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Archive: March, 2009

POSTED: Tuesday, March 31, 2009, 11:10 AM

Fifteen days ago, I foreshadowed the symbolic importance of the special congressional election that is being staged today in upstate New York. I wrote that the fight to fill a vacated House seat in the predominantly Republican Hudson Valley was shaping up as "one of the few key contests on the '09 calendar, a proxy war for the Washington warriors," and, given all the ensuing developments, there's no reason to think otherwise.

Each party is looking for a psychological edge. The results of this fevered race to fill the slot vacated by now-Senator Kirsten Gillibrand will be spun tomorrow as either a thumbs-down verdict on President Obama (if GOP candidate Jim Tedisco wins), or yet another voter repudiation of the national GOP (if Democratic candidate Scott Murphy wins).

POSTED: Monday, March 30, 2009, 7:32 AM
President Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan has been praised by neoconservative commentators. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

Well, that certainly didn't take long:

"Hey Obama, yes we can / Troops out of Afghanistan!"

POSTED: Friday, March 27, 2009, 10:38 AM


As a public service to those of you who favor a healthy two-party system, let's check in on the Republicans and determine whether they have yet found anyone in the ranks who might be deemed leader-worthy - a person who can not only command the broad respect of party regulars, and who can quell the intraparty food fights, but who can also connect with the mainstream electorate that has slapped the party silly in two straight elections.

Could it be...Rush Limbaugh? Fat chance. In the national polls, he sits at roughly 25 percent approval, which is about what Richard Nixon got at the end of Watergate, and what George W. Bush got at the end of his infamous tenure. That's also basically where Newt Gingrich sits today, and I question whether Newt is now poised to boost his numbers, after having just declared on Fox News that President Obama is potentially creating "the equivalent of a dictatorship."

How about...Michael Steele? Dream on. The new party chairman is still getting dissed by the right for his recent dissing of Limbaugh. (Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell tells us that Steele's attack on Rush was "a sop to the liberal intellectuals," as well as patently unfair, because Rush actually provides "factual information and in-depth analysis.") Steele is currently trying to mend fences with the base by playing the God card, declaring to CNN this week that he might run for president some day if that's "where God wants me to be. God has a way of revealing stuff to you...And if that's part of the plan, it'll be the plan." It's questionable whether independent swing voters can be charmed by yet another Republican who claims to be touched by the divinity.

Or maybe the leader is...Sarah Palin? Nah, too divisive. In fact, she's too divisive within her own party. Last week, in an address to the Alaska GOP, she dissed the McCain campaign, complaining that, back in the fall of 2008, she couldn't find any McCain staffers who were touched by the divinity: "So I'm looking around for somebody to pray with, I just need maybe a little help, maybe a little extra, and the McCain campaign, love 'em, you know, they're a lot of people around me, but nobody I could find that I wanted to hold hands with and pray." (A former McCain staffer retaliated by telling CNN that her remarks will prompt people to question "her judgment as a leader.") Meanwhile, let's not forget that Palin, like Steele, is pondering a future presidential bid if God deems it so; as she put it last November, "I'm like, 'OK God, if there's an open door for me somewhere,' this is what I always pray, I'm like, 'don't let me miss the open door.'" Perhaps it'd be a good idea, for the sake of party unity, if Palin and Steele sat down with the celestial power broker and got Him to render an early endorsement.

Or maybe the next leader is...Bobby Jindal, the great minority hope from Louisiana? Hard to see that happening, especially after his latest embarrassment. You might recall that he delivered the party's official response to President Obama back on Feb. 24; that night, he ridiculed the "wasteful spending" in the stimulus package, including "$140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.'" Was Jindal actually mocking the notion of spending money on advanced early-warning technology that could help protect Americans who live near active volcanoes, such as Alaska'a Mount Redoubt? He was. And sure enough, earlier this week Mount Redoubt erupted for the first time in 20 years, spewing ash 50,000 feet in the air and forcing 19 airline cancellations. Nobody was hurt this time, but the government geologists are using that stimulus money to shore up their monitoring of other active volcanoes, including Mount St. Helens, which killed 57 people in 1980. To put Jindal's definition of "wasteful spending" in perspective: That $140 million "for something called 'volcano monitoring'" is literally less money than we spend in Iraq during the span of a single day.

Or perhaps the next leader is...Dick Cheney? I'm not kidding; the ex-veep has been volunteering himself lately, warning darkly in interviews that Obama is putting America at risk for another terrorist attack. But no, he won't be the face of the party - because not even Republicans want him out there. Jack Duncan, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, said the other day, "He's become so unpopular while he was in the White House that it would probably be better for us politically if he wouldn't be so public." A Duncan colleague, Zach Wamp, added: "With all due respect to former Vice President Cheney, he represents what's behind us, not what's ahead of us." Translation: Cheney, do us all a favor and go back to your secret undisclosed location.

