Saturday, December 29, 2007

Vote McCain, save the GOP

I’m an old-fashioned girl. I like my presidents to be heroes.

I yearn for an astute student of history, policy and diplomacy who walks among us today and not simply in dusty David McCullough biographies.

Because we are in the throes of a national identity crisis in education, globalization, foreign affairs, health care and retirement costs.

This is a time for heroes.

Of the 698 candidates for president, there's only one whose hair was shocked white at age 29 after broken bones, rope bindings and dysentery courtesy of the North Vietnamese. He refused to be released unless every prisoner of war got the same deal - so there he stayed for more than five years.

That's far more courage than most of us will ever be called upon to exhibit in a lifetime.

Maybe that's why it's been a simple matter of conscience for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to cross party lines hunting for reasonable solutions on campaign finance, immigration and judicial nominees. And why so many people respect him who don’t share his politics.

Maybe that’s why McCain has always cherished freedom – particularly freedom of the press – even in a time when George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton have perfected stonewalling, intimidation and mistrust of the media to an art form.

Maybe that's why McCain’s humble enough to admit that some of the Machiavellian stunts he's pulled in his quest to become the next Leader of the Free World - like softening his criticism of the Confederate flag - were just plain wrong.

Those are some of my personal reasons for voting McCain in the Jan. 15 presidential primary, just as thousands of independents did in 2000.

But even if you don’t agree, here's another overarching reason why you should pull the lever for him.

We need to save the Republican Party. And it's in the interest of all of us — Democrat, Republican or independent — to do so.

First, the obvious question: Why in the world would Democrats want to do that? Because the status quo of polarization and gridlock benefits no one but lobbyists and interest groups.

There’s no movement on the most important issues of the day – Iraq, immigration and taxes – because compromise is akin to treason. More importantly, it could cost you re-election.

You know we’ve struck nadir when political odd couples like Newt Gingrich and Bob Kerrey hit the talk show circuit bemoaning the bloody death of bipartisanship.

Decades ago, D’s and R’s would dish it out but come together on vital issues, particularly on Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Many Republicans like Gerald Ford were considered more liberal on foreign affairs than Democrats. How refreshing.

But since the ‘80s, an increasingly hysterical minority has conquered the GOP, obsessed with politically irrelevant social issues. (How ‘bout this: Let the folks who went to med school sort out stem cells and abortion, let Chuck and Larry decide if they want to get hitched and spend some quality time perfecting your own damn marriage).

The result: New frontrunner Mike Huckabee, who honestly says he’s topping the polls because of “the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people.”

No matter how much Dems might salivate over this Christian caricature as the GOP contender, you don’t want him.

We deserve choices. We deserve at least two viable, thoughtful and sane parties. Look at the dearth of options on the D side of the Michigan primary. There are some Democrats I’d consider voting for, but they’re not on the ballot.

The law of averages and political cycles dictate Republicans will win some elections. We shouldn’t have to fear the draconian damage wreaked by extremists like Dick DeVos.

That also means there’s no competition in the marketplace of ideas. All Gov. Jennifer Granholm had to prove last year was that she was more likeable than a guy parodied as a beady-eyed, blueblood inbred. There was no real vision – and look at the mess we’re in now.

John McCain has ideas. You might not agree with them. Although a principled conservative and hawk, he refuses to be held captive by ideology or theology.

Unfortunately, I think he’s swallowed some bad advice, especially from his Mitten State campaign. He joined the fray, kissing the rings of religious right royalty.

Stop. No matter how many Bush henchmen or Swift Boat ad goons McCain hires, the true believers will never forgive him for calling them out in 2000.

It’s not too late to turn things around in Michigan and win the nomination. But if McCain doesn’t, many Republicans I’ve interviewed say they’ll part ways with the narrowing Party of Lincoln.

They’ll join the biggest political party today – no party.

Huckabee’s reaction may be the same as that to godless heathens who don’t get his success: “That’s probably just as well.”

Mine is: What a pity.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Campaign finance for charlatans

It’s the clash of Congressman Club for Growth vs. Senator Slush Fund.

Forgive me for not being all aquiver.

Evidently, the 7th Congressional District has very bad karma, because so far, U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and state Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Bedford Township, seem sure to face off next year.

And neither has the vision, experience or ethics to do the job at a time when the depressed district needs genuine leadership.

Walberg, as you’ll recall, sweet-talked the cabalistic Club for Growth lobby into shoveling more than $1 million into his 2006 campaign. How else could a Know Nothing state rep whose only accomplishment was voting no on everything topple a tough incumbent in the primary?

Timmy even needed bags of cash from the Club when squaring off in the general election against Sharon Renier, a chicken farmer with $1.03 in the bank.

Well, lots of politicians get creative to raise dough, but the preacher and his anti-tax CFG partners in crime might well have run afoul of the law.

Three complaints (now rolled into two) filed in 2006 with the Federal Election Commission claim Walberg illegally took $500,000 of Club-raised cash, the group failed to properly register its activities as a political action committee and both were in cahoots (no!), illegally sharing pollsters and consultants.

The lovefest’s lasted after the election, with Walberg and the missus in April enjoying a $3,332 Club for Growth junket to the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach and a cruise on a 170-foot yacht, CQ MoneyLine reports.

Because when you’re chit-chatting about cutting government to the bone, you gotta do it in the lap of luxury.

The FEC dismissed the grievances, but they're being appealed. Walbots deny the allegations, sniffing it’s a sour-grapes plot by his foe, former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz.

What’s clear is CFG ain’t exactly the Boy Scouts. In September, the lobby agreed to pay $350,000 in civil penalties to settle a lawsuit the FEC itself filed in 2005, arguing the group should have registered as a PAC in 2000, 2002 and 2004.

As for Walberg’s character, there’s something vile about an alleged man of God rapturously crucifying his enemies, from the “embarrassingly liberal” Schwarz to the “radical” Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, Schauer, beatified by the left, often gets a pass.

But in his quest to take back the Senate last year – which failed wretchedly – Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s lapdog dove headfirst into campaign finance quicksand.

Schauer served as chair of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, while his bombastic chief of staff, Ken Brock, took over as treasurer of the Senate Democratic Fund.

The fund raked in $440,000 above the legal limit of $20,000 per person – which the Dems don’t deny. Twelve senatorial candidate committees violated that, with Schauer as the worst offender at $187,000.

The moolah was instantly pumped into the campaigns of four key candidates, three of whom were trounced anyway.

For state races, this is a staggering chunk of change. The grievance is pretty cut and dried. When seven candidates got wind of the GOP’s Secretary of State complaint, they ostensibly demanded a refund. Marky-Mark did not.

A Schauer spokesman protests Republicans have done this before, so somehow it’s a-OK. Tom Lenard cites a 1995 SOS ruling that candidates can give till it hurts if they're trying to advance their career. Problem is, the department, which is still investigating, notes that came before the $20,000 cap was set in 1996.

Democrats also argue a federal judge didn’t grant an injunction against the fund last year - but he didn’t buy the old SOS ruling, either.

Schauer’s not exactly a model of moral turpitude, having brazenly lied to his caucus to win the top post - and candidates he recruited for the 7th District - that he wouldn’t run himself. His slick Calhoun County machine reminds me of journalist Pete Hamill’s acerbic assessment of the New York Democratic Party as “young hustlers with blue hair, trying to get their hands on highway contracts.”

Both candidates play the part of the principled politician to the hilt – Walberg as the über-conservative, anti-abortion warrior and Schauer as the bright-eyed, progressive reformer. In reality, modest Mark takes his marching orders from the governor and reverend’s soul is the property of Club for Growth.

But wait, some of my liberal friends will yelp. You can’t be saying Schauer would be as bad as the anti-Christ.

Well, no, I reckon my 3-year-old godson could do the job just as well (he’s superb at following orders). Policy-wise, Schauer would be a step up if he could manage to pen press releases without lying about snaring money for the Battle Creek Airport that he voted against.

What I find revolting is that both swim the sewage of politics and don’t retch – they actually seem to feed off the stench.

It’s still early enough for other candidates to jump in. Lord knows, we deserve better.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Could hope spring eternal from tax compromise?

Hail to the victors.

And in this case, that’d be Mike Bishop and his Senate Republicans.

Say what you will about the ever-tan, GQ-attired Senate majority leader (this columnist has, for the record, skewered him as the Tin Woodsman and high school Homecoming king) - but the man got it done last week.

The scorned service tax is no more, replaced by a GOP-crafted surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax. The deal went down 48 hours after all hope seemed siphoned from the Capitol.

The turning point was when Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon on Nov. 28 caved to his caucus, which voted for a plan the Senate would never sign off on and planned to split for six days.

While the Dems’ plan wasn’t unreasonable – it was actually more fiscally responsible – their bravado unwittingly gave the GOP the upper hand.

