Paul’s Straw Poll Wins Are Practice for Iowa

One of the minor stories to come out of this year’s Values Voters Summit is Ron Paul’s sizeable victory in the forum’s straw poll.  The Paul organization is developing some expertise at the art of straw poll hijacking.  They turned out their supporters in significant numbers by committing money and organization as they’ve done elsewhere.

This result inspires two questions.  First, why does the Paul campaign keep putting resources into these polls?  And second, could Paul potentially have produced a much more interesting showing if he hadn’t rigged it?

One possible answer to the first question is: Iowa.

Learning to consistently jack up straw polls is good practice for the Iowa Caucus and Paul is putting himself in fine position to compete there.  The presumed Iowa favorites, Bachmann and Perry, are both staggering under the weight of their own mistakes.  The Hermanator can be expected to join them soon enough (“Mr. Cain, tell us again what you think about Muslims and the unemployed”).  Romney is focusing his energy on New Hampshire.

The field is opening for Paul to steal the spotlight in a way that could actually produce some delegates.  Iowa is all about getting committed, qualified people to show up in numbers and perform as directed.  His decision to consistently spend energy manipulating symbolic votes makes some sense if you see it as a rehearsal for the real deal.

Did Paul’s manipulation obscure an otherwise noteworthy show of support?  It appears that it didn’t.  If Tony Perkins’ accounting is correct, Paul’s team astro-turfed in about 600 people just for the balloting.  A total of 1983 people voted.  If you disregard those 600 votes then Paul finished 5th behind Perry and Bachmann.  That’s about where you’d expect him to finish with a group of hard-core evangelical voters.

Can Ron Paul convert straw poll acumen into Iowa delegates?  Is he using these polls to polish his organization for the caucuses?  Maybe that’s reading too much cleverness into his efforts.  Maybe he’s less ‘crazy like a fox’ than just, well…you know.

Occupy Berkeley

The Internet-driven protest that has brought legions of the oppressed and their iPhones to the streets of New York’s financial district is beginning to make waves.  Many of these people suffered terribly when the financial crisis modestly dented their trust funds.  Now they insist that some sort of thing of an as-yet-undetermined nature must perhaps be done about it.  Or not.  They haven’t worked out all the details yet.

The complaints coming from the streets of Lower Manhattan about Wall Street fat cats, Republicans, and the financial bailout sound familiar enough to inspire some confusion, or even envy.  To clarify, the Occupy Wall Street protest has no connection to the Tea Party Movement even though the slogans are pretty much the same.  Both say they want to ‘take our country back’ and neither of them make much sense.  Both groups hate everything about Global Capitalism, though the Tea Partiers don’t seem to know it.  There are, however, some clues that can help you tell them apart.

Tea Party rallies use country music.  Occupy Wall Street uses the same music but they call it ‘folk.’ Tea Partiers pray while OWS’ers meditate.  Both will spin outlandish stories about secret conspiracies that undermine democracy.  They both complain endlessly about bankers, politicians, the financial bailout, and rapacious ‘fat cats’ of all varieties.  But, OWS’ers seldom dress up as Ben Franklin and are much more tolerant of nudity.  Tea Partiers on the other hand are 94.3% more likely than OWS’ers to protest runaway government debt from the swivel-seat of a Medicare-funded scooter.

Missing from the streets is a forceful, rational movement that represents the interests of ordinary Americans.  The Tea Party is too close to the left in its tactics, tone, paranoia, and lack of broad public support to act as an effective counterweight.  All things converge at the extremes.  Maybe we need to show the world what an authentically conservative protest would look like.

It’s time to Occupy Berkeley.

We would begin by setting up cubicles wired with phone and Internet service.  Unlike other protestors we have to continue get our jobs done.  A phony doctor’s note won’t get us off the hook.  We’d collect our own garbage to keep the workspace tidy and decorate our cubicles with adorable knick-knacks and photos.

The revolutionary symbolism of our ‘work-in’ would halt all bicycle traffic on Telegraph Avenue, creating a spoke-twisting snarl that would force the establishment to acknowledge our oppression.  But there would be free donuts and casual dress on Fridays.  Our work-in would express the goal we hold so dear (and too many still live without) – a meaningful job.
What would we demand from our oppressors?  If you still think protests need demands then you obviously don’t get it.

Having a narrative is so ‘90’s.  We would engage in a conversation to raise our collective consciousness on a time frame of our choosing.  It wouldn’t have to end, at least not until it’s time to go visit the in-laws for the holidays.

