Sunday, December 30, 2007

'Cheap seats' lucrative for media consultants

(Originally published 12/29/07)

“Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats, A.J.? … Because it occurs to me that in 25 years, I’ve never seen YOUR name on a ballot. Now why is that? Why are you always one step behind me?”

So asks President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) of his chief of staff, A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), in The American President.

It takes a lot of work to support a politician. Elected officials have all kinds of staffers with all sorts of different jobs. As such, and out of necessity, there are many sections of “cheap seats.” But as the New York Times reported this week, some cheap seats yield bigger bucks than others.

The Times reported that during the 2004 presidential election cycle, five Democratic strategists and their media consultant firms raked in nearly $9 million in fees for handling the television advertising for U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s campaign.

President Bush’s re-election campaign paid about the same amount for its ad blitz, though it was “more extensive,” the Times reported.

Doesn’t that make your stomach turn?

Democratic moneymen began asking questions about how so few people could make off with so much money, the Times said; “…and with more money than ever on the line this time around, resentment has been building, donors and other operatives say, at how, win or lose, presidential elections have become gold mines for the small and often swaggering band of media consultants who dominate modern campaigns.”

You know their work: those obnoxious fliers you get in the mail, sometimes weeks in advance of an election; the radio advertisements with the disdainful voices denigrating a candidate; those dreaded phone calls you get during the dinner hour; the TV commercials that infect the otherwise-positive hour you spend watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

Admit it: One of your first thoughts every election season is to finally drop those extra bucks for a DVR so you can skip over those self-aggrandizing commercials.

I’ve seen a lot of political advertising. None of it was worth $9 million.

Most media consultants I’ve encountered are political junkies who are full of ambitious ideas during campaigns, but they disappear when it’s time to do the heavy lifting. They’re like the cousins of the cowardly lion. In most cases, they are just like the politicians they serve – minus the courage to put their own names on a ballot.

So, from the sidelines, they concern themselves with the facts only long enough to twist them into weapons. They wrap their attacks in glossy mailers and American flags, throwing in some smiling kids here and there for good measure. And they do it all in the cloak of virtual anonymity, using sham return addresses and names like the coalition to protect thus-and-such or the foundation for the betterment of this-or-that. It’s a drive-by mugging, with art. And it’s lucrative.

But candidates will only pay for effective marketing, and that’s the sad part about all this: Political media consultants exist because they get results. People complain all day long about negative campaigning, but guess what? They listen. Voters allow themselves to be influenced by these 30-second eggings candidates pay to perpetrate on one another.

So I propose a New Year’s resolution that we can undertake together. Let us resolve this year to ignore all political advertisements designed to speak to us in terms of the lowest common denominator, whether they are delivered over the airwaves or into our mailboxes. Let us resolve that every dollar spent this way will be a dollar wasted.

Let us resolve that the cheap seats will live up to their name.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Faith, family traditions key to Christmas joy

(Originally published 12/22/07)

I love Christmas.

I have fond memories of our family singing traditional Christmas carols at the candlelight services at our church when I was a kid. Afterward, my dad took us to check out the Christmas lights all over town. My mom used that time to wrap presents, stuff stockings and make all the final preparations for the big day.

After we went to bed, my dad made Santa footprints by sprinkling carpet cleaner (or soot itself, before my mom made him switch) out from the fireplace, munched the cookies we left and wrote us a note as a final touch. Looking at his letters, I would wonder whether all those cookies gave Santa a sugar high; Dad confessed later that he had scrawled with his left hand so we wouldn’t recognize his handwriting.

My mom makes egg and sausage casserole for Christmas brunch. I remember watching her make it many times on Christmas Eve after our town tour. As much as I love that casserole (and trust me, my portion disappears in a hurry), I will only eat it on Christmas morning. Although I take a lot of grief for that (you know who you are), it makes that meal a special part of Christmas for me.

I’ve had mixed results incorporating my childhood traditions into our family practices. For example, I get a bonus casserole since I make my own, but somehow, it’s not the same; in addition, I’ve learned that the soot trick leaves much to be desired if you have wood floors.

I have developed some traditions of my own, and they echo those candlelight services of my youth. Music is perhaps the most important part of Christmas for me, outside of celebrating Christ’s birth and being with my family. Music can reach a part of the human soul untouchable by words alone. It seems to have the ability to reach through time and space to unite those of us in the modern age with those of antiquity who experienced the first Christmas. I guess that’s not surprising; after all, the ability to express one’s self through song is one of the few things that we still have in common with our forebears.

I love to listen to Christmas music, especially from the 40s and 50s and new arrangements of classic carols. I’ll turn it on while I wrap gifts, which I do the way I used to study for mid-terms – all at once and always the night before. Christmas Eve is the procrastinator’s playground!

(By the way, is there a better hero for procrastinators than the Grinch? He had put up with the Who-Christmas Sing for 53 years, but he came up with his “wonderful, awful idea” only under the pressure of one more: “Tomorrow is Christmas; it’s practically here!”)

So on Christmas Eve, as I wrap presents and listen to music that has delighted people for 60 years or more, I’ll be thinking of my Christmas wishes, and I’ll share them here with you:

  • That every child throughout the world would be safe, happy and loved;
  • That every homeless person would find inviting shelter;
  • That every hungry man, woman and child would have a warm meal to warm their souls;
  • That everyone already blessed with these things would share them with a less fortunate brother or sister, not just on Christmas but throughout the year; and
  • That your home on Christmas morning will be filled with the music of the season: songs of faith, family and giving – and the greatest gift of all.
Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Presidential debates next to useless in current form

(Originally published 12/15/07)

I have sometimes wondered why the general public has little to no use for presidential debates. After all, one of the participants is going to end up being sworn in as the leader of the free world; why aren’t people paying attention?

After the debates this week in Iowa, I know why.

The Des Moines Register-sponsored debates this week were so wanting in form and substance that they were roundly – and rightly – criticized as the worst of the cycle.

(By the way, in their current form, they’re forums, not debates.)

Wednesday’s GOP forum featured one inexplicable addition: Former U.S. ambassador and perennial candidate Alan Keyes. Keyes is known for his special grandstanding brand of unctuous conservatism. I hadn’t heard any mention of him during this cycle until candidate introductions.

Register editor and moderator Carolyn Washburn kicked off the event by telling the candidates that the questions would "focus on issues Iowans say they still want to know more about."

Indeed, Washburn’s first question about the country’s financial situation was "the single biggest issue Iowans of both parties wanted you to talk about," she said. For this most important issue, candidates were allotted a whopping 30 seconds -- each! -- to respond.

It went downhill from there. Keyes predictably became a sideshow, arguing with Washburn at one point about answering a question directed to other candidates and then sounding eerily like my six- and three-year-old

"They had a minute," he whined. "Why do I get 30 seconds?"

Washburn also posed what may be the most useless question in presidential history when she asked the candidates to "please suggest a New Year’s resolution for one of your opponents here today."

Thankfully, most of the candidates had the sense to deflect the question.

The Democratic debate Thursday was much the same. Although Washburn acted less like a grumpy parking lot attendant, the event was exceedingly mundane, even for hardened political junkies like me.

One reason was the (again) inexplicable exclusion of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich. He reportedly didn’t qualify because his Iowa campaign director works out of his home instead of from a commercial storefront.

(One major cable news network reported late Thursday that its reporters were unable to locate a campaign office for Keyes. Hey, that requirement was arbitrary, but at least the Register wasn’t enforcing it, right?)

And I have to ask: In what world does Keyes, who made his first forum appearance this year, garner more support than the self-proclaimed candidate "from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party?"