Or maybe it's an ensemble deal, starring all the House GOP leaders? Hard to imagine that, after yesterday's comedy act. With great fanfare, they unveiled a 19-page document entitled "Road to Recovery" - their alternative budget manifesto, which was presumably designed to demonstrate that they actually do have specific ideas. But the problem was that their budget document contained....no budget numbers, no budget estimates, no budget specifics. Instead, it was simply a recap of GOP principles; you will be shocked to learn that the document called for bigger tax cuts and more deregulation. But that's only half the story. It turns out that, within the minority House ranks, prospective GOP leader Eric Cantor was ticked off at prospective GOP leader Mike Pence for putting out this vague document in the first place. Cantor let it be known that he was "embarrassed," and a Cantor ally dissed Pence for "his egocentric rush to get on camera." Is there a party leader in the bunch? These guys are like alley cats fighting for scraps.

Or, what the heck, perhaps the GOP could take a risk and anoint...Meghan McCain. The daughter of John has kicked up a lot of dust lately. She wrote on her blog that young voters will never flock to the GOP as long as the party is championed by the likes of Ann Coulter (McCain on Ann: "I find her offensive, radical, insulting"). But maybe young McCain is too raw and feisty to lead. After she dissed Coulter, she got dissed in return by radio host Laura Ingraham, who mimicked McCain's Valley Girl voice and mocked McCain's weight by calling her "plus-sized." McCain then retaliated by sending a pungent message to Ingraham: "I'm like, 'Kiss my fat ass!'" Is America craving for a Republican leader who emerges victorious from a middle school food fight? You go, girl!

Maybe the Republicans are simply hoping that somewhere, in a secret lab that refuses federal stimulus money, Ronald Reagan has been cloned. As if.

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POSTED: Thursday, March 26, 2009, 11:13 AM


Next Wednesday, the corporate chain that publishes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Austin American-Statesman, and 15 other newspapers will shut down its Washington bureau and thus abandon the time-honored tradition of keeping tabs on national politicians for the folks back home. This, of course, is no April Fool's Day joke. The newspapers of San Diego, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Toledo, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Houston, Newark, Cleveland, Des Moines, and Philadelphia (among many others) no longer have staff reporters on full-time duty in the Nation's Capital - which, aside from the tragic implications of this trend, seems a tad ironic, given the fact that Washington these days is the font of so much history-making news.

I stress the Washington angle here, only because that's my prime focus. The print journalism crisis, of course, extend far beyond that realm. The economic squeeze precipitated by the Internet (on top of the squeeze that was imposed by Wall Street during the decades immediately preceding the Internet) has come close to devastating newspapers nationwide, big and small (and not just the "liberal" ones). As Walter Isaacson, the former Time magazine editor and celebrated biographer of printer Benjamin Franklin, recently wrote, the "meltdown" is so severe that "it is now possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns will no longer have a newspaper."

So it was in the midst of this crisis, earlier this week, when an unusual Senate bill was introduced to rescue the beleaguered industry with the help of Uncle Sam. Sponsor Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, has dubbed it the Newspaper Revitalization Act, and its prospects for passage are probably identical to those of thousands of other bills that typically get tossed into the hopper. In other words, close to nil. And that's without even considering some of the revitalization bill's potential flaws.

But the Cardin bill may well trigger a worthy public policy debate over whether government should play a vital role in aiding the newspaper industry in its time of peril, for the purpose of ensuring an informed citizenry. (Lest you forget, the bloggers and web news aggregators and talk-show loudmouths and cable TV fulminators would be struck mute if not for the information supplied every day by the print professionals.)

Cardin's idea - actually, it's an idea that has kicked around for awhile - is to rejigger the tax code so that newspapers could operate as tax-exempt non-profits, much the way public broadcasting operates for educational purposes under the current tax code. Under the terms of Cardin's bill, newspapers wouldn't have to pay federal taxes on the money they reap from ad sales and subscriptions; and they could solicit tax-exempt donations. All told, Cardin said on Tuesday, "We need to look a different model to save local newspapers."

Some in the news business have already questioned the Cardin concept on practical grounds; for instance, would individual donors and foundations provide enough money, year after year, to support expensive news-gathering operations? But most skeptics appear to object for philosophical reasons, arguing that the federal government has no business helping (and therefore meddling with) the newspaper industry.

