Sunday, January 27, 2008

Things still happen in Alabama, too

As much attention as the presidential race has gotten this month -- and I'll be sure to pile on some more in the coming days -- it never hurts to take a quick look around the home front. Here goes.

Crime and punishment: The two-year college scandal that led to a Pulitzer Prize for the reporter who unveiled it officially has blown wide open. Former Chancellor Roy Johnson has pleaded guilty to a host of corruption charges and agreed to tell federal prosecutors what he knows about others' transgressions. Johnson, 62, faces a substantial prison sentence for the 15 counts, but the U.S. attorney has promised not to charge his children.

Johnson was a one-time Democratic power player, and the scandal has served as a self-inflicted wound for a party that has faced an uphill battle in Alabama in the last two decades. The plea agreement, which says Johnson "used his official position" to help legislators and state school board members' relatives get jobs with the two-year system, doubtless has Republicans chomping at the bit to see how many big names Johnson will rattle off. Here's hoping, for the sake of fairness and justice, that the investigation continues until all public officials who have broken the law and abused the public trust are punished accordingly.

Time to put those polar bears to work for us: Alabama faces a budget shortfall of more than $800 million next year. The state's Medicaid agency is asking for an extra $150 million just to hold something roughly approximating serve. Gov. Bob Riley will request tens of millions of dollars in new spending on education initiatives but refuses to propose any tax increases to pay for them. So amid all this, what do House Republicans suggest? You've got it: tax cuts. The only possible theory I can see behind this is the hope that we can cut revenues so low that eventually global warming and its polar bear masters will have no choice but to intervene in our favor, scattering afternoon thunderstorms of pure, cold, hard cash all across our beautiful state.

Isn't this supposed to be a 'red state'?: GOP presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee attracted an impressive 2,200 people to Samford University on Saturday for a campaign appearance that included a welcome from Riley. Hours earlier today, Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama drew more than 10,000 people to a speech in Birmingham. I'll have plenty more to say on the White House race later, but until then, chalk this up as yet another indication that the "red state/blue state" divide is just as mythical as tales of Zeus and Loki.

Other play? What other play?: Alabama head football coach Nick Saban passed within about 30 feet of his predecessor, Mike Shula, last week in Mobile. Barely 30 minutes after a Birmingham News reporter noted the near-but-not-quite encounter on his blog, a commenter suggested that Shula, the man renowned for repeatedly calling plays that didn't allow a talented running back to show off his natural gifts, would be a fine choice for (*shudder*) offensive coordinator. The folks at Drunken Omelette responded accordingly: "Within seconds of that comment's posting, former Tide RB Ken Darby walked three steps directly ahead, jumped around to the left and the right, then fell forward in futility."

Monday, January 21, 2008

A message for our times

"Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies -- or else? The chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars -- must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation."
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Enjoy your day, and do your part to break the chain.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Parking lot politics

State Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, is truly sorry about throwing the Punch Heard 'Round the World at his Democratic counterpart Lowell Barron last year. Kinda. From a highly recommended Daily Mountain Eagle story -- seriously, read the whole thing -- wherein Bishop refers to himself in third person more than once:

"I'm not going to apologize for striking him -- only in the chamber that is owned by the state of Alabama, 'cause if I had been smart, I'd have turned and walked off -- and I'd caught him in the parking lot and kicked his butt good."

The Legislature is back in session in 20 days. Brace yourself.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Isn't this football great, football fan?

The main thing I'll take away from Monday night's letdown of a national championship game isn't the memory of LSU viciously power-bombing Ohio State through a ringside table. It's that the BCS games, if we have to continue to be subjected to them instead of getting a playoff, must be aired, as soon as possible, on something -- anything -- that isn't Fox. Why? Glad you asked.

The announcing: Fox does a nice enough job with the NFL and baseball, but its college football broadcasts are so painful to watch that they make me wish I'd never seen a football -- or a college. The announcers step in to call the sport's biggest games after spending the season either calling low-level games or no other college football games at all. Thom Brennaman's BCS play-by-plays could send people to dreamland during three-OT classics. When I say I'd rather hear DAVE call the title game, I'm not kidding.

The pre-game and halftime shows: Joining us now are Chris Rose, Jimmy Johnson, and one or more random partisans of the participating teams. Or maybe whoever happens to be wandering by in the parking lot. Come to think of it, are you free tonight?