Our movement would organize a mass resume jam, awarding prizes for the most artistic recasting of the phrase “great people skills.”  In the evenings we’d grill delicious farm animals over charcoal and share our tofu-free bounty with all who pass by. We’ll play games that have actual winners and losers.  For artistic enlightenment we might compose haikus celebrating the miracle of compound interest.

We would set up big screen TV’s and watch college football.  We could stage a mass, revolutionary ‘bathe-in’ where we shave off the metaphorical shackles of our scragglyness and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell like the animals we eat.  And then we would go to bed at a reasonable time so as to be ready for productive work the next day.

It would be like Burning Man, but solely with prescription drugs.

Obviously, the kind of people who hold these values lack the free time required for mass political theater.  Real conservative ‘political expression’ happens every day, away from the cameras, as we struggle support our families and our communities.

And our influence matters.  No Wall Street tycoon, no matter how greedy, rich, or devious, gets more than one vote.  That’s why the great American middle continues to hold so much power.  The media-hungry characters on both extremes who take to the streets for attention most often do it because they lack the political appeal to match their noise.

Despite how frustrated we feel, it’s the shape of our day-to-day choices that decides what becomes of this country.  We can be counted on to keep America functioning while the neo-hippies sleep outside and paint each other’s faces.

We work or look for work, not just for the buying power we earn, but for the vital sense of satisfaction and accomplishment it brings.  We start businesses and hire people.  We weigh issues and vote.  We volunteer at our schools, our churches, our community centers, and our food banks.  We struggle every day to make a better life for ourselves and for those around us, regardless what happens in our politics.

That’s the shape of our protest.  The streets belong to someone else.  They’re welcome to it so as long as can still get past them on our way to work.

Who Controls the GOP?

John Boehner’s continuing inability to manage his right flank in Congress points to the larger frustration of a generation of Republican leadership. They struggle to grasp what drives the Tea Party, evangelicals, and the candidacy of Rick Perry. To begin to understand where these people came from and how they acquired so much influence relative to their numbers, perhaps we should look more closely at ‘The Stockman Effect.’

On November 8, 1994, I woke up to a shock. My persistently undefeatable Democratic Congressman, Jack Brooks, had been swept away. A New Deal leftist who sat atop a union/populist machine; we had come to see the old man as a force that could only be removed by the hand of God. Turns out we were right.

In the preceding years Brooks had fended off two valiant challenges. In those campaigns we had a very strong GOP candidate, good financial support, and a lot of hope. After those failures the party had pretty much given up on his seat. The first thing I did on learning that we’d beaten Brooks was to try to find out who our candidate was.

That was an exercise Republicans were performing all over the South the day after the ’94 election.

The South had been a single-party democracy since Reconstruction. With few exceptions, if you had ambitions to serve your community as a judge, or a county clerk, or a city councilman you became a Democrat. You might be uncomfortable with the party’s national positions on a whole host of issues, but it didn’t matter. Abortion, welfare, and arms control had nothing to do with being Justice of the Peace.

The only local elections that mattered were the Democratic primaries. In many areas the GOP invested no effort below the top of the ticket. Across vast swaths of the Old South, the only Republicans in down-ballot races would be professional candidates – the kind of guys who slept in their cars and lingered on the courthouse square wearing incoherent sandwich boards.

Brooks’ GOP opponent in ’94, Steve Stockman, was a default candidate – some guy who signed up to run. That was the year the national tide finally shifted. On November 7, God reached down in the form of an evangelical electoral wave and called Jack Brooks home to Port Arthur. The same tide swept away rafts of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

Stockman, a born-again, fundamentalist Christian who just a few years before was unemployed and living in his car, was a vocal supporter of the militia movement until Timothy McVeigh made that instantaneously uncool. On taking office he wasted no time tackling the nation’s vital problems by co-sponsoring a bill to investigate the authors of the Kinsey Reports. He was unceremoniously voted out at the next election, but he didn’t go away.

Though his single term in office was unremarkable his impact lingers. Across the South odd characters of all varieties found themselves briefly in elected office. As the public sobered up they generally lost their seats, but they didn’t just go home. Draped in legitimacy as a former Congressman, District Judge, or prominent aide and empowered by new connections, they found places for themselves all up and down the sparsely populated frontier of the Republican Party infrastructure in the South.