Under the tax code, non-profits have to be remain politically neutral; in translation, the editorial pages of Cardin's non-profit newspapers would not be able to endorse political candidates. Some newspaper people might not see this restriction as such a big deal; there is an active school of thought that editorial endorsements don't influence many readers anyway. But that potential restriction has prompted a number of skeptics (including the lawyers for some newspapers) to argue that Cardin's idea would essentially put the IRS into the newsroom.

The broader argument is that the government should butt out entirely and leave the industry alone, because any assistance at all would constitute a violation of free speech rights. A Cleveland newspaper columnist writes today, "It's sad to see newspapers struggling...But it would be infinitely sadder to see newspapers cash in their First Amendment birthright - their independence - for a little breathing space." And John Morton, a well-known newspaper industry analyst, said the other day: "Anytime you give the newspaper industry a break, it raises the question about the independence of the press."

But anyone making that argument is not cognizant of our history, clear back to the Founding Fathers. One big reason why newspapers gained traction in early 19th-century America was because the federal government gave the industry a break. It set up all kinds of postal subsidies so that newspapers could cheaply grow their circulation, and it subsidized printer contracts. It has subsequently supported newspapers by enacting copyright protection and the Freedom of Information Act. Several decades ago, it enacted the Newspaper Preservation Act, which has allowed regional papers with separate newsroom staffs to merge their business operations.

Meanwhile - and this strikes me as the most perverse of ironies - the prime cause of the newspaper industry's current woes is the Internet....and there would be no Internet today if not for the lavish government subsidies that made it possible. The Internet was birthed as a Defense Department program, and later nurtured by a federal agency, the National Science Foundation. All constitutional issues aside, maybe the government has a responsibility to help save the industry that it has (albeit inadvertently) helped to destroy.

Cardin's idea may well die, but the debate won't. Other ideas are already being floated; for instance, tax credits on the money that a consumer spends for a newspaper subscription. As the Columbia Journalism Review argued two years ago, the bottom line is that "it would be wise to consider the many ways that government could simply protect journalism from market pressures."

The counter-argument is that, if the free market wants newspapers to die, then so be it. And, of course, many Americans are rooting for death. Which brings me to this story:

Ten days ago, in Philadelphia, a corrupt Democratic state senator named Vince Fumo was finally brought to justice in court, convicted on all counts. As the prosecutors specifically acknowledged, Fumo would have never been nailed if not for the herculean efforts of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Craig McCoy, who dug out the story over a span of years. McCoy was able to do this because he was a seasoned investigator, and he was a seasoned investigator because a newspaper had nurtured his professional talents over several decades by paying him a full-time wage with health benefits.

So here's my question to those of you who are rooting for death:

If local newspapers die, who's going to be around to root out the next Fumo? You?

POSTED: Wednesday, March 25, 2009, 11:12 AM

During his press conference last night, President Obama essentially told the nation: Have patience. Bear with me. Governing is hard. Or, as he actually put it, "This is a big ocean liner. It’s not a speedboat. It doesn’t turn around immediately."

And as for the critics who think he's overreaching and trying to do too much, he answered that charge even though no reporter specifically asked the question; as he sees it, "If we don't tackle energy, if we don't improve our education system, if we don't drive down the costs of health care, if we're not making serious investments in science and technology and our infrastructure," then the economy "won't grow."

POSTED: Tuesday, March 24, 2009, 12:42 PM

When President Obama faces the press corps this evening, in his second prime-time news conference, he undoubtedly will be asked to address the charge (which has apparently crystallized into Beltway conventional wisdom) that his agenda is overly ambitious, that he has been piling too much on his plate at his own peril, that he is overreaching at a time when (to borrow a '92 Bill Clinton phrase) he should simply "focus like a laser beam" on fixing the economy.

Few would argue that he has been uncommonly busy during his first 63 days, what with passing the biggest spending/stimulus plan in history, working up a new budget that takes on everything from health care to energy reform to education reform, signing into law an expansion of children's health insurance and a measure helping women workers to seek equal pay, launching an incremental withdrawal from Iraq while shifting soldiers to Afghanistan, penning executive orders to close Guantanamo and expand stem cell research, and (finally) providing some crucial details on the public-private partnership program that (hopefully) will rescue the banks and calm everybody's jitters. And those are merely the highlights.

POSTED: Monday, March 23, 2009, 9:23 AM

My Sunday print column, tweaked and expanded:

I can’t fathom the new Republican hue and cry about how Barack Obama is supposedly trying to “Europeanize” the U.S.A.

POSTED: Friday, March 20, 2009, 11:49 AM


It's a fair bet that Jay Leno has not seen the last of Barack Obama. The TV couch is the perfect perch for a skilled presidential communicator who instinctively understands how to make the medium work to his advantage.

