26 September 2008

Imagination, Part II

Earlier this summer, I put out a post called Imagination, describing the idea behind geofiction. Having grown up, I created my own example of geofiction: a place called Honoleo. It's stayed with me all these years and I've just had a chance to finish a revised map of the place, using Adobe Illustrator.

Here it is...just a start. Hopefully as I learn how to use the software I'll make successive maps more detailed and interesting. Rather than explain it all, I think I'll leave it hear for you to imagine, or to ask me any questions. Have fun!

25 September 2008

Making Sense of Sarah, Part V: Vice President?

In the course of the last few weeks, I've spoken my peace about Sarah Palin here on Vox Civitatis. To conclude, while she clearly has some impressive qualities -- including a latent ability to inspire and mobilize constituents central to McCain's chances at success in this election, a demonstrated ability to move rapidly from City Councilwoman to Mayor to State Oil Commissioner to Governor, a compelling story (she, like Obama, derived political power without the benefit of a pedigree) and, most importantly, her admirable (at least by the face of it) motherhood and family life.

So at some level I'm proud of her for making it as far as she has, and I admire her ability to at once break barriers while still respecting some of the deepest-held social values in our Country. It's that kind ability to find balance in the seeming complexity in life that I find admirable in people, and it bodes well for good political leaders.

Unfortunately, she is unfit for the office she seeks. Her career as Mayor and Governor is a case study in authoritarianism, cronyism, an inability to keep her private grievances private, profligate spending, lies (at least twelve odd lies, according to Andrew Sullivan), profligate spending, and, as evidenced by her responses to the rape test kits and the book censorship question, a blithe indifference about the finer points of governance and an attenuated sense of the constitutional and moral obligations of public office. McCain asked us to look at her record. I did, and I don't like what I see. What I don't like doesn't have much to do about ideology; it has to do with process, with the day-to-day act of governing, and with the set of principles that guides and nurtures quality leadership. These issues are not partisan, and no party can claim a monopoly on them. Good leadership is a self-evident characteristic, and I just don't see it in Sarah Palin.

These happen to be the things that matter to me, since I was a student of government and I have since dedicated my life to public service. My complaints are arcane and academic, but they matter to me because it's the world I live in, day-to-day. And, you know, it's not like this world doesn't matter. The next President and Vice President will inherit a vast bureaucracy, and recent history shows that Vice Presidents have significant influence over how that bureaucracy functions.

Based on Palin's leadership style as evidenced by her career, I shudder to think of her a heartbeat away. She may be a fantastic mother, and that plays a major part in her success in the national arena. But being a good mother and being a good statesman require different skill sets. It's a mistake to conflate the two.

In the last few weeks, it has emerged, also, that Sarah Palin is frankly, ill equipped for the task she is asking us to give her. She's held three sit-down interviews and has had no other press availability other than answering the odd question shouted from a reporters' pool. Her interviews (the only chance the nation has gotten so far to see her respond to substantive issues) have been train-wrecks. Rather than detail them out to you, I offer a few clips below. Suffice to say she relies heavily on the anodyne talking points of her party, goes to great and painful lengths to avoid specifics, and is skilled at saying so much

Watch CBS Videos Online

(the last 30 seconds is very revealing)

her interviews are breathtakingly bad, and reminds me of the times when I was a high school debater, being asked in a round a question that I was woefully unprepared to answer. This is the sense I get from Sarah Palin on the national stage. While I don't think she's a slouch, I think her range of experience (and, frankly, interest) is so limited that it renders her substantively unqualified for the the office she seeks.

Politically, I see the appeal of having Palin on McCain's ticket. It may yet rescue his campaign. But I am astounded at how ill-conceived this pick is, from the standpoint of actually running a country. Either McCain didn't know about Sarah Palin's shortcomings, which we are just now learning about, or he didn't care. Either way, it does not instill confidence in me that he will make a good President. In fact, quite the opposite. Looking at the choice of Sarah Palin in the broader context of the other rash, impulsive choices McCain has made to shake up his campaign time and time again calls into question whether or not McCain himself is temperamentally suited for the job. If he isn't, he and Palin will make quite a pair if they take office.

24 September 2008

Andrew Seconds That

Andrew Sullivan posted an email I sent to him earlier today, making the point I made in the post immediately below. Cool huh?

Leadership in a Crisis.