Here’s why Americans don’t have use for these "debates:" They aren’t useful. But wait, I have the solution! Here’s how the powers-that-be can actually make next year’s debates worth watching down the stretch:

Schedule a series of 90-minute policy debates – perhaps 10 or so, roughly one per week between conventions and Election Day – limit each debate to one or two topics, and insist that moderators ask only open-ended questions.

For example, Washburn asked GOP candidates Wednesday for a "show of hands:" Who believes global climate change is a "serious threat and caused by human activity?" Instead of being rebuffed and rebuked by former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, she could have simply asked the candidates to share their thoughts on climate change.

In addition to eliciting a more complete answer, this would give candidates more time to explain their views, and it has the added benefit of eliminating that annoying habit they have of talking past their time limit.

Yes, it will take more time. But aren’t the issues – and their answers, and our choice for president – worth it?

And who knows? People might actually pay attention again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Candidates must get to the bottom of illegal immigration

(Originally published 12/8/07)

You know that old saying about Social Security being the third rail of politics?

That’s so last century.

Now -- for Republicans, at least -- it's illegal immigration.

GOP faithful are given to all kinds of gnashing of teeth when the topic comes up. They have the visceral reaction to it that government expansion used to draw, back in the days before there was an earmark in every pot.

So it’s no surprise that Republican candidates for president are clambering to see who can get the farthest to the right of the political continuum without falling off. Commercials detailing scary crimes committed by illegal immigrants that would make Hollywood horror filmmakers proud, mailers featuring dusty corners of the border guarded by warped wire fence and arguments over so-called "sanctuary cities" have become part and parcel of the GOP landscape.

Gee, it’s even affecting Mitt Romney’s lawn. The candidate fired his landscaping company after Boston Globe reporters, in a piece of ‘Gotcha!’ investigative journalism not likely to win the Pulitzer, planted themselves outside Romney’s home in Massachusetts for two months, followed the landscapers, questioned them about their immigration status and then – AHA! – delivered the stunning revelation that they are in the U.S. illegally.

(On a side note, the Globe made no mention of its efforts to report its findings to federal immigration authorities. But I’m sure it was just an oversight.)

Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, the founder of the deportation wing of the GOP, had one of the best sound bytes from last week’s CNN-YouTube debate: He assessed his fellow candidates’ immigration platforms as "people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo."

Indeed, with apologies to Barbara Mandrell, Tancredo was against immigration before being against immigration was cool.

During the debate, Tancredo fielded a question from a small-business owner who stays competitive with imports by using employees through a seasonal guest worker program. Would Tancredo support the continuation of the guest worker program as president? the man asked.

"Well, I’ll tell you, I’m not going to aid any more immigration into this country," Tancredo said, going on to say that "massive immigration, both legal and illegal" makes assimilation difficult and takes American jobs.

"I reject the idea, categorically, that there are jobs that ‘no American will take.’ I reject it," he said.

Over applause, Tancredo said he believes that American workers eschew the jobs illegal immigrants are doing because of the low wages and poor working conditions they typically entail.

But it was the next statement that made me look up from the dishes I was washing.

"But am I going to feel sorry if a business has to increase its wages in order for somebody in this country to make a good living? No, I don’t feel sorry about that and I won’t apologize for it for a moment. And there are plenty of Americans who will do those jobs," Tancredo said.

Whoa, I thought. I wonder how Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, Dole and others agricultural giants will feel about this!

What about the National Association of Home Builders, their state subsidiaries and all the associated construction trade organizations?

A Republican candidate for president arguing for better pay and working conditions? Tancredo sure sounded more like he was stumping for a union endorsement than trying to impress a bunch of capitalists.

It’s a simple fact that the labor provided by illegal immigrants undergirds a large portion of the economy. The question is whether American workers would, indeed, fill those jobs held by illegal immigrants – and, if so, at what cost.

Finding the answer will require a lot of deft stepping by the candidates over America’s new third rail.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pricing the priceless: What is your vote worth?

(Originally published 12/1/07)

You are going to be very, very angry in about five minutes.

According to a survey of 3,000 students at New York University last month, 66 percent of those polled said they would trade their right to vote next year for a year’s tuition at the school.

That’s right. For about $35,000, two-thirds of NYU students would give up their right to vote.

Think that’s crazy? Twenty percent would take – get this – an iPod Touch.

I know that’s unbelievable, so here it is again: One in five students would sell his vote for an electronic gadget that retails for $299.

Gather ‘round, children, while I tell the story about the day America died.

How many of you served in the military? Have spouses, brothers, sisters, moms or dads who wore the uniform?

Who among you has nursed the wounds – physical or otherwise – of a soldier returned from battle? Who has stood at the graveside of a loved one, heard the echo of a 21-gun salute and received a folded flag?

When I read about that survey, my first instinct was to gather up a few friends, head to NYU and stage a little campus protest, if you know what I mean.

Shocking. Shameless. Selfish. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the pure heinousness of the attitudes behind these results.

To their credit, some NYU students were similarly repulsed by the survey’s results. "Is an i-Touch worth a dictatorship? How about one of those PLUS an i-Phone?" asked one student in the Politico’s forum.

I wonder what the men and women of Iraq would say about this survey. I bet their comments could be summed up by one purple-tinged finger.

I wonder what the men at Lexington and Valley Forge, Antietam and Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Bataan, Iwo Jima, Normandy, Saigon, Kabul, Fallujah and countless of other battlefields where American blood has been spilled would say.

While researching this story, I read over a history of the struggle in which American women fought for the vote: "One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage." Could $35,000 balance the gritty determination of Stanton, Anthony, Howe and their partners in the struggle – or the alienation, public humiliation and retribution they suffered along the way?

And what about those who led the civil rights movement? Pull up YouTube on your iTouch, NYU students, and hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his dream to the quarter-million people who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August day in 1963. Listen to that, then ponder your price.

How could the freedoms bought and secured by so many for so much be worth so little in the eyes of so many?

Another contributor to the forum called it "a sign of the times," adding, "The 20-something generation hasn’t really experienced any sort of major global hardship so they’ve gotten complacent. To them the whole world is just a big nationless, cultureless mess of wannabe hipsters sipping $6 lattes at the local coffee shop."

Some observers have sought to blunt the survey: 90 percent of the students who said they would trade their vote also considered voting "very important" or "somewhat important," they said, and although fully half of the students surveyed said they would give up their right to vote forever, it would take $1 million.

I can see them now: "That’s a lot of money, even with the weak dollar," they nod approvingly.

John Gage was right: Signal you’re for sale, and the only remaining question is your price.

Apparently, the price of freedom isn’t what it used to be – and that’s an insult of the highest order to those who defend it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Hannah Montana has it right: Nobody's perfect

(Originally published 11/24/07)

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama stirred up controversy this week when he told a group of high school students about his experiences with drugs as a teenager.

Although disclosed in his book, "Dreams from my Father," this was the first time he had mentioned it on the campaign trail. He told the students that he had made "bad decisions" by experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

"There was a whole stretch of time that I didn’t really apply myself a lot," Obama said. "It wasn’t until I got out of high school and went to college that I started realizing, ‘Man, I wasted a lot of time.’"

Asked about the statements, two leading Republican presidential candidates displayed polar opposite reactions. Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani said he respected Obama’s honesty.

"We’re all human beings," he said of the candidates.

Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dispatched a message from his perch atop his high horse: Obama’s statement was a "huge error," he thundered.

"It’s just not a good idea for people running for president of the U.S. who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, ‘Well, I can do that too and become president of the United States,’" he said.

Yes, I’m an idealist, but that statement was Pollyanna, even for me. As my daughters sing along with Disney pop star Hannah Montana, "Nobody’s perfect." Giuliani, who’s had his share of slip-ups, decried the "pretense of perfection" under which candidates are expected to operate.

"If we haven’t made mistakes, don’t vote for us," he said.