Incensed and indignant, Bishop and Sens. Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, and Mark Jansen, R-Grand Rapids, marched into the leadership void.

"In my eight years in the Legislature, I've never seen anything that was such a violation of trust," Gilbert seethed.

Now after 11 straight months of backstabbing, bluster and brainlessness, that’s hard to swallow. Nonetheless, negotiations nosedived to another low, paving the way for an even more agonizing budget showdown next year against the backdrop of the 2008 election.

In the end, the GOP nabbed a sunset for the new MBT tax and a lower rate while raiding a rainy day fund, their favorite pastime.

Yes, Gov. Jennifer Granholm won out on revenue-neutrality – supposedly – and furiously negotiated behind the scenes. But her motivation seemed muddled – was it to demolish a bad tax she’d once succored or to slap down Dillon, her perennial rival?

So Republicans emerged the heroes for slaying the service tax just when it seemed certain it would stay on the books.

Bishop’s power was buttressed by the bill passing almost unanimously in the Senate – despite Democrats’ yowling that they’d been shut out of the process – and by a wide margin in the House.

Though Granholm clearly won the main budget battle back on Oct. 1, those are numbers she could only dream of. Which is why the GOP keeps chanting the service tax and income tax hike are “the Democrats’ plan.”

But rather than be statesmanlike about his triumph, the bitter Bishop afterward again slammed the House, declaring there was “no excuse for any legislators to have turned their back on” the process. The governor at least gets better grades for graciousness in the last round.

Yet Bishop’s phrasing is curious. Note that he doesn’t single out House Dems, because Minority Leader Craig DeRoche, R-Novi, was (surprise) MIA in the mediation, as he has been all year.

DeRoche’s sole goal seems to be carrying water for a few whack-jobs in the state GOP and the intelligent, but indelibly ideological folks at the free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Bizarrely, this is how he justified his loathing of the deal that was practically penned by the business community: “To say (it) supports this plan is like saying that a death row inmate chooses the firing squad over the electric chair.”

Contrast DeRoche’s denial and disconnect with Bishop, who’s been a player from the beginning.

Now for the downtrodden Dems, here’s the silver lining.

The business tax hike is now a bonified bipartisan baby – 65 percent of legislators flicked the switch for it. Rather than slash spending, Senate Republicans championed a plan that hiked taxes on a core constituency.

Yeah, they spin it as cut over the sales tax – something we’ll never know for sure since the whipping boy is dead. But as diehard conservatives intone, a tax is a tax is a tax.

What this means is that right-wing interests aren’t as apt to ardently rally ‘round the Republicans next year. That could serve as a cushion for Democrats, who sprint out the gate late thanks to a botched, meaningless Jan. 15 presidential primary.

The across-the-aisle deal also could sap the wind from the sails of the recall movement, whose money and momentum was spurred by the reviled service tax.

The anti-tax zealots - who appear to worship at the altar of his immense foaminess, Mr. Perks, instead of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ – have always hunted Dems and a few token Republicans who really irked them. Watch their fervor and funds dry up at the prospect of taking out so many of their own.

In the end, what truly matters is leaders of both parties came together and did something constructive. It wasn’t great policy and it wasn’t without ego, rancorous rhetoric or excruciating delay.

(“We’re trying to forge world peace,” Sen. Jason Allen, R-Traverse City, cracked Friday afternoon.)

Could be a start. The odds are long, but this is the season of hope, after all.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Everyone loses on service tax

“Senate Republicans are not obstructionists. We are standing up against a mammoth tax increase. This caucus stands for something.” - Senate Majority Mike Bishop, R-Rochester

So far, that something is failure.

After two months of endless bellyaching, Republicans have proven they can’t butcher a wildly unpopular tax.

The oft-slandered service tax – the part of the last-minute state budget deal instantly deemed dead on arrival - now seems poised to take effect Saturday.

Bishop hoisted the white flag Wednesday night after the Democratic-led House passed an alternate business tax and skedaddled home for the weekend.

Republicans seemed stunned they hadn’t gotten their way. After all, they’d slapped their final offer on the table – probably generously written for them by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce – but the Dems’ plan for a permanent, higher Michigan Business Tax surcharge came out of nowhere.

Faced with hardball tactics, Bishop reamed the “uncompromising, partisan” opposition.

“It is clear that the service tax introduced by the governor and carried to fruition by the House Democrats, has been their goal all along,” he sniffed.

What an incredible statement. Despite having public opinion and the entire business community behind him to ax the tax, the baby-faced Bishop admits he was outsmarted by the dynamic duo of Gov. Jennifer Granholm (as Batwoman?) and her Boy Wonder, House Speaker Andy Dillon.

Does anyone really think Bishop has the gravitas to be governor?

The epilogue to the state budget fiasco seems to be following the same script. Much of the GOP and its interest groups can’t quite grasp that they’re not running the show anymore and they need to give a little more – if they want to get anything at all.

Republicans kept congratulating themselves for considering any tax hike. But no one could really think they’d win a small boost to the MBT that died in three years and relied on raiding yet another rainy day fund.

Life’s unfair, kiddies. Minority Democrats learned that the hard way during the era of perpetual tax cuts and cuts to schools and local governments.

Now if hard-line Republicans could have stomached a slightly higher income tax back on Sept. 30, they could have gotten the last two months of their lives back. But more on that in a moment.

As for Granholm and her Democrats, they may have won a pyrrhic victory in shutting down debate. The GOP certainly seems to have acted more gentlemanly in this round and legislators are rightfully milking it for the media and business.

Dillon’s refusal to appoint a conference committee last week – the traditional path - was both bad policy and PR. Ditto the House’s shotgun vote Wednesday night.

Democrats, per usual, seem splintered. For Granholm, keeping the service tax on the books may well be the goal. She christened the idea with her ill-fated two-penny plan, after all, and economists believe the current tax will rake in far more than the $650 million estimated this year.

But Dillon’s contending with a tide of recalls - including his own – and an election for control of the House in 11 months. He’s been much more responsive to business and has pushed tweaks to the MBT in an effort to quell the clamor.

If the service tax starts up anyway, the backlash may have only just begun. That’s exactly what the GOP and Leon Drolet – its anti-tax, recall-happy pal with a big foam pig – fall asleep fantasizing about.

The truth is, everyone’s got it wrong.

The service tax stinks – it’s a capricious, cherry-picked list. And tinkering with the MBT – before it even goes into effect – could well drive business out of our state.

Leaders need to stop focus-grouping the budget. Business lobbyists testifying before Tax Policy committees act like they’re ordering off a menu (“We’ll take a 12 percent surcharge on the MBT with a side exemption for compensation”) - and some feel they’re entitled to skip out on the bill entirely.

Politicians would be better off sitting down with Tom Clay of the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council and letting him scare the crap out of them about the state’s finances, services and schools and where we’re headed.

What they need to do in the short-term is repeal the service tax and hike the income tax from 4.35 to 4.8 percent.

Then for next year, it’s time to think long-term. Bishop could show his leadership chops by championing real reforms to legislator and employee benefits and Corrections, coupled with a graduated income tax that takes a constitutional amendment, but provides a steadier revenue stream. Exploring a fairer service tax would also be prudent policy, since that’s the growing sector of the economy.

Of course, that will never happen. Constructive solutions are the enemy of the poisonous partisanship Lansing is drunk on.

And political courage always shrivels up in an election year.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Heavy-hitters needed on deck

Back in the halcyon days when we deluded ourselves that Michigan had a functional government, I sat down with a group of dewy-faced Democratic House staffers.

And walked away unshakably depressed.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm was set to announce her state budget in February, so I asked the aides what their plan looked like. “

That’s really the governor’s thing,” I was told by a smirking staffer, rolling her charcoal-smudged eyes. “We don’t really do that in the House, you know.”

Well, yes, I passed seventh-grade social studies, too, dear. But I also know that the damn Legislature needs to come up with its own spending priorities and choose where to whack – especially when we’re in dire straits. That’s why we have committees headed by lawmakers with expertise in those areas.

Years ago, when any governor – even Big John Engler – tried to lay down the law on department budgets, shrewd committee chairs cheerfully told him to shove it.

That’s how democracy marches on, with engaged, competent leaders in all branches of government.

Lacking such leaders is, of course, how Michigan’s budget became the smelly salmagundi it did.Want the quick and dirty reason why? Term limits.

With a maximum of 14 years in both houses, legislators barely have time to find their seats before we put them out to pasture at the lobbying firm they sucked up to best.

Want a second? Exhibit A above – which can apply to either house, either party. Too many tenderfoot lawmakers can’t tie their shoes without consulting with their chief of staff. But thanks to early retirements – inauspiciously offered as term limits kicked in, to save the state cash -- many of these powerful flacks lack experience, themselves.

