Monday, October 31, 2011

Why the 99 percent won't go away

CNN posed a good question today: How do you measure success for something like the burgeoning yet nebulous Occupy Wall Street movement? As you might expect, CNN obtained both some pretty good guesses and some profoundly stupid ones. To figure out which is which, it's worth looking at why hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets lately.

The main reason is almost too obvious to state: The economy sucks, and it's showing few signs of getting much better for the average American in the near future. The recession officially ended two years ago, but unemployment is still way too high, and underemployment is even higher still. For three decades, income growth has been gangbusters for the rich and minimal for everyone else. The recession only exacerbated that trend.

Uncertainty is real and steady, but it has nothing to do with businesses' alleged perennial fear of taxes and regulation that Paul Krugman has labeled "the confidence fairy." No, the uncertainty that matters here is the average Joe's concern that his house is worth much less than he paid for it, that he may not make it to the next paycheck, that he may not even get a next paycheck.

With only one available job for every 4.6 unemployed people, millions of Americans who are out of work simply have no room to get back in the game. And with the economy still on the edge, millions more live under the constant threat of joining the ranks of the unemployed. Consumer spending is still sluggish, and people aren't likely to spend much today when they're worried that everything could fall apart tomorrow.

Democrats' primary response to the recession was the Recovery Act, which worked to stabilize the economy but was too small to jolt us back into significant growth. Republicans' response, meanwhile, has been to rail continually against the alleged failure of the stimulus and to demand enormous spending cuts that would drain trillions of dollars of spending from the economy at precisely the wrong time. They've also doubled down on calls for more tax cuts for corporations and the rich, who already have lots of money they aren't spending right now because there isn't enough consumer demand for their products and services.

In short, millions of Americans are desperate and scared about the future, and they don't see much getting done to improve it. Some of them are on the streets right now under the auspices of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and most of the problems they're upset about don't have quick fixes. It's not just about the next election. It's certainly not a popular uprising in favor of more conservative politicians who would enact policies to entrench the status quo even further. It's about a deeply held sense that things are wrong, that the people who should be doing something about it aren't, that our government should do more to live up to the "of the people, by the people, for the people" ideal.

Dismissing the protesters as a bunch of lazy hippies is wildly inaccurate, and it won't do anything to fix the very real problems that prompted them to take to the streets. Whether the protests linger or abate, the spirit of the 99 percent movement will live on until the American people regain the sense that the government and the economy are working not just for the rich and powerful, but for everyone.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Suffer the little children

Here's all you need to know about the immigration law about which so many Alabama lawmakers can't seem to stop bragging: It left terrified, innocent children in tears this week.

I hope all the posturing and demagoguery was worth it, guys.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The designated distraction is back

I could write about the protracted legal battle over Alabama's short-sighted, overly broad, ill-crafted immigration law that is an embarrassment to my home state and could undo decades of progress in our efforts to be seen as a modern, accepting, forward-thinking place. I could write about the persistent jobs crisis that Congress has spent much of the year either doing nothing about or actually making worse. I could write about how it somehow has become almost mandatory to ignore basic science or economics if you want to win the Republican presidential nomination.

But I won't write about any of those things, because they're depressing, and we all need some positivity in life. Instead, let's just make a few quick predictions before the return of the college football season, something that ultimately means so little but can bring so much joy. Here goes:

BCS Championship: Alabama over Oklahoma. Yes, I'm a Bama homer, Pawwwwwl. But I'd predict this matchup even if I were able to set my personal allegiances aside. These teams have the nation's two best groups of returning talent. The Sooners will benefit from starting at the top and having one fewer hurdle to clear this year, with the death of the Big 12 title game (perhaps presaging the death of the Big 12 itself?). If they survive the early-season trip to Tallahassee, the rest of the regular season will be downhill sledding. After the last five years, the SEC champion is essentially a lock, and I think it'll be Alabama after a tough battle with South Carolina. The Crimson Tide probably will lose a game at some point this year in a conference that has evolved into NFL, Jr., in the last decade. But a one-loss Alabama still would make it to the main event in New Orleans, and I'll take Nick Saban over Bob Stoops in a big game every time.

Rose Bowl: Nebraska vs. Oregon. The Cornhuskers are brand-new to the Big Ten, but they come loaded for bear with a punishing defense and just enough offense to squeak out a win over Wisconsin in the inaugural conference championship. (Given that Fox will broadcast that effort, perhaps we'll get a few live look-ins at the game during the wall-to-wall coverage of the bands.) Oregon remains Oregon and likely will knock off Stanford in the Pac-12's first title game. But I think the Ducks will slip up somewhere along the way -- think last year's Cal game, only with an unhappy ending -- and miss an opportunity for a repeat trip to play for all the marbles.

Sugar Bowl: LSU vs. Virginia Tech. LSU probably has the best overall raw talent of any team in the country. It also has perhaps the most unpredictable coach, and sooner or later that will catch up to the Tigers, especially with trips to Alabama, Mississippi State, and West Virginia on the docket. Still, as consolation prizes go, a Superdome transformed into a sea of purple and gold isn't bad. Meeting LSU there will be a better-than-expected one-loss Virginia Tech. The ACC, at long last, will get two teams into the BCS -- and SEC fans could enjoy a preview of a potential future marquee conference game.

Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. West Virginia. If the Seminoles beat Oklahoma in an epic clash Sept. 17, they'll probably be headed to the national title game in the Sooners' place. (Who said we don't get great non-conference games anymore?) If not, I still think they'll run the table in the ACC and end up here. West Virginia will be across the line of scrimmage, because someone has to win the Big East, and someone has to take the Big East champion, and that's usually a task best left to the Orange Bowl. It'll be entertaining, and it'll make way more sense than that Louisville-Wake Forest game a few years ago that I may well have imagined in its entirety.

Fiesta Bowl: Boise State vs. Texas A&M. This year could be a milestone for the so-called "non-AQ" conferences: They could get a one-loss team into the BCS. If it's Boise State, that loss would have to be to Georgia, and it would have to be close, and the rest of the games would have to be blowout wins. But by this point, the Broncos have built enough credibility to be an appealing selection even for a bowl that isn't forced to take them. (If they're unbeaten, of course, the point will be moot.) Texas A&M may end up with a couple of losses, but it also has nearby (by Fiesta Bowl standards) fans hungry for a return to a big-time bowl. If the Aggies, fresh off a "Dear John" letter to the Big 12, don't yet have an SEC future nailed down by this point, this game may turn out to be far more meaningful than anyone could anticipate.

Note that these predictions are worth exactly what you paid for them, and therefore are likely to be disproved in their entirety by this time next week.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Game of groans

Tonight's deal on the debt ceiling (assuming it passes, which remains uncertain) confirms Congress' burgeoning instinct to approach public policy like an irresponsible student approaches a pile of undone homework: by doing the absolute bare minimum at the last minute and begging for extensions on the rest.

They had to have a medium-term increase of the debt ceiling right now -- or at least promise they will any minute now, they super-duper pinky-swear -- to try to keep the stock markets from collapsing in panic over an unprecedented game of chicken that stopped being funny a long time ago. (There's also the pressing matter of what a federal default would mean for mortgage and credit card rates, but those are the concerns of the mere vast majority of Americans, who of course don't have enough money speech to be heard.)