A few years ago, my house got broken into in the middle of my term in grad school. I was still expected to turn in my homework on time. McCain should debate.

If McCain were a rational candidate wanting to demonstrate leadership in a time of crisis, he would simply suggest refocusing Friday's debate on economic issues, and holding it in Washington, D.C., so that he and Senator Obama could be present on the hill for a vote if one were to be called. Alas, he's yet again demonstraited a callow, vainglorious attitude in his campaign for the Presidency by dramatically suspending his candidacy and calling for a postponement of the debate while Congress debates the bailout package. It's part of a pattern that does not instill confidence in his ability to steadily guide a nation through crisis.

By one account, a deal is almost sealed anyway, and there's a legitimate question as to whether two senators whose presence would inevitably politicize the process more than it's been politicized already, would even help.

All this shows me is that he's demonstrably unfit for the job. I'm voting for the candidate who acts like an adult.

23 September 2008

Don't Cry for Me, Alaska

Image credit: Reuters

Today, from the Associated Press...

"ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Less than a week after balking at the Alaska Legislature's investigation into her alleged abuse of power, Gov. Sarah Palin on Monday indicated she will cooperate with a separate probe run by people she can fire."

This lede is clearly dripping with contempt, but understandably so. I still have yet to write my concluding thoughts on Sarah Palin, but the AP's sentence captures the central thrust: that far from being a maverick or a reformer, Sarah Palin is mercurial, cavalier, opaque in the management of her public affairs, and frankly just not attuned to the unique burdens and obligations that come with elected office in our Republic. If the lede were written about a dusty former Soviet Republic or a benighted African kleptocracy, we'd either laugh, roll our eyes, or shake our heads, knowing such behavior is to be expected. Alas, this is the United States of America.

22 September 2008

We The People

"Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency."

-- Section 8 of the draft legislation on the financial bailout working its way around Congress as I write this.

Almost $1 trillion of our national wealth may get wiped away without the slightest bit of oversight, review, transparency, or accountability. Whose country is this?

One of the saddest, most distressing legacies of the Bush years is the unprecedented and reckless expansion of the executive branch in ways that preclude judicial review, congressional oversight, transparency, or respect to our nation's founding principles.

16 September 2008

The Bullwinkle Election

“Sarah knows how to field-dress a moose. I know how to castrate a calf. Neither of those things has anything at all to do with this election. But since we know so much about Sarah’s special skills, I wanted to make sure you knew about mine too,”

-- Iowa's Liutenant Governor, Patty Judge, on Sarah Palin.

14 September 2008

Making Sense of Sarah, Part IV: Governor

Photo note: Palin in Kuwait. Big lies and small lies...Palin's people initially reported that she had been to four foreign countries: Ireland, Germany, Kuwait, and Iraq. All were visited on an official visit as Commander in Chief of the Alaska National Guard. Turns out that Ireland was a refueling stop, and she never left the plane. Today the campaign admitted that she made it to a border crossing in Kuwait but was not given the permissions to cross into Iraq. After a big lie, repeated over and over again, the small lies begin to matter.

Palin’s trajectory from mayor to governor was quick and auspicious. In 2002, she mounted a bold outsider bid for Lieutenant Governor, but lost out to a better-funded and better-connected politician. According to Politico, her loss was quite auspicious, as her would-be running mate, Frank Murkowski, would later appoint his own daughter to the United States Senate seat when he moved to Juneau, and would later be embroiled in his own corruption scandal.

Term-limited out of a job, Palin took a position with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and shortly after her appointment, she blew the whistle on one of the commissioners. This action enhanced her credibility with the State Republican Party worried about its long-term electoral prospects and fixed her reputation from her time as Wasilla mayor as a reformer and a change agent. In 2006, she defeated Murkowski easily in the GOP primary soon thereafter became Alaska’s youngest and first female Governor.

Her time as governor is now well documented, and the investigative pieces by the Washington Post and the New York Times are worth a read. They paint a picture of a Governor who is willing to break some china in the pursuit of her causes (which, by the way, can be a good thing in a leader), but the articles bring to light some darker issues. The Times piece indicates that Palin hired extensively from her network of high school friends, including Franci Havemeister, appointed to head Alaska’s Agriculture Department. Havemeister was a realtor in her previous life, and cited her “love of cows” as a qualification for running the department.