Term limits carry a simplistic allure. The bums are automatically thrown out – no muss, no fuss.But what we’ve created here is an idiotic system by which most leaders are inept by sheer design.

When 39 of 140 legislators are freshmen, can we really be surprised that solving a roughly $3 billion deficit for 2007 and 2008 gave them aneurisms?

Partisanship has tragically become the substitute for leadership. It’s the blind leading the blind, with green lawmakers voting the way their neophyte leadership decrees.

The only goals seem to be shoring up re-election and screwing the other side.Forget cross-party camaraderie – lawmakers aren’t there long enough and are warned that’s blasphemy, anyway. So compromise is a dirty word.

After the budget calamity, we had a shining moment to change things. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce wanted to knock lawmakers’ years of service to 12. But unlike the current law, legislators could spend their entire stint in one house or the other.

It wasn’t a brilliant plan, but after incessant polling, it was the best the Chamber thought it could get. Senate Democrats killed it, however, claiming voters would never pass it.Well, if now’s not the time to try reforms, when is?

This is the Major Leagues, boys and girls.

Our economy is still in the cellar and unemployment just shot up to 7.7 percent. This year’s budget is still in shambles thanks to neverending recriminations over the service tax, the structural deficit hasn’t been plugged and the January revenue forecast is sure to clock in lower than calculated – which means more cuts.

And come February, we have to start the whole hellish process over again.We’ve run through the All-Star roster and the AAA ball club. Now we’re digging deep into the farm system for leaders at the most critical juncture of Michigan’s modern history.

So here’s an idea, inspired by the Fantasy Congress nerds like me consider entertainment.

There are still members of the old guard with some years left, even under term-limit tyranny. They’ve returned to successful careers in law, business and medicine – but out of their sense of duty and love for this state, they should step up to the plate.

According to calculations by smarter folks than I, these retired reps could saddle up for the Senate in 2010:

Nancy Crandall, Pat Gagliardi, Don Gilmer, David Gubow, Curtis Hertel Sr., Tom Hickner, Paul Hillegonds, David Hollister, Rick Johnson, Lynn Jondahl, Mickey Knight, Jim Kosteva, Bill Martin, Tom Mathieu, Judy Miller, Susan Grimes Munsell, Gary Owen, Joe Palamara, Tom Power, Kirk Profit, Gary Randall, John Strand and Don Van Singel.

The following former senators could run for the House in 2008:Jon Cisky, Doug Cruce, Dan DeGrow, Christopher Dingell, Lou Dodak, Robert Geake, Mitch Irwin, John Kelly, Don Koivisto, George McManus, Art Miller, Lana Pollack, Dick Posthumus, Joe Schwarz, Ken Sikkema, Virgil Smith Jr. and Joe Young Jr.

It’s not glamorous work, as you well know. And in a year or three, the damage done could be almost insurmountable.

But the Capitol desperately needs some heavy-hitters. You’re up.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Helping children in a state left behind

You know my high school. Or you did, anyway, back in 2003 when grainy video traversed the globe of Glenbrook North girls covered in feces clobbering each other in a “powder-puff” football game.

It’s the scatological stuff YouTube dreams are made of.

What you couldn’t tell from the spectacle, of course, is that GBN is one of the top public schools in the nation, sporting a palatial campus that rivals many colleges. In fact, the state-of-the-art computer labs in our swanky suburban Chicago school put those of Big Ten universities to shame.

In my class, far more students took Advanced Placement English than the regular track and 99 percent of us headed to college.

Not a bad place to be stuck for four years – especially since I opted out of rolling around in crap with other chicks.

Naturally, any time anyone suggests that “throwing money” at education isn’t the solution, I snigger.

Does anyone think for a minute that I started on an even playing field with a poor African-American kid in Detroit, who studies history books that have Ronald Reagan as president in a classroom that often lacks heat?

We callously call those schools dropout factories, scarcely paying attention to the 60 percent who never graduate, or wondering if those who do ever make it to a college lecture hall.

The truth is, I didn’t deserve a world-class education any more than any other child on this earth. I didn’t earn it. I was lucky enough to be born to professional parents who could afford to move into a school district plump with property tax money.

Yes, I was a smart girl who made the most of a good situation. But how many smart kids are languishing in less flush schools right here in Michigan?

It is a travesty.

And we all pay the price.

Lagging well behind the national average, only 24 percent of Michiganders 24 and older have college degrees (A fact that so appalled my former English teacher, she demanded proof from the Census.) The difference between a high school education and a college degree is $1 million in lifetime income. For Michigan, that means less tax revenue, less consumer spending, higher unemployment and more state services.

Soon that will be moot. If you want to work, you’ll have to hit the books. Roughly 85 percent of new jobs require post-secondary education – even the few left in the auto industry, which used to keep the state afloat.

Investing in education is Michigan’s “single, sole securitization of economic betterment,” says former Assistant Secretary of Labor Roberts [CQ] T. Jones, underscoring decades of research.

Why do you suppose countries from China to Kuwait are lavishing money on schools? They’re the ticket out of the developing world into superpower status.

So what do we do in the Mitten State?

Let’s start with the excellent report by the Cherry Commission in 2005.

We now have tougher high school graduation standards to better prepare kids. But most of the group’s other initiatives – such as merit pay for teachers, universal preschool and doubling the number of college graduates – are rotting on the vine.

This is the time to be bold. We need to revitalize the state the way the Kalamazoo Promise has its city, with a scholarship program for up to four free years of college at a state institution.

The impact reverberated immediately throughout the community – increased K-12 enrollment and subsequently state aid, more parental involvement, fewer dropouts and more home sales.

A statewide Promise open to all would be completely unique – a way to make Michigan stand out from the competition, make skilled workers and businesses flock here and turn the economy around long-term.

Here’s the catch: Implementing the Promise statewide would cost $900 million annually. No politician wants to touch that after two recent tax increases, one of which is in the midst of a messy repeal.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm sang the virtues of a strong educational system from preschool to postgrad all the way to re-election last year – and I believe the Harvard grad gets it. But she won’t stick her neck out on this one, since she never has when it counts. Higher ed spending has been massacred by 25 percent under her watch.

House Speaker Andy Dillon was the biggest booster for an expanded Promise – but he’s so frustrated with legislative inertia that he’s said he may leave Lansing.

And unfortunately, Republican leadership on education croaked when lions like Joe Schwarz were term-limited out of the Senate.

So politicians will continue to think short-term and bleat that we can’t spend another dime on education.

In 20 years, when it’s not just Massachusetts, but Arkansas and Mississippi that have left us in the dust, maybe those fearless former leaders can tell our grandchildren why they decided to skimp on their future – and Michigan’s.

But my guess is they’ll have blown this popsicle stand long before then.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Jumping through hoops for the caucus circus

Take it from an Iowa girl, or at least one who lived there long enough to know better: The presidential race ain't over.

You can forget about the coronation of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

The battle really has just begun.

This is distressing news to sane folks who believe two years is about 21 months too long to be bombarded by the smug mugs of all 698 aspiring leaders of the free world.

Of course, the two frontrunners have been barnstorming for far longer — Giuliani since Sept. 12, 2001, and Clinton since 1974 or so.

Polls show Clinton is losing ground, perhaps because of her campaign's clumsy claim that her opponents are "piling on" because she has ovaries. Some punches thrown by Barack Obama and John Edwards have landed.

Clinton's negatives always have been her Achilles heel. Powerful Democrats may worship her — but too many Republican and the all-important independent voters saw enough of her in the 1990s and won't back her at any cost.

Why do you think the GOP spends so much time cheerleading Hillary as the "inevitable nominee"?

The race is even more muddled on the Republican side, with the Religious Right juggernaut now hopelessly off-kilter.

When Pat Robertson comes out for the thrice-married guy who supports abortion and gay rights, you know there's a full-blown GOP identity crisis.

Giuliani might have the reverend and a lead in the national polls, but Mitt Romney's got the money ($17.5 million of his own and counting) and has stubbornly courted the early voting states. And there's stiff competition from John McCain, Fred Thompson and even Mike (who?) Huckabee.

It's still anyone's game.

Four years ago at this time, Howard Dean seemed to have the Democratic nomination sewn up. If you want to see how his dream fell apart, look no further than the bizarre "I have a scream" speech he belted out after a surprise upset in the Iowa Caucus.

Iowa and New Hampshire remain the epicenters of the electoral process, despite power grabs by bigger states like Michigan and Florida.

Although New Englanders won't take kindly to this, I'll fill you in on a secret: Iowa is more important. It's first, it's a caucus (stay with me) and it's kookier.

Politicians who have shunned Iowa's corn-fed goodness for the Granite State have rued the day, like Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark. It's hard to regain momentum out east after eight days of nonstop news coverage that you're irrelevant.

John McCain is a notable exception back in 2000, but he's not pressing his luck this time around, busily pressing the flesh of voters from Boone to Bettendorf.
All politics is local in the Hawkeye State and it isn't glamorous.

