Monthly Archives: May 2006

What About Hillary?

Over the past several weeks, I’ve begun to re-think my opposition to Hillary Clinton as the nominee in ’08. My principle objection had been that she is not electable and that she’d be annihilated by Sen. John McCain. That’s still a distinct possibility. (But maybe not.) I’ve also been put off by her support for the Iraq War, or more specifically, her reluctance to disavow her vote giving Bush the authority for the invasion.

Disavowing the vote is meaningless unless you call for an immediate pullout, which I object to. I was opposed to the war from the get-go. But to pull out now would leave behind a country in chaos, a chaos we created. We have an obligation to follow in the footsteps of many before us who’ve had to clean up George W. Bush’s mistakes. We have little choice.

But with more than two years before the presidential election, I’ve been impressed with how she has portrayed herself. And I’m not convinced that it’s been a re-packaging, as many critics claim. She began life as a Republican, after all. It’s really not hard to believe that she isn’t the lefty her opponents claim.

Dan Balz’s article today is obviously the impetus for this post. But as I said, I’ve been coming to this reevaluation for several weeks.

First, I’m more inclined to take her at her word. Why shouldn’t we?, as Joe Klein asked recently on Scarborough Country. [“Media Matters” think Klein’s comments were inexcusable.]

She will have another two years, an eternity in politics, to make people believe that she is real and committed to the views she espouses. The chief problem, Balz seems to infer, is that she doesn’t have a “coherent governing philosophy” or that she has “yet to wrap up her ideas in a kind of package like the ‘New Democrat’ philosophy her husband, former president Bill Clinton, used in his 1992 campaign or the “compassionate conservative” label George W. Bush adopted in 2000.”

[Again, “Media Matters” takes Balz to task for some conclusions in his article.]

My guess is she’s too smart and has too good a mentor not to develop a slogan and articulate a governing philosophy by ’08. Balz’s implied criticism is just so much of a regurgitation of the mantra that Dems don’t have a message. Remember that her husband had several mantras — “New Democrat” “It’s the economy, stupid” and “Opportunity, Responsibility and Community.”

What’s most impressive to me is that her philosophies, as they are being outlined, have a good chance of resonating with a lot of voters, women in particular. She believes in using force abroad. Most of us are, whether it be in Iraq, Darfur, the Balkans, Rwanda or elsewhere is the question. Would any of us advocate sitting on our hands if another Holocaust developed? The misuse of force is what we must prevent as we engage in not just public diplomacy but economic rehabilitation and aid to struggling people.

One apparent underlying philosophy that will attract progressives is her belief “in the power of government to solve problems.” At the same time, “[o]n family policy, she has some traditional, even moralistic, instincts that those who know her best say are genuine and deeply felt.”

If there is one justifiable criticism of the boomer generation of liberals is their moral relativism. We have allowed the right to abscond with the whole notion of morals to the point where we think everyone must choose their own. It is one thing to believe, for example, that sex shouldn’t be condemned as only the right of baby-making married couples, but quite another to accept the misogynist rants of rap artists or the banal portrayal of women and sex on MTV. It’s one thing to defend their right to such portrayals, but progressive politicians could gain ground by arguing against much of what passes as “Hollywood values.” Coming close to the end of any impact I might have on my three young adult children, it is clear that providing a moral compass and instilling self-respect in them was my greatest challenge — and television and CDs were my greatest opponents. Maybe Hillary should campaign with Tipper Gore, founder of the Parents’ Music Resource Center. She began PMRC when my oldest was two. But it would have taken more than stickers to keep my kids away from crap. And I wasn’t very successful.

Many parents of young children today feel similarly overwhelmed. Being a little “moralistic” might indeed resonate with them, as would her “belief that our most important obligation is to take care of our children” and that she is “a big believer in self-help and personal responsibility and a work ethic that holds people responsible.” Maybe she should campaign with Bill Cosby.

Perhaps most disconcerting is Clinton’s belief that “the biggest lesson learned is that there can be no progress on health care without the business community. ‘There has to be a consensus in the public and private sector before we can ever get the political system to respond,’ she said. Unfortunately, that’s true. But maybe there’s a way of gaining some concessions from business in exchange for some of the investments big business wants in our infrastructure. Perhaps, but maybe before anything gets accomplished, we’ll need someone who is willing to return American capitalism to its roots and away from the corporate welfare state we’ve created. On that we’ve heard little from Clinton.