Indeed, the president's appearance last night was a case study of how the power of personality trumps the discussion of thorny policy nuance in our high-definition culture - and doubly so on a chat show, where the format is tailored to magnify the appeal of those who ooze charisma. FDR connected with his terrified populace via his "fireside chats" on radio; Obama can potentially do the same over the long haul via the late-night shows that millions watch in bed between their toes. To borrow an Obama line, it's "a whole 'nother level of cool."

Obama's chief aim last night was to get ahead of the populist fury over the AIG bonuses, which, despite being less than one-tenth of one percent of the total federal payout to the company, have nevertheless become a symbol of Wall Street's general piracy and the government's inability thus far to police it. Obama wants to ensure that he's leading the citizen protests, as opposed to being trampled by them. Step one, of course, is to channel that anger and thus protect his political standing.

So, for starters, he told Leno: "I do think, though, that the American people are all in a place where they understand it took us a while to get into this mess, it's going to take a while for us to get out of it. And if they have confidence that I'm making steps to deal with issues like health care and energy and education, that matter deeply to their daily lives, then I think they're going to give us some time."

Cue the applause. Leno, of course, failed to ask the obvious follow-up questions: How much time does Obama believe the public is willing to give him, before the ire is directed at him? The polls say that a majority of Americans will give him 18 months to two years; does he see that as realistic?

No wonder Obama looked so relaxed. He used the format to frame his priorities in simple language that everyone could understand. For instance, this is how he made his pitch for tough federal regulation of the financial industry: "When you buy a toaster, if it explodes in your face there's a law that says your toasters need to be safe. But when you get a credit card, or you get a mortgage, there's no law on the books that says if that explodes in your face financially, somehow you're going to be protected."

That was reminiscent of how Franklin Roosevelt used simple language on radio to convince Americans that neutral America should send battleships to the Nazi-imperiled British: "Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire."

Obama also went into folksy mode right after Leno asked him about the House decision yesterday to slap a 90 percent retroactive tax on the AIG bonus recipients. Leno actually framed his question very well: "It (is) frightening to me as an American that Congress could decide, 'I don't like that group, let's pass a law and tax them at 90 percent.'"

Obama replied: "Well, look, I understand Congress' frustrations, and they're responding to, I think, everybody's anger. But I think that the best way to handle this is to make sure that you've closed the door before the horse gets out of the barn."

Obama rode away, leaving the substance of that question behind. This is what I meant earlier when I said that the chat show is not particularly conducive to policy nuance. Leno was actually referring to a constitutional issue; retroactive "bills of attainder" are banned by the Constitution, and although the House's 90 percent levy might be legally OK (since it targets a lot of companies besides AIG, and targets future bonuses as well as past bonuses), any such levy that ultimately passes the Senate and gains Obama's signature could be challenged in court by corporate lawyers.

None of this was addressed last night. Nor, amid the jokes about Hollywood and (ouch) the Special Olympics, did Obama or Leno mention the dicey issue of whether a tax on bonuses would dissuade private financial institutions from working with the government to mop up the economic mess. Would they want to pitch in if they thought that Washington might decide later to slap new restrictions on their pay? As one hedge-fund leader, a prominent Obama fundraiser, warned The New York Times yesterday, "You will drive people away from being willing to do business with the government."

Nuance was also lacking at another point on the show. Leno brandished his pitchfork and spoke for many outraged Americans when he suggested that, since AIG is now 80 percent owned by the taxpayers, we should break those contracts, take back the bonuses, and simply dare the employees to sue us for the money. "I mean," said Leno, "the federal government is in debt a trillion dollars. We're broke - sue us!"

Obama never answered that question; in response, simply restated his general themes: "There's a moral and an ethical aspect to this...we're going to do everything we can to see if we can get these bonuses back. But I think the most important thing that we can do is make sure that we put in a bunch of financial regulatory mechanisms to prevent companies like an AIG holding the rest of us hostage."

What Obama didn't mention - and this would not have been a good applause line - was that Leno's populist outburst ("sue us!") would translate into bad policy. As several financial experts have pointed out lately, any lawsuits filed by bonus-deprived executives would drag on for a long time, and it's even possible that taxpayers would wind up paying for AIG's legal defense - since, after all, we own the company now. And, in the future, what companies would want to sign contracts with AIG, having learned that AIG didn't honor contracts with its own people?

Does your head hurt from this stuff? Mine, too. Fortunately, it was only a matter of minutes before Leno asked Obama: "Now, how cool is it to fly in Air Force One?" And Obama replied, "Now, let me tell you, I personally think it's pretty cool." And, while flying on Marine One, his kids ate Starbursts, "so they got a whole 'nother level of cool." Cue laughter.

Ah, back in the TV comfort zone. That's the kind of stuff that works best on late night.

About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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