I've talked to Bill Clinton after he slurped down a milkshake and Dennis Kucinich after he grabbed a veggie burger to go at one of my favorite Iowa City haunts, the Hamburg Inn No. 2. It's a must-stop on the stump where waitresses still invoke the lore of Ronald Reagan (a good tipper) and curse Pat Buchanan (who evidently was not.)

But the Burg isn't unusual, even if its soggy tan booths and wilted laminated menus worked their way into a "West Wing" plot. Any dowdy Maid-Rite diner or chili cook-off in a church basement will draw contenders as quick as $1,000-a-plate dinners. Which is actually the most refreshing part of the circus.

Regular folks do rate.

They have to. Caucusing is a commitment.

The date always changes, but it inevitably falls on the coldest night of the year. That's enshrined in the Iowa constitution. A foot of snow is always a nice touch.

Caucus-goers don't just punch a ballot behind the curtain and go home. It's mayhem at many of the 1,784 precincts starting at 7 p.m. If you're a Republican, you take part in a straw poll, declaring to all your undying love for Tom Tancredo.

Democrats are less organized (surprise!). Typically, you line up in a school gym for your chosen candidate, in front of God and everyone.

Your friends and neighbors can (and will) cajole you into coming over to their side, especially if you stand with a non-viable candidate (who has less than 15 percent support.) If you don't, prepare to be catcalled and find their pizza boxes strewn across your yard in the morning.

And so come Jan. 3, politicians will defile their Prada shoes, trekking across frozen tundra while chugging a coffee and Dayquil cocktail until the caucuses begin.

In a process this peculiar, you never know what's going to happen.

For political junkies, it's still the greatest show on earth.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Can fringe GOP conjure up a clue?

After months of stunned silence, House Republicans are finally ready to rumble on the budget.

And they're not about to let pesky details — like the fact that final budgets passed on Halloween with near-unanimous consent — stop them.

It was the Senate that voted Thursday to delay the new service tax. But House Minority Leader Craig DeRoche & Co. want to slay it completely, unraveling nine months of anguished compromise.

Yes, after spending money Wednesday like welfare mommies at the Cadillac dealership (begotten from tax revenues few in the GOP voted for), straight-faced Republican reps revealed their flair for even more flagrant hypocrisy.

They want to make the service tax's $625 million magically disappear from the budget, perhaps via séance with Ronald Reagan's ghost.

Seems like if you abhor all those evil government programs, you shouldn't have just voted to fund them.It's bad form, bad policy and the worst kind of intellectual dishonesty.

Besides, if Republicans truly were committed to anti-tax policy, they would try to decapitate the income tax increase worth $725 million.But let's not forget, the GOP-led Legislature tax-cut its way to popularity while merrily ravaging about $4 billion in reserves since fiscal 2001. Beats significantly scaling back government. (One-time fixes didn't abate in fiscal 2007 when Dems took over the House, but now the bills have come due.)

Clearly, slashing government waste ain't the GOP's forte.True, the capricious list of oft-arcane services, from numerology to baby-shoe bronzing, is hard to defend. Legislators surely can conjure up a fairer levy, especially when they're not throwing together a slapdash bill four hours before the government shut down on Oct. 1.

That's why Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, Gov. Jennifer Granholm and House Speaker Andy Dillon — who have done the heavy lifting on the budget from the get-go — are feverishly talking to business barons about a revenue-neutral replacement.

That could mean a hike in the income tax or the new Michigan Business Tax.

But none of them — not even the Republican Senate head — is pushing the cockamamie scheme of cleaving millions more from the budget.

In a nine-month process with an endgame as gory and excruciating as childbirth, the Senate plan to skive more than $600 million was mopped away like so much fluid.The $433 million in cuts was all leaders could muster, made palatable by $1.35 billion in new revenues that allowed them to take credit for caring about children by barely boosting education.

Still, DeRoche insists on peddling a tired list of cuts, chock-full of vague promises to "streamline" Community Health by $93 million and "reform" Department of Human Services by $109 million — details not included.Sacred cows — like sentence guideline reforms and prison closures that could net $500 million — don't rate.

Cuts are necessary, DeRoche warns gravely, unless we want to "kill more jobs."

But he evidently sees no conflict in whacking $75 million from the 21st Century Jobs Fund, the economic development vehicle Republicans once touted as the elixir for Michigan's economic woes.

"It's not a real list — everybody knows that," the always cogent Rep. Lorence Wenke, R-Richland Township, says. "I give it no credibility whatsoever."

To be sure, DeRoche's plan has zero chance of passage. He doesn't have the votes. And without a functional relationship with any leader, even Bishop, the once-brash boy wonder who rode to the speakership at 34, has lost almost all credibility.

He epitomizes the fundamental lack of understanding of public policy by fringe Republicans determined to place partisanship and ideology above sanity.

There's no excuse for that in either party. The stakes are too high.

Evidently, some have learned nothing from bloody budget negotiations this year.

If DeRoche truly wants to be a player next year, he might want to stop drinking the Kool-Aid — and instead invite Dillon and Bishop to have a beer.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Inconvenient truths taint blogosphere

"Blogs are nothing more than writing on the bathroom wall," so says my former editor, Jack Lessenberry.

The avowed curmudgeon, who ironically serves as patron saint of several left-wing blogs, has a point. If you want to read mind-numbing, inscrutable "analysis" of everything from Britney Spears' baby drama to Barack Obama's choice in underwear, then the blogosphere is for you.

Nowadays, truth is where you find it.Witness the explosion of the term "truthiness" — what you know in your gut without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts — coined by satirist Stephen Colbert.

That's the biggest draw of political blogs. They'll tell you what to be outraged about for the day — no research, interviews or objectivity required. It's all the news that fits within the ideological prism of your choice.

Tired of thinking for yourself? Blogs can be a huge time-saver, like joining Right to Life or

If you consider reporting on troops killed in Iraq a violation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, for heaven's sake, don't read the newspaper. Just scroll right-wing blogs to reassure yourself liberals (who control the media) hate those soldiers, as well as freedom, America and all that is good and holy.

If seeing George W. Bush's face is too much to bear, turn off the news. Turn to left-wing blogs, which unlike conservatives (who control the media), only depict the president as a diabolical Alfred E. Neuman caricature, hell-bent on destroying children, the elderly and all that is holy and good.And of course, there's plenty of room for the tin-foil hat crowd to vent. (Yes, Hillary Clinton really does want to poison your guinea pig.)

The Internet's echo chamber is a dream come true for political operatives and party hacks. Sweet-talk a sympathetic blogger, and get your talking points or shaky video commentary posted instantly and unchecked.

Even better, you can now find a home in cyberspace (instant credibility, baby!) for that whisper campaign you started portraying your opponent as a gay, dog-molesting, illegal immigrant-lover who hates America and all that is good and holy.

Sure beats that pesky mainstream media that insist on fairness, facts and filtering out partisan crap.God forbid you be forced to read opinions that differ from your own. It's only a critical part of relating to others and understanding the world in which we live.

I know it's not politically correct to blast bloggers. They're the extreme reporters of the new millennium, too cool to follow old-school rules like journalistic ethics or basic grammar.

And besides, who wants to invite chronically misspelled hate mail?

Well, like anyone who's graduated from elementary school, I've survived playground taunts. Liberal bloggers already have anointed me "Wanker of the Day," and I'm also a "liberal socialist facist," according to some reactionary poster in desperate need of a dictionary.

I field complaints from self-important politicians and their overbearing flacks every week.So I suppose I'm not terribly impressed by bloggers who sport porn star-worthy pseudonyms instead of owning up to the dribble they spew. If you're so proud of your work — you know, finding the truth we in the evil mainstream media conspire to cover up day after day — pony up your name, address, e-mail and phone number.

Because when we in the media mess up — and let's be clear, we have — you know where to find us. In the Enquirer, corrections are front-page news because that's our commitment to accuracy and accountability.

That's the way it should be. Blogs need to wise up to those standards if they want to be taken seriously.Like any good Gen Xer, I spend hours online and am impressed by a handful of bloggers — those who go by their actual names and have experience writing sans emoticons.

I enjoy Andrew Sullivan's dry wit and contrarian conservatism and Eric Alterman's accessible, yet professorial liberalism. But they are rare voices of reason in the wilderness.

Most bloggers really aren't breaking new ground. They're just the progeny of 18th-century pamphleteers who viciously libeled political foes under the guise of anonymity. Savvy, flush folks will always find a way to game the system, so now it's open season online.

Sincere citizen journalists protest they're heirs to "Common Sense."I wish.