The accusations of cronyism are certainly not unique to her. Our current President has raised cronyism and hackery to new heights in the modern era. But examples like Palin’s cow-loving Agriculture director raises a question that you will see raised over and over again in the remaining weeks of this campaign: isn’t this at odds with her carefully cultivated image as a maverick and a reformer?

During her time as Governor, Palin worked closely with Alaska’s congressional delegation in pursuing federal earmarks for state projects. On a per capita basis, Alaska’s earmark haul was well in excess of any other state in the Union, at over $500 a person. The video below explains it – and yes, it includes pigs.

Going into deeper detail, the AP does a handy fact check on Palin’s earmark record. Granted, earmarks have reduced significantly under her watch, but $200 million in a fiscal year is still a great many earmarks. Furthermore, the McCain-Palin campaign has consistently promoted her as a determined earmark reformer, but her record as Governor undercuts this claim. Again, politicians play this game all the time, but Palin is selling herself as something entirely different, and has asked us to judge her on the criteria that she herself set. So be it. Now let’s talk about that bridge!

Palin’s repeated claim that that she said “thanks, but no thanks, to that Bridge to Nowhere” has turned out to be a lie. Not just a typical politician white misstatement, but a really massive lie – that, astonishingly she has repeated several times since almost every major media outlet called her on it. This rises to the level of a major issue because of her insistence on making that claim in her stump speeches, as recently as yesterday.

What makes this lie all the more remarkable was that Congress effectively killed the Bridge to Nowhere before Sarah Palin even became governor, and she pressed hard to get a less grandiose version of the project resurrected. When her efforts failed, she still managed to keep the funds initially allocated for the project, redistributing them to other projects across the state. Again, an understandable political decision that probably countless governors and mayors have made. But it’s not exactly “thanks, but no thanks,” is it? This wouldn’t be such a big deal to me if she hadn’t made this issue a central element of her campaign. It shows her to be a liar. And the campaign’s continued insistence on propagating this lie is an insult to voters.

Another important issue that may emerge is the alleged heavy hand she placed upon Alaska’s top cop in firing a state trooper who happened to be the ex-husband of her sister. This issue has been reported extensively, but the real meat of it – if there is any – will be revealed in the course of a pending investigation by the State of Alaska. Suffice it to say, what I find shocking is that McCain chose Palin with this investigation underway. There is ample evidence to suggest that McCain’s choice was rushed (they met only once before and shared a few phone calls before the offer was made) and that she was, at least in the conventional sense, unvetted. With her political career littered with wedge issue politics in a small town, rhetorical questions on banning books, profligate spending and high municipal debt service, rape test kits, a massive and sustained commitment to earmarks, and a fight to the death to save a bridge that she would later lie about, it is hard to see how, if Sarah Palin went through a normal vetting process, she would be the Vice Presidential nominee today.

Making Sense of Sarah, Part III: Mayor

Contra Rick Davis' odious campaign tactics and Sarah Palin’s honorable motherhood, it is the issues that interest me in this election, So when Palin or the media talk about her role as Mayor of Wasilla, and the McCain camp cites her two terms as Mayor as a reason why she’s prepared to be Vice President, one needs to look at how she employed her responsibilities as Mayor. I have, I don’t like what I learned.

Nathan Thornburgh of TIME wrote a useful piece on September 2 describing how she ran Wasilla. One of the highlights of this piece is that, allegedly, Palin injected hot-button social issues in her campaign for Mayor in 1994. In a town where the pressing questions were infrastructure needs and public safety, Palin’s opponent at the time asserted that the Palin campaign raised gun control and abortion as issues in her campaign against her opponent, although an American municipal government has no leverage over these issues. To run a campaign on issues over which you would have no control as an executive is disingenuous and dangerous. Having been subject to small town politics, I’ve seen what happens when essential issues get overwhelmed by the traumas of the culture wars – and it’s never pretty. A quick read of this Washington Post article reminds me of some the various shenanigans, distractions, and putsches that have occurred in South Salt Lake, the small suburb where I live.