I thought Obama’s statement humanized him. He did an admirable thing by detailing his missteps - and sharing the lessons they taught him - with impressionable young people. Some of those kids may be deterred from using drugs, or inspired to quit them altogether, because of his influence. And isn’t that influence worth more than the maintenance of some plastic perfect-man persona?

It’s ludicrous for Romney - and everyone else, for that matter - to stand before voters and insinuate that they are without stain. They are lying to voters - and themselves.

* * *

After months of dogged campaigning, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has rounded the corner in Iowa. Polls this week show him to be in a dead heat with Romney, whose personal millions poured into his Iowa efforts had him topping the polls until now. Romney took the calculated risk of alienating the influential Bowflex constituency and is poking fun at Huckabee’s celebrity endorsements (TV tough guy Chuck Norris and retired professional wrestler Ric Flair). But it’s Huckabee who may have the last laugh: His campaign raised $1 million on Tuesday alone, and he seems to have built the support of enough conservatives that he is considered a viable candidate.

A big part of successful campaigning is mastering the groupthink phenomenon. Perception is reality. If you can scrape together enough support to convince people that they aren’t throwing away their vote with you, you can go from an also-ran to a top-tier candidate in a hurry. That’s apparently what’s happening to Huckabee. He’s beginning to look like a winner in Iowa. And if he can maintain momentum, it won’t be long before the Giuliani camp starts itemizing its other 699 Pat Robertson-inspired endorsements.

* * *

Finally, I spoke with someone recently who expressed an interest in reading more about local politics in this space. Want to share some political news, pass along a tip or story idea, check out a rumor or just ask a question about anything political? Let me know what you’re hearing out there.

Democratic doublespeak dominates desert debates

(Originally published 11/17/07)

Democratic presidential candidates rolled the dice in their latest debate, this week with voters in Nevada.

After U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton fumbled a question about her support for driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants two weeks ago, pundits widely expected other candidates – namely, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards – to gamble and attack her early and often.

But Hillary came to Vegas, as they say, ready to rumble. She beat back their early shots and turned the attacks back against Obama and Edwards, looking as much the presumptive nominee as she had appeared as a deer in the headlights.

"Clinton sparkles," raved British newspaper The Guardian.

Obama and Edwards scaled things back after it became clear that Hillary had regained her frontrunner footing. One pundit described it as "a Roman candle of a debate – started with flash, very quickly burned hot, and then descended quickly." Obama made little noise – or impression – throughout the rest of the debate, while Edwards fell back on his old "Blame-Bush-and/or-Corporate-America" saw.

That left an hour and 45 minutes of banter that appealed only to seriously addicted political junkies (OK, me). But there were curious moments for watching wonks:

  • On merit pay for teachers, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer noted that teachers’ unions "make it difficult" to "terminate bad employees." Candidates mostly agreed that they would support merit-based pay if "merit" meant teaching in "poor rural or poor urban areas." And although Clinton said that "the teachers who are not doing a good job" should be weeded out, she gave no indication about how that could be done, considering tenure and other job-protection assurances negotiated by teachers’ unions for their members. Apparently, capitalism – competition – is good for the economy, but not education.
  • Asked about potential appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, candidates generally scorned litmus tests for prospective nominees but went on to say they would not consider anyone who did not believe in a right to privacy or support Roe v. Wade. Here’s a new bumper sticker for their campaign buses: "Litmus tests: Only good when they’re mine."
  • Asked whether she is "exploiting gender as a political issue," Clinton unleashed a trio of sound bytes quite obviously crafted after her complaints about the "boys’ club of presidential politics" backfired two weeks ago. She lauded "this great movement of progress" and called the presidency "the highest, hardest glass ceiling." For good measure, she mentioned fathers who "drive hours to bring their daughters to my events" and meeting "women in their 90s" who "say something like, ‘I’m 95 years old; I was born before women could vote, and I want to live long enough to see a woman in the White House." Hillary? Exploiting gender? Are they saying that because she’s a woman?
  • In light of mass recalls of toys made in China, candidates lamented job losses attributed to NAFTA and other free-trade agreements and blamed President Bush for not enforcing existing agreements that they say could have ensured the safety of products entering the United States. (Coincidentally, many of these candidates also support prescription drug importation from Canada.) The U.S. Constitution specifically delegates to Congress the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, but no one expressed an interest in reversing the 20th century trend that saw Congress cede its deal-making authority first to the president, then to unaccountable international organizations.
Want the truth about the insidious and quiet cancer infecting politics in this country? Think K Street – and check out the cover story of the Feb. 7, 2000 issue of Time magazine.

It should be required reading for every American.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Stoning Obama

I've been wanting to write the column that appears in today's paper for about a month now. Most of the ideas bouncing around in my head have come from news made over the past couple of months. But one incident in particular has stuck with me since it happened nearly a year ago: the way the evangelical establishment reacted when the Rev. Rick Warren invited U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to Saddleback Church for a forum on how faith-based organizations can play a role in responding to the AIDS crisis. I didn't have space to cover it in today's column, so I thought I would lay it out for you here.

The e-mail below (in green) orginated with the Christian Coalition of Alabama and eventually made its way to me via a family member. I have redacted some portions of it in the interest of space, but I have included all relevant portions. The portion in red is the actual open letter to the Rev. Warren regarding his invitation of Obama to the forum.

My response to all this, in its substantive entirety, follows the e-mail and is in blue.



Begin forwarded message:


Date: December 3, 2006 10:40:04 PM EST

Subject: Purpose Driven Life, - Rick Warren - Liberal Deceit?

A message from Christian Evangelicals to Rick Warren

Rick Warren popular author of Purpose Driven Life, Purpose Driven Church has made recent headlines again. This time for inviting liberal heathen U.S. Senator Obama from Illinois to speak at his church. Christians across the nation are outraged that Rick Warren would invite a liberal anti-conservative to speak at his church. See the list of conservative Christians organizations at the bottom of this email who are protesting Rick Warren's action.

Rick Warren is best known for changing the basic philosophy of how churches operate in America. Many churches have adopted his methods and increased church attendance. Bring in the Christian Rock Music and church attendance may increase. Be very positive, do not preach
anything negative and do not preach against sin. If any Christian or any philosophy claims to be Christian, that is okay, anything goes.

The below is complied information on Rick Warren. Scan the below and decide for yourself. The teachings of Rick Warren are probably influencing the operation of your church. Is that good or

Rick Warren's methods have been even noted by the Wall Street Journal in a negative sense.


Christian leaders to Warren: Keep Obama from pulpit

Argue Democrat senator's support for abortion incompatible with Bible

Rick Warren called 'enabler and defender' of evil


A message from Christian Evangelicals to Rick Warren

In the strongest possible terms, we oppose Rick Warren's decision to ignore Senator Obama's clear pro-death stance and invite him to Saddleback Church anyway. If Senator Obama cannot defend the most helpless citizens in our country, he has nothing to say to the AIDS crisis. You cannot fight one evil while justifying another. The evangelical church can provide no genuine help for those who suffer from AIDS if those involved do not first have their ethic of life firmly rooted in the Word of God.

Accordingly, we call on Pastor Rick Warren to rescind his invitation to Senator Obama immediately. The millions of silent victims who have died because of the policies of leaders like Senator Obama demand a response from those who believe that life is a gift from God. The name of the seminar at which Senator Obama will be appearing is entitled, “We Must Work Together.” No, Mr. Warren, Mr. Obama, we will never work with those who can support the murder of babies in the womb.