Because you have about as much chance of reading a Thomas Paine in the blogosphere as you do bumping into a Thomas Jefferson beneath the Capitol dome.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Long-term thinking still lacking in Lansing

"Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today/ And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey."— Grass Roots lyrics, 1967, and unofficial motto of the Michigan Legislature

Who knew that a risqué ode to sweet lovin' could so perfectly encapsulate the state's ongoing budget fiasco?

No, it ain't over yet.We still don't have a 2008 budget, and there are only 13 days left until the Halloween deadline — which, for the superstitious or policy wonks among us, are very bad signs, indeed.

When the Capitol gang held their Oct. 1 slumber party (House Speaker Andy Dillon forgot the beer), they only finished half the job. At least legislators were true to the work ethic they brandished when going on holiday for most of July.

Lawmakers finally swallowed $1.35 billion in new taxes, prompting Gov. Jennifer Granholm to sign a 30-day budget extension. But nobody had the stomach to send programs and jobs to the guillotine that night (witness once-slash-happy Republicans surrender their plan to cleave $600 million.)

Since then, the Legislature has gone on a great treasure hunt to find $440 million to cut, which probably will mean prisoners being let out, fewer poor people seeing doctors and fewer child abuse investigations.

Gotta find the money somewhere, and the state budget office says the departmental bleeding can't be absorbed solely by attrition and efficiencies.

The budget battle begins anew next week when bills come to the floor.Oh, and here's the bad news. We're fewer than four months away from having to do it all over again for 2009.What's worse, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council estimates we'll have a $200 million to $500 million hole to patch.

How's that possible? You can almost hear the sound of seething taxpayers surrounding the Capitol, pitchforks in hand.

After all, you now have to pay taxes on all your astrological and escort service needs. That wouldn't be so bad if we could stave off future draconian cuts to schools, health care and police.

It could work if we were investing in what would grow jobs and modernize Michigan — higher education, culture and natural resources. It would be worth it if Lansing finally licked the state's structural budget deficit.

If you're going to ask people to sacrifice, do it right.Here's the hard truth: They didn't.Extending the sales tax to some services isn't a bad idea, since our economy increasingly has shifted in that direction. Problem is, our tax system remains out of touch, said Tom Clay, former deputy state treasurer and the council's emeritus state affairs director.

The key is to draft a less capricious list than lawmakers cobbled together at the last minute. (Forget about fees to tee off, but pay up for phrenology, that staple of 19th century pseudoscience.)

Meanwhile, the economy and the auto industry are still in shambles — though there's some hope on the horizon for the Big Three with recent union contract talks. Still, there's little chance we'll see a boost in tax revenue for a while, especially if more people lose their jobs.

The new bump in the income tax to 4.35 percent doesn't stabilize revenues, Clay said. What's more effective is to raise the rate even more, and increase taxpayers' personal exemptions.

There's also initiating a gradual income tax rate, as most states have. Of course, that would take a constitutional amendment.

"This stuff is pretty straightforward," Clay says. "But it's pretty tough politically."

And there's the rub.Politicians have flaunted their "live for today" mantra since term limits kicked in, knowing they could shun unpopular reforms and pass unsustainable tax cuts to ride to re-election and sweet lobbying jobs afterward.

They no longer have $4.2 billion in reserves to raid, but lawmakers have done their damnedest this year to avoid tough choices anyway.All except Dillon, who truly gets it, but has been bogged down by the partisanship of his peers.

Like that of Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who's busily plotting a gubernatorial bid, and Minority Leader Mark Schauer. who's picking out curtains for his new congressional office.

Though there's little love lost between the two, they might well break into a soulful Grass Roots rendition betwixt fundraisers:

"We were never meant to worry the way that people do/ And I don't need to hurry as long as I'm with you/ We'll take it nice and easy and use my simple plan ..."

Simple plans often carry heavy price tags. The bills are coming due for Michiganders today, in more taxes and fewer services.
But unless politicians shed their tunnel vision, you can bet you'll keep paying more in years to come.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Want to save our state? Here's how

It's been 31 years since rumpled newsman Howard Beale ordered a generation to fling open the windows and declare:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

That's the line from the Oscar-nominated film "Network" everyone remembers, as it launched a thousand parodies and at least an ad campaign or two.But few people can recall the beleaguered Beale's soliloquy beforehand:

"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter.

"Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be.

"We know things are bad — worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'

"Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!"

Substitute an iPod, TiVo and Xbox, and it all sounds eerily familiar, if not a smidge apocalyptic.

In the past few years, I have had scores of conversations with Michiganders who have touched on these themes. There is a palpable frustration, even anger.

One thing almost everybody can agree on: Our state is in trouble.

But nobody knows how to change it.Enter the Center for Michigan, which is recruiting people from Benzonia to Battle Creek to brainstorm an action plan for the state in 90-minute community conversations during the next two months.

They're guaranteed to be more constructive — and productive — than screaming out your window.

The center, a bipartisan, nonprofit "think and do tank" outside Ann Arbor, calls this "Michigan's Defining Moment." After all, we have the worst economy in the nation, an abysmal rating with Wall Street, a shrinking population, threats to the Great Lakes, an ailing auto industry, a crumbling core city and a structural budget deficit that still hasn't been resolved even after last week's last-minute deal.

More than 80 forums will take place statewide, with Kellogg Community College, the Kellogg Foundation and Battle Creek Unlimited throwing their muscle behind the effort locally.

The center's approach is one of pragmatism, not dogmatism, aimed at bringing the left, right and center together to set firm goals to revitalize Michigan before the 2010 election, when most state leaders will be booted due to term limits. Conversations will be underpinned by civility, something sorely lacking in cable news talk shows, the blogosphere or even the Capitol.

Rather than being bland spitballing sessions, the center wants residents' feedback in three key areas: how Michigan can grow, retain and attract a skilled workforce in a global economy; invest in our economy and quality of life; and reform government at all levels to be more efficient, modern and accountable.Organizers also want to inject some much-needed pride into our state.

After all, we live in a place of unparalleled beauty nestled between four Great Lakes, which is home to some of the best universities in the world and has given birth to a slew of innovations from Corn Flakes to cars.

That is fertile soil for a new, modernized Michigan to grow.

But how, you might ask, do these conversations differ from other periodic powwows to set the state straight?

Well, the forums aren't just for the usual suspects — politicians, CEOs, union bosses — though everyone's invited. But as center founder Phil Power stresses, this round of sessions is aimed at all residents, especially those who feel their voices are never heard.

Groups will meet again in the winter, and then the center goes full throttle for the election cycle, presenting the plan to legislators, holding state House race debates and even issue potlucks.

Sounds great. But as a cynical columnist, I had to ask: What if nobody cares and nobody shows?

"You gotta stir people," said the center's Executive Director John Bebow, himself a cynical former journalist. "People have great interest in public affairs if you ask them to participate. But who's been asking?"

After the budget fiasco, it's clear Lansing has a rather remedial understanding of our state's problems. Now's the time for the people to lead — and our leaders can follow.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Readers deserve better government reporting

Ladies and gentleman, your leaders have failed you, and we in the media have failed you.

This Richard Clarke-esque epiphany crystallized somewhere in a 3 a.m. haze at the Capitol on Monday against the backdrop of infantile threats and finger-waving on the floor of Michigan's greatest deliberative body.

Afterward, everyone was left to bemoan what had gone wrong in our great state to make us shut it down for five hours, costing us upward of $1 million, when we were already almost $2 billion in the hole.

Culprits were, quite correctly, fingered as term limits, hyper-partisanship and gerrymandering.

Our neophyte legislators clearly had no concept of what it took to piece together a $42 billion budget without the aid of accounting tricks, even though they had 10 months to learn.

Thanks to term limits, which remain wildly popular, there are no old bulls left in the chambers to help steer the state from disaster. Former House Appropriations Poobah Don Gilmer paced helplessly on the sidelines Sunday night as he watched tadpole reps flail about.

Few, if any, lawmakers bothered to consult the erudite Emergency Financial Advisory Panel headed by former Govs. Bill Milliken and Jim Blanchard.

Pols would rather play the game of poisonous partisanship than make policy, pushed by the two parties and lobbies entrenched on both sides.

It's a dysfunctional system bolstered by redistricting, which is controlled by the party in power at the time of the census. Amazingly enough, the GOP last time managed to sketch state and federal districts that secured majorities, just as the Dems had before.

But enough about them. Flog the media, too.

We are your last line of defense against politics run amok. When the people are informed, it's a lot harder for leaders to run roughshod over us.

Sadly, too many media outlets view politics as a horse race and lack basic understanding of policy, so we figure you don't have to get it, either.

As an ignorant former editor of mine put it, "I view politics like baseball. The exciting time to cover it is during elections, like the playoffs. Otherwise, it's pretty much the off-season and no one's paying attention."

Wrong. I know poodles with a more nuanced take on public affairs.