The band shots: Were you aware that marching bands often accompany college football teams? Oh, the novelty! Oh, the pageantry! Oh, the endless visual reminders that drum majors still are leading the band, just like the seven previous times we checked in on them! Hey, let's get some fans in those shots, too! Look, there's a close-up of every single fan in the stadium!

The music: There are themes appropriately tailored to make football games seem more epic than they are. Then there's Fox's BCS theme, whose overwrought, fight-scene sound makes me long for the dulcet tones of Alabama Attorney General Troy King's duet with Johnny Cash. (I wish as much as you do that I made that up.)

The Ohio State University: OK, this one isn't technically Fox's fault, but the fact remains that Fox has had the BCS contract for two years, and the Buckeyes have served as title-game cannon fodder for the SEC champion for that same span. Next season looks like Georgia's time, but I'm optimistic that Alabama soon will get its turn in the rotation of SEC teams teeing off on Ohio State to win the crystal football. Maybe it's not too much to ask for that chance before the 2012 Vanderbilt national championship that the Mayan calendar has predicted for all these thousands of years.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

They're important because they say so

Real-life circumstances have bumped that promised Friday update on the Iowa caucuses back a few days, so let's make the discussion about Iowa and today's New Hampshire primaries. So far, it looks like the space-time hole that engulfed college football this year will spend its off-season dallying in presidential politics.

Why you should care: Well, how else do you propose that we allow a few hundred thousand people you've never met to decide the presidential nominees for a nation of more than 300 million?

Who's still in it for the Democrats: Polls? What polls? When the campaign cranked up, Hillary Clinton was inevitable. When he cruised to a sizable victory in the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama was inevitable. Now, with Clinton rebounding from a third-place finish in Iowa to grab a solid win in New Hampshire, it's time to settle in for a high-dollar, back-and-forth battle for the Democratic nomination that might extend even beyond Super Duper Tuesday.

Commentators have floated plenty of hypotheses to explain Obama's win in Iowa and Clinton's comeback in New Hampshire -- the power of the independents, the ascension of the youth vote, the competing desires for change and experience -- but I've heard little about a powerful factor: regionalism. Obama is from Iowa's next-door neighbor Illinois, while Clinton lives in New York, right down the road from New Hampshire. Geography matters, and it's tough to read too much into each candidate winning a home game.

Who's still in it for the Republicans: Remember 2000? It's back again. John McCain has rolled to an easy victory in New Hampshire, baffling no less a political expert than Boston Legal's Denny Crane, who declared last year that McCain couldn't win because "he speaks Bush now." The Arizona senator joins Iowa winner Mike Huckabee at the top of the Republican pack, which still just barely has enough room for Mitt Romney, who stayed viable with a win last week in Wyoming, a sparsely populated, overwhelmingly white state that, unlike its hawkeye and granite brethren, apparently doesn't merit breathless media coverage.

The GOP race appears to be down to Huckabee, the choice of the religious right and social conservatives, and a non-Huckabee alternative on which the party's fiscal conservative and neocon wings have yet to settle. McCain looks like the most probable contender to fill that slot, especially given the national polls that have indicated he's the most electable option the Republicans have. But many in the GOP base see him as a RINO who's soft on immigration and too willing to compromise with Democrats, which leaves the door open for the cash-flush Romney if he starts to pull down a few of those gold medals he keeps touting. The question is whether Huckabee's opponents manage to consolidate behind a single candidate before Huckabee becomes unstoppable. I suspect they will, but not before a brutal intra-party fight.

Who's out for the Democrats: John Edwards polls very well in hypothetical general-election matchups, but he needed a win in Iowa or New Hampshire to get the dollars flowing. That didn't happen, so even if Edwards rebounds with a strong showing in South Carolina, he almost surely won't get the party's nod. Meanwhile, Bill Richardson would do well to reset his sights on a vice presidential bid. Despite his broad experience as a governor, congressman, and diplomat, he never got off the ground.

Who's out for the Republicans: Rudy Giuliani's campaign, hemorrhaging poll support amid multiple scandals, effectively has abandoned every race before the Florida primaries in late January. By then, it'll probably be too late to get any traction. Fred Thompson, as I've noted before, is the Wes Clark of the 2008 Republican primaries. Ron Paul has probably the most passionate supporters of anyone, but their numbers are too small to propel an anti-Iraq war candidate to a win in the GOP race.