But we have two more years, at least.

Who Is to Blame?

Over the past several years, mental health advocates have decried the poor state funding for such services. You see them at most public hearings on the budget. But those services cost. And most Republican delegates in the House don’t want to raise taxes.

Michael Kenney shot and killed two police officers this month. Here is his parents’ version of what they went through to get him help.

Beginning in February, Kennedy was evaluated twice at the Woodburn Center for Community Mental Health in Annandale and twice at Prince William Hospital in Manassas but was turned away all four times, [family attorney Richard F.] MacDowell said. He was not given any medication or a plan for treatment. Officials at those facilities said they could not discuss individual cases because of privacy laws.

Woodburn is part of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, with mental health professionals available 24 hours a day to evaluate people and, if necessary, recommend that they be hospitalized, even involuntarily. Prince William Hospital has its own psychiatric inpatient ward.

Experts said the refusal to treat Kennedy is far from surprising.

“Particularly here in Northern Virginia, it’s so hard to get somebody in when they need psychiatric care,” said Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington. She said the definition of who must be given immediate treatment — a person who is in “imminent danger” of harming himself or others or is incapable of caring for himself — is usually interpreted too strictly, often because facilities don’t have room for anyone but the most obviously dangerous people.

Northern Virginia has lost about one-third of its private psychiatric beds in the past three years and more than half of its beds — a decrease from 402 to 196 — since 1990, Zdanowicz said. The one state mental hospital in the region, Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Fairfax, is “always full,” Zdanowicz said.

“The people that desperately need care aren’t getting help.”

Kennedy’s family knew he needed help and had him seeing a private therapist early this year, MacDowell said. But on Feb. 13, while home alone, the teenager shot the family dog. Kennedy told police and friends that he had been suicidal that day, then decided against killing himself but accidentally fired a gun and hit the dog.

MacDowell said police took Kennedy to the Woodburn center that day. After an evaluation, “they determined he was not in need of future services. They had been told that he was seeing a therapist” and advised that was sufficient, MacDowell said.

Kennedy returned to Woodburn with his parents on Easter Sunday, April 16, after he told them “he’s got to be seen by somebody,” MacDowell said. After a lengthy evaluation, MacDowell said Kennedy was told: “You’re too smart to be here. You don’t need to be here. Just go home. Here are four sleeping pills. Go see your private doctor.”

The Kennedy family was not satisfied and returned to Woodburn the next day. MacDowell said a crisis intervention team met with Kennedy, determined that his family had insurance and found a bed for him at Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health Center in Rockville. He was voluntarily admitted the next day, April 18, but broke out a window later that evening and left. He told friends that he didn’t like the way he was being treated. He then stole a car and drove back to Fairfax.

Euphia Hsu Smith, a spokeswoman for Potomac Ridge, said she could not discuss the specifics of Kennedy’s case because of privacy laws. But she noted that “because we’re a health-care facility, we’re not a detention facility. We’re not set up for detention, especially if someone is here voluntarily.”

On April 24, MacDowell said, Kennedy’s mother again tried to get her son help. She called Inova Fairfax and Dominion hospitals, both with limited numbers of psychiatric beds, and was told that there was no room, MacDowell said. She then contacted Prince William Hospital, which said that Kennedy should be brought to the emergency room.

“He’s talking about cutting himself, he’s suicidal and God talks to him,” MacDowell said of Kennedy. “They say he’s fine and give him 10 milligrams of Ambien,” a sleeping pill, MacDowell said.

Donna Ballou, a spokeswoman for Prince William Hospital, said the hospital disagrees with MacDowell’s claims but could not be more specific because of privacy laws.

By early May, Kennedy was talking about aliens, MacDowell said. Margaret Kennedy called Prince William Hospital on May 4 and took him back to the emergency room, in tears, MacDowell said.

MacDowell said the staff thought Kennedy was claiming mental problems to evade criminal charges. “The diagnosis is anxiety,” MacDowell said. “And they let him go.”