You deserve to read about the history of the budget crisis, dating back to the '90s, when legislators — many who did know better — capitulated to what was easy and politically expedient. They slashed taxes to unsustainable levels to win elections. They raided $4.2 billion from reserves so they wouldn't have to make real reforms.

You deserve to read how budget cuts and higher taxes affect your life — how much you pay, how much you gain. That means connecting the dots from the state budget to all those local millages you've been asked to OK, program cuts at your local elementary school and the business that didn't open in your neighborhood because a tax structure wasn't in place.

You deserve to read about bills when they're introduced, not after they're law — from HPV vaccinations to pop-up tax reforms — so you know what your lawmakers are up to in Lansing and can be involved in the process.

In the last month, Michigan's press has been a model on all counts. But as soon as this crisis evaporates, so will our policy coverage.

Because just as the Legislature doesn't look like it did in 1983, neither does the Capitol press corps. It's been downsized by at least half, often the first victim in newspaper and affiliate cutbacks. Most media only run copy from wire services, which have taken big hits, as well.

What kind of message do we send to you, the people, when we don't do justice to the most important issues of the day?

In part, that's what's led to the explosion of political blogs, but most just litter the hyper-partisan wasteland. Anonymous posters at Right Michigan and Michigan Liberal routinely run propaganda the mainstream media normally wouldn't (and shouldn't) touch, such as the unbiased (ahem) state GOP poll showing Democrats are doomed with a tax hike or the Senate Dems whining about not being allowed to snap pics for political gain of the tax-hike tally.

We at the Enquirer, a small but scrappy paper, try to do our part, and I think we succeed more than any other in our weight class. But all journalists need to do more.

Because the stakes are too high in Michigan right now for us to fall down on the job.

Cowards and courage: I took aim in Tuesday's column at Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, for stalling on a vote for immediate effect of the new services tax. But Anderson did vote for it, though not for the actual bill, a move which could cost the freshman his seat.

That's what lawmakers are paid to do. But it's worth contrasting that with Rep. David Agema, R-Grandville, who decided embarking on a Russian hunting excursion was far more important than voting on Michigan's fiscal future.

Anyone who thinks the sheep slayer deserves another term should volunteer as his target practice.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What was the budget war good for? Absolutely nothing

LANSING — It was about 56 minutes into Col. Mike Bishop's quixotic last stand at the Capitol early Monday when one of his GOP foot soldiers crossed enemy lines.

John Pappageorge marched over to fellow Sen. Tupac Hunter on the Senate floor and bellowed, "C'mon, let's go home."

But the Democrat didn't budge, and he didn't vote on the budget."Tell him to stay on the other side of the aisle," he hollered, just a half-hour after the last near-fisticuffs on the floor.

It would be another 26 minutes before the last vote hit the board at 4:18 a.m., much to the chagrin of yawning staffers and reporters.The skirmish was over a new services tax, the first shot Gen. Jennifer Granholm had fired when negotiations commenced in February.

The Democratic governor finally marshaled the troops, first twisting the arm of Republican Rep. Chris Ward on the income tax. Her next target was AWOL Democratic Sen. Glenn Anderson, who was quivering in the back room as a blue-jean-clad Granholm strutted across the chamber.

"Where is he?" she demanded with the moxie of Douglas MacArthur.

She got her man. Seconds after Anderson pushed the button for the service tax, Republicans fell in line and our long state budget nightmare was over.

In bleary-eyed hindsight, Granholm looked to have executed a flawless strategy.

Even consternated conservatives conceded victory after the Dems triumphantly impaled the GOP's no-tax mantra, hoisting a bounty of $1.35 billion in new revenue.

Granholm didn't even bother to hold a news conference right afterward, letting the results speak for themselves.

In reality, she got lucky after months of bitter brinkmanship. And to the victor go the political spoils.Truth is, Republicans couldn't pull the trigger.

Even the GOP-controlled Senate could only muster up $600 million worth of cuts — a far cry from the $1.8 billion deficit. In the end, Bishop had an easier time selling income- and sales-tax boosts to his soldiers than even that level of cuts.

Proving that although Republicans hate raising taxes, they hate cutting spending even more.

Everyone is gung-ho for cuts until they hit home. Then lawmakers aren't so keen on moms, teachers, seniors and CEOs banging on their office doors.

Take the $500 million the House cleaved from business tax breaks. Sounds great until you read the fine print, that without exemptions, Battle Creek's Duncan Aviation would high-tail it out of this state.

The reality is, no one in Lansing truly was itching to raise taxes. It was simple arithmetic. After more than a decade of cutting taxes and raiding funds while the state's economy tanked, the bills came due this year.

Proposals to gash spending fell far short of the deficit, like paring welfare and employee salaries, or were deemed unfeasible, like slashing prisons and schools.

That's because, year after year, we've already chopped higher ed, community health, K-12 schools and child-protective services. State government has the fewest employees since the 1970s.

Michigan's budget doesn't work like the feds', packed full of pork (or earmarks when they're in your district) and can (and does) run in the red year after year.

We don't have that luxury.

Maybe legislators finally had an attack of common sense in the blue hours of Monday morning.Or maybe they were just sick of sleeping in their cars after 17 straight days of battle.

Whatever the reason, Michigan dodged a ruinous government shutdown with the extreme last-minute budget deal — and that is good news for all.

The bad news is, legislators passed a hodgepodge of bills no one's even bothered to read, and they'll now have to spend the next 30 days working out the kinks. We can only hope the flaws won't mean the Wolverine State will face another critically out-of-whack budget next year.

For now, bruised lawmakers have left the battlefield in search of showers and Scotch.They said they were fighting for Michigan — but their backbiting and infighting has only further jeopardized the state's future.

"In a true compromise, no one can claim victory," Sen. Mark Schauer said without a hint of a smile late Sunday night.

After this debacle, no one in Lansing should.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Scorched Earth politics burn Michigan

Government needs to be run like a business, so we're always told.

Well, if that's the case, then haul Mike Bishop's butt into the soon-to-be closed unemployment office, thanks to a looming state government shutdown no one seems eager to stop.

The Republican Senate majority leader announced this week "there's no way" a budget can be finished by the Monday deadline and Gov. Jennifer Granholm better deal with it.

When conservative stalwarts like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Big John Engler beg you to compromise — even if it means raising taxes — by God, listen to reason, man. At least take their calls.

Mr. Bishop, in the business world, when you have 10 months to complete a project and countless experts at your disposal, failure equals firing.

Now aren't you glad you work for the big, bad government you're helping demolish?Slap the governor with a pink slip, too.

Granholm's earned it with her reckless disregard for the people about whom she claims to care — children, seniors, teachers, business owners, union members, the poor and the infirm.

During her '06 campaign, the Democratic guv proudly declared, "I'm the captain of this ship."Damn right. And while this ship plummets to new lows — along with the state's reputation and bond rating — she's done little other than blame the GOP.

Now the governor is content to turn away a lifeboat, the continuation budget passed by the Senate.Would it be a sign of political weakness? Who cares? We wouldn't have to destroy the state supposedly to save it.

Schools wouldn't have to close, seniors could still have in-home care and police and prison guards would still be paid to protect us from the bad guys.We wouldn't rack up $4 million a day in debt, adding to the already Herculean $1.8 billion we have today.

But the truth is, Granholm wants a showdown. The Capitol is abuzz this week that she reportedly told her staff, "I want this shutdown to be as painful as possible."

Which translates to: Screw you, Michigan, if I can gain partisan advantage off this. That's the one idea Bishop can agree with, egged on by desperate state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who's salivating over the catastrophe to jump-start his ailing party.

As this crisis careens into a shutdown — which seems inevitable, given the players and their pettiness — it should be a career-killer for Mike 'n Jen.

Any Democratic presidential campaign scouting out talent for an '08 administration (that means you, Hillary) should promptly pass on the poison that is Jennifer Granholm.

Anyone who sticks a Mike Bishop for Governor pin on his lapel should be forced to take a Breathalyzer test.

The tragedy is that everyone knows a deal could have been hammered out back in February if Lansing wasn't the playground of the inept, illogical and idiotic.

Such is the sad state of affairs when lobbyists outnumber citizens and journalists in the House and Senate galleries.

It already is too late to undo some of the damage — at the very least, some state payments and paychecks will be delayed — but our leaders still can turn this ship around.Don't leave the bargaining table until you do.

It is worth noting that the reasonable voices in these scorched earth times are those of Republicans, like the 28 former lawmakers who eloquently called for statesmanship and speed in solving the budget.

Leading the way in the Legislature is a duo from Livingston County, the lily white Detroit exurbs nicknamed the deep South of the far North, where raising taxes is akin to treason. Rep. Chris Ward was the sole Republican to pull the lever for an income tax hike anyway. Ditto for Sen. Valde Garcia in nixing $600 million in cuts to what he called "essential" services.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's called leadership.It's a stark contrast to the Democrats, cowering in the corner from former Rep. Leon Drolet, a little man with a big foam pig threatening recall efforts.