But the other stuff? The specifics of deficit reduction, whether we'll ever again raise taxes for the rich from their lowest level since the 1950s, when we'll get over the Tea Party stuff and get back to trying to create some damn jobs instead of slashing spending in an economy struggling with a lack of spending? That all has to wait. There's Xbox to be played and August recesses to be had.

Both the conservative and progressive bases are complaining loudly about the deal, which pundits usually portray as the mark of a great compromise. In this case, though, it's the sign of a package that kicks the can on the most important parts, a proposal that isn't very good but could be much, much worse.

GOP leaders, boxed into a corner of their own making by the Tea Party's continual anti-tax howls, couldn't agree to anything that included anything that could, for sure, be called a tax increase. President Obama, boxed into a corner of his own making by both his nationally televised addresses and actually being right on the substance in this case, couldn't agree to anything that foreclosed, for sure, the possibility of new revenues to help the nation actually start paying for Medicare and defense and all of the other great things we like having.

After lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth, they both got what they wanted. Kinda. The debt ceiling compromise consists of (1) some cuts that both sides said they could live with all along, (2) an agreement to create a powerful committee to work on a mix of cuts and revenues to keep reducing the deficit, and (3) automatic cuts to defense (the GOP's baby) and domestic spending (the Democrats' baby) if Congress doesn't go along with the panel's ideas. (There also will be a vote on a constitutional "Balanced Budget Amendment," which would require enormous, unpopular budget cuts at the worst possible times and feels more like a show pony than something with real legs under it.)

If the triggered cuts come to pass, and they very well could, we may live to regret it. Deeply cutting the domestic discretionary budget -- the one that includes "win the future" stuff like education and scientific research and environmental protection -- while preserving tax breaks for the super-rich would be the political equivalent of eating our seed corn while standing in a fully stocked cornfield. On the bright side, the deal would spare Social Security, Medicaid, and low-income programs from the knife, so at least there's one true saving grace in the final scene of the awful game that our congressmen refused to stop playing while we were trying to sleep this summer.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A default of reality

Stephen Colbert, as he put it in typically hilarious fashion tonight, can haz super PAC. And so can pretty much anyone with enough time or money or notoriety or connections, thanks to last year's Citizens United v. FEC ruling, the latest in a recent line of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that essentially boil down to the idea that political contributions are free speech.

To return to high school for a moment, basic mathematical principles imply that if money equals speech, then speech also must equal money. That in turn would suggest that you should be able to walk into a mall and buy a sweater or a sandwich just by talking for a while. The equivalence, as you're surely aware if you've ever tried, breaks down at that point. It's the sort of fact that could prompt a lesser thinker to question the whole premise in the first place.

But a new day appears to require new thought patterns, and they're on proud display in our country these days. Because if money is speech, that means money talks, and it's damn sure been talking in Washington lately. Nowhere has that been clearer than in this year's talks over legislation to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt.

The negotiating positions were established early, when congressional Republicans demanded huge budget cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. President Obama and congressional Democrats started from the imminently reasonable position that we should take a two-fold approach to the long-term debt problem by both cutting things we can live without and raising more money to keep paying for things we can't afford to cut. Even some Republicans, mere months ago, acknowledged the need for some tax increases as part of the deal.

Amid debate over the mix of spending cuts and new revenues, Obama went so far as to offer the GOP a package with 83 percent spending cuts and just 17 percent new taxes, aimed primarily at the super-rich who are doing quite well even in a sluggish economy. The Republicans told him, in so many words, to go to hell, refusing to consider any new taxes or loophole closures at all. One senator even had the gall to seek out the media today and say a president with ice water in his veins needs to "take a Valium and come on up here and talk to us."

Yes, it seems tax breaks for corporate jets and hedge fund managers must be protected at all costs, even if they mean cuts to food aid for poor women and their babies. The only acceptable compromise is total surrender for the sake of those with plenty of money to fund campaigns, who will be so grateful that they'll surely create tens of millions of new jobs with all that spare cash. Or, if history can be of any assistance, maybe not.

Today's prevailing American political discourse is an upside-down place where the underpants gnome strategy is offered as fact, and gravity is posited to be just a theory. It helps explain Colbert's appeal to millions of people who are tired of the decades-long petty shouting match that tries to pass itself off as governance. In a world where money talks more loudly than it has in a long time and where parody struggles to keep up with the ever-shifting sands of proffered reality, what more soothing option is there than to have a good laugh at the whole maddening state of affairs?

If we can't have sanity, at least we can haz super PAC.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

And the couch may not even be lumpy!

If you were inclined to be critical of Alabama's newly elected Republican leadership, this year's legislative session, now winding to a close, would be fertile ground for potential material.

Our state's consistently shortchanged budgets once again have left the state's dangerously overcrowded prisons pitted against the state's notoriously skimpy Medicaid program over the right to be slightly less underfunded than the other one.

Many hundreds of state employees will lose their jobs next year, and more than 1,100 teacher positions will go unfilled, leaving our children's classrooms more crowded. The public employees who remain will have to pay much more for their health insurance and retirement than before.

In the face of deep service cuts and layoffs, Republicans have proposed no significant new revenue for the state budgets other than the end of a couple of tax loopholes that should have been closed decades ago, while leaving untouched many other loopholes that primarily benefit wealthy taxpayers and huge out-of-state companies.

Republican leaders haven't so much as given lip service to ending the state's grocery tax or otherwise easing Alabama's inexcusably heavy tax burden on the poor. They have found time, though, to explore exciting new opportunities in the fields of allowing employers to keep their workers' withheld taxes and letting the state effectively pay tariffs for foreign companies. Meanwhile, amid the incessant talk of job creation, Alabama's unemployment rate has stagnated this year, and the impending public-sector layoffs won't help. I could go on and on -- we haven't even mentioned immigration yet, have we? -- but you get the point.

Whether Alabama's Democratic leaders get the point, though, is another question entirely. For one thing, they didn't do a whole lot about the state's perennial tax and budget problems when they were in charge. It's also hard to find a business tax incentive -- no matter how generous -- that they haven't embraced in the name of economic development.

For another, they still actually waste time commenting on the most meaningless of meaningless sideshows. With all the critical issues confronting Alabama at an almost seismic turning point in its history, the state Democratic chairman is cracking wise in the newspaper about... Republican senators who sleep in their offices.

Yes, really.

Because once you get over all the joblessness and the quality-of-life struggles and the institutional barriers to progress, here's what really matters to the average voter: Some dude is spending the night on his work couch, and you're paying for the air conditioning, which you would pay for anyway.

If that's not a winning formula, I don't know what is.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

After the monsters are gone

The roar of a monster tornado is the cruelest, most inhuman sound on earth. Many who have heard it have compared it to a freight train or a jet engine, but that's not quite right. Freight trains and jet engines are man-made devices that follow certain rules, that tend to do predictable things in predictable ways, that can be comprehended in the slightest.

A monster tornado is different. It's cold and mechanical but not subject to the usual strictures of logic or reason. It doesn't care who you are or where you live or what you're like or whether you've done all the right things that are supposed to improve your odds of survival. It's the universe's way of telling you that you're nothing in the great scheme of things and shall receive all the deference that status affords you. It's the primal knowledge -- petrifying and helpless and dreadful -- that this thing is either going to kill you or not, and nothing you say or do can be depended upon to change its split-second verdict.

If you've heard the sound, you already know these words -- any words -- are inadequate to describe it. If you haven't heard it, I hope beyond all hope that you never will.