Stockman’s chief of staff, Jeff Fisher, went on to become the Executive Director of the Texas Republican Party after a stint leading the Texas Christian Coalition. Stockman’s wife has been a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Stockman has hosted his own radio show, consulted for other candidates, and represented a prominent group of climate change skeptics at the Copenhagen conference in 2009.

The unintended impact of the ’94 election, call it The Stockman Effect, would place ridiculous characters into positions of genuine power and influence throughout the Republican Party for a generation. Though the craziest of the deadwood swept in by the great flood of ’94 would promptly be removed from office, many of them came to rest inside the party’s power structure where they continue to clog the gears today.

Barry Goldwater’s curmudgeonly warning that the party was being taken over by “a bunch of kooks” would become a political fact that the country is still struggling to overcome.

Of course, the swing toward extremist politics didn’t start in ’94. Fundamentalists had been carefully organizing at the grassroots of the party for years (enjoy this instructional video circulated in the early ‘90’s by prominent Houston Fundamentalist Steven Hotze on how to capture your precinct for Jesus). But there was a persistent delusion among party stalwarts that our wacky cousins could forever be confined to the basement. The Stockman Effect placed them in the living room making decisions for the family.

The Stockman Effect replaced the old right, left, moderate competition inside the party with a reasonable vs. slightly odd vs. “I hear the voice of God” spectrum that has rendered right and left obsolete. McCain’s ’08 candidacy offered some hope for a power shift inside the party that could have begun to improve matters. His failure left the GOP at the mercy of its darkest impulses. In its wake have come the Tea Party, the Birthers, and a whole sweeping movement away from reality-based politics.

The party will recover at some point because it must. People who value reason over passion, truth over fantasy, reality over propaganda, in other words – responsible adults – will at some point regain some influence. But in the meantime the country is paying a price. One day we will have to clean up the wreckage, but for now the damage continues to pile up.

It’s Hamilton vs. Jefferson All Over Again

When General Lee handed Ulysses S. Grant his surrender and my ancestors went home in defeat, there was reason to believe that one of the great unresolved conflicts over the meaning of the American experiment had been laid to a bloody rest.

I’m not talking about slavery, and it did not in fact prove to be the end. The most important original argument over American’s identity was best encapsulated in the competing visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.

Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.

In the years after the American Revolution Northern states began a shift toward Hamiltonian capitalism. Over strenuous Southern objections those states and the Federal government wherever possible, began chartering banks, building canals, expanding ports, and laying railroad tracks. You can’t develop a coal industry in Pennsylvania if you can’t ship the product to New York. Building that infrastructure would require more organization and capital than individuals could fund on their own, but would yield massive benefits to a wide swath of the country.

Southerners struggled to block most Federal expenditures for infrastructure. President Jefferson himself dismissed the Erie Canal as “little short of madness.” His fellow Virginian, President James Madison, vetoed an effort to fund it. It was eventually financed by New York State. It brought massive new wealth to the Great Lakes basin and solidified New York City as the commercial capital of the nation.

It brought nothing to the South.

My Southern ancestors lived quiet rural lives. The harshest and most dangerous labor in their world was performed by slaves, giving them a sort of borrowed dignity regardless of whether they owned any slaves themselves. Religion was paramount, followed by family, clan and country. Their agricultural model and warm climate left them free from the need to organize any meaningful government beyond basic police and courts.

There were trains and factories, but few of them. Southern states resisted any organized industrial planning and fought federal efforts to build infrastructure. When Civil War came they never had a chance. The Jeffersonian model didn’t just leave them trailing in factories and railroads. As James Webb pointed out in his book, Born Fighting:

With only one-third of the white population, the south had nearly two thirds of its richest men and a large proportion of the very poor…In 1860 seven eighths of [foreign] immigrants came to the north…In the north, 94% of the population was found to be literate by the census of 1860; in the south barely 54% percent could read and write. Roughly 72% of northern children were enrolled in school compared with 35% of the same age in the south.

Their martial spirit made them formidable fighters, but they were lousy at coordination and unable to match the North’s infrastructure advantages. They were plowed under by the massive organizational power of a capitalist civilization. They lost because they had built a weaker system.

Wars don’t necessarily change cultures. The South has experienced waves of Federal Reconstruction, including the post-war occupation, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet my people have never openly confronted the central question that still hangs in the air.

Will we decide – deliberately – to join a modern capitalist nation with all the complex responsibilities and spectacular benefits it brings, or will we continue to cling to the dead vision of The Confederate Dream?