Phyllis Schlafly, President and Founder, Eagle Forum
Judie Brown, President, American Life League
Tim Wildmon, President American Family Association and American Family Radio
Joe Scheidler, President, Pro-Life Action League
Cheryl Sullenger, Operation Rescue
Matt Trewhella, Missionaries to the Preborn
Brannon Howse, President, Worldview Weekend, Christian Worldview Network
Janet Folger, President, Faith2Action
Peter LaBarbera, President, Americans for Truth
Greg Cunningham, President,
Center for Bioethical Reform, Lake Forest, California
Peggy Hamill, Director, Pro-Life Wisconsin
Cal Zastrow, Christian Action for the Preborn
Dr. Vic Eliason, President, VCY America Radio Network
Ingrid Schlueter, Host, Crosstalk Radio Talk Show
Kevin McCullough, Host, Musclehead Revolution, WMCA Radio
Chris Rosebrough, Capo Valley Church, San Juan Capistrano, California
Rev. Ken Silva, Apprising Ministries
Linda Harvey, President, Mission America


Rick Warren's philosophy is influencing churches across America. The culture of our churches is making major changes to the thinking of Rick Warren and away from the Bible.

Please forward.

If you received this update notice in error or want to discontinue receiving these updates, please use the link below:

Or if you do not trust remove links, just put REMOVE in the Subject and forward this entire message to the list moderator at:




I heard about this on the news the other day. As I understand it, Rick Warren had Sen. Obama out to talk about how to tackle the AIDS epidemic. It’s important to remember that there are two separate issues here, and I want to address specifically the reaction from Christian conservatives to the meeting that involved Sen. Obama. Let us lay aside for now the issues raised about the validity of the Purpose-Driven Life paradigm; I am not qualified to talk about Rick Warren’s credentials, motives, etc. It seems to me that many of the groups opposing Rick’s invitation to Sen. Obama are couching their objections in terms of their divergence with him on issues surrounding his church philosophy.

First of all, why is the idea that Rick Warren would invite Sen. Obama to a conference (Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a staunch Christian conservative, was among those in attendance) in itself offensive to Christian conservatives? If Republicans had the corner on the answers to stopping AIDS, we wouldn’t be talking about it right now, and a lot of people would still be alive tonight – including moms and dads whose babies are now orphaned in every corner of the African continent.

With that said, I reject out of hand the notion that Rick Warren should be (has there ever been a more appropriate use for the next word?) demonized for having a dialogue with Sen. Obama about AIDS. I understand that the senator is pro-choice. I understand that he is not on the biblical side of the marriage question. And I understand that his position on stem-cell research is unacceptable to those who cherish and seek to protect the sanctity of life. I will also say from the outset that I don’t agree with most of Sen. Obama’s positions on social issues, and I suspect most Christian conservatives share my views.

But this reaction of repulsion from our camp is out of line. Refusing to talk with someone about what is arguably the developing world’s number one problem simply because you disagree with him on other issues is worse than narrow-minded; it’s childish. How can we as Christian conservatives expect for those on the other side of our issues to be open to our arguments if we are unable – or, in this case, simply unwilling – to have meaningful dialogue with them? Consider especially, for the purposes of this discussion, those who consider themselves “personally pro-life” but support choice as a government policy. Why should they listen to us and be open to our ideas about why government policies should come down on the side of life and why it’s important to create a society that cherishes and protects life if we can’t hear out their concerns on these and other issues?

Worse than being out of line, the reaction of repulsion from our camp is unbiblical. The web site headed by leading evangelical Phyllis Schlafly heads articles about Sen. Obama’s appearance at Saddleback, “There are times when you just can't work together!” and the snidely clever, “Such a partnership is an ‘Obama-nation.’” Was this the attitude Jesus had when He encountered those who believed differently than He did? What about Him meeting the woman at the well (John 4:1-42)? He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was the Messiah; she was an adulteress. Morally speaking, she couldn’t have been more His opposite. But did He turn His back to her or refuse to speak to her? Quite the contrary: Beyond the polite and superficial, Jesus conversed with her in such an intimate way that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman's testimony” (v. 39). Contrast His approach with the stubborn and hard-hearted ultimatum flung at Rick Warren’s feet by the group of evangelicals (below, in red). Which approach do you think is more likely to turn hearts to Christ -– Jesus’, or Phyllis Schlafly’s?

When it comes down to it, it has been my experience that most of the time, the people who most stridently avoid debate are those with the weakest arguments. We live in a society that is supposed to be a “marketplace of ideas” – the system means to have the best ideas rise to the top by virtue of being haggled over, tested, tried and tweaked. This attitude that Christian conservatives should do the equivalent of put our hands over our ears, squeeze our eyes shut and yell, “LALALALALALALALALA” while our ideological opposites are talking does not reflect the confidence that Christians should have in their arguments – maybe that’s because so many of today’s Christians are just too lazy to understand why they believe what they say they believe, or maybe it’s because they would just as soon let Pat Robertson speak for them.

That reminds me of the Gospel stories where the Pharisees were always trying to trap Jesus in religious conundrums. They thought they had the market on all the right answers. And after a while, when they couldn’t best Jesus in their arguments, they decided to kill Him. Don’t get me wrong; I’m certainly not comparing Sen. Obama to Jesus. But the behavior of some in our camp in this episode certainly reminds me a lot of the behavior of those religious “leaders.”

Finally, what disappoints and saddens me about this whole episode is this paragraph, the final graf in liberal stalwart E.J. Dionne’s latest column:

“One more thing: If you read Obama’s speech, you'll realize he demonstrates a
much truer Christian spirit than the GOP masterminds who have recently tried to push people away from Obama by pointing out that his middle name is Hussein.”

These Christian leaders basically gave Mr. Dionne that free shot on us.

In addition, I think that for as well as President Bush and the Republican Congress have done on life issues since 2000, they have not done nearly enough in the areas of sheltering the poor, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick or shepherding single-mother families through their unique struggles. I know; I sound like a liberal. “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!!” yells someone from the GOP rafters. “TEACH A MAN TO FISH!!” from someone else on the floor. “A HAND UP, NOT A HAND OUT!!” thunders a voice from behind. And I believe in all these things. But why does modern Republicanism have to choose aspects of Christianity – the sanctity of life and marriage, for example – and ignore others, such as caring for the less fortunate?

I know another story about pious people who were too busy with their “religious” work to stop and help the needy. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan. The hero, in Jesus’ eyes, was the one who stopped to care for the beaten man. And as I recall, in telling the story, Jesus didn’t mention anything about the Good Samaritan lecturing the poor victim about how dangerous it was to be traveling that road alone, how he had it coming, how he needed to be more “personally responsible,” etc. The Samaritan just addressed the wounds of the body – and of the soul.

The bottom line is that if we as Christians believe that we are the salt of the earth, we should look for opportunities like these to have an audience with the decision makers of our country, not run from them simply because we disagree. If the philosophy of the now-repulsed Christian conservatives was applied to our overall interactions with everyone else in the world, Christians would never interact with the lost, and the word of salvation could never be spread.

I just think that as Christians, we have bigger and more important things with which to concern ourselves than with whom Rick Warren wants to discuss AIDS.

P.S. Here’s a good background piece on the conference, including several good quotes from Warren:

Evangelical leaders + politics = Bad religion

(Originally published 11/10/07)


That was my reaction to the news that Christian televangelist Pat Robertson was endorsing Rudy Giuliani in the Republican race for president.

What’s a pro-life, Christian conservative leader doing endorsing a pro-choice candidate who has contributed to Planned Parenthood, arguably the largest abortion provider in the world?

Excuse the double entendre, but politics really does make for strange bedfellows.

“I just believe that I needed to make a statement … that Rudy Giuliani is without question an acceptable candidate,” the New York Times quoted Robertson as saying.

Why settle for an “acceptable” candidate? Social conservatives would seem to have a sure thing in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is also a Baptist minister. If it was about the issues, why wouldn’t their leaders get behind him instead of threatening to run a third-party candidate?