“It’s astonishing,” MacDowell said, “how the system has deteriorated to the point that a clearly troubled individual, such as Michael Kennedy, cannot receive inpatient services. Our mental health system in Virginia is essentially broken when the severely ill cannot receive vital and necessary services.”

There are consequences to lawmakers’ actions — or lack thereof. I’d say the death of those two officers’ is in part the responsibility of those anti-tax delegates.

As I Was Saying

A few stories today bear out my points of yesterday.

The first has to do with this threat the Senate is holding over the House.

The House negotiators who met yesterday grumbled about the language in the Senate’s “contingency plan”–the Senate bill gives $339 million in general fund money to transportation, but only if the House agrees to a comprehensive, adequate-to-the-needs statewide transportation plan by Nov. 1.

House members said words like “adequate” are not legally defined, and they sounded reluctant to agree to such terms.

“All of those terms are undefined,” said Del. Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach. “I just think it’s a problem.”

That debate has the potential to make voters eyes glaze over. Is this really “adequate” or “sustainable” or “reliable” or any of the other terms the Senate and Governor have used to describe the funding scheme they want? I can only guess where that will lead us.

And then there is the potential political cost.

“It is a political victory because Governor Warner ate their lunch two years ago, and very few people expected the governor to prevail,” said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University. “Thus, they were doubly determined to have a unified front, and in that they succeeded.

“The downside is as we move into the 2007 election and voters are frustrated with the lack of any substantial initiative on transportation many of the those incumbents who stood firm could get the blame,” Mr. Rozell said.

…House Republicans in congested areas could pay a “high political price in the long run,” said Toni-Michelle Travis, associate professor of government at George Mason University. “It will be costly in the sense that Northern Virginia will now target officials that would not put more money into transportation, and therefore [they could] lose their elections.”

Don’t think the House Republican leadership hasn’t thought about this. All one needs to do is look at how well Kaine did in November in some of the districts of House Republicans. For example, Kaine lost by only 1.6% in Howell’s district (absentee ballots and Potts votes not included). He swamped Kilgore in Phil Hamilton’s, Dave Albo’s Vince Callahan’s, Jeff Frederick’s and Michele McQuigg’s districts. He won in at least 14 Republican districts. Now if the Dems would at least run somebody in everyone of those districts, maybe not having a transportation plan brings victory that lasts a decade (i.e., redistricting).

Politics of Definition: Labels

Here’s a brief editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

If, as so often is the case, it’s the “conservative” House, or “conservative Republicans” in the House, then why is it so often the “centrist” or “moderate” Republicans in the State Senate — and not with equal frequency (or ever) the “liberal” Republicans? Since when was insisting on tax hikes in a surplus hour ever merely “moderate” and not resolutely left-wing?

It’s fair to ask why one side is tarred with a definition toward the end of a spectrum. “Conservative” is not the middle but not the far extreme of “reactionary,” while “liberal” is not the far extreme of “radical,” although the term “radical right” has been used.

At the end of the day, the labels mean little. I watched part of a discussion (if that’s what you can call the shout-fests that are cable news shows) on the “Scarborough Country” last night. In addition to the host, there were Joe Klein, the Newsweek columnist and author of an excellent book I’m reading, “Politics Lost,” and Tucker Carlson. Highlights are mine.

CARLSON: To see Mrs. Clinton triangulating this early out, you know, and is actually being more right wing on the war than I am, you think, “Well, what do you stand for, exactly?”

KLEIN: Well, I disagreed with her on the war. I was against it. But, you know, why can‘t we just believe that she believes what she believes?

I mean, I believe that the future and the most progressive force in the country isn‘t on the left or the right, but it‘s in the middle, and that‘s how you govern in this country. She learned it the hard way in health care.

I remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan said to me, in 1994, you pass a piece of legislation like health care, or immigration reform right now, with 75 or 80 votes in the Senate or it doesn‘t pass. You have to govern from the middle to govern successfully in this country.

George Bush has certainly failed governing from the right, and Bill Clinton failed in his first two years governing from the left.

CARLSON: I must say I don‘t buy—with all due respect, I don‘t buy that at all. I don‘t think this current president has been governing from the right, and I think that‘s his problem. I think you look at Bush and you sort of wonder, in the end, what are his principles? In contrast to Reagan. I think the most successful presidents are those who aren‘t extremists, but do have an ideological cast to the way they govern. They stand for these principles.