Step up to the plate, make some common-sense cuts to prisons and employee benefits and vote for a modest tax increase.

Wake up. We are now the laughingstock of the country, as if having the highest unemployment and a collapsing auto industry weren't enough.This crisis has gone way too far. The next move isn't about who blinks first.

It's about who loves this state enough to save it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

It's getting hot in here

Wise policy wonks often warn: Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

But when the absolute best you can hope for is mediocrity, then you're pretty well screwed.

That's the scenario with Michigan's budget that's currently $1.8 billion in the hole. Whatever plan Lansing throws together with chewing gum and Silly String by the Oct. 1 deadline — or after, if lawmakers commit grosser negligence than they have already — it will be a train wreck.

Just like previous budgets dating back to the '90s were a shell game of transferred funds and one-time fixes.

After hemorrhaging about 250,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, what anemic Michigan needs is a transfusion of new blood. The best way to do that is by making this a state people want to stay in, play in and raise their kids in. That means spending — not cutting — millions more for economic development, environmental protection and most of all, education from preschool to post-grad.

Confused? You should be. That's because no one is talking about what the Wolverine State really needs.In fact, if you've seen anything on the budget, it's probably a sound bite of pretty people sneering at each other at the Capitol.

That's almost criminal. Anyone who tells you there's a more-important story in Michigan right now is either an idiot or selling something.

It's not just the poor and infirm feeling the pain of this crisis.

You do, when your sewage bill doubles because your township is going bankrupt after receiving squat from the state.

You do, when you have to shell out $1,000 just for the privilege for Billy to play football at public school because the state has disinvested from education for years.

You do, when your speeding ticket is the price of a luxury hotel room because the cops have to cover costs the state used to pick up.

You do, when sending Sally to a state university costs as much as buying a second home.

Think about that the next time snake-oil salesman/Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop tries to sweet talk you into another $1.1 billion worth of cuts. Think about why Republicans won't even tell you from where the cuts are going to come.

As for the Dems, they evidently never read Dante, who warned, "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

Last week, 10 House Democrats in swing districts flaunted their neutrality, refusing to vote for a nudge in the income tax from 3.9 percent to 4.6 percent.

Putting that in perspective, it's about an extra five bucks a week for the median Michigan household.

That measure died, as have reasonable proposals to enact a services tax, cut prison spending and reform employee health care costs.

Because if there's a lesson to be learned from the budget battle, it's don't bother thinking for yourself.

Legislators, just sit at your exquisitely crafted desks and vote the way your leadership, the state Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the AFL-CIO, the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance or God commands you.

Go ahead and yield to the recently issued edict of do-nothing Michigan congressmen to "stand firm" against godless tax hikes. Why not defer to the wisdom of Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, who has to ask the Club for Growth lobby for permission to go potty?

Leadership is overrated. Just ask the governor.

Though Jennifer Granholm finally showed the guts Tuesday to threaten to veto any plan without a modest tax increase, she blew this budget big time starting with a sales tax gambit in February she didn't even bother running past the Democratic leadership.

I don't care if the guv is under the spell of an overbearing first gentleman, sycophantic staff or the voices in her head. A brilliant orator, she of all people should have been able to make the case for Michigan's future.

Which is simple: Do we want to return to the days when our state was known for superlative education, high-tech health care and world-class recreation? Or do we want to cut our services as fast as our taxes to become the backwater of the Great Lakes states?

It's time to put our money where our mouth is.

No, it ain't as sexy as gay marriage, but make no doubt about it: The state budget does constitute the kind of moral crisis defined by Dante.

Our leaders have 11 days to pound out a plan that doesn't have to be perfect, but it should be good for most Michiganders. Better than the slapshot scheme they're bickering over today.

Otherwise we'll all feel the heat — not just on Oct. 1, but in years to come.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A sex scandal to make you squirm

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Through the thrush of evergreen forest and the Salmon River Mountains, it's about 319 miles to Larry Craig's hometown.

I will not be making a pit stop there — I have a date with the azure shores of Crater Lake — but I wonder how the locals view the voyeuristic feeding frenzy about their favorite son.

Because it's been making me queasy, and I don't even know the guy.

In case you've been even more lost in the wilderness than me, Craig was busted for allegedly putting the moves on a fellow stall dweller in an airport men's room.

The guy turns out to be a cop, the Republican senator cops to disorderly conduct and the sordid story turns out to be just what we all need to survive the Indian summer doldrums, since there are no shark attacks or abducted little girls to terrify us.

And what, evidently, could be more petrifying than a gay guy who likes to get it on in the filthiest of public places? Deadbolt those bathroom doors, gentlemen. No one is safe.

After a couple days of crucifixion and callow mockery ("Ooh! Craig called Bill Clinton a 'nasty, bad, naughty boy' and he is one!") the sexagenarian senator was forced to step down.

Look, Craig pleaded guilty. His explanations seem confused at best. Politicians should be held to a high standard.

But I'm having trouble understanding how his minor offense warranted automatic ejection from the Senate. And I find it amusing that the GOP was so eager to throw one of its own under the tracks quicker than posturing Democrats.It's not because it's sex.

If that's the case, what in God's name is David Vitter still doing in Senate chambers after admitting "a very serious sin" involving a D.C. cathouse? Where was the stampede to throw the deviant out?It's because it's gay sex — the ickiest kind. The kind the Religious Right — which still holds a noose around the GOP — believes is a randy rest stop on the highway to Hades.

Cavorting with a buxom hooker is a sin they can understand (remember that tramp, Mary Magdalene?) It's practically a beltway rite of passage.

But man-on-man congress in the public sphere, no less? That's incomprehensible. And wrong.

And it's precisely that kind of muddled thinking, masquerading as morality, that has turned so many people off of what used to be the Party of Lincoln.

As for the media, the Craig case brought out our worst.Sex scandals seduce networks into actually covering politics — if you call it that, and I don't.

Why bother delving into the specifics of Hillary Clinton's health care plan or Fred Thompson's views on anything besides playing tough guys on TV?

If the president boinks an intern or a congressman solicits a page, that's something we all can understand, right?

Sure, if your goal is winning the race to the bottom instead of informing and inspiring debate. We have so many things to report. Why is it that the cheap and tawdry win out every time?

That's why while I have written my share on political personalities, I have never touched stories shopped around by operatives about Senator X's sexual proclivities.

My questions always are: Do you have proof? How is this relevant to the campaign or the office? If the flacks can't answer them, then I ain't buyin'.

There was a right way to report on Larry Craig. And it wasn't news anchors feigning outrage at the hypocrisy of the senator's anti-gay votes, just to take a break from the illicit gay sex storyline.

The story could have been a textured exploration of public figures who preach family values and practice more profane ones. We could have asked the big questions, like what this says about our real ethics.

At least that way, my only reason for nausea would be writing this column while whipping around a wriggly mountain road.

Friday, September 7, 2007

On swine and spines

Right now, jittery state lawmakers are wishing the anti-bullying legislation they passed this spring applied to one Leon Drolet.

Drolet, the elfin former Republican state representative, has reinvented himself as chair of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, fond of stalking his old colleagues with a half-ton foam pig named Mr. Perks.

Considering a tax increase to give kids better schools? Mr. Perks and his adorable corkscrew tail beseech you to reconsider.

It's good, old-fashioned third-grade fun by a bunch of guys who haven't quite grasped the concept that evil taxpayer dollars allow us to flush dookie down the toilet.

But now the mirthful Mr. Drolet has turned serious, evidently intent on earning his $39,000 salary, more than half the alliance's funds, Gongwer news service reports.

(One does have to admire Drolet's conservative work ethic. When life gives you term limits, find a think tank, run back to the Macomb County Board of Commissioners from which you came and end up almost matching your sweet $79,000 Lansing salary — sans perks.)

Drolet is gearing up to file recall petitions against 10 Democratic and Republican legislators in swing districts (can you say politically motivated?) to browbeat them into supporting his group's extremist anti-tax agenda.

If need be, Drolet says he'll go after 20 more.Just what we need, to hemorrhage more moderate, reasonable voices in politics, just for doing what they think is right to represent the people of their district and the state of Michigan.

Nine times out of 10, recalls are an ill-conceived scare tactic — a waste of time and money. They should be reserved for cases of rampant illegality when the bum refuses to step down.

What we could face next year is total electoral chaos.State Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer has vowed to recall two Republicans for every Democrat. Not to be outdone, the Michigan GOP is floating a recall of Gov. Jennifer Granholm to motivate the base, throwing the presidential and state House races the Republicans' way.

This takes politicking to a whole new level of insanity, thanks to people allergic to making prudent policy.And it's superfluous. Despite last year's Democratic tsunami, it's not all doom and gloom for the GOP, which could still win in '08 fair and square.

