Obama and McCain could learn from the Mariners

June 27, 2008

I’ve met three kinds of Mariner fans: philosophers, baseball fans and front runners. The front runner is a Seattle sports fan desperate to feel the joy of winning. A baseball fan enjoys the intricacies of the game, and the philosopher finds lessons in it all. (There is a fourth category — the picnicker — who attends the game because of the ambiance of the stadium but this phenomenon is transient so I have not included this group.)

In a good season all three kinds of fan find satisfaction. There have been many, many seasons where the pleasures offered by the Mariners to their observers have been too subtle to detain the front runner. The attendance records of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s give us some measure of the number of people in the other two categories: Roughly 5,000.

This season has been noteworthy because the team has culled from its audience not only front runners, but its woeful, error prone and too often half-hearted performance has distanced many baseball fans. They have though provided grist for the philosophers.

It seems to me that our presumptive candidates for the presidency are having Mariner moments. To me it is entirely appropriate that the selection process and most of the presidential campaign occur during baseball season. Then the hard hitting last weeks of the campaign and the sudden death election occurs during football season. Baseball season though is the time to observe and reflect on the candidates.

McCain is having the same experience as the Mariners at the beginning of this season. Before the season the Mariners thought that they were one player away from the playoffs, and they went out and got him: Erik Bedard, pitching ace.

McCain felt that he was one domestic policy away from the brass ring and stayed out to get it: Energy and the environment. He stayed out of the Senate and avoided every vote that came up in the area. Now he has an environmental and energy “vision.”

The problem for McCain occurred when he took the field. Little things popped up that seemed to spoil the moment. He went to Iraq to show his commander in chief qualities and forgot who was fighting. This reminded me of Jose Lopez looking between his legs to see the ball scooting toward center field.

The Mariner defense was supposed to be good this year and McCain was strong on war and the military. Just early season jitters or a harbinger of things to come? What happened?

The errors became infectious and others around him started making them, obscuring his “vision.”

Then, like the Mariners’ starting pitching, the “vision” started to falter. McCain, who had historically opposed off shore drilling came out for it as a cure for spiraling gas prices. When a government report said that this would not have such an effect, he said that it would help “psychologically.”  This is a bit like Bedard not making it through the third inning.

The Mariners’ season collapsed and McCain’s is just barely begun. Hope he has better luck than the home team.

There’s a little bit of Richie Sexon in Obama, who electrified crowds with talk of change and new direction and populist involvement. He was a power hitter. Richie Sexon, a power hitter,  was told that he also needed to hit for average. The team was going nowhere if he could not hit over .200. So Richie changed his stance and his approach at the plate. He became patient instead of agressive and sure enough his average did climb . . . about fifteen points. He started getting walks which was good, but he lost his power. Now he is pretty much foundering.

Obama is moving to the right, trying to convince people that he is “strong on security” and that he will not overthrow the world as they know it. Richie would tell him not to change his stance too much in trying to hit for average.

Rob McKenna; I think I figured it out (Part 2)

June 26, 2008

I puzzled overnight how Rob McKenna could within a very short period of time issue apparently wildly contradictory statements. He says the courts are out of control with damages and the legislature needs to step in and impose limits. He also argues that courts should be able to disregard legislative limits on damages and he supports enormous punitive damages.

My problem in trying to figure this out was that I presumed that there was an over arching doctrine that somehow melded these two opposing positions.

No, the answer lies in the reason for espousing them. Tort reform, however unsupported by actual evidence, is a Republican campaign cornerstone. As a Republican candidate for Attorney General, Rob McKenna embraced the issue. The issue still has currency and Mr. McKenna uses the issue to gain publicity.

The Exxon Valdez case is internationally known and public sentiment lies almost entirely on the side of the victims of this environmental disaster. Mr. McKenna claims to have inserted himself into this case to rally other states into participating as advocates of the victims.

He took the politically popular position of advocating for exactly the opposite result from the one he had campaigned on. Governor Gregoire’s signature, high profile case was the suit against the tobacco companies. The tide of approval for this effort washed her up on the shores of the governor’s office. The Exxon Valdez case has the same sort of <i>cache</i> as the tobacco cases and could perhaps advance McKenna’s career in the same way.

McKenna, trying to have it both ways, publicly continued to speak out for tort reform while while using his office to seek the opposite result in the Exxon Valdez case.