The answer: For evangelical leaders, the presidential contest has become more about winning than advancing their values, and they don’t think Huckabee can win. Robertson as much as said so.

“I know how the game is played. I think we do want a front-runner from the Republican Party who can win the general election,” Robertson said.

In other words: Sell. Out. Forget values; beat Hillary.

But what’s the point of victory if there’s no difference between the winner and the loser?

For years, Democrats have complained that evangelicals’ near-exclusive support of Republicans was more about power than principle. It seems they may be right, at least when it comes to evangelical leaders.

So GOP presidential candidates are falling all over each other to curry favor with the Pat Robertsons of America. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit, “Who’s More Grizzled?” The Republican presidential primary is starting to look like “Who’s More Religious:”

  • Giuliani told Robertson’s audiences in September that he believes in God and prays to Jesus for “guidance and help.” He wanted to be a priest when he was younger, he added.
  • Mitt Romney has courted evangelicals for months, working to convince them that his Mormonism is essentially the mirror of Christianity, at least when it comes to social policy.
  • John McCain is trying to rebuild bridges with Christian conservatives after dubbing Robertson and Jerry Falwell “agents of intolerance” during his 2000 campaign.

Evangelical leaders aren’t backing away from their self-appointed position in quality control. From their figurative thrones, they are like Roman emperors in the Colosseum, passing judgment on candidates’ religious fitness and giving congregants the thumbs up or down. Robertson is the just the latest to do so. Earlier this year, Focus on the Family guru James Dobson told US News & World Report that he didn’t think Fred Thompson was a Christian at all; he also told a Dallas radio audience, “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances … I pray that we won’t get stuck with him.”

Don’t get me wrong. Understanding a candidate’s personal values, on religion among others, is crucial to voters’ ability to know what is at that person’s core.

But Jesus taught his followers not to grandstand in the sight and for the praise of man. Christianity isn’t meant to be a public display of religion. Instead, it is a private, personal relationship between Heavenly Father and child, publicly displayed by the fruits of the Spirit.

Social conservatives can diffuse the religious competition the GOP primary has become by consciously committing themselves to considering who best reflects their own personal convictions – religious and otherwise – and taking that knowledge, in faith, to the voting booth.

And the proof of the health and strength of America’s Christian conservative constituency will be when the political endorsements of their leaders don’t matter after all.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Deep South water wars: share and share alike

(Originally published 10/27/07)

In our house, the crescendo of little-girl voices is a sure sign of trouble:

"That’s mine!"
"Mom says you have to share!!!"

And then, invariably:


You know the drill. One has something; the other wants it. They don’t share. They fight. You can almost hear the bell sounding.

The bell sounded last week when Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue asked President Bush to intervene in the latest round of his state’s Water Wars with neighboring Alabama and Florida. Pained by an historic drought, Perdue wants to restrict the flow of water from Lake Lanier and Georgia’s federal reservoirs, thus cutting the amount of water flowing down the Chattahoochee River – by as much as 60 percent, if the drought conditions persist.

Perdue’s proposition raised hackles all around.

Can’t you just hear them?

"It’s our water."
"But it’s OUR WATER!!"
"You have to share! The Army Corps of Engineers says so!"
"President BUUUUUUSH!!!!!!"

I have to admit that on Thursday, when I saw Alabama Gov. Bob Riley’s remarks on the subject and realized that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was taking Riley’s side by asking the president not to grant Perdue’s request, I had a momentary instinct to dispense maternal justice and sit the two apparent bullies in the corner.

But the Water Wars are no laughing matter. The flow of the Chattahoochee River is the life of many communities downstream. Its importance is measured not in cubic feet per second, but in the preservation of entire industries and, indeed, livelihoods, along the river’s winding path to the Gulf.

And while lower flow impacts everyone downstream, perhaps no area is more vulnerable than the commercial fishing communities of Florida’s Panhandle. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Crist told Bush in a letter Thursday that low flows are already creating "economic peril" and threatening the $205 million commercial fishing industry that has been passed from generation to generation in Apalachicola Bay.

Perdue had a point this week when he said that "Congress did not pass the Endangered Species Act with the intention of providing protection for species of mussel and sturgeon at the expense of critical human needs." Continuing under the current arrangement "will also mean less water for the endangered species in the future," he said.

But CNN quoted an Army Corps official in Mobile who said that even if there were nine months without rain, water supplies would still be adequate.

The agreements governing water flow weren’t reached in a vacuum. Abandoning them to ease drought effects in the Atlanta area in the short term would wreak certain, irreversible havoc downstream in the long run.

Crist agreed.

"Reacting to the concerns of an upstream state to suspend environmental laws unilaterally at the expense of a downstream state’s ecology and economy cannot be justified in any circumstance," he wrote to Bush.

In other words, can’t we all just get along?

The reality is that this region’s water woes won’t be solved through any of the six separate lawsuits pending on this issue. The answer will have to involve cooperation, coordination, and, most of all, conservation. We’re all going to have to learn to share.
• • •

Everyone’s adjusting to strict new watering guidelines in many North Georgia cities. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this week that the City of Alpharetta was issued two citations for illegally watering some flower beds in front of City Hall - on the same day that city officials passed "uber-tough" watering restrictions.

The citations include fines totaling $750. But, "We’re not in the business of paying ourselves," Assistant City Administrator Robert Rokovitz said.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Shield laws are whistleblower laws for investigative journalists

(Originally published 10/20/07)

After more than 100 attempts over 30-plus years, the U.S. House passed the first federal shield law Tuesday.

As discussed here last week, a free press is integral to any free society, and the ability of independent journalists to question and hold to account ruling governments is a powerful check on tyranny. Along with the unique protections of the First Amendment, shield laws help journalists fulfill their function as your watchdog.

Shield laws are simple: they protect journalists from being compelled to testify or reveal their sources in court. Think of it this way: substitute the government for any employer being investigated; instead of a pink slip for the employee who turned the bosses in, think of a subpoena delivered to the reporter asking questions. In effect, shield laws are whistleblower laws for journalists.

Shield laws are crucial to journalists who are investigating wrongdoing, especially where government officials or agencies are the subject of that investigation. Confidential sources have been the genesis of countless investigations uncovering all kinds of misdeeds, and they may provide leads and background information or help fill in the blanks for a reporter.

The importance of shield laws hasn’t been lost on the states. Although the Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that the Constitution does not protect journalist-source relationships, 33 states have shield laws for the press, while another 16 have judicial precedents that protect reporters, according to the Associated Press.

It is unclear whether the Senate will take up the bill before the end of the year, but even if it passes, President Bush has signaled that he will veto it:

  • In a memo released after the House passed the bill, the president’s advisers in the Office of Management and Budget said the Administration "strongly opposes" the bill because of its "unreasonable burdens and standards."
  • White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told reporters Tuesday that Bush Administration officials believe "that the protections that are in place currently for journalists were sufficient."

(Incidentally, could it be that they think the "protections (against appearing and testifying in federal legal proceedings) that are in place currently for journalists" are sufficient because, well, there are no federal protections "in place currently for journalists?" Just a thought.)

Congress was unable to override Bush’s veto of the S-CHIP expansion, falling 14 votes shy of the 287, or two-thirds, needed. But if Bush vetoes the shield law, an override is a certainty; the bill passed Tuesday with 398 votes.

Can you say bipartisan?

In his floor speech urging colleagues to vote for the bill, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R-Columbus) referred the federal shield as "truly … a stitch in what I believe is a tear in the fabric of the Bill of Rights." The bill’s passage on Tuesday should be considered a late gift to Americans in honor of National Newspaper Week.