As long as we’re looking at her mayoral record, Palin did a few things that I question: her decision to hire a city administrator to assist her with the day-to-day tasks in a town of a little over 5,000 people, a budget of $6 million and a workforce of 56, was money probably better spent elsewhere. Her plan for a sports complex that cost nearly $20 million, supported by a bond and a sales tax increase, was an enormous financial burden to place on such a small community (one report I’ve read states that the sports complex is still not able to support itself through membership fees and is a continued drain on the Wasilla treasury). Certainly, her decision to hire a lobbyist to gather over $27 million in earmarks in her time as Mayor undercuts a fundamental claim that the McCain campaign has made: that she is a reformer who has stridently and consistently opposed earmarks. At least that was the impression I got from her speeches. But more on that later. These questions I raise are admittedly wonkish, and none of these prevented Palin from getting re-elected in 1998. Clearly, most of the people of Wasilla liked her.

Two separate stories emerged from her time as Mayor that caused me to question her judgment and fitness as a public figure. In two cases where she was given the opportunity to demonstrate grit, dignity, and humanity as a public figure, she apparently didn’t. The first issue is about the library and censorship. The second issue involved rape test kits.

Shortly after Palin became Mayor, she asked the City Librarian what the process was on banning books. The Librarian, reportedly aghast, replied that there was none and that books would not be banned on her watched. The Librarian was fired, then reinstated after a community uproar. Palin later claimed she was merely being “rhetorical” when she asked the question. For the sake of argument, let’s take her at her word for a moment as I walk you through a thought experiment.

For the past four years, I’ve been a Planning Commissioner, an appointed volunteer position in the City of South Salt Lake. Imagine me in a public hearing, where the petitioner is seeking the destruction of a man’s house in order to build a strip mall. In this hearing, I ask the City Planner if, hypothetically, there’s any way we can condemn a house to make way for commercial development, without paying the property owner?

Imagine the reaction. What do you think the City Planner would say to me? How would the Mayor react? He appointed me; would he terminate my appointment? Most importantly, what would that question say about my fitness to be a Planning Commissioner?

The answers are simple: The City Planner would say to me that people have a constitutional guarantee to life, liberty, and property, and that property owners are entitled to fair market value for their property if it is taken from them. The Mayor would be furious, and rightly so, for implying that one of his constituents didn’t have a valid property right, and he would be within his purview to terminate my commission. Most importantly, were I to ask such a ridiculous question would betray my fundamental lack of fitness for the job.

I hold the right to speech as high as the right to hold property safely, and I think the Founders would agree with me. Palin’s “rhetorical” question is ridiculous, and it shows a shockingly poor understanding of peoples’ rights and a callow attitude to the oath that she presumably took to uphold the Constitution. She had the opportunity to clearly state a commitment to free speech and the right of people to read and learn without the interference of a community censor. She failed, instead, asking a question that should never be asked by a responsible public official, hypothetical, rhetorical, or otherwise.

As if that weren’t bad enough, I came across a story on Thursday that asserted that the Wasilla Police Department under Palin charged the cost of rape test kits to victims’ insurance when possible. According to former governor Tony Knowles, Wasilla was the only municipality in Alaska that had such a policy. In 2000, the Alaska Legislature passed a law banning the practice.

When Palin became Mayor, Wasilla had a surplus of $4 million. By the time she left, Wasilla collected $27 million in federal earmarks and construction was underway on a $20 million sports center. Yet here’s what her Police Chief, Charlie Fannon, said in an interview to the Frontiersman, Wasilla’s newspaper:

"In the past we’ve charged the cost of exams to the victims’ insurance company when possible," Fannon told the newspaper. "I just don’t want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer."

Harry S. Truman famously said “the buck stops here” when describing his responsibility as President. Sarah Palin made much the same point when she described the nature of her tenure as mayor in a cheap shot against Obama during her convention speech: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” The buck stopped with her, and she had the responsibility over her police department. Fannon said in the local newspaper essentially that Wasilla couldn’t afford the $5,000 to $14,000 liability of performing forensic tests on rape victims, while apparently the City was able to find the money for a sports center, a transit hub, a rail project, and other earmarked goodies, some of which McCain objected to. Here again, Palin was given an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and kill this policy right away, because it’s egregious, deplorable, indefensible, and inhumane. Instead, she either chose not to or she didn’t know (and if she didn’t know at the time, shouldn’t she have been reading her local paper?). Either way, it causes me to seriously doubt her judgment and fitness to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.

Pasrt Four: Governor and Part Five: Vice President? are coming soon. Stay tuned!