He is trying to appear to be a big business tort reformer (the only real benefactors of this position are insurance companies and big businesses) and at the same time appear to be a hero to tort victims. The the notoriety of the Exxon Valdez case promised enough political advantage to compensate for whatever losses their might be from his big business base.

That’s the only coherent answer I could find. The principle that one derives from this is that Rob McKenna will say and do anything to advance his career.

Washington’s Attorney General Takes Both Sides of Tort Reform Issues (Part 1)

June 26, 2008

Washington State’s Attorney General Rob McKenna recently campaigned for tort reform, claiming that the legislature needed to step in and reduce the awards that were being entered against the state. He indicated that the courts were out of control and the legislaure needed to do something about it:

“But the courts have moved so far away from what the Legislature intended back in the early 1960s that the law removing sovereign immunity is no longer recognizable, and at the same time the Legislature has failed to act at a policy level where the limits ought to be.”

Mr. McKenna got into office advocating tort reform for everyone, saying that judgments were getting too big.

That sounds to me like just expedient court bashing. He says lawsuits are preventing the state from taking corrective action? That sounds like baloney.

Well, what did he do when the Exxon Valdez case got to the Supreme Court and the Court was asked to review the biggest punitive damages award in American history, $5 billion? This award was being attacked on two grounds. First, Exxon said that it was excessive. The plaintiffs were awarded all their proven damages, plus $5 billion. Second the spill was a violation of the federal Clean Water Act which does not award punitive damages at all. This omission from the law was fought for by Republicans, who generally are beyond cautious with respect to environmental laws. The $5 billion punitive damages award was granted under court created doctrine that the trial judge held applied in spite of the Clean Water Act.

The arguments of Exxon are exactly the same positions that Mr. McKenna campaigned on and which he has been advocating recently.

Mr. McKenna participated in this case by helping prepare a brief on behalf of Washington and 33 other states which argued that the punitive damages award should not be reduced and that the court created doctrine that allows punitive damages ought to be respected in spite of contrary language in the Clean Water Act. This is exactly the opposite of what he is saying in public.

Lawyers are sometimes required to advance positions they do not believe in but this does not appear to be the case in this instance. Mr. McKenna is crowing about the result and how he helped preserve punitive damages under court created doctrine!

The statement he issued on June 25 says this:

“We are pleased the court upheld an award of punitive damages, since Exxon had argued that no punitive damages can be awarded in a maritime case under federal law, no matter how egregious the circumstances,” McKenna said. “We are disappointed, however, that the Court did not award the full punitive damages authorized by the Court of Appeals. The reduced award is brutally disappointing for the Washington and Alaska fishermen and their families who were counting on this money to help make them whole.”

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t disagree with this sentiment. It is just that because I agree with him, I cannot in good conscience claim to support tort reform, particularly the two points championed by Exxon and Mr. McKenna in public statements.

I have puzzled over this for some time trying to render Mr. McKenna’s divergent positions rational. The only thing I can come up with is that Mr. McKenna thinks that punitive damages are fine for injured people in other states but not for people in Washington, except for fishermen. That still does not make sense to me.

The Senate Conservatives Fund: Soliciting Money From the Mentally Inactive

June 25, 2008

I just looked at the Senate Conservatives Fund website. This is fascinating stuff!

Remember, this site is the Republicans’ site for people who do not want to give money to the party because it has strayed from conservative principles. I was quite curious to see how they would do this.

It is certainly not intended to appeal to my disaffected friends. It’s that same extremist radio talk show format where you rant about a few easily identifiable matters that on the surface would not garner anyone’s support. There is a daily “pork report” identifying instances of government waste. This little entry focuses on relatively small items of waste in the federal government, but the site does not address any of the issues.

Because it is run by Republicans it cannot very well advocate for a balanced budget or balanced trade or any of those big picture things. Spending in the Mideast is of course out, as that would put the party in an awkward position. So they identify what they claim are instances of government waste. The “pork report” could be put on the website of almost any political party.

With respect to the pending mortgage crisis bill, it does not criticize anyone voting for it, as most Republicans are doing that. Instead it identifies the nine congressmen who voted against it.