Now we have fielded a Republican Congress which is determined to burn down the Hamiltonian Republic that has emerged since the war and return to a “simpler” time. Along the way they would damage (or even destroy) the benefits we’ve gained from our reluctant capitalism. If you want to know what a Neo-Confederate political model looks like in a modern country, try to find a good public school for your kids in Mexico.

We may not think that’s what we voted for. No one can say out loud that they are fighting for the Confederate way of life, and some who embrace it may not even recognize it. You can get some hints at what’s going on if you probe Ron Paul’s fans for their thoughts on Lincoln. The weird AM radio and Tea Party rhetoric of fighting “socialism” sounds absurd, but only if you take it literally. We want to relive a fleeting moment of Jeffersonian simplicity.

The rebellion against the Neo-Confederate Revolution must start inside the Republican Party. If we fail to manage the complexity of our age, there are horrors that await. Jefferson’s world is gone, but we can still have a banana republic if we so insist.

Rick Perry’s Solyndras

“In Texas, we understand that high-tech companies don’t just happen overnight but are a product of forethought, sound vision and planning, and strategic investments by both the public and private sectors. Through our Emerging Technology Fund, we are bringing the best scientists and researchers to Texas, attracting high-tech jobs and helping start-up companies get off the ground faster.”Gov. Rick Perry

The Obama Administration is taking well-deserved heat for its clumsy dabbling in the venture capital business. The failure of a prominent solar tech company partially funded with federally guaranteed loans is drawing attention to the flaws of direct government investment in private firms.

The Republicans have been quick to pounce on the company’s failure. They accuse the Obama Administration of pushing the Energy Department to fund Solyndra so they could use it as a stimulus-plan success story on the campaign trail. But one ordinarily mouthy Republican Presidential candidate has been slow to throw stones. Why isn’t Rick Perry taking shots at Obama over Solyndra?

Because everything is bigger in Texas.

As Governor, Rick Perry presides over a fund that has doled out over $200m in grants to private firms. While Obama is in trouble because his aides might have begged the Energy Department accelerate lending to one promising solar panel maker, Perry is laughing his boots off.

The Texas Emerging Technology Fund (ETF) is practically Perry’s own, personal multi-million dollar fundraising machine. When it comes to doling out money to private firms he doesn’t have to beg anyone for anything.

The fund, signed into law largely by and for Perry in 2005, is controlled by his office and operates largely in secret. Many states have similar investment programs, but the concentration of power in the Governor’s office under Perry’s program is unique.

From the Dallas Morning News, “Under the law, companies that receive tech fund money must have approval from the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. However, the speaker and lieutenant governor don’t act until Perry decides to back an applicant or gives them detailed information prepared by his staff about the recommended firms, aides said.”

Here’s a successful Texas investment strategy. Put a $1000 of your own money into a business. Invest $75,000 in the Governor’s campaigns. Then fund the rest of your business with a $4.5m taxpayer funded grant from the Governor’s ETF. That’s not a loan like Solyndra received, that’s cash on the barrelhead, delivered from the state and never to be repaid.

What might you do with a pile of free taxpayer money and a ton of political influence? Perhaps you could get your hands on patents developed by the University of Texas.

Another Perry contributor cashed in his chits for a $1.5m investment from the Texas ETF. Charles Tate is a major Perry donor who had managed to get himself put in charge of a board that “vetted” candidates for the ETF. He recommended the ETF give money to Thrombovision, and then invested in the company himself.

He and his partners accepted that state grant in 2007. The company failed to submit annual reports and finally sought bankruptcy protection in 2010. Since the taxpayers under Perry’s program are doling out grants instead of loans and taking no equity interest in the companies to which they give money, the state gets nothing from the bankrupt entity, unlike the Solyndra case. The folks who got the state grant just walk away. And Perry doesn’t have to give back the campaign contributions.

That’s how you do business in Rick Perry’s Texas.

Perry is a guy who has had every bit as much private sector experience as Obama. In other words, none. Like Obama, he’s become a millionaire as a government employee. Like Obama, he is using taxpayers’ money and his deep well of business acumen to fund private business ventures that he thinks are a good idea. Like Obama, some of Perry’s investments have been stinking failures.