* * *

The monsters are an unavoidable fact of life in Alabama. I was fortunate enough to be spared by one that came at me a few years ago. Hundreds of my fellow Alabamians were not so lucky when the monsters came for them Wednesday during the nation's deadliest tornado outbreak in almost 90 years.

If you don't live in Alabama, it's difficult to understand just how shattering that day was for those who do: how callously it ripped away loved ones from hundreds of families and thousands of friends, how thoroughly it vaporized so many beloved and familiar places, how deeply it scarred the psyches of even people who physically endured nothing more than a few raindrops. "I've never seen devastation like this," President Obama said Friday during a visit to Tuscaloosa, one of the dozens of cities across the state that won't even be within earshot of normal again for years or even decades.

Few others in Alabama have seen devastation quite like this, either. I suppose part of us almost thought we couldn't. This is a place where children grow up practicing their tornado drills. This is the age of Doppler radars and TVS readings and wall-to-wall weather coverage. This is the state that turned a bald local television weatherman into a folk hero. If anyone has a healthy respect for the power of nature and its unpredictable skies, it's us.

But that's just it: Sometimes it doesn't matter how ready you are. Even well-built brick homes disappeared into nothingness in Wednesday's powerful storms. Even people who heeded all the warnings and crowded into a bathroom or closet as they've been told to do lost their lives amid the swirling death that ripped apart town after town. Good people in one home survived unscathed while good people next door were killed. There's no rhyme or reason to tornadoes. There's no arguing or pleading with them. There's only a chilling assurance: If the monster wants you badly enough, it will get you.

* * *

Fortunately, the monsters can't and don't get most of us. Those lucky enough to dodge the bullet are left with the responsibility to provide immediate aid and comfort to the victims and their families, to begin the long process of cleaning up the wreckage, and to start the even longer process of rebuilding a broken landscape. It's not a glamorous task, and it's one that will continue long after the lights of the national media, temporarily drawn here away from the fluffy glitz of the British royal wedding and the grave seriousness of the ongoing Libyan airstrikes, move on yet again to another story.

It's also a task that, done properly, will require us to look in the mirror as a people. Many tornado deaths occur, as they did in this outbreak, in mobile homes. It's easy to say the victims just need to seek sturdier shelter, but that ignores the fact that mobile home residents usually are poor, frequently have few other places they can go, and often have limited means to get there before a tornado even if they do. Those who live through the experience also have far fewer resources to rebuild than other survivors.

Our sense of duty to help our neighbors shouldn't fade away as this awful disaster grows more distant in time. As a state and as a nation, we should commit to do more, both publicly and privately, to reduce poverty, to make good housing and health care more widely available for people who can't afford its full cost, and to increase transportation options for people who don't have a reliable vehicle. These missions will be difficult, and they will never be complete. But they will help save and rebuild lives, and they will help make life better for all of us.

Monsters come and go. Our humanity endures.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Not broke, but broken

My first visit to the State Archives still sticks with me. Decades ago, my parents took a much younger (and even nerdier) version of me to Montgomery for a weekend trip to visit some places they thought I should see. On the agenda were all of the historical sites you'd expect: the State Capitol, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the First White House of the Confederacy. It made for a fun day, but nothing in particular stood out to me at the time.

Then came the State Archives. I hadn't even known it existed, but I was enraptured almost immediately. Here was the entirety of the Alabama experience all in one convenient location, a building where you could track my state's history from its Native American heritage to the dark days of slavery to the riveting journey of the civil rights movement. Here were important documents from two centuries of governance and heartfelt letters from homesick soldiers and quirky paraphernalia from political campaigns that had been nothing more than a few lines in a book until they came to life before my eyes. Here was Alabama, a complicated place with many embarrassing flaws but also many inspiring successes. Here, in short, was who we are.

I fell in love with Alabama for good that day, and it breaks my heart to know that children today may not have a chance at the same experience. Were a child to take a weekend trip to the State Archives today, he wouldn't be in for an afternoon of wide-eyed discovery about his home state. Instead, he likely would be greeted by a "Closed" sign.

Year after year of state budget cuts have forced the State Archives to shut down on weekends, when families are likeliest to have time to visit. (To the staff's enormous credit, they've managed to keep the building open on one Saturday each month.) Less money has forced the agency to stop digital scanning of old documents and pictures and to stop efforts to preserve more old newspapers on microfilm. The department also has had to scale back on new acquisitions and, most disturbing of all, on security for the existing collections. Further cuts could force layoffs of the next generation of people working to preserve our state's history.

As I said last month, budget cuts aren't abstract. They have real consequences for real lives and real services that we as a society have deemed to be valuable. In Alabama, we're looking at court layoffs that could force lengthy trial delays and unfilled teacher vacancies that could force larger class sizes. We're looking at a diminished capacity to fight raging forest fires. We're looking at fewer community support services for the elderly and the intellectually disabled. We're looking at more infrequent restaurant inspections. And those are just a few items from the rattle list of impending bad news.

We're well beyond waste, fraud, and abuse. We're well beyond cutting the fat. We're to the point of cutting deeply into public health and safety, into our children's educational futures, into the very reasons we have a government in the first place, into the preservation of the memories of who we are and where we've been as a people. We're better than this, and we deserve better.

Many conservatives, both in Alabama and nationally, have said loudly and often in recent months that we're broke, that we don't have any more money available, that we just have to slash and burn and hope for the best. It's a mantra that overlooks one very important fact about budgets: They have two sides. There's both a spending side and a revenue side, and to declare one side completely off limits amid a deep downturn is short-sightedness of the highest order.

The fact is that federal taxes are at their lowest level since the Eisenhower administration. The fact is that the rich have a greater share of the nation's wealth than at any point since the run-up to the Great Depression. The fact is that Alabama's tax system pays for artificially low rates for the rich with artificially high rates for the poor and middle class. The fact is that the rich have the money to help limit the size of cuts to schools and public health and other important things that make life better for everyone. And the fact is that it's not impossible to ask the rich to share in the sacrifices the rest of us are making by paying slightly higher taxes. Gov. Robert Bentley made some reassuring noises in that direction this week. It would be nice to hear even more.

That many of our state and national leaders have chosen lately to protect lower taxes for the rich instead of continuing to pay for important services doesn't mean that we're broke. It means we've allowed our system of public priorities to become broken. It means we need to reconsider the bizarre idea that the only people who should be immune from financial pain in tough times are the people who felt the tough times the least in the first place. And it means we need to remember that despite all the turmoil and strife, we as Americans and Alabamians are good people who aren't afraid to do the hard work needed to build a brighter future.

I learned that lesson one weekend decades ago. I hope we allow this generation to learn it, too.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A few gentle budgetary reminders

Alabama's legislative session begins Tuesday, but the next round of budget cutting began today. As you hear the incessant talk of "fiscal responsibility" and "living within our means" and "bold leadership to create jobs" continue at both the state and federal levels over the coming months, keep three things in mind.

There's no such thing as just cutting a budget: Budget cuts mean fewer resources for people to do their jobs in education, social work, health inspection, and other fields we've deemed important as a society. It often means they work longer hours and get lower take-home pay in return. And sometimes it means putting a lot of them out of work entirely. Public employees work hard and pay taxes just like everyone else, and their jobs are no less important just because tea-party types like to toss around the word government as though it were a slur instead of a device society uses to try to do things that are in our common interest.