KLEIN: You want to know what his principles are? His principles are:

Rich people shouldn‘t have to pay taxes on their wealth.

CARLSON: Oh, come on, that‘s a talking point. There‘s a talking point.

KLEIN: And his other principle is that we should be able to go off and do anything we want in the world without planning.

CARLSON: I‘m not sure that‘s a serious point at all.

KLEIN: You don‘t think? Well, look at Iraq. Look at what happened…


SCARBOROUGH: I‘ll tell you what, we‘re going to debate—I‘ll you what, guys. We‘re going to debate George W. Bush on another night. But Joe Klein and Tucker Carlson, I appreciate you being with us.

I do want to say this, though. I believe Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination and could be the next president of the United States for the exact point that Joe was making, that she has—as a senator, she‘s played to the center.

She hasn‘t played to the left. That‘s why the left is angry with her. She‘s more conservative than Tucker Carlson and Pat Buchanan when it comes to the war in Iraq. She‘s more conservative than the president from time to time on issues like immigration.

Give credit to Klein for saying can’t Hillary truly believe what she says? But that’s beside my point: Both Scarborough and Carlson describe support for the war as “conservative.” Getting entangled in foreign wars is not a “conservative” stance, whether Hillary Clinton or George Bush holds it. True conservatives would be very cautious before becoming involved as we have in Iraq. But Klein wasn’t wiling to make that point.

Just like the labels the RTD wants to plaster on Commonwealth lawmakers, at the national level, we throw around labels that define our opponents because no one says, “Hold on, that label doesn’t stick.”

There’s a lot of mileage to be gained by questioning labels. A good politician can position himself as a moderate, a reasonable person, not by claiming to be such, but simply by counterattacking those who insist on labeling us.

A Victory in Disguise

“We could end up with nothing for transportation, but I believe doing nothing is better than doing too little and making it appear for political purposes that we have done something significant,” [Sen. Ken] Stolle said.

A few months ago, a leader of the Northern Virginia transportation forces told me the exact same thing: that any new money that falls short of $1 billion a year is worse than no money at all. Looks like he may have gotten his wish, with the Senate caving to the anti-tax ideologues in the House.

There’s a provision for $339 million if the House eventually agrees to a sustainable source of revenue. Who determines what’s sustainable is anybody’s guess. I suspect the House will push for a higher figure though based principally on the surplus, meaning it’s not sustainable. The House leaders will hope to claim victory and seek to solidify their power.

But politically, this could be the best thing for Virginia Democrats. If a comprehensive plan had passed, it’s doubtful that by Nov. 2007 there would be tangible results that voters could touch and feel and drive on. Many wouldn’t have been convinced that such a plan really improved their commute. But as they sit in traffic a year and a half hence, Dems should now be able to claim every single Republican House member at fault for the traffic mess.

This gives Dems time to do what they heretofore haven’t done. Outline precisely what a sustainable revenue stream could do for traffic. There must be plenty of models to employ that can show if we have x amount of dollars, we can build this project which can reduce commute time on this artery by x number of minutes. If they can’t, the state of transportation planning is in a sorrier state than I realized.

They also need to engage those who say the idea that we can pave our way out of traffic congestion is wrong-headed. Those who say land use planning is key need to be engaged to the point they need to tell us when we can expect relief.

The fact is neither side has outlined a compelling argument. Yes, I think we need to wean folks from the idea that they can drive whenever and wherever they please without significant consequence. It would be nice to live in a European type city where mass transit can take you everywhere and all but the poorest live in center city apartments, not exurbia McMansions. But how do you realistically get there? And how many years must we suffer gridlock before we arrive in Nirvana? It seems to me that such an existence could easily take two to three generations. Is that really politically feasible? And if it isn’t, then it’s no solution at all.

It seems to me we need both better land use planning and a lot more money to expand our transportation systems. It would behoove Dems to discuss, cogitate and develop such a vision. By Nov. 2007 would be nice.

And a Playbook, Too!

This weekend The Washington Post carried a story headlined “Democrats to Focus on Fuel.” The real story is not about their energy plans. In fact, the real headline was the first three words.