But unlike Obama, Perry has a personally tailored fund at his disposal with no meaningful oversight. Unlike Obama, he’s doling out taxpayer money in the form of grants, not loans to his campaign contributors. And most importantly of all, unlike Obama Perry’s getting away with it in broad daylight. The way Perry has been able to skate past scrutiny while Obama constantly stumbles has less to do with policy differences than political talent.

If Obama knew how to put on a decent camp meeting he might not have to worry about trivial embarrassments like Solyndra.

Where the Crazy May Be Coming From

Our politics is getting weird. The crude, disrespectful behavior of the Tea Party crowd at Monday’s GOP debate underlines the deterioration of our civic institutions. We’ve always struggled against opportunism, corruption and lies. But the fresh rise of what can only fairly be described as “crazy” is hitting us like an invasive species dropped into your local pond. It’s crowding out the parasites we’ve learned to tolerate and eating everything in sight.

While there have always been some odd characters attracted to power, it seems we’re dealing with a whole new category of crazy, something we’ve never encountered at the highest levels of our politics before.

This year we had a GOP figure candidate rise to the top of some polls by claiming that Obama was born in Kenya. He was replaced briefly by someone who has accused the President of trying to set up mandatory, Communist-style re-education camps for youth. She’s been replaced by a guy who calls Social Security a giant fraud.

Something has changed. Facts are elitist. Credibility is evolving into a liability and crazy has become a tactic. Where is this coming from?

There is a depressing irony at work inside this problem. Never in history have ordinary people had such ready access to reliable information. Yet we seem more vulnerable to goofball claims than ever.

This torrent of information, both true and untrue, combined with an overwhelming pace of social change may be undermining our ability to function. If so, what does that mean for representative government?

More than forty years ago Alvin Toeffler published Future Shock. In it he predicted that society had entered a phase of constant, wrenching, and ever-accelerating change. He expected this would lead to a form of social meltdown and a terrible strain on the individual mind. There’s a comment from Toeffler’s book that seems particularly prescient:

And what then happens when an economy in search of a new purpose seriously begins to enter into the production of experiences for their own sake, experiences that blur the distinction between the vicarious and the non-vicarious, the simulated and the real? One of the definitions of sanity itself is the ability to tell real from unreal. Shall we need a new definition?

Maybe we are in the process of redefining sanity. We have an abundance of reliable information to help us separate what is from what isn’t. But we are also being overwhelmed by shiny distractions. And it’s not just our omnipresent entertainment that is weakening our hold on what’s real. This wealth of accurate information is available inside an atmosphere in which reality is becoming perilously complex. Even the most common tools and devices that are woven into the fabric of our daily lives are now wonders beyond simple credibility. Here’s an example:

I have a device sitting on my desk that is barely larger than a credit card. It knows where I am on the globe at all times and can recommend a nearby restaurant I might like. It allows me to hold a conversation or exchange messages instantly with another person who may be thousands of miles away. It entertains me all day and night with music, games, movies and news.

That statement is utterly, incredibly magical and at the same time absolutely real. And there is not a single human being on the planet, not one, who understands all of the materials and technology required to create my smart phone sufficiently to build one by themselves. Somewhere in the 20th Century our lives came to be dominated by technologies that were products of cultures, not people. We lost all individual control over them.

This world of credulous wonder and surplus information undermines politics, at least in the short run, by depriving us of what we most desire in evaluating public affairs – a singular narrative. In the old days when there were three television stations the dignified white men on the evening news handed us that calming gift. They had a staff of smart people who filtered through the galaxy of world events and digested them down into a storyline which we gobbled up at 5:30 pm Central.

With unfettered access to raw information we are faced with a horrifying new understanding – there is no single narrative and there never was. What happened today is that seven billion people experienced seven billion different things from seven billion unique perspectives between every blink of an eye.

As you’ve noticed, most of them seem to be blogging about it.

As change accelerates to a blur our reality is refracting into a mosaic with no discernable pattern. We are left on our own to figure out what it means, to translate it into the coherent story that our increasingly outgunned monkey-brains so desperately crave by using technology we can never hope to understand.

More and more we respond by shutting out the assault of cognitive dissonance and retreating from any unwelcome input. We surround ourselves with news outlets, friends and even neighbors who carefully reinforce what we want to believe. We are building our own reality to support our chosen narrative. It doesn’t seem to be working out well on a personal level and it’s rotting our politics.

Will we adapt successfully? Probably, though it’s hard to say how long it will take or how this process may permanently transform government. And we probably won’t collectively sober up before a lot of people get hurt. For the near term we can be certain that a significant chunk of our political energy will be diverted into fantasy and entertainment as we try to cushion ourselves from the onslaught of uncomfortable change and unwanted information.