Making Sense of Sarah, Part II: Mom

By choosing Palin, McCain eliminated in a stroke the lack of enthusiasm he found among the Evangelical Christian base of his party. Much of this has to do with her role as a mother. The genius of McCain's choice is that he can mollify restive pro-life activists within his party without mentioning hardly anything about abortion, which could alienate the swing voters he will need to win election. Sarah Palin need not say much about abortion either: in what was undoubtedly among the most momentous decisions in her life, she sided with life. After a prenatal exam revealed that her her baby would be born with Down Syndrome, she carried him to term. Trig Paxson Van Palin was born earlier this year, and in her words, he is a “perfect” and “beautiful” baby boy.

Her decision to carry Trig to term is a powerful testament to her character and to the strength of her family, and it puts her at odds with the norm. According to Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, 90 percent of fetuses who are determined to have Down Syndrome are aborted. Gerson's beautiful article is well worth the read.

Having grown up with a neighbor who devoted her life to caring for Down children in her home, and having played with these kids, I find that statistic horrifying. Palin is right: these are perfect and beautiful people, capable of the full panoply of the human experience, and aborting them is tantamount to eugenics. I commend her and her husband for carrying Trig to term, bringing him into the world, and acknowledging his full dignity and humanity. For all the questions I have regarding Sarah Palin’s judgment and principles as a public official, her decision not to abort is very strong testament to her character as a mom. It showed clearly in her speech in St. Paul, when she looked assertively into the camera, and said:

To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House.

It was a powerful moment, and one of the highlights of this campaign. She is not only the most authentically pro-life candidate on a Republican ticket that I can remember, her presence on the campaign moves forward the need for more awareness, compassion, and care for special needs kids. It’s little wonder why the Republican base is so enthusiastic. They have good reason to be. Her decision to carry her baby to term is a strong testament to her character.

Her honorable choice reflects grit, dignity, and humanity that suggests that she is a fine mother with a strong moral compass. However, there is a difference between personal virtue and public virtue – and so it is to her public persona that I now turn. The McCain campaign clearly wants us to keep our eyes trained on the personal: in the past two weeks press access to either of them has been very limited, and McCain’s campaign manager famously said that this election is “not about issues” (which in these grave times is political malpractice, condescending to voters, and a disservice to the public debate – but that’s another post for another time).

Making Sense of Sarah, Part I

On August 29th, John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in his quest for the presidency in 2008. This choice accomplished a few things: it invigorated many Republicans who had not yet warmed to the idea of a McCain presidency, it was a strong symbolic statement that McCain was willing to think outside the box and look into the future, and most importantly and urgently for McCain, it altered the narrative of the race – in his favor, at least for the time being.

The two weeks since McCain made his choice has been the most interesting episode in American politics that I’ve observed. In some respects, it’s been one of the most horrifying, with the nadir being the tasteless smear whose flame was fanned by none other than my favorite blogger, Andrew Sullivan. I’ve been trying to make sense of the Sarah Palin phenomenon, and this post is the result of my musings on the matter. Let’s be clear: I am not a fan. She’s not playing on my team this year. However, my concerns run a bit deeper than mere partisan preference. In the last two weeks, the nation has glimpsed a fascinating political character who by dint of a killer convention speech, and an iconic and sympathetic life story, has become extremely popular. She has reached an Obama-like level of celebrity while striving to be the anti-Obama: perfectly familiar, everyone’s favorite neighborhood mom, down to earth, relatable, savvy, and neighborly. The McCain campaign is working to maintain this perception of her, as they believe it will place them on the royal road to victory. So far, it seems to be working.

And yet, Palin, McCain, and their surrogates asked us to acknowledge her record: she was a small town mayor and is governor of a very unique and challenging state. In contrast to any of the other candidates in the race, including her running mate, she alone can point to years of executive experience. They asked, and I will oblige. I have paid particular attention to her record both as mayor of Wasilla and as governor of Alaska, and a number of things I see are troubling. In addition, the last two weeks have elicited aspects of her character as a public official that are disturbing. Finally, there is the question as to her readiness to be only a heartbeat away from the presidency. I will attempt to address each of these issues, but first things first: to make sense of Sarah requires acknowledgement of her role as a devoted mother: as the keystone of her story and her public persona, this explains why so much of the Republican rank-and-file responded so rapturously to her campaign.