Even if you don't care at all about public employees and are glad to see them climbing aboard the economic pain train, budget cuts are likely to make life harder for you and your family in some way. Your children may go to school in more crowded classrooms with older textbooks and technology than their counterparts elsewhere. Tuition may explode yet again and leave you even further in debt as you try to improve your job prospects with an associate's or bachelor's degree. Or you may find yourself standing in a much longer line to renew the license that gives you the right to drive on roads with an ever-growing number of massive potholes. Whatever the negative effects, they'll hit home -- or your car's undercarriage -- sooner than you think.

The depth of the coming cuts will surprise a lot of people: Alabama's budgets already have been slashed by about 20 percent in the last two years, and we're facing a minimum of two more years of cuts before the economy finally bounces back from the Bush recession toward anything resembling strong growth. Sure, Gov. Robert Bentley probably will tackle some administrative inefficiencies, or propose a few agency consolidations that would save money without hurting the public's health and safety. That's all well and good, and he should be commended for any productive steps he can take to make government better and smarter. But contrary to what some bloviation might lead you to believe, there's no Department of Waste that lawmakers can eliminate to solve our problems magically.

To use one of those medical metaphors of which our state's new chief executive is so fond: We're cutting well beneath the skin, getting into muscle, and will be lucky to avoid bone. If you think people are upset now about the prospects of closing farmers markets or losing federal funds for meth lab cleanups, just wait until entire agencies -- and the hundreds or thousands of jobs that go with them -- get slashed dramatically or eliminated entirely.

Things don't have to be as bad as they're going to be: Remember that a budget shortfall doesn't happen just because the government spends money. It happens because the government is set to spend more money than it collects in taxes. It's a two-sided equation, and there's more than one way to equalize it. You can cut spending, or you can bring in more revenue, or you can do some of both, which is what should happen.

I hear the "no new taxes!" screams already, but consider that even though federal taxes are at their lowest level since the Korean War, and even though national income inequality is at its greatest level since the 1920s, millionaires just got two more years of protection from a mild increase in their marginal tax rates because Republican leaders threatened to let everyone's taxes go up if they didn't. Consider that in Alabama, the effective overall tax rates for millionaires are, perversely, actually far lower than those for the poor and middle class. And consider that even though defenders of low taxes for the rich say those tax cuts will create jobs, we're still rather short on new jobs a decade after the first of the Bush tax cuts took effect.

The least Alabama could do is ask the well-to-do to pay at the same overall rate as the rest of us. Education and health care cuts would be smaller. Fewer public workers would lose their jobs. Most folks might even be able to get a tax cut in the process. Our legislators could make it happen this year if they wanted, but it probably won't happen any time soon.

Tough times will be unavoidable. Making them even tougher will be a choice.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Governing beyond the rest stop

Just off Interstate 65, a few miles south of Cullman, stands a lasting tribute to Alabama's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. It's the Gov. Guy Hunt Rest Area, named in honor of the former Cullman County probate judge who stumbled into the state's highest executive office almost by accident in 1986 when the Democratic Party exploded in internecine squabbling, awarded its gubernatorial nomination to a guy who didn't win the primary, and disgusted enough Alabamians into casting an "anyone but you" vote. Hunt was that anyone.

As rest stops go, Hunt's namesake is nothing special. About the only thing that stands out about it is that it doesn't have a companion on the other side of the highway: Southbound traffic is routed over the interstate to the same facility shared by northbound motorists. (I suppose it was more cost-effective to build a bridge and a long exit ramp than to maintain another building. I don't pretend to know those details.)

A rest stop is a good thing to have, of course, and people have had their names connected to worse before. (That includes Hunt, who was thrown out of office in 1993 over a felony ethics conviction for which he later was pardoned.) As Hunt himself said upon its dedication in 2006: "A lot of people have buildings named after them, bridges and roads, but the one thing everybody does is use the bathroom. And then I got to thinking, I have had the times, and you have, too, when you really, really have to go that there's nothing more beautiful than a urinal."

Rest stops, when you get right down to it, are all about the here and now, about a series of people resolving a series of urgent but ultimately short-term crises, about meeting an immediate need and then getting on your way without a thought about how it ties into the greater scheme of things, because the truth is that in your mind and most other minds, it really doesn't. Rest stops don't prompt thoughts about tomorrow or the next month or the next decade. They're the bare minimum, and sometimes, the bare minimum is just fine.

All too often, though, Alabama has settled for the bare minimum in its politics, too. You didn't run off to South America with the education budget? Good job. You didn't select "prison inmate" as your next job after public office? Fine work. You loudly berated the federal government while quietly making sure never to let its financial aid spigot shut off for even a second? Outstanding performance; go back and do it again. Alabama politics, even more so than in other states, has seen a mostly uninterrupted string of one politician after another addicted to a subpar status quo in a state that can do -- and deserves to do -- better.

The vision thing, as the first President Bush termed it, is hard to come by, and many of our state's politicians haven't even bothered. Few Alabama governors stand out as having tried to do truly bold and profoundly transformational things. The last guy who tried it, Bob Riley, got rewarded for his troubles by a barrage of attack ads and a 2-to-1 defeat of an amendment that would have shored up education funding while cutting most working Alabamians' taxes. He got re-elected, but not before virtually everyone demonized the idea and him for pushing it -- even many people who initially were for the plan.

To say there are disincentives for governors of either party to try to do big things in Alabama is to say Kevin Durant would win a pickup game at the local high school gym, or to say Avatar had a few special effects. We're left with a state where the constitution forces county leaders to jump through hoops for the right to carry out basic acts of local governance, with a state tax system that finances low rates for the rich with high rates for the poor and middle class, and a state that struggles from year to year to pay for even the most basic public services.

The results are as predictable as they are sad. The quality of a child's education hinges far too much on whether he or she happens to live in a wealthy area with lots of local financial support or a poor area with comparatively little. Inadequate education revenue and the soaring tuition that results mean college graduates find it difficult to start adult life without a mountain of debt unless they have well-to-do parents, make straight A's, or run a 4.5 40. And in a state that spends not a single cent on public transportation, many roadways nonetheless are in such bad shape that motorists are left to wonder if this will be the day the potholes decide to keep their gas tank as a parting gift. (Ride around I-65 in the Birmingham area and tell me I'm wrong.)

Amid these problems and more, a state of great potential and great opportunity welcomes a new governor, one who is positioned like few before him to accomplish really big things should he choose to try to do so. Gov. Robert Bentley has a strong victory margin, a Legislature dominated by his own party, working knowledge of the goings-on in the Statehouse, and that whole "I'm a doctor" thing from the campaign that he can use on the bully pulpit for at least a little while longer to try to persuade Alabamians to follow his lead. He also has at least one Democratic lawmaker convinced he will be the state's best governor ever. The hopes and expectations are high, as they should be.

Bentley's inauguration day remarks about non-Christians not being his brothers and sisters got him off to a bad start, set off some First Amendment alarm bells around the country, and raised more than a few concerns that he might not be quite ready for prime time yet. To his credit, though, he apologized for offending religious minorities and promised to act as the governor of everyone. The media storm quickly blew over, and the state's more pressing budgetary problems began to take center stage.

What remains to be seen is whether Bentley's governance style will be for the long term or for the here and now. In the next four years, will we adhere to the same slash-government, no-new-taxes-ever-for-anyone mantra that Alabama has chanted for decades to end up where we are today? Will our economic development efforts focus on handing out massive tax credits to land a few big out-of-state companies while doing too little to help homegrown small businesses? Will we keep giving our schools and public safety and health agencies just enough money to get by but not enough to do the superlative jobs they're fully capable of doing if they have the resources? Or will Bentley lay out a vision of what Alabama can and should be 10 or 20 or 50 years from now and come up with realistic plans to invest in getting us there?