Perhaps the best we can do individually is enjoy the fireworks and try to dodge the sparks. Oh, and tweet about the experience.

The Five Thousand Dollar Man

The Republican Presidential candidates are just beginning to explore the rich trove of material Rick Perry has left for them across a long, amateurish career. The thoughtless series of overstatements that he collected into his “book” are a million bumper stickers waiting to be printed.

The problem his book presents for the Republican field is that most of that material only disqualifies him from the White House, not the nomination. It’s his shady political deals that may provide the material his opponents need to slow his momentum and give the Party a shot at a credible nominee.

In the Tea Party debate Monday night Bachmann scored what is likely to be the first of many blows on the subject of Perry’s pay-for-play politics. For her attack she selected the incident most likely to resonate with her religious base, but there’s plenty more where that came from.

Bachmann criticized Perry’s order requiring pre-teen girls in Texas to receive a vaccine against the HPV virus, a very common sexually transmitted disease. There’s room to argue the merits of the vaccine, but the process by which it became law is strange. When I say strange here, I mean strange in a “F*^%$-Golden” sort of way.

For starters, my beloved home state of Texas hardly mandates anything. People still complain about wearing seatbelts. What’s more, everyone knows that good girls in Texas don’t have sex and the handful that do just get what’s coming to them. So why in all hell would the Governor of Texas, by executive order no less, make an STD vaccine a statewide requirement for all girls? Its offensive to his base, violates his principles, and forces parents into awkward conversations about you-know-what.

The Legislature wouldn’t have passed this law in a million years for a million dollars (though, for six million, who knows?). So Perry took matters in his own hands and simply went around them with an executive order.

Perry’s former chief of staff was the lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company that was marketing the vaccine. The company, Merck, made a modest donation of $5,000 that year to Perry, which is not all that significant. Perhaps it was the inside relationship, a bit of backslapping, and a subtle “you know I still have those photographs” that made the wisdom of the policy coalesce for him. Or it might have been the $30,000 Merck had donated to Perry over the years. Or maybe it was the $355,000 they gave to the Republican Governor’s Association under Perry’s leadership.

Possibly he just had a burst of concern for the reproductive health of women – a concern that appeared out of nowhere, extended only as far as this vaccine, and stayed with him just long enough to sign the order before disappearing forever.

It’s not Bachmann’s attack on this issue as much as Perry’s response that really made the night fun. When she mentioned the $5,000 contribution from Merck Perry’s response was, “It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them. I raised about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

That’s right. He didn’t say, “How dare you accuse me of corrupt dealings!” or “I always do what’s best for the people of Texas,” or even “The unprecedented campaign cash I raked in only affected my policies a little bit around the edges.” His response amounts to, “You have no idea how much I cost, you Yankee shrew.”

Perry got sideways at Bachmann for calling him cheap.

We badly need to win this election, but the first step is to nominate a competent adult. We’re laboring through our third consecutive nutjob “frontrunner” after Trump and Bachmann have taken their humiliating turns. God willing in the end we will do what Republicans always do – pick the guy who finished second last time.

If a single $5,000 donation could persuade Rick Perry to put his career in jeopardy, how much money would it take to make him quit?

The Liberal Apocalypse

Deep in the Bible Belt folks know the comfort of the coming Apocalypse.  Most have enough sense not to try to predict its exact date, but just about anyone can appreciate its appeal.  The End of Days is an escapist/revenge fantasy in which all those fools who doubted us will weep amid a variety of sadistic torments while we enjoy an everlasting snow day.

How many of us who were raised in the era before constant electronic communication remember the feeling of coming home to an empty house and wondering if The Rapture had occurred?  Come on, don’t be shy, go ahead and raise those hands…

In this age of equality, why should liberals miss out on the apocalyptic fun?  Turns out there’s a long secular history of apocalyptic thinking and it has produced policies just as toxic as anything dreamed up by fundamentalists.  Going all the way back to Thomas Malthus in the 18th Century people have been warning that our prosperity will be our undoing; that capitalism and growth will leave the world a scorched, lifeless heap.  They’re still wrong.

Now the normally rational Tom Friedman is ringing that bell in a New York Times piece.  He is embracing the work of doomist Paul Gilding and announcing that “The Earth is Full.”  Friedman and Gilding are a little late to this party.  Environmentalist Paul Ehrlich predicted population doomsday almost half a century ago.  So how are those predictions turning out?