* * *

Also last week, I pointed out the 1955 Pulitzer Prize won by the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and the Sunday Ledger-Enquirer for their work on exposing corruption in Phenix City, Ala.

Two keen-eyed readers pointed out that the 1955 Pulitzer was, in fact, the Columbus papers’ second; the 1926 Pulitzer, also in public service, was awarded to the Enquirer-Sun, as it was called then, for " the service which it rendered in its brave and energetic fight against the Ku Klux Klan; against the enactment of a law barring the teaching of evolution; against dishonest and incompetent public officials and for justice to the Negro and against lynching."

What do you think the reporters at the Columbus papers in the 1920s and 1950s would say to President Bush about the importance of a federal shield?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Internet will not make newspapers obsolete any time soon

Today marks the end of National Newspaper Week, a celebration of the impact newspapers have on the daily lives of their readers.

No one knows when the idea of the newspaper originated, but historians believe the first newspapers – quite literally, papers with news printed on them – were produced in Caesar’s Rome. As the centuries rolled on, the idea of information circulated on a printed page gained popularity, and the first newspaper, as we would recognize it, was published in the early 1600s.

Through the years, it became apparent that a free press is the linchpin of any free society. The ability of independent journalists to question and hold to account the ruling government is a powerful check on tyranny. Recognizing this, the Founding Fathers gave Americans an enduring protection in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …"

Those are lofty words for lofty ideas. But the reality is that journalists do their most important work away from the spotlight. Using open meetings, open records and public notices, they pore through government legalese, sit through tedious meetings week after week, make phone call after phone call to sources who may not respond and research, write and edit their work, all in the name of getting the story for you - and being your watchdog.

Because of their constitutional guarantee, newspapers are uniquely positioned to expose even the most heinous corruption and graft, wherever it may exist.

East Alabamians know something about this.

The 1955 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service was awarded to the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and Sunday Ledger-Enquirer, "for its complete news coverage and fearless editorial attack on widespread corruption in neighboring Phenix City, which were effective in destroying a corrupt and racket-ridden city government." According to the Pulitzer Web site, "the newspaper exhibited an early awareness of the evils of lax law enforcement before the situation in Phenix City erupted into murder. It covered the whole unfolding story of the final prosecution of the wrong-doers with skill, perception, force and courage."

Readers should expect nothing less from the only constitutionally protected profession in America.

Such history notwithstanding, newspapers have suffered a crisis of identity with the advent of the Internet. Maybe it’s because I am the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers, or maybe it’s because I’m a traditionalist, but I’m not one who believes that the Internet will render newspapers obsolete. I can’t believe that the Internet, "information superhighway" that it is, can better meet the daily needs and answer the broad challenges of your community than your local newspaper. But it’s up to the newspaper to focus on its strengths and do them well.

The Web is about speed; newspapers are about accuracy. The Web offers unlimited opinion; newspapers are about objectivity. The Web is global; your newspaper is local. Done right, newspapers should tell the otherwise unknown stories of your town, your state, your country, your world. They should tell your stories.

Newspapers aren’t perfect. Any product that is researched, written, designed, edited, marketed and sold by human beings is bound to have flaws. But those lofty ideas undergirding newspapers’ existence call their creators to the highest of standards, and more often than not, newspapermen and women meet that mark - not for a paycheck, mind you, for journalism is among this country’s poorest-paying professional pursuits - but because they are driven by public interest, their own dreams for a better world and their intense personal desire to tell you about it.

Happy National Newspaper Week!

Monday, October 8, 2007

S-CHIP showdown: Policy clash or political pawn?

President Bush engaged Congress this week in a D.C. showdown over S-CHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan.

According to the White House Press Office, Bush warned months ago that he would veto an expansion of S-CHIP much beyond the $5 billion, or 20 percent, he had proposed. But given that Bush has spent heavy political capital defending the Iraq war and that health care reform is a big issue ahead of next year’s elections, Democrats seized the opportunity to go to the mattresses with the president on it.

On Wednesday, Bush made good on his threat to veto the program’s reauthorization legislation, which featured a five-year, $35 billion expansion that would have made the government’s health insurance program available to 10 million more children per year.

Following the veto Wednesday, Bush said that the expansion went against the original purpose of S-CHIP, which was to help make health insurance available to poor children; the expansion, he said, would make government coverage available to children whose families earn up to $83,000, or four times the federal poverty rate. As such, it is believed that one in three new S-CHIP enrollees would leave the private insurance market for the government plan, creating a staggering weight under which the program would eventually collapse, the administration said.

Democratic congressional leaders have set Oct. 18 as the date they will try to override the veto. They have enough votes in the Senate, they say, but need between 15 and 20 in the House.

Readers of this space may remember that three weeks ago, I questioned whether Bush would have needed Gen. David Petraeus’ full-court public relations press on Iraq if the administration would have consistently communicated its policies to Americans over the last five years, instead of here and there when funding bills were under consideration. It seems that the administration’s lack of communication is again an issue with S-CHIP.

S-CHIP isn’t perfect, even before expansion. It’s estimated that a half-million children are eligible, but unenrolled, under existing guidelines. But what about those kids whose families clear the current ceiling for S-CHIP eligibility of $41,300, or 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, but earn less than the amount needed to make private insurance truly accessible?

There’s merit in guarding against such a major expansion to a government program, especially one that involves a shell game that would leave the program 80 percent unfunded in year six, as the administration said the bill did. Bush said Wednesday that he is “more than willing to work with members of both parties from both Houses, and if they need a little more money in the bill to help us meet the objective of getting help for poor children.”

And what is that amount? Isn’t that where the debate should have been? The New York Times noted in an editorial last week that a recent analysis of census data found that the number of uninsured children jumped by 710,000 last year; in addition, almost half of the increase was in families with incomes between 200 percent and 399 percent of poverty — “the very group the administration seems to believe is adequately insured and has no need of S-CHIP,” the editorial said.

Regardless of what happens on Oct. 18, this issue isn’t going away: the Times reported Wednesday that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already begun radio ads and automated phone calls against eight Republicans in swing districts.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, whether the S-CHIP reauthorization is really about children’s health insurance at all.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Turnham: Annual home appraisals to have ripple effects

(Originally published 9/29/07)

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham returned Wednesday from Washington, where he huddled with party leaders about, among other things, Alabama’s Second Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Rehobeth) touched off a political feeding frenzy when he announced this week that he will not seek re-election in 2008.

Turnham said that although political observers regard Alabama as a red state, Democrats ran well in 2006, demonstrating that "underneath, it’s still a blue state." Also:

• Turnham said he doesn’t expect Gov. Bob Riley to call a special session on ethics reform, but if he does, "Democrats are going to come with a full package of ethics bills," including a bill Riley vetoed earlier this year that would expand registration requirements for anyone lobbying the governor. Some consensus is building around a PAC-to-PAC transfer ban and other issues, Turnham said, but Senate Republicans will have to work with Democrats for anything to pass.

• The annual property reappraisal system Riley initiated with an executive order is having ripple effects, Turnham said. For example, he said, the recent defeats of millage rate increases for education in Auburn, Opelika and Lee County were a "pushback" against property taxes, which are already climbing because of increasing real estate values. "The governor does not need a special session to deal with annual reappraisals of property taxes," Turnham said. "In the view of this party chair, he could do it with a stroke of the pen." But, he said, reappraisal and insurance availability issues are so critical that they may trump ethics reform if Riley does call a special session.