Their marching orders even include instructions for how to select locations, recruit participants and set up camera shots.

The story concluded with:

House and Senate Republicans also have energy proposals, although they have yet to coalesce around a single package.

My how times have changed. All of a sudden the Dems are rallying around a message and the Republicans are stumbling. The keys here are that Dems are beginning to think about having any message and then giving their troops directions on how to implement it.

Let’s hope this is only the beginning.

In light of the continuing GOP meltdown, Democrats all over are being forced to confront “The Big Question” about their chances of winning in November. The question that must keep rolling over in their heads and which remains largely unasked, or asked only in jest, is: “How are we going to mess this up?”

For now, the fairest answer may be that nothing the Democrats do or say can make any difference in halting the Republican self-immolation that has been proceeding apace. But there is a real nervousness — and not just in Washington — that the Democratic Party will find a way to turn the good news into bad by the time Election Day rolls around.

Many have reasonably surmised that Republicans, in light of their poor poll numbers, will at some point start playing hardball. They worry that when that happens Democrats will not be prepared to adequately respond. Defeat has a long, bitter aftertaste, and defeatism is a hard habit to kick.

In fact, the idea that Dems don’t have a message is the first hurdle they must overcome, and it will take more than a weekend of talk about gas prices. As reported this morning, the GOP . is developing its November strategy.

Aides point to the president’s last spike in the polls, which came late last year after Iraqi elections and a series of Iraq speeches by Bush. A top adviser said Rove and White House political director Sara M. Taylor are advising candidates not to duck the issue of Iraq but rather to make it a centerpiece of their campaigns.

The Rove-Taylor view is that one-third of Americans agree with liberal Democrats calling for immediate withdrawal and another third support staying the course. The middle third wants a new strategy, but would be leery of pulling out and leaving behind a volatile Iraq, a position strategists believe leaves those voters open to persuasion.

… Perhaps the most important element of the emerging strategy will be to “move from a referendum to a choice,” as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman put it. Instead of a verdict on Bush, Republicans want to frame the election as a contest with Democrats, confident that voters unhappy with the president will find the opposition even more distasteful.

“We’re moving from a period where the public looks at things and says thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to a time when they have a choice between one side or the other,” Mehlman said.

Much of this is perception. It matters less what the Dems actually propose, but that they hammer home a vision, any vision. Doing so will make it seem there is a choice. If that is the case, the vote will not come done to a choice of visions but competence. The question to ask voters is “Do you have confidence that the GOPers have the competence to make things happen?” And that answer will surely be “No.”

Virginia Democrats must do the same thing if they are to regain the House and Senate in Richmond. At a breakfast meeting this morning with a Democrat thinking of running against an entrenched right-wing Senator, a House member was asked if the Democratic lawmakers have a transportation plan of their own. The answer was no because the leadership was following the old advice about just standing by when your opponent is self-destructing.

That’s a cop out that will hurt in the long run. I look not to just the next election but to the next redistricting. If we are to gain enough seats in ’07 and ’09 to regain control — and control of the redistricting process — then Dems need to develop a message now, test it in many forums, refine it and then implement it through many months of neighborhood meetings, speeches to interest groups, op-eds, letters to the editor, editorial board meetings, speeches on the Assembly floor, etc.

So far, we don’t have the advantage that Warner had. First of all, he had to spend two years cutting the budget. That gave him credibility and an accomplishment that moderates and conservatives appreciated. Right now, Gov. Tim Kaine doesn’t have a lot he can point to as accomplishments. Unless this transportation debates ends with a clear win for him, what will the party have to crow about? And how do you keep the momentum going until ’09?

Dems need to develop messages that will resonate and counter the rather narrow drumbeat of conservative — low taxes and restrictive social policies. Now is the time to start developing them.

Christ-like Christians

I was surprised and pleased (and responsive) when I recently received a solicitation from a religious group from the left. I have often wondered where they were.

The Washington Post has a round-up story this morning. These three ‘graphs caught my eye.

Conservative Christian activist Gary L. Bauer said the religious left “is getting more media attention” but “it’s not clear” that it is getting more organized.