Human populations, which the Malthusians in every age predict will overwhelm us any day now, not only failed to do so, they seem to be approaching a peak of around nine billion perhaps later this century.  One of China’s worst looming problems among a galaxy of looming problems is a potentially catastrophic population decline.  Everywhere in the world where free markets and economic vitality have triumphed population growth is slowing and in some cases beginning to reverse.

The Malthusians have been consistently wrong for more than 200 years – a worse record than Harold Camping, but we just can’t stop ourselves from buying what the doomists of every persuasion are selling. The population/environmental end of the world fills the same psychological gap for the left that fundamentalists address with their ever-imminent Apocalypse. They even use the same language and imagery. There’s a perverse voice inside that us that craves The End, regardless of our religion or politics.  We’ll create that narrative out of whatever spare parts we have to work with.

Civilization always feels fragile and unnatural, doomed to collapse.  Yet on it goes.  Challenges like terrorism, global warming, and water scarcity come up, but solutions are always found somewhere between the panicked alarmists and the militant deniers.  It is innovation that makes us human and it is innovation that keeps us alive.

We are some very clever monkeys.  It would be a mistake to bet against us.

Does the Iowa Caucus Matter?

Some have speculated that the Iowa Caucus, with its quirky, undemocratic style is losing its relevance.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Recent history demonstrates that the Iowa Caucus is an absolutely critical step toward the highest ambition of most Republican Presidential candidates – a successful broadcasting career.

It’s not so important anymore for that other thing.

Iowa’s first in the nation nominating caucus is a bizarre animal.  I’m not going to even try to describe the details.  It is not a primary.  It’s not an election.  It’s a very personal, participatory process, the kind of thing that in our day and age is tough for ordinary people to fit into their lives.

In both Parties it grants disproportionate influence to folks with too much time on their hands.  For the Republicans in particular, the Iowa Caucus skews toward the deeply religious and the…uh…less rational.  It has become a hefty investment of time and money that a serious candidate would do well to avoid unless he intends to build his entire career around the religious right (see, George Bush II).

Since 1980, there have been five elections in which there was no sitting Republican President.  The Iowa Caucus picked the Republican winner in those nominating races only twice, Bob Dole in 1996 and George Bush in 2000.

In ’96, there was no real Republican competition, but Dole still only edged out by hyper-conservative talk show host Pat Buchanan by a few points.  Bush in 2000 was running as the candidate of the fundamentalists against a stiff challenge from John McCain.  McCain mostly skipped Iowa, finishing fifth there.

But don’t discount Iowa.  Half of the past six Caucuses successfully identified the frontrunner for the most important race in the modern Republican politisphere – who’s going to get the fat contract with the evil lamestream media.  Look at this list of first or second place finishers and it reads like a TV Guide:

1988 – Pat Robertson (finished close second to Dole)

1996 – Pat Buchanan (finished close second to Dole)

2008 – Mike Huckabee (won outright while McCain finished 4th and eventually took the GOP nomination)

And you can identify the biggest GOP losers by the Iowa Caucus results too.  Alan Keyes was an aspiring AM radio ranter and perennial candidate in 2000 when his third place finish in Iowa badly dented his status.  He still finished two notches ahead of John McCain, but that sort of thing only matters if you’re trying to become President.  The best Keyes could do after that was a brief stint on MSNBC and a comic role as a Republican Senate candidate in Illinois.

The rich crop of religious fundamentalists and wingnuts in this year’s GOP race mean that Iowa will likely be more important than ever.  The race will be particularly critical for Herman Cain, who like Alan Keyes in 2000 is hoping to take his AM radio shtick to a bigger audience.  Likewise, former Senator Rick Santorum needs a strong Iowa showing if he’s ever going to get a syndicated show.  He had only achieved “contributor” status prior to this run.

But this race will ultimately be the Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s to lose.  Anything better than third place and she might finally be able to leave the drudgery of Congress behind for the one place on Earth where she’s ready for prime-time – Fox News.  Good luck and Godspeed.

As for the GOP nomination, well, someone will win that I suppose.

Sex Tips for Politicians

This post is specially dedicated to my thousands of admiring readers who are major political figures (you can’t prove otherwise).  It’s time we had a grown-up talk.