• Democratic infighting in the Alabama Senate "really wasn’t as much philosophical as there were some deep-seated personal issues, some things that were done and said that perhaps shouldn’t have been done and said," Turnham said. "But I do think there’s been some hat-in-hand humility and some outreach to each other on a personal level." As a result, he estimates that Democrats are now within one vote of having the 21 they need for cloture. Turnham blames Riley for the feud: "A lot of the ill will and the bad feeling results from the way the governor got heavily involved, more than any governor in Alabama history, in trying to organize the Senate away from a duly elected majority of Democrats," Turnham said. "In doing that, he inflamed some personal feelings on the Democratic side." Now a lame duck, Riley should engage his own caucus and encourage them to work with Democrats, Turnham said.

• Moving Alabama’s presidential primary to Feb. 5 "has meant a great deal," Turnham said, considering Alabama has had dozens of visits from presidential candidates. "I’m real confident that it’s been a good debate and people have been energized by it," he said. If the election were held today, Turnham said he would expect Hillary Clinton to win the primary and Barack Obama and John Edwards to earn delegates.

• As a longtime political activist and two-time congressional candidate, Turnham said he’s "made enough political sausage to fill up about 10 Zeigler trucks … Not all of it’s been fun and pleasant, but I hope it leaves Alabama and the world better," he said. People encourage him to consider various races, he said, but he wants to build a career outside of politics. "I feel like I have a great impact behind the scenes," he said. For now, Turnham said, he is content with managing his party’s "pretty good bullpen of people" and fulfilling his state, regional and national political commitments. But, he added, "You never say never."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hubbard comments on ethics reform, cronyism

(Published 9/22/07)

With Labor Day behind us, it’s time for politicians to, as Emeril Lagasse would say, "kick it up a notch." I recently spoke with Alabama Republican Party Chairman and State Rep. Mike Hubbard for his take on some recent state and national political developments.

  • On the potential for a special session for ethics reform: Gov. Bob Riley is "really debating the pros and the cons of it" and is expected to make a decision in the next few weeks, Hubbard said. A special session would force the Democrats to live up to the promises they made during last year’s campaigns, when they effectively co-opted the Republican agenda but then never got the issues out of committee, he said. "It just goes to show that they’re hypocrites and never had any intention of passing" the bills, he said of Democrats.
  • On recent news that Senate Democrats appear to be working out their differences: Hubbard noted that Alabama Education Association and Democratic heavyweight Paul Hubbert enlisted the help of a professional mediator to help bring some GOP-aligned Democrats back into the fold. But, Hubbard said, it remains to be seen whether the reconciliations will result in those Democrats voting with their party on cloture.
  • On so-called "double dipping" in the two-year college system: "I think it’s going to get even bigger," Hubbard said of the controversy. Superintendent Bradley Byrne indicated that corruption in the system "goes farther and deeper than we can imagine" and has been working with federal investigators, he said. "I think it’s big. I believe there will be indictments coming," Hubbard said. He added that any attempt to undo the new double-dipping policies legislatively would be bad policy - and bad politics. "I would hate to be a legislator and vote for a bill to undo what an elected board was established to do and also to keep a corrupt cronyism system in place," Hubbard said. Following the Legislature’s 62 percent pay raise earlier this year, "I think (it) would be a very, very dangerous vote," he said.
  • On presidential campaigns in Alabama: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have been working hard in Alabama, Hubbard said, and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who announced his candidacy just last week, is making inroads. (Sidebar: The Associated Press reported this week that although GOP delegate qualifying for the national convention just opened last month, more people have signed up to be Thompson delegates than all other candidates combined. Among those getting behind Thompson is State Rep. Mike Ball of Huntsville, who had chaired the McCain effort in Madison County.) Hubbard added that he is working to set up a party fundraiser with Thompson, similar to events attended by Romney and McCain, perhaps even in Auburn over the next few months.
  • On whether he’ll run for governor in 2010: Although "flattered" by the encouragement to run, Hubbard said his short-term focus is strengthening the state party, which he said he aims to transform from its traditional role as a "cheerleading outfit and social club" into a powerful engine driving the GOP into control in Montgomery. Key to those efforts, he said, is the major fundraising campaign he’s spearheading: a push to raise $4 million to $5 million, particularly for use in state legislative races. But Hubbard is keeping his options open, and any potential gubernatorial run, he said, would be considered through the filter of what’s best for his wife and young children. Either way, he expects to decide by late summer 2008.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bush must engage Americans on Iraq

(Originally published 9/15/07)

Following Gen. David Petraeus’ progress report to Congress on the troop surge in Iraq, President Bush delivered a prime-time address to Americans from the Oval Office Thursday and announced plans to bring 5,700 troops home by Christmas and decrease to 10 from 15 the number of brigades in Iraq by next summer.

The president said that "return on success" would guide his decisions regarding troop levels; the surge has improved security and diminished "ethno-sectarian violence" there, Petraeus told Congress this week.

Although Democrats denounced the plan as "unacceptable," most observers agree that Bush has bought himself more time on Iraq.

But one has to wonder whether Bush would need this full-court public relations press had he been more aggressive in communicating with the country about Iraq throughout the war.

One of the president’s personality traits is his veritable indifference to public opinion as it relates to the creation and execution of his policies, both foreign and domestic. Bush’s belief system ultimately guides his decisions. Supporters call this principle, even in the face of harsh and often personal opposition; opponents call it obtuse stubbornness, even in the face of contrary and irrefutable evidence.

From a broad perspective, it is reassuring that a president will stand firm in the face of opposition. But for this president, it can be argued it has harmed the war effort. Bush has remained reticent to critics of his Iraq policy, even while ordinary Americans have become frustrated with the war as they’ve watched brave soldiers continue to come home in flag-draped coffins.

There have been successes in Iraq. Regime change was accomplished; former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was captured and was tried, convicted and executed, in an Iraqi court and under Iraqi law. A democratic state was established in place of Saddam’s Ba’ath regime. A constitution was written. Free elections were held. Parliament was seated. And Americans identify these things with the establishment of a new democracy.

But beyond this, Americans have no clear understanding of what is left to be done. Don’t believe it? Ask yourself: What is your idea of the mission in Iraq right now?

There are almost as many answers out there as there are people.

Some say troops remain to help stabilize Iraq’s government. Others say they are keeping terrorists out of America, a sort of fight-them-there-or-fight-them-here mentality. And still others believe that those reasons are simply a distraction from the real reason for our presence in Iraq: preparation for a permanent American establishment there that could be used as a base for any future military action in the region (Iran, anyone?).

Though not in as many words, Bush acknowledged Thursday that he has no plans to completely withdraw American troops from Iraq, even before the end of next year. A successful Iraq, he said, would require an "enduring relationship" with the United States that includes "security engagement" beyond the end of his presidency.

Petraeus will deliver another progress report to Congress in March, and the Iraq war now appears to depend on what happens there until then. But just as crucial will be how well the administration demonstrates for Americans our soldiers’ continued mission – and how well that mission is being achieved.

Unless Bush speaks plainly, strongly and frequently about what is left to be accomplished in Iraq, Americans will be left with the realization that there isn’t anything else to be accomplished in Iraq.

Thompson entry caps good week in presidential race

(Published 9/8/07)

It’s been a good week for political junkies watching the presidential race:

  • On the fall premiere of Ellen Degeneres’ wildly popular talk show, Democratic candidate and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton told the nation that she sometimes comes home to find her former president husband "rearranging the bookshelf" or cleaning up the kitchen. "He’s pretty handy to have around," she said.
  • Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, whose support of Democratic candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama last fall made him a top-tier candidate overnight, may take a larger role in his campaign. If so, one pundit said, the "congregants of the Church of Oprah" will help Obama compete with Clinton for the women’s vote.
  • Democratic candidate and former U.S. Sen. John "Don’t-I-Remind-You-of-Bobby-Kennedy" Edwards said that the U.S. needs "a counterterrorism policy that actually counters terrorism." It reminded me of Hyundai’s current "Duh!" ad campaign.
  • At a campaign event, a high school student asked U.S. Sen. John McCain whether voters should take his age – 71 – into account. McCain noted his high energy level, then said to laughter, "Thanks for the question, you little jerk. You’re drafted."
  • Lastly, former U.S. Sen. (wait, do you see a pattern here?) Fred Thompson finally made his candidacy official.
Thompson’s announcement was seemingly just what the other GOP contenders needed to find their hibernating personalities. After the last mind-numbingly boring debate, I began to wonder whether we were overdue to change the batteries in their robotic response generators.

