though she had signed up to volunteer for Kerry she had now decided to back Bush. Why? Because the president supported stem cell research. The office became quiet as we all stopped what we were doing to listen to one of our fellow organizers try, nobly, to disabuse her of this notion. Despite having the facts on her side, the organizer didn't have much luck.

Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics. Political junkies tend to assume that undecided voters are undecided because they don't care enough to make up their minds. But while I found that most undecided voters are, as one Kerry aide put it to The New York Times , "relatively low-information, relatively disengaged," the lack of engagement wasn't a sign that they didn't care. After all, if they truly didn't care, they wouldn't have been planning to vote. The undecided voters I talked to did care about politics, or at least judged it to be important; they just didn't enjoy politics.

The mere fact that you're reading this article right now suggests that you not only think politics is important, but you actually like it. You read the paper and listen to political radio and talk about politics at parties. In other words, you view politics the way a lot of people view cooking or sports or opera: as a hobby. Most undecided voters, by contrast, seem to view politics the way I view laundry. While I understand that to be a functioning member of society I have to do my laundry, and I always eventually get it done, I'll never do it before every last piece of clean clothing is dirty, as I find the entire business to be a chore. A significant number of undecided voters, I think, view politics in exactly this way: as a chore, a duty, something that must be done but is altogether unpleasant, and therefore something best put off for as long as possible.

A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists. In the age of the war on terror and the war in Iraq, pundits agreed that this would be the most foreign policy-oriented election in a generation--and polling throughout the summer seemed to bear that out. In August the Pew Center found that 40 percent of voters were identifying foreign policy and defense as their top issues, the highest level of interest in foreign policy during an election year since 1972.

But just because voters were unusually concerned about foreign policy didn't mean they had fundamentally shifted their outlook on world affairs. In fact, among undecided voters, I encountered a consistent and surprising isolationism--an isolationism that September 11 was supposed to have made obsolete everywhere but the left and right fringes of the political spectrum. Voters I spoke to were concerned about the Iraq war and about securing American interests, but they seemed entirely unmoved by the argument--accepted, in some form or another, by just about everyone in Washington--that the security of the United States is dependent on the freedom and well-being of the rest of the world.

In fact, there was a disturbing trend among undecided voters--as well as some Kerry supporters--towards an opposition to the Iraq war based largely on the ugliest of rationales. I had one conversation with an undecided, sixtyish, white voter whose wife was voting for Kerry. When I mentioned the "mess in Iraq" he lit up. "We should have gone through Iraq like shit through tinfoil," he said, leaning hard on the railing of his porch. As I tried to make sense of the mental image this evoked, he continued: "I mean we should have dominated the place; that's the only thing these people understand. ... Teaching democracy to Arabs is like teaching the alphabet to rats." I didn't quite know what to do with this comment, so I just thanked him for his time and slipped him some literature. (What were the options? Assure him that a Kerry White House wouldn't waste tax dollars on literacy classes for rodents?)

That may have been the most explicit articulation I heard of this mindset--but it wasn't an isolated incident. A few days later, someone told me that he wished we could put Saddam back in power because he "knew how to rule these people." While Bush's rhetoric about spreading freedom and democracy played well with blue-state liberal hawks and red-state Christian conservatives who are inclined towards a missionary view of world affairs, it seemed to fall flat among the undecided voters I spoke with. This was not merely the view of the odd kook; it was a common theme I heard from all different kinds of undecided voters. Clearly the Kerry campaign had focus groups or polling that supported this, hence its candidate's frequent--and wince- inducing--America-first rhetoric about opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them in the United States.

The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush. Liberal commentators, and even many conservative ones, assumed, not unreasonably, that the awful situation in Iraq would prove to be the president's undoing. But I found that the very severity and intractability of the Iraq disaster helped Bush because it induced a kind of fatalism about the possibility of progress. Time after time, undecided voters would agree vociferously with every single critique I offered of Bush's Iraq policy, but conclude that it really didn't matter who was elected, since neither candidate would have any chance of making things better. Yeah, but what's Kerry gonna do? voters would ask me, and when I told them Kerry would bring in allies they would wave their hands and smile with condescension, as if that answer was impossibly naïve. C'mon , they'd say, you don't really think that's going to work, do you?