The challenge is great, but Bentley has the opportunity to guide us through the hard times and lay the foundation now for a better, stronger future. If he does, he'll go down as a legendary leader, as one of Alabama's greatest governors, and as a man who can't have enough schools and roads and hospitals named after him.

And if he doesn't, there are still a couple of rest stops near Tuscaloosa waiting for a namesake.

Friday, December 31, 2010

So much for the year of pretending

It was all going to be different, you see.

The new law that made modest but important improvements to the nation's health insurance system -- including some common- sense things that nonetheless took almost a century to achieve -- was going to be President Obama's signature accomplishment heading into the 2010 midterm elections. Until, that is, Democrats forgot how to defend themselves by speaking clear English in front of television cameras and instead scrambled for cover amid misguided cries of Marxism and fascism and other things that are neither the same nor true.

The election of a batch of tea-party-fueled conservative Republican congressmen was supposed to signal a new era of fiscal discipline and concern for balanced budgets. Until, that is, the time came for GOP leaders to stand firm in defense of tax cuts for multimillionaires instead of using that money to pay down the very deficit that is supposedly the nation's foremost problem.

The emergence of Artur Davis and Bradley Byrne as Alabama's leading gubernatorial contenders was going to give state voters a vigorous governor's race with a vibrant discussion of the sort of reforms needed to propel Alabama into the 21st century. Until, that is, primary voters chose instead a comparative snore-fest between a guy whose campaign made him come across as a one-trick gambling pony and a guy who can create jobs because, um, he's a doctor?

The ascendance of the Alabama Crimson Tide to the top of the preseason football polls on the heels of a resounding national championship victory was supposed to mark the beginning of a decade-long dynasty the likes of which no one has ever seen, or at least hasn't seen since ESPN spent the entire 2005 season pumping up USC for a fall. And OK, the dynasty still might happen, but three losses sure were a revolting turn of events in the face of restored high expectations. (Seriously, has anyone looked into Peyton Manning's whereabouts on that one solitary afternoon when a quarterback alleged to be Stephen Garcia turned into the destroyer of worlds?)

All of those things and so much more were going to be different, but they weren't. Ah, well, that's life. Let's try again in 2011. Happy new year, everyone.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beyond the lost horizon

President Obama came to office pledging a new era of compromise and bipartisanship in our nation's capital. It's a tonal change that we still need, and it was one of the reasons (a minor one, but still a reason) that a slightly more naive version of me supported him for the White House two years ago. Obama did his best to make good on that promise, compromising upfront with congressional Republicans on provisions of the stimulus package that saved the economy from freefall and allowing the health care reform debate to drag on and on through month after month of ultimately fruitless attempts to reach bipartisan agreement before going with a bill far less strident than much of the Democratic base wanted.

What has he gotten from the GOP in return? Condemnation as an out-of-control socialist outsider bent on destroying America and an unprecedented string of pointless filibusters that served as little more than the procedural equivalent of a gigantic "Nobama" bumper sticker. Republicans have delayed dozens of Obama appointments for months, even nominations that sail through unanimously when they finally get a hearing. They've filibustered everything from the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy against gay soldiers to a bill to help small businesses create jobs. And as emergency unemployment benefits for millions of Americans expire amid persistently high joblessness, the GOP shows few signs that it's willing even to consider compromise in the months and years to come.

The midterm elections, which left us with a Republican House and a weakened Democratic majority in an already dysfunctional Senate, mean we're going to see even more of this dog and pony show in the next two years. The conservative base, angered by the actions of Democratic leaders they never liked in the first place, turned out in droves during the midterm elections. Enough independents lashed out at the state of the economy by voting against the people in charge, even if they actually disliked their opponents' positions. Most voters, distressed by the bad economy and frustrated that Obama hasn't turned around the deep recession he inherited more quickly, simply stayed home.

Republicans seem to have taken the 2010 election results as a resounding endorsement of the very same Bush-era policies that voters soundly rejected in 2008, but the facts just don't bear that out. The American people didn't call for protecting rich people's tax cuts or repealing a health care law that enjoys majority support. They didn't call for political theater or budgetary games of chicken. They called for a better economy with more jobs and growing incomes. In the long run, we'll have to address our national debt with both spending cuts and more taxes. But to protect and nurture our wobbly economic recovery for now, we'll need more temporary tax cuts and -- cover your ears, tea partiers -- more temporary public spending, too.

It's not about 2012. It's about now. I'd like to believe leaders in both parties get that. But to a degree I couldn't have imagined even in my most cynical moments a few years ago, I'm now fully capable of believing they won't.

The blinders are off, and ugliness stretches all the way to the horizon. Beyond, though, lies the promise of a better tomorrow. It's the hope that will sustain us all as we march through the dark days ahead, the hope that we will emerge from these struggles stronger and wiser than we've ever been before, the hope that our best days as a nation are yet to come.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Football is the only good October surprise

I could have written so much here in the last few months about the upcoming elections. Instead, I did almost nothing of the sort, and I'm OK with that.

In part, my absence from this site has been because I've been too busy. But mostly it's been because I get deeply sad every time I consider the looming midterm victories for the tea party movement and the vague fear and misdirected rage that underlie so much of it all. I'll try to do a few posts in the coming weeks to look at what it all means in the long term -- maybe I will, maybe I won't; you get all the customer satisfaction guarantees that you pay for here -- but in the short term, I fear for the fate of sanity in our political discourse, no matter how many attendees showed up this weekend at what appears to have been a magnificent rally.

History still arcs toward progress, of course, but sometimes there are a lot of fits and starts along the way. In the meantime, in the timeless words of Hunter S. Thompson, a man who knew a little something about both politics and sports: "The time has come to get deeply into football." Here are four of the many possible observations about the finest version thereof.

Alabama still somehow controls its destiny: Considering I'm the kind of rabid partisan whose mood and (if things reach a sufficiently good or bad extreme) entire outlook on life can ebb and flow depending on how the Crimson Tide fares on any given Saturday, the loss to South Carolina should have bothered me much more than it did. Alabama fell behind early, got thoroughly outplayed, and plummeted down the polls after losing on the road to a better-prepared, well-rested team. But a clear memory of a crystal football goes a long way toward soothing football-related pain. So does the knowledge that the SEC's four straight national titles essentially have earned the conference a mulligan in the national horse race: If an argument with even the slightest plausibility can be made for your champion, voters will accept it.

Sure enough, here we are at the end of October with the dominoes lined up perfectly. Only two undefeated teams from automatic-qualifier conferences remain, and one of them comes to Tuscaloosa the day after Thanksgiving. If Alabama wins out against a schedule that could include four top-20 teams in the last five games, the Tide will get a chance to defend its title, and there's nothing Boise State or TCU can do about it. It'll be a month-long tightrope walk to get there, but when is it ever not?

Auburn is evidence that history repeats itself: The last time Alabama won a national title (1992), Auburn followed up by going undefeated the next season. Now, a year after the Tide's 2009 championship, the Tigers are on pace to finish unbeaten themselves. Sure, the team would be average at best without the one-man wrecking crew that is Cam Newton, but that's not the point: They have Newton, and that makes them a force to be reckoned with down the stretch. It also ensures the Tigers won't get jobbed 2004-style out of a title shot if they go undefeated this year. The worst-case scenario for Auburn would be a 10-win season, which is twice as many as it had two years ago, when the idea of Gene Chizik as head coach was much funnier than it is now.