“My reaction is ‘Come on in, the water’s fine’ . . . but I think that when you look at frequent church attenders in America, they tend to be pro-life and support marriage as one man and one woman, and so I think the religious left is going to have a hard time making any significant progress” with those voters, he said.

…Liberal evangelicals are ” leaping out of the closet and they are saying ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Jack Pannell, spokesman for Sojourners, a Washington-based evangelical social justice ministry. “Evangelical Christians are not all white people living in the suburbs and only concerned with abortion and same-sex marriage.”

Without some research I can’t disprove what my neighbor Gary Bauer says. But I’ll leave you with this from “The Politics of Definition”:

In reality, emerging suburban voters are tax-sensitive and concerned about government waste, but not ideologically antigovernment. They tend to be religious and family-oriented, but socially moderate (emphasis added) in comparison to rural residents. They are not anti-business, but they do hold populist attitudes toward corporate abuse and people who game the system. And they worry as much or more about public education as they do about moral values. (Teixeira, “The Next Frontier: A New Study of Exurbia”)

Amendment Strategy

Kudos to the Virginia lawmakers willing to participate in a press conference denouncing the marriage amendment question that will be on the ballot this November. But the amendment is likely to be approved unless an effective campaign can be waged by opponents. Do they have the strategy?

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, Equality Virginia campaign chair, said that despite the odds, she believes the fight against the amendment can be won. She said that when volunteers are able to engage people in conversation and help them to understand that the amendment is not just about marriage, their views are swayed.

That strategy seemed plausible and opponents received a welcomed boost when the General Assembly voted to put the wording of the entire amendment on the ballot. It seemed too easy a victory at the time, and it has proved so when earlier this month the Assembly approved an explanation that many feel is inaccurate.

“marriage in the Commonwealth creates specific legal rights, benefits, and obligations for a man and a woman. There are other legal rights, benefits, and obligations which will continue to be available to unmarried persons, including the naming of an agent to make end-of-life decisions . . . protections afforded under Domestic Violence laws . . . ownership of real property as joint tenants with or without a right of survivorship . . . or disposition of property by will.”

That explanation will be given to voters at polling places and used in brochures that local registrars will distribute. There’s little question that it’s a political document that contradicts what many believe will be the consequences of the amendment’s passage.

But Marc Fisher of The Washington Post suggests that arguing that the amendment is a legal catastrophe may not be the most potent argument.

[A]lmost never do amendment opponents come right out and say that homosexuality exists, and most Americans know and love someone who is gay, and the country should figure out what it wants to do about that.

… There is, of course, an emotional appeal to be made for gay unions — after all, most Americans know someone in a committed gay relationship — but Democratic candidates generally won’t go there.

Whatever your beliefs about sexuality and the state’s role in marriage, one thing is certain: When one side goes straight to voters’ emotions while the other asks them to examine the legalities, the outcome is all but assured.

Fisher elaborates in his online discussion yesterday.

What I find so curious is the reluctance on the part of the gay advocates who are working on the anti-amendment campaign to make the case for the social good that is represented by any stable, committed relationships. My own personal view is that government should play no role in marriage of any kind, but even with that perspective, I see social merit in long-term, stable families of any stripe.

Amendment proponents argue that marriage is under attack and that gay unions threaten the institution of marriage. Too often, they are allowed to make that argument without being asked “How so?” It seems that if every pol in such discussions would ask that question and repeatedly press for an answer, the absurdity of the argument would be more apparent to voters.

Fisher also nicely debunks the argument that gay marriages will somehow lead to strange unions, bestiality and polygamy.

I’m not sure there’s good grounds for the state getting involved there, either. Most religions have very strong taboos against polygamy, for good reason. Doesn’t that really serve the necessary purpose? Wouldn’t you agree that the main reason most people steer clear of polygamy is because they are raised to believe it is morally wrong? Does the law against polygamy really have an impact on people’s overwhelming decision to stick to one on one marriage? There are many aspects of life that are best governed by ethical and moral codes that have nothing to do with law.

Twenty years from now, there will be a quietly effective campaign to overturn all these marriage amendments. If opponents were wiling to make the emotional argument, instead of the legalistic one, we might find the day will come sooner when our children will wonder “what were they thinking?”