Watch out for the wildcards: It won't happen any time soon, but Edwards could hand the Democratic nomination to Obama today if he dropped out of the race, because the candidates are drawing largely from the same pool of young and independent voters. Edwards' continued presence keeps Clinton's hopes alive and also pushes the race in a more populist direction than it otherwise would take. On the GOP side, Paul is getting the cash to stay in the mix for the duration and garner 8 percent to 10 percent of the primary vote, meaning he should have enough delegates to make things very lively indeed at the Republican convention. And don't discount the possibility that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could stir the pot by dropping a billion dollars or so of his own money on an independent campaign.

Not a promising campaign development: The good news for former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, is that he didn't finish last in the New Hampshire primary. The bad news for him is that he is about 200 votes behind U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who dropped out of the race last week.

Behind the numbers: Beneath all the endless dissections of the horse race and exit polling, one mathematical fact stands out: The Democratic vote totals in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which historically are swing states, easily have surpassed the Republican turnout. Make of that what you will.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Getting a little musty in here...

Time to clear out some of the undiscussed clutter that's been accumulating around here over the last month:
  • Must everyone treat tonight's Iowa caucuses as an end-all, be-all affair in presidential politics? It's a survey of maybe a couple of hundred thousand people in a state whose population is disproportionately rural and almost entirely white, conducted on a cold early January night at the same time as the Orange Bowl (which is shaping up to be one of the greatest wins in the Jayhawks' history as I write this post). Still, the Iowa results will prompt more than one candidate to drop out by next week. Why, I'm still not sure.
  • Must election pundits still act startled by Mike Huckabee's sudden rise in the Republican presidential polls? Huckabee is everything that the GOP's disgruntled social conservative base could have asked for: an affable Southern Baptist preacher with a populist streak and an unbroken track record of supporting their stance on social issues. Whether he'll be able to pull down dollars from the party's fiscal conservative wing largely will decide his electoral fate, but his ascent has been quite predictable ever since Fred Thompson's somnambulant campaign failed to launch.
  • Must congressional Democrats keep giving President Bush pretty much everything he wants in the budgets? Probably yes, actually. Bush is a wildly unpopular lame duck, but even lame ducks can be tough to beat when they still can flap a veto pen and maintain ground support from their congressional minority. Republicans' numbers on Capitol Hill have been robust enough to force Democrats to accept Bush's top-line figure on the omnibus budget bill and to block more money for the State Children's Health Insurance Program. As for Iraq war funding, no matter how unpopular the conflict remains, and no matter how much Democrats might bluster and posture and complain, they ultimately won't dare to withhold a single dollar in an election year for fear of getting nailed with the poisonous "unpatriotic" and "soft-on-terror" tags, with which many of their opponents will try to nail them anyway.
  • Must the Hollywood writers' strike go on forever? I really haven't missed prime-time television, but the absence of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report has been quite noticeable and, in a sign of the times, a bigger detriment to young voters' efforts to keep track of the presidential campaign than anyone cares to admit. It'd be heartening to see the two sides come to fair terms soon, but with the sides not even talking to each other right now, I'm skeptical.
  • Must every single Alabama football game be an edge-of-
    your-seat heart-stopper decided in the last minute? With the exception of a glorious, take-no-prisoners rout of Tennessee in October, it appeared that way in 2007. The Independence Bowl was no exception, as the Crimson Tide shot to a 27-0 lead out of the gates, playing like a national title contender in the process, only to end the game looking like a 3-9 team praying for the game to end. Mercifully, the clock ran out before Alabama's lead did, giving the Tide a winning record and a much-needed mental boost going into what should be a very eventful off-season for a team that pretty much has to be better next fall.
  • Must Ohio State play, and lose to, a Southern team in the national championship game of every sport? Last year, the Buckeyes were slapped around in the title games in football (by Florida), basketball (Florida again), and soccer (Wake Forest). It's not an auspicious trend for the one and only Ohio State University as it heads into Monday's showdown with LSU for the crystal football.
  • Must you accept my belated wishes for a very happy new year? Well, no, but I sure would like it if you do.
I'll have more to say on the fallout from the Iowa caucuses later on Friday. Try to stay warm until then.

New year, same old me

The bitter, blood-freezing winter wind that has crept stealthily to my home state has snapped me back into posting action after a month-long respite, just in time for those much-ballyhooed Iowa caucuses. More on those tonight, but until then, I'll be trying to warm back up, both on the site and in the real world.

Thanks to all of you who have e-mailed with your concern and to all of you who have kept logging regular visits despite my inexcusable failure to provide anything new for you to peruse. One day soon -- and I believe it shall be this day -- that will change.

After all, what else am I supposed to do when I wake up to find Alabama feeling like Green Bay?