Schedules have to matter this year: If you're undefeated, you should get a chance to win the national championship. If no one has beaten you, no one can be certain that anyone could beat you. In any other sport with a just playoff system, a team that outscored everyone on its schedule would get an opportunity to win the crown on the field of play. But the convoluted, ad hoc history of college football has left the sport with a postseason that makes less sense than any other. It's not about giving a shot to everyone who deserves a shot; it's about deeming two teams -- just two out of 120 -- the worthiest and then pairing them off to pick a champion. It's blatantly unfair and largely subjective, but for the foreseeable future, it's the system we have.

And as long as the BCS is the system we have -- as long as only two teams get a shot and not eight or 16 or as many as merit inclusion in any given year -- what a team has accomplished has to matter. Boise State and TCU are marvelous underdog stories, and they may well be the two best teams in the country. They almost certainly would win the ACC or Big East with ease. But if one team only beats three or four really good teams in a year while another squad beats seven or eight, pollsters shouldn't vault the former team over the latter just to make a point about a broken system. When you're whittling a list of a dozen deserving teams down to two, objective facts have to be the key factor in where you end up. If programs like Boise State and TCU want to be atop the polls at year's end, they need to do whatever is necessary -- even if that means agreeing to play four road games at BCS conference schools every year -- to position their teams to build a resumé as good as or better than those of everyone else.

Stop messing with the uniforms: Look, I know a helmet with a mutant bronco springing out of a player's neck on one side (and one side only) may appeal to today's youth. But that doesn't mean I don't have to have nightmares about it. Sure, TCU's new look wasn't bad, but have you seen what happened to Ohio State and Virginia Tech? If the trend continues, I fear Alabama will take the field a few years hence in houndstooth helmets, black pants, and jerseys featuring the cover art of the latest Cage the Elephant album, because, you know, you guys have an elephant, right?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The gubernatorial campaign: Where we stand

Robert Bentley's message: He's liberal! Liberal liberal liberal liberal liberal! Health care reform bad! Jobs good!

Ron Sparks' message: Tax gambling! Gambling gambling gambling gambling gambling! Rich doctor governor bad! Jobs good!

If I've left anything out, I doubt it's much.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

We really can be good at everything

The first time I got the feeling was when we rushed 11.

It was the 1993 Sugar Bowl, and I was watching my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide take on the leading football force of the era, the Miami Hurricanes, for the national championship. It was the culmination of a dream season defined by fundamentals: a hard- working defense, a determined running game, and a quarterback who did just enough to win. It wasn't flashy. It wasn't attention-grabbing. And it wasn't supposed to have a prayer against Miami's pass-happy Heisman Trophy winner, Gino Torretta, and the Hurricanes' cast of stars.

Then Alabama, in a confident and calculated move, put all 11 defenders on the line of scrimmage. Torretta, confused by this bold development, quickly called a timeout to ask the coaches what to do. He finished the game with three interceptions, and the Tide finished with a 34-13 victory and a national title. Alabama, a huge underdog, had worked hard and won big.

I watched the game with a growing sense of euphoria throughout. But the moment that still stands out above all others -- above the memory of George Teague high-stepping into the end zone with a pick-six, above even the legendary image of Teague chasing down Miami speedster Lamar Thomas and stripping away a sure touchdown -- is when Alabama rushed 11. It was brilliant, it was daring, and it showed a willingness to take risks and try new things to be the best. It was the moment I knew not only that Alabama would win, but that it deserved to win, because we had earned it.

That success didn't happen by accident. It happened because Alabama hired good coaches who crafted good game plans. It happened because Alabama recruited good players who executed those game plans well. And all of that happened because Alabama decided that having a good football team was a priority and invested the time, energy, and money necessary to get it.

Two decades later, college football is still an example of the great things that this state can accomplish when it is determined to do so. Alabama has one of the nation's best-paid coaches, one of the most beautiful stadiums anywhere, and yet another national championship to its credit. Auburn in that time has had two undefeated seasons, one or both of which should have led to a national title for the Tigers. And Troy and UAB have clawed their way from lower-level obscurity into bowl games in recent years.

College football is proof that if Alabamians set our minds to it, we can do it. We shouldn't settle for just being good at college football, though. We should try to become that good at everything: education, health care access, transportation, and whatever else you can name.

It can be discouraging to read headlines about how Alabama's education reform application for federal Race to the Top grants finished dead last, or about how Alabama still taxes groceries when almost no other state does, or about how high poverty rates persist in the Black Belt. But it's important to remember that those aren't unchangeable conditions that we have to accept like the weather. We can use our government to do something about them.

Yes, it will require more citizen engagement. Yes, it will require more careful scrutiny to ensure that candidates lay out a realistic vision for our state instead of just promising free ponies paid for with tax cuts because they think that's what we want to hear. And yes, it will require us to acknowledge that if Alabama hopes to compete with states that spend much more than we do on education and infrastructure, we'll need to invest more money in those things, too. (We could start by asking the state's rich to pay at a tax rate similar to what everyone else pays, but that's a conversation for another time.)

It won't be easy. It won't be flashy. For a while, it won't be attention-grabbing. And just as football programs endure rebuilding years, there will be ups and downs along the way.

But with the same devotion and determination that we pour into vaulting our football teams to the top of the polls, we can improve our state's fundamentals and make Alabama a better place to live and work. We can make our state a place where the quality of our highways and public transportation can stand proudly alongside the beauty of our mountains and beaches. And we can move closer to the day when Alabama, a huge underdog, can shock the world again by both having the best education system in the country and hoisting yet another crystal football to the heavens.

It'll be the feeling of being the very best -- and best of all, having earned it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Two different flavors but no major changes

So it's come to this in the Alabama governor's race: Robert Bentley vs. Ron Sparks. Republican vs. Democrat. Business tax cuts vs. expanded gambling. Alabama Needs to Get That Looked at vs. Scratch and Win for the Children.

Yes, we have a choice this fall. And yes, the nominees have some key policy differences. But if you're looking for a lot of systemic, big-picture change, you probably need to keep looking.

The state's best chance at electing a truly transformational governor in 2010 disappeared last month when Artur Davis, the only major candidate who pushed modernization of our state constitution and tax system as a major platform plank, got crushed in the Democratic primary. And the odds of education reforms -- good or bad -- to which the Alabama Education Association objects fell to about zero after Bradley Byrne's big loss in the Republican runoff Tuesday. (Rule 1 of Alabama Politics: Never start a land war with the AEA with fall approaching.)

Both Bentley and Sparks say they support legislative revisions of individual sections of the constitution -- it's funny how that never seems to happen given how often lawmakers say they support it -- but they oppose a convention to rewrite the document. They're also sticking publicly to "no new taxes" stances (if you don't count Sparks' gambling plans, that is).

You'll hear Bentley and Sparks battle it out in the coming months on a range of issues, including whether to allow more gambling, whether to waste state resources fighting against federal health care reform, and whether to pay for ending the state grocery tax or just cut the tax and hope the money magically replaces itself. Those issues, especially the latter two, are very important to Alabama's future. I wouldn't claim otherwise.