To be sure, maybe they simply thought Kerry's promise to bring in allies was a lame idea--after all, many well-informed observers did. But I became convinced that there was something else at play here, because undecided voters extended the same logic to other seemingly intractable problems, like the deficit or health care. On these issues, too, undecideds recognized the severity of the situation--but precisely because they understood the severity, they were inclined to be skeptical of Kerry's ability to fix things. Undecided voters, as everyone knows, have a deep skepticism about the ability of politicians to keep their promises and solve problems. So the staggering incompetence and irresponsibility of the Bush administration and the demonstrably poor state of world affairs seemed to serve not as indictments of Bush in particular, but rather of politicians in general. Kerry, by mere dint of being on the ballot, was somehow tainted by Bush's failures as badly as Bush was.

As a result, undecideds seemed oddly unwilling to hold the president accountable for his previous actions, focusing instead on the practical issue of who would have a better chance of success in the future. Because undecideds seemed uninterested in assessing responsibility for the past, Bush suffered no penalty for having made things so bad; and because undecideds were focused on, but cynical about, the future, the worse things appeared, the less inclined they were to believe that problems could be fixed--thereby nullifying the backbone of Kerry's case. Needless to say, I found this logic maddening.

Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues. Perhaps the greatest myth about undecided voters is that they are undecided because of the "issues." That is, while they might favor Kerry on the economy, they favor Bush on terrorism; or while they are anti-gay marriage, they also support social welfare programs. Occasionally I did encounter undecided voters who were genuinely cross-pressured--a couple who was fiercely pro-life, antiwar, and pro-environment for example--but such cases were exceedingly rare. More often than not, when I asked undecided voters what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds I was met with a blank stare, as if I'd just asked them to name their favorite prime number.

The majority of undecided voters I spoke to couldn't name a single issue that was important to them. This was shocking to me. Think about it: The "issue" is the basic unit of political analysis for campaigns, candidates, journalists, and other members of the chattering classes. It's what makes up the subheadings on a candidate's website, it's what sober, serious people wish election outcomes hinged on, it's what every candidate pledges to run his campaign on, and it's what we always complain we don't see enough coverage of.

But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps--though I'll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics--maybe, I thought, "issue" is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they're being quizzed on a topic they haven't studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: "Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what's been happening in the country in the last four years?"

These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment. As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word "issue"; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the "political." The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief--not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

To cite one example: I had a conversation with an undecided truck driver who was despondent because he had just hit a woman's car after having worked a week straight. He didn't think the accident was his fault and he was angry about being sued. "There's too many lawsuits these days," he told me. I was set to have to rebut a "tort reform" argument, but it never came. Even though there was a ready-made connection between what was happening in his life and a campaign issue, he never made the leap. I asked him about the company he worked for and whether it would cover his legal expenses; he said he didn't think so. I asked him if he was unionized and he said no. "The last job was unionized," he said. "They would have covered my expenses." I tried to steer him towards a political discussion about how Kerry would stand up for workers' rights and protect unions, but it never got anywhere. He didn't seem to think there was any connection between politics and whether his company would cover his legal costs. Had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of tort reform, it might have benefited Bush; had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of labor rights, it might have benefited Kerry. He made neither, and remained undecided.

In this context, Bush's victory, particularly on the strength of those voters who listed "values" as their number one issue, makes perfect sense. Kerry ran a campaign that was about politics: He parsed the world into political categories and offered political solutions. Bush did this too, but it wasn't the main thrust of his campaign. Instead, the president ran on broad themes, like "character" and "morals." Everyone feels an immediate and intuitive expertise on morals and values--we all know what's right and wrong. But how can undecided voters evaluate a candidate on issues if they don't even grasp what issues are?

Liberals like to point out that majorities of Americans agree with the Democratic Party on the issues, so Republicans are forced to run on character and values in order to win. (This cuts both ways: I met a large number of Bush/Feingold voters whose politics were more in line with the Republican president, but who admired the backbone and gutsiness of their Democratic senator.) But polls that ask people about issues presuppose a basic familiarity with the concept of issues--a familiarity that may not exist.

As far as I can tell, this leaves Democrats with two options: either abandon "issues" as the lynchpin of political campaigns and adopt the language of values, morals, and character as many have suggested; or begin the long-term and arduous task of rebuilding a popular, accessible political vocabulary--of convincing undecided voters to believe once again in the importance of issues. The former strategy could help the Democrats stop the bleeding in time for 2008. But the latter strategy might be necessary for the Democrats to become a majority party again.

Copyright 2004, The New Republic