There is a little list on the right margin that identifies “what conservatives are for.” The list though is little more than a string of meaningless buzz words, like “national security.” No explanation of the meaning of these terms is offered. Obviously, they are intended to mean whatever the viewer believes they mean.

This is for sure not a site for a thoughtful person who has issues with the Republican Party. It just omits reference to the party and contains little more than empty slogans.

The site identifies twenty close races for Senate seats and asks the reader to identify the true conservatives who are running. I could find no meaningful assurances about precisely how the donations that it solicits will be used.

Rift Between Republicans and Conservatives: The Senate Conservatives Fund

June 25, 2008

Many people who have always called themselves Republicans will no longer vote for that party. Five people have told me this and I was interested to see that this attitude has caused the Republican Party to restrategize fund raising for senate races.

The people I’m talking about do not call themselves social conservatives, just conservatives. They tend not to be social conservatives as that term is commonly used. They tend to support women’s rights and civil rights in general. Abortion and school prayer are not their foremost interests. They are not followers of extremist right wing radio shows. They do not feel that Democrats are evil. They are well educated and keep up on politics, usually from a variety of sources.

Like Alan Greenspan in his recent autobiography, they feel that the party led by Bush has abandoned its fundamental principles and in the process deserted them. Some are rather bitter.

The concerns expressed to me are Bush’s disregard of the need for a balanced budget, a concept that was treated as hallowed by Republicans during Clinton’s administration, then abandoned as soon as Bush got into office. Related to this is the Republican’s disregard of the mounting national debt, a sore point among my friends. The gaping trade deficit, something Republican used to be concerned about, still concerns many people.

The corruption and mismanagement of money associated with government contractors deeply shocks some conservatives, as did the political scandals that have characterized the administration. These people also do not support the jingoistic militarism that the Republican Party seems to stand for.

Finally Bush’s apparent dishonesty about the war, with regard to the Plame leak and now blaming gas prices on the Democrats while urging acceptance of off shore drilling as a solution, knowing full well that that it does not offer a solution (well, maybe one or two percent in fifteen or twenty years) and that oil companies have tens of millions of acres of undrilled land that they choose not to use at this time. They are shocked at the administration’s suppression of science and diminishment of the E.P.A.

They ask: What traditional convservative value has been respected by the Bush administration other than lip service to family values? The business of government has not been on conservative tracks. Clinton’s administration was far truer to conservative principles than the current administration.

Anyway I was surprised to see that this attitude is shared by so many Republicans that the Republican Party is having a hard time with fund raising. People are refusing to give money to the Republican Party PAC that raises money for senatorial campaigns. To do an end run around this obstacle, the Republican Party is creating a PAC that does not collect money for the party but for conservative candidates.

It seems that to some degree the Republican Party may have lost its base in the course of catering to Bush’s base.

Housing Market at 50 Year Low

June 24, 2008

If you are interested in the current housing market and wish to read more, an excellent place to look is Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, which just this week came out with the best study that I have seen. The study says that the housing market has not been this bad in fifty years. Again, the report addresses the national problem.

It is a little stunning to see the map showing areas where permitting is down by more than 50%.  Nonetheless the report notes the historic ability of this market to spring back and lead economic recovery.  It says the forecast over the long term remains very good.

Pundits and Advisers, Bill Krystol and Charlie Black

June 24, 2008

Today and yesterday a couple of statements by political gurus struck me as both repugnant and reflective of the brutal calculations that make up national politics.  Fist Sunday morning Bill Krystol said that, if Obama is ahead, Bush is more likely to invade Iran.  This among other things would be an :”October surprise” of the sort that could cause major voting shifts.  Krystol suggested that if McCain is ahead Bush might go from office quietly, confident that McCain would attack upon taking office.

The facile way these words tumbled off his tongue (and dribbled down his chin) shocked me.  He was talking about a decision that would cost hundred of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives.  A cloud of mystery remains on the question of why an attack in violation of international law is necessary.  The  2007 National Intelligence Estimate of course said that Iran had discontinued objectionable nuclear activity. making this talk disturbingly similar to the talk in 2003.

Today Charlie Black a very prominent adviser to McCain apologized for saying the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was an “unfortunate event” that had “helped” Mr. McCain’s presidential bid.  And that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be a big advantage to McCain.  It is probably just me but I find it unsettling to see how life is ground through political calculations.

This is not a Republican methodology; it’s a bipartisan approach.