But it's likely that neither man will pledge to use the gubernatorial bully pulpit to push heavily for structural changes like greater home rule for counties or a major set of reforms to make our overall tax system more balanced and humane. Don't be surprised to hear numerous vague platitudes about job creation but few specifics about how to cope with the budget shortfalls that could force major job losses for public employees in 2012 after federal stimulus money disappears. And Alabama's new governor will be largely powerless to enact an agenda without cooperation from the Legislature, which can override vetoes with a simple majority thanks to the constitution that won't be getting rewritten.

Perhaps worst of all, now that Sparks and his facial hair have gone their separate ways, Alabama will miss a prime opportunity for its first unapologetically mustachioed governor since Charles Henderson left office in 1919. (Then again, maybe our state's last mustachioed governor was William Brandon in the 1920s. Some mustaches are less impressive than others, you know.)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

This would be a damn shame

Artur Davis' announcement that he wants to stay away from elected offices and political appointments is understandable, considering how fresh the pain of his unexpectedly large loss in the Democratic gubernatorial primary still is. But given the four- term congressman's great intellect and experience, it'd be a loss for Alabama if he makes good on his pledge to stay away for good.

As I said in the comments here, I'm of the "never say never in politics" school. Five or 10 years is a lifetime in politics, and at 42, Davis is young enough that he could sit out several election cycles before trying for a comeback if he wanted. Even if he does choose to spend the rest of his career in private law practice, though, something tells me we haven't heard the last of Davis.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

What's next for Artur Davis?

Getting thrashed almost 2-to-1 isn't exactly how most politicians like to kick off the summer. Unfortunately for U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, that's exactly what happened to him Tuesday in Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

If you're looking for explanations of how Davis went, in short order, from presumptive nominee to distant second, I offered a couple of major reasons here. (You also can find great accounts at Doc's Political Parlor and King Cockfight, the state's most authoritative and most hilariously incisive political blogs, respectively.) But if you're looking for admittedly uninformed guesswork as to the next steps for Davis, you're in the right place. There are no easy answers, but let's examine a few possibilities.

If at first you don't succeed: Run, run again. Davis could come back with another gubernatorial campaign in 2014 if Ron Sparks falls short this fall. But that'd be a non-starter if Davis doesn't work hard to rebuild support among black voters who felt scorned by his shocking "no" vote on health care reform and his refusal to pursue the black establishment's backing. He'd also have to settle on a simple, memorable campaign theme and unleash more of the Davis we saw during his concession speech Tuesday night.

Mr. Davis goes (back) to Washington: It'd be easy to assume Davis could just wait a couple of years and return to his old congressional seat in 2012. But he no longer will have the advantages of incumbency at that point, and he struggled Tuesday in many key areas of his district. If you're into dreaming big, Davis could challenge for Jeff Sessions' seat in 2014 or hope Richard Shelby retires before 2016. Remember, though: As conservative as the Alabama electorate has become in state races recently, it's even more conservative when it comes to national offices. Barring an unforeseen sea change, it'll be a generation or two before a Democrat -- any Democrat -- can harbor serious hopes of winning a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

By appointment only: Davis, as you may have heard, was a law school classmate of a guy named Barack Obama, who, as you may have heard, is the leader of the free world. That would seem to help Davis' case to be appointed to an open executive-branch job or federal judgeship. One caveat is that Obama may be a little less open to this possibility after that "no" vote on health care reform. Another is that Davis likely would have to forsake any future political ambitions were he to get a lifetime judicial appointment. A shorter-term executive position would leave the door open, but it also might drop Davis off the Alabama political radar entirely. Anything short of a full-fledged Cabinet position or an in-state U.S. attorney post probably wouldn't be worth it if Davis hopes to run for office again.

Take what you can get: We elect more than just the governor in Alabama, and Davis is fully qualified for many of those jobs, too. A run for a lower state office -- lieutenant governor or attorney general would seem likeliest -- could present fewer entry barriers for Davis and would garner valuable state-level experience to which he could point in a future gubernatorial campaign. The previously mentioned concern about rebuilding black support still applies. So does the still unanswered question of whether the full Alabama electorate is ready to elect a black man to one of the state's highest offices.

Take it easy: Davis first ran for Congress in 2000, and he first won in 2002. After almost a decade in the public eye, he might just choose to retreat into private life for a while and spend some more time with his family. Absolutely no one could blame him for that. But for the state's sake, I hope he finds his way back into public life sooner or later. Artur Davis is an intelligent and relatively young man who still has a lot to offer Alabama. One election setback hasn't changed that.

Lessons from the primaries that just won't end

It's a gubernatorial election featuring a margin so tight that it fairly could be said to fall into "rounding error" territory. Also, the Democratic nominee is best known for supporting an expansion of gambling. If "2002" flashed into your mind before you read this sentence, congratulations: You, like me, pay way too much attention to Alabama politics. Let's consider a few early takeaways from the 2010 state primaries.

A good poll is hard to find: Maybe you thought Ron Sparks would beat Artur Davis for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Maybe you thought Robert Bentley had a chance to run, say, a strong third on the Republican side by picking up some voters disgusted by the free-for-all between Bradley Byrne and Tim James. Maybe you thought lower-than-expected turnout could have unanticipated consequences. But if you claim to have known both that Sparks would trounce Davis almost 2-to-1 and that Bentley would surge all the way to second place (by a mere 40 votes at this writing), then you're either a liar or someone who needs to make way more money as a pollster than you do now.

The black establishment's support still matters a lot: At least if you're a Democrat running for high office in Alabama. When I read that Dallas County, right in the heart of Davis' congressional district, had gone for Sparks, I knew Davis' night would end early. Say what you will about Sparks' pursuit of backing from the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama New South Coalition, but the decision got results at the ballot box. Davis' move to vote against health care reform while stating support for a hypothetical bill that would do all the things that the actual bill did couldn't have helped him among the party's more progressive wing, either.

Seriously, Bentley's campaign was lights-out: How many non-politically-minded people outside Tuscaloosa County could have told you who Bentley was a year ago? You probably could count the number on your fingers. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, he's in the thick of the GOP governor's race, and he has an excellent chance of getting the nomination if he hangs on and makes the runoff. (If you think a lot of James supporters will go for Byrne after a brutal primary battle, and if you think the Alabama Education Association won't pull out all the stops to keep Byrne out of the Governor's Mansion, think again.) Depending on how the next few days go, I may have to reclassify his campaign as not just the state's best-run of the year but maybe its best-run in decades.

The power of positive thinking (or at least advertising): As solid as Bentley's campaign was, it got big assists from Byrne and James, who focused like lasers on each other with ad nauseum negative attacks. GOP and conservative independent voters turned off by the tone were left with two choices: the former judge who's still trying to make political hay out of his years-ago Ten Commandments battle, or the doctor who's running pleasant-sounding ads talking about job creation. A very conservative person who's close to me put it thusly earlier this week: "I think I'll vote for Bentley because he hasn't made me mad."

You can't always get what you want: But if you drop out of the governor's race and run for lieutenant governor instead, you at least can get nominated for something, right? Now Kay Ivey just has to hope that Jim Folsom, Jr., can't remember how to spell "PACT" in campaign ads. But something tells me he can. And will. Frequently.