When Bill Clinton left office I thought it was finally safe for children to watch the news again.  But clearly you folks need some help dealing with two very important subjects: The Internet and your personal sexual choices which creep me out.  Why?  Not to save your careers, or protect the Republic, or advance your political agenda.  I want you to listen to my advice because I’m sick of hearing what you cheeky monkeys do with your free time and I’d like a break.

Many of you came of age in the era of the rotary dial phone, so let me take a moment to explain the Internet.  The Internet is a place where people post semi-anonymous naked pictures of themselves for anyone to enjoy.  It can also be used for other stuff like playing games, stealing classified information, pirating movies, and virtual farming.

But, mostly it’s for nudity.

You may be thinking, “Awesome, how can I get started?”  You’re right to be excited, but first things first.

You need to understand that some of your more repressed constituents might respond negatively to unsolicited messages which include pictures of your crotch (or “weiner” as the kids call it these days).  The Internet might seem like a magical, anonymous place where you can finally let your pervy self breathe free, but don’t be fooled.  Whatever you do there will eventually find its way onto the pages of the New York Times.  We all know this won’t stop you from sending sexually explicit messages to underage staffers, but it requires you to make some plans for the future.

Regardless of your party affiliation, policy positions, or the “substantive issues” you think people ought to be focusing their attention on, you will need to have a plan for what to do when (let’s just skip the “if”) those animals in the lamestream media notice what you’ve been doing with your Twitter feed.  I want to help you help me by having your lewd behavior disappear quickly from the headlines.

The good news is that this new era of electronic political sex scandals works just like the good old days when drunken politicians used to drown pretty girls after driving off a bridge.  Don’t let the fancy technical details dazzle you.  Responding to your digital scandals requires the same political blocking and tackling you learned after that incident at the frat party.

Regardless whether the scandal you’re experiencing is the result of electronic fumbling or failure to pay off your gay masseuse/meth dealer, your response should be the same.   The next time you’re caught sending lewd emails, get arrested soliciting sex in a bathroom, or find that your private stash of totally awesome self-crotch-portraits has been raided and shared on the Interwebs, stop for a moment to think before your next move.

In that moment you must resist your overwhelming urge to lie.  This goes against every political instinct,  but trust me this terribly embarrassing incident is the one time in your political career when it might actually pay to tell the truth.  Tell the whole truth.  Tell it once.  Then kiss your miserable wife and go home.

Compare these examples.

Democratic Congressman Barney Frank engaged in a years’ long relationship with a gay prostitute.  Along the way he used his political position to help the guy deal with his criminal problems.  Career-ender, right?  Wrong.  Frank candidly admitted what he had done and convincingly denied what he hadn’t.  He is still one of the most powerful figures on Capitol Hill.

And it works just as well for Republicans.  Even if you’ve built your career on half-sincere religious prudery, all is not lost when you’re caught at a brothel.  Remember Sen. David Vitter’s career-ending scandal?  Darn right you don’t, because he handled it correctly.  He acknowledged the provable details in a written statement, stopped talking to the media, ignored the more disgusting details as they emerged, and waited for America’s collective attention deficit disorder to work its magic.  And he continues to collect a federal paycheck as a Louisiana Senator.

If you look into the camera, tell it straight, and hold your ground you can get away with anything in this country.  Newt Gingrich cheated on I don’t know how many wives.  He blamed it on America for being so unbelievably hot he couldn’t stand it.  And now he’s a serious (well, serious Republican) Presidential candidate.

Compare that to John Ensign, the only honest to God Pentecostal and authentic Promise Keeper in the Senate.  He got caught cheating on his wife.  Yea, that’s all.  No call girls or diapers or corpses.  Easy, right?

Instead of using the Vitter Gambit like a pro, he tried to shut the matter up by arranging a political job for the woman’s angry husband and funneling business to him through his political donors.  Then he paid the woman off with $96,000.  Entirely unnecessary, not to mention expensive.  Oh, and criminal.

Now instead of running for President he’s looking at his retirement options, which include a shot at free federal room and board with unlimited homemade tattoos.

Don’t be a Weiner.  Even in the Internet Age, whatever you did can’t top Ted Kennedy.  Don’t bother lying.  And definitely don’t spit out bizarre evasions in front of Rachel Maddow.  If your story makes sense and the details check out, the public will lose interest within a week or so regardless of how disgusting your actions might have been.

Swallow your pride, acknowledge what you did, and decide what to do with your career.  And please get off the front page.  We have more important things to be disgusted by.