Fox News Channel hosted a GOP debate in New Hampshire mere hours before Thompson’s announcement hit the airwaves Wednesday.

Thompson skipped it but was dominant even in absentia; moderators asked the candidates about him right out of the chute.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Thompson is the political version of "No-Show George," a reference to country singer George Jones.

Perhaps the candidates were up past Thompson’s bedtime, McCain joked.

"Why the hurry?" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney mused. "Maybe January, February might be a better time to make a final decision about getting in this race."

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered, "I think he’s done a pretty good job of playing my part on ‘Law & Order.’"

During the debate, I realized that U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback reminds me of comedian and former Saturday Night Live cast member Norm MacDonald. (Remember the Jeopardy skit where MacDonald portrays Burt Reynolds? The resemblance is uncanny!) Also, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul reminded me of Ralph Nader: intelligent and articulate, but too far out on the fringe for mainstream voters.

McCain performed well throughout the debate and earned high marks especially for his commitment to veto pork-barrel spending as president.

But the focus this week was on the newest candidate. For his part, Thompson breezily brushed off Leno’s suggestion that he had waited too long to get in the race:

"I don’t think people are going to say, ‘You know, that guy would make a very good president, but he just didn’t get in soon enough,’" Thompson said. "If you can’t get your message out in a few months, you’re probably not ever going to get it out."

Voters have watched with a largely ho-hum response as the other candidates have spent money and taken shots at one another all summer. From the sidelines, Thompson has allowed himself to be made conservatives’ white horse; now that he’s in, time will tell whether he’ll be able to meet the sky-high expectations he’s cultivated.

Many questions to be answered following election

(Published 9/1/07)

Much of the work of politics is actually done after the election, when you can reflect on the campaign through the prism of the results and with the benefit of hindsight.

After Tuesday’s triple rejection of the proposed millage increase for schools, there’s a lot of reflecting to be done – not only by school administrators, who now face enrollment, curriculum and facilities challenges without additional funding, but also by residents of Auburn, Opelika and Lee County.

Some people consider it a rejection of school administrators’ financial leadership; others, a wholesale rejection of the growth planning procedures of local governments. And others offered other explanations:

  • In an online forum, one observer suggested that the schools’ decision to pursue seven mills instead of three or five doomed the referenda. Residents would have been happy to support a three- or five-mill increase, he said; instead, school officials erred when they "went for gold."
  • Another person this week said he believed people simply decided that extras, like laptop computers, weren’t integral to having "excellent" schools.
  • Conventional wisdom holds that low turnout is good for potentially controversial issues, like a tax increase. The caveat, of course, is that the turnout has to include a disproportionate number of supporters. Turnout was reported to be 10 percent in Lee County, 17 percent in Opelika and 14 percent in Auburn. It appears that for whatever reason, parents of school-age children didn’t turn out in strong enough numbers.
Another possible but more disturbing explanation for Tuesday’s results is that people here no longer consider excellent schools to be an indispensable part of the community’s identity.

Folks voted no – or not at all – because if the referenda failed, they would still have "really good" schools, one observer opined.

The people have spoken. Here’s hoping the superintendents can get creative.

* * *

Congratulations to the boys of the Little League baseball team from Warner Robins, Ga. In winning the state’s second world title in as many years, they defeated Japan Sunday in an eight-inning thriller on a towering home run from the team’s best hitter.

But it was what happened after the game that had people talking on Monday.

After a few seconds of jubilant celebration befitting a world title, the winners made their way onto the field to console their heartbroken adversaries, some of whom were prone and sobbing on the infield grass. World stage or not, these are 12- and 13-year-old boys, and losing such a big game – especially in extra innings – hurts.

Over the next few minutes, the winners encouraged their opponents. It was heartwarming. The enduring image for me will be of one particular Japanese player who was sobbing so hard that his shoulders heaved. He threw himself into the arms of a taller boy from the Georgia team, who patted him on the back. You could read his lips: "Good game. Good game." I’ve never been prouder of someone I’ve never met.

This scene unfolded on the hallowed grounds of Williamsport just a few hours before Michael Vick pled guilty in the dog fighting scandal that threatens to ruin his career and mere weeks after Barry Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron as the home run king of baseball.

But in Williamsport, if only for a moment, faith in sport was renewed. No performance-based, incentive-laden contracts here; the glory of the game itself is enough.

Sportsmanship, class and pure passion for the game: the pros could learn a lot from the kids from Warner Robins. They are better role models and more heroes than many of the men on the cards they collect.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Choose excellence: Vote yes on Tuesday

(Published 8/25/07)

This area’s public schools are some of our greatest assets, and that’s no accident. Their cultivation, development and achievement are the results of a lot of hard work by many dedicated people and the partnership among educators, local leaders and residents to give children a strong foundation for life.

Success is attractive. Just ask anyone who’s moved here from surrounding areas – or further away – to take advantage of the promise found in our schools.

But with growth comes added challenges, which brings us to this week’s issue.

Voters in Lee County will go to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of a proposed seven-mill property tax increase for education.

It’s easy to vote no. After all, it’s just another tax increase, right? Wrong.

Tuesday’s vote is a good example of when the easy road is not the best one.

The increases sought by Auburn City Schools, Opelika City Schools and Lee County Schools are necessary to maintain the quality of school programs and to adequately prepare for the growth coming to the Lee County area, the systems’ superintendents say.

Opponents’ arguments have included the following:

  • "Why don’t schools plan for growth?" They are. The funding this increase will generate is crucial to their plans.
  • "Why not raise the sales tax instead?" As school officials have noted, property tax is a steadier source of funding than the volatile sales tax. Is it good policy to plan based on a more volatile funding source?
  • "Are there other more pressing needs, such as our infrastructure?" I consider the provision of public education to be one of government’s paramount responsibilities and an integral part of our infrastructure, don’t you?
  • "Computers? That sounds expensive." In this technological age, really? I’m reminded of that old saying: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."
I often wonder whether the most vocal opponents of referenda like these have grounded their opposition in reason by attending budget workshops, reading yearly budgets, etc. It’s my experience that usually, they haven’t. So ask yourself: do you trust the carefully considered recommendation of those immersed in the issue and entrusted with the education of your children and grandchildren? Or the opinions of casual observers engaging in drive-by, armchair policymaking?

The question comes down to whether we’ll have excellent schools, as is our tradition, or average schools, as so many less fortunate communities do.

To those of you in Lee County planning to vote no in the wake of events this summer, I encourage you to consider who will be affected by your choice. If you have questions – concerns, even – about the leadership of that school system and its stewardship of your tax dollars, engage your board members. But don’t deny the students the funds they need to excel.

So, vote yes, if even for selfish reasons: Passage will help ensure that your property value will continue to increase – driven, of course, by the strength of public schools.

The Auburn City Schools’ slogan for this effort is "Excellence is a Choice." In other words, excellence doesn’t just happen. It takes effort, and it takes sacrifice. At critical times like these, residents here have made the conscious choice to invest in public education. Will we?

A strong public education system is a gleaming jewel in the crown of any community. It’s good for business, good for property values and good for the future. The people of Lee County have a chance on Tuesday to invest in this community’s crown jewels: our schools, and the children they serve. Don’t let them down.