Sometimes being tall is enough: Name one thing you know about Luther Strange besides the fact that he was a lobbyist and that he's roughly 27 feet tall. Here's a hint: He's also not Troy King, which was all it took for him to win the GOP nomination and become the overwhelming favorite in the attorney general's race in the fall. Our state's long nightmare of having an AG who voluntarily straps on a tracking device and who in his younger days publicly worried about the household arrangements of three men, an armadillo, and a houseplant are finally over. In Alabama, you take progress where you can get it.

And sometimes you just deserve to lose: Remember when U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith decided the Democratic Party had become just way too liberal for him, mere months after it spent an enormous sum to get him elected? And remember when the Republican establishment welcomed him with open arms and bragged about his party change as an omen of things to come in November for the Democrats? Yeah, see, it turns out that GOP voters don't like blatant political opportunism any better than Democratic ones. Enjoy the rest of your one and only term, Mr. Griffith. I'd suggest enjoying a cheeseburger at the congressional cafeteria before you go, but you'd probably just ditch it for a chicken sandwich in the middle of the meal anyway.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Down the stretch they come

By this time tomorrow, we'll get a needed (if temporary) respite from the scattered variants of this ad template that have assaulted us on television for weeks on end. Incidentally, we'll also have a much better idea of the finalists for state offices in November.

With Alabama's gubernatorial primary just hours away, it's past time to examine the candidates and their campaigns. I'll discuss the top contenders for the state's top office (defined as "people for whom I've seen at least five roadside signs") in the most scientific fashion I know: how annoying I've found their campaigns. Let's go in reverse order from least to most annoying.

Artur Davis: His campaign has been far from the slickest. Much or all of his once-huge primary lead has disappeared. And his "no" vote on health care reform looked like the epitome of a crass political calculation. But it's refreshing to find a gubernatorial candidate who talks publicly about actual substantive issues like constitutional reform and ending the state grocery tax. He's also the only real contender with a plausible claim to be a true Montgomery outsider. (Sorry, Tim James, the son of a two-term governor is pretty much the definition of an insider.) If Davis can secure the Democratic nomination, he'll have a much better chance at victory in the fall than many people believe -- especially if he's running against James or Roy Moore.

Bill Johnson: It's hard to be annoyed by someone you never see. Best wishes to the former ADECA head in his search for employment in the weeks to come. Times like these make one feel glad that our state spent millions of economic development dollars to convince all those multinational corporations to locate here. Otherwise, we might have an unemployment problem...

Robert Bentley: Granted, he won't win, and his policy proposals don't really make him stand out that much from the rest of the Republican field. But Bentley, who had almost no name recognition at the start of the race, surely will finish in the double digits in Tuesday's primary, and he's stuck with positive messages amid what has become a nasty battle for the GOP nod. Start to finish, it's probably been the best-run campaign this year.

Ron Sparks: Gambling? Gambling. Gambling? Gambling! Sparks has done well enough as agriculture commissioner, but his one-note campaign is strongly reminiscent of the 1998 effort by Don Siegelman, who lost a lot of momentum a year later when voters shot down his lottery proposal. However you feel about it, gambling isn't the cure for Alabama's financial woes, and it'd be nice to hear Sparks, who has a real chance of claiming the Democratic nomination, offer some more realism about the hard choices that lie ahead for our state. I'd also appreciate the return of that magnificent mustache, but you have to start somewhere.

Bradley Byrne: Would it be the healthiest thing for Alabama to have a governor perpetually at war with the state teachers' union? There's an excellent chance that we'll find out in 2011. Byrne probably will win the Republican runoff next month, and his massive war chest will make him the favorite in the fall if he does. If you've enjoyed the Byrne camp's complaints about "Democrat union bosses" and the anti-Byrne camp's TV ads attacking the very idea of evolution, just wait until the battle is everyday life in Montgomery. But on the plus side, given Byrne's claims to have cleaned up corruption in the state's two-year college system, he apparently is a one-man U.S. Department of Justice.

Roy Moore: Trust me, I'm just as amazed as you are to find another candidate more annoying than the Granite King. But until this week, Moore basically has been the J.D. Salinger of the gubernatorial race: He did this one thing one time that made him famous for a while, and then he fell out of the public eye and public consciousness for years. He probably won't make the GOP runoff, and if he somehow squeaks into it, he won't win. The extent to which these circumstances qualify as real progress in Alabama should not be underestimated.

Tim James: This guy is a worldwide Internet celebrity, and not in a good way for Alabama. If you think the top issue confronting our state is the fact that we allow a handful of people to take the driver's license exam in Vietnamese, then Tim James is your man. If you missed the steady gubernatorial hand of his father, Fob "I'm not a fat monkey" James, then Tim James is your man. And if you want a leader who interrupts his public statements to look down at his shoelaces for no discernible reason, then Tim James is your man. Without some slick and silly commercials, this guy would be lucky to finish fourth in the GOP primary, even though he's been running for governor roughly since Richard Alpert came to the Island. As it is, he's virtually a lock to make the runoff, and he might even win it. If you're an electorally minded Democrat, that's a dream scenario. If you're an everyday Alabamian who may have to live in a state governed by James, it's... well... not.

Whatever happens, it should be safe to watch the local news again for at least a day or two after Tuesday. Unless the runoff campaign begins immediately, of course. Come to think of it...

Friday, April 30, 2010

You know what was Katrina? Katrina

First things first: The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a terrible disaster. I doubt you'll find anyone who disagrees.

It'll be the largest American spill since the Exxon Valdez went down in 1989, and it may well top that in the coming weeks. Most tragically, 11 people are presumed to have lost their lives at sea. Closer to land, the Gulf Coast's fishing and tourism industries may not recover for years. The environment may not recover for even longer than that. It's another major economic blow to a region that still hasn't really bounced back from the crippling devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

There's that word again: Katrina. Almost five years later, it's on the tip of people's tongues again. Mobile's Press-Register today analogized the federal government's abysmally botched response to the hurricane to its present response to the oil spill. The Drudge Report was more direct, suggesting in a headline that the oil spill could become "Obama's Katrina."

The oil spill is a horrible thing. I get that. But to treat it as somehow the same as Hurricane Katrina is to forget the depth and breadth of the horror that was Hurricane Katrina.

The oil spill's death toll is 11. Katrina's death toll was more than 1,800. The oil spill will hurt the Gulf Coast's economy and could wreck its environment. Katrina did all that and then some, displacing tens of thousands of people from the region, many permanently. The oil spill will destroy the homes of many animals. Katrina destroyed the homes of hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, many of whom still are waiting for rebuilding help to this very day.

An analogy between the federal responses to each incident also doesn't hold up. The oil spill was a sudden, unpredictable incident whose magnitude was unclear until several days afterward, due in part to BP's repeated assurances that it had things under control until it became clear that the company did not. The Obama administration kicked its response into high gear as soon as scientists ascertained the scale of the spill. It also put the brakes -- at least temporarily -- on plans to expand offshore drilling after seeing a crystal-clear illustration of its down side.

Katrina, on the other hand, was forecast in advance to be one of the worst catastrophes ever to strike the United States, and its magnitude was clear immediately to anyone who had a television. Even so, the Bush administration took several days to fire up major federal relief efforts while thousands of people begged in the streets for help. Years later, many people are still waiting for the assistance they've been promised.

I understand the frustration and desperation on the Gulf Coast right now. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone who will be affected in the years to come. But just because something is bad and happens on the Gulf Coast, that doesn't mean it's Katrina.

The oil spill is a disaster. But Katrina was hell on earth. No one should forget the difference.