If Michigan-native Mitt Romney is the presidential nominee, he could easily take the state — and thus the Electoral College. The trickle-down effect in state House races could restore GOP control.

Plus, the Dems could deliver a surprise Christmas gift. If state Sen. Mark Schauer unseats U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, (an almost statistical impossibility if Romney's on the ballot) then his old seat is in the bag, thus bestowing the GOP with a healthy 22-16 majority till 2010.

No Democrat, not even those closest to Schauer, thinks the seat will hold.As for the budget, if you seriously believe the Legislature can solve the $1.8 billion shortfall by Sept. 30 without a modest tax increase, then you've spent too much time inhaling Mr. Perks' fumes.

Do the math. Of the $42 billion state budget, most is in restricted funds for things like road repair. The only funds in play are the $13 billion K-12 school aid and the $9 billion general.

Neither party wants to get tagged with hating children, so that leaves deep cuts to corrections, higher education, human services, local governments and community health.

Go ahead and further gut the Department of Human Services and feign surprise at the next Ricky Holland case — the savings still won't go very far.

Nobody's eager to let the bad guys out to shrink the bloated $1.9 billion prison budget. And even if we pillage the entire $1.9 billion from higher ed (Lansing's favorite whipping boy), we'd still run short next year because our Paleozoic tax code never raises the revenue intended.

This isn't tax-and-spend madness. It's trying to keep the Capitol's lights on and ensure the Mitten State has a future.For those morally offended by taxes, I suggest you declare the glorious Republic of Notaxistan in the hinterland, where perhaps Dick DeVos will subsidize your police and public works. Or maybe you'll be content to let the dookie run free.

As for our leaders in the real world, just do your job.

Try something new, like passing a budget and pertinent laws to grow jobs, broaden health care access and improve schools. Seems that would be better for your job security than bumbling around in a daze of fear and confusion.

After all, even Mr. Perks appears to have a spine.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Making government good again

Amidst breaking news of a fly fluttering onto Sen. Chris Dodd's Brillo-pad white hair during the 286th presidential debate this year, our primary system was imploding.

Michigan wants to play in the big leagues with a Jan. 15 primary, ratcheting up the absurdity level in an already ungodly long election season.It's a domino effect, forcing New Hampshire to nudge its primary to Jan. 8 and Iowa to catapult its caucus to somewhere in December — almost one year before the general election.

Both the Hawkeye and Granite states have laws jealously enshrining their first-in-the-nation status. After reporting on 2004's contest there, I can vouch that you'll pry their pre-eminence from their cold, dead hands.Critics say it's patently unfair for two small, white, rural states to hold so much electoral sway.

And they're right.

That's why we need wholesale election reform — because the primitive primary skirmish is just the tip of the iceberg.Here's what we need: publicly financed elections over 120 days. That's it — primary, conventions, general election — we're done. Kind of like how they do it in France, where 85 percent of people turned out in May's presidential vote, shaming the United States' five-decade high of 64 percent in 2004.

Four months is enough time for politicians to get down to real issues while voters actually are paying attention.

While we're at it, let's restore the Fairness Doctrine. Then the nattering talking heads would have to give equal time to positions and candidates, and adequately inform the electorate. (No word on which job(s) City Commission candidate/U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg aide/WBCK host Chris Simmons would have to surrender.)

And let's go for broke: Redistricting by nonpartisan panels from coast to coast, not by the party that controls the Legislature when the census is taken, as is the case in Michigan. The idea that most congressional seats are safely Republican or Democratic, leaving only about 40 competitive seats per cycle, seems kind of undemocratic ... don't you think?

Of course, the sheer sanity of these measures means they're doomed.

But schemes like those of bitter conservative lawyers aiming to capture California's elusive Electoral College votes (because that whole "permanent Republican majority" thing didn't work out so well) probably will make it to the ballot. And it could pass.

During the past few decades, the Supreme Court has decimated any hint of good government reform in redistricting, equal time reporting and elections.In their most audacious decision, justices this year spayed and neutered the modest campaign finance act known as McCain-Feingold.

Money equals free speech in elections, the 5-4 decision says, just as the Founding Fathers intended.How proud Thomas Jefferson would be to see senators spending more time raising money than raising issues — or making policy.

It's a warped system that rewards those who don't have their priorities straight. Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton smirk while shoveling barrels of cash into their campaigns, seeming giddy that we're on track to have our first $1 billion presidential race.

Here in the 7th District, fundraising is a way of life for Walberg, R-Tipton, who used to drum up dough for the Moody Bible Institute. If all else fails, he always has his steadfast sugar daddy, Washington anti-tax lobby Club for Growth.

Democratic state Sen. Mark Schauer is psyched to take him on, vowing to amass $3 million by next year. His chief of staff, Ken Brock, seemed to channel the odiousness of Karl Rove earlier this month, bragging that only Schauer can raise that kind of money, unlike "liberal, Jewish trial lawyer" David Nacht or "lazy" Jim Berryman, for whom Brock twice worked.

Meanwhile, in the district ... Kids are in danger of being kicked off a federal health insurance program, we could lose our Amtrak service and thousands more people are out of work.

Seems like there's a lot more work to be done besides hosting golf outings and $1,000-a-plate dinners.

Seems like we should be electing people who know better.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Heeding the call to serve

Boffo news, boys and girls.

You can still be a superpatriot without signing up to serve. As Mitten State native Mitt Romney recently opined, fighting terrorists is for suckers whose daddies can't afford to buy the presidency:

"The good news is, we have a volunteer Army and that's the way we're going to keep it. My sons are adults. They've chosen not to serve in the military in active duty, and I respect their decision in that regard. ... And one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president."

Romney's remark was a slap in the face to all who have served, from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq war.

To compare dodging roadside bombs and sniper fire to slapping some Romney '08 bumper stickers on Iowa pickups reveals the Republican's startlingly overblown sense of importance.

But the slick CEO's stream-of-consciousness raises broader questions about what Americans owe this country and each other.

Gone are the days of obligation, for good and ill. Men are no longer drafted, so the onus falls not just on active duty personnel, but National Guardsmen, as well.

Most families don't have anyone serving in this gory conflict without end — most notably those of our leaders in Washington. After Sept. 11, the vast majority of Americans weren't asked to "pay any price, bear any burden," as John F. Kennedy once implored.

And so we didn't.

Maybe that's why we barely batted an eye when self-serving politicians used the attacks as an excuse to plunder American ideals, listening in on our phone calls here and torturing prisoners abroad. We knew we were getting off easy.

If that's the goal, then we've plunged into a full-blown, national identity crisis.It couldn't come at a worse time. We face the staggering problem of global terrorism in a nuclear age, battling enemies we don't understand and have made little attempt to. Meanwhile, the gulf between rich and poor is swelling, health care costs are skyrocketing, our deficit is out of control and there's a dearth in educated workers.

We can't afford for our national ethos to morph into life, liberty and the inalienable right to watch "American Idol."

We need the best and the brightest to step up and tackle these unprecedented challenges. That's what America has always been about, since the days of Washington, Paine and Jefferson.

Too many of us don't bother. And we don't trust the feds, the state or charities to solve these problems, either. God knows, they'll just waste our money.

Of course, it just happens to be career politicians who say government is the problem, not the solution. And it's corner-office executives insisting business can solve everything, as they're raiding your pension fund.

We seem to be cynically resolved that the world is hopelessly screwed up and there's nothing we can do about it.

Well, buck up, boys and girls.It's time to get beyond the circular logic and ask ourselves: Who are we? What do we believe in? What do we want this country to be?

Those are the fundamental questions of our time.I, for one, don't want to live in a country where Mitt Romney's egocentric definition of service rules.

Gone may be the days when we felt obligated to sweep up the local church on Sunday or rake our neighbors' leaves. Many of us don't even know who's living next door to us, which is part of the problem. It's hard to feel like we're all in this together if everybody's scrambling to watch "Dancing with the Stars" alone in their living rooms.

But there is hope. Some 65 million Americans volunteer their time at senior centers, schools and soup kitchens. We gave a record-breaking $296 billion to charity last year. (The Romney boys' political charity work doesn't count, by the way.)

Writer Albert Camus believed man is defined by his actions. In that case, we Americans are a bit schizophrenic.

It's not too late to get back on the right track. But while we've been enjoying ourselves, it's grown later than we think.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Schauer should sit this one out

Mark Schauer has rolled up his blue Oxford sleeves, ready to tackle Michigan's paralyzing budget deficit.

He says Democrats are serious about solving the $1.8 billion crunch — unlike Republicans who keep reneging on solutions, like Lucy yanking the football away from poor ole Charlie Brown.

Oh, and he's likely taking a stab at Congress. Not that raising $3 million to unseat an incumbent legislator will distract Schauer from his job as No. 2 in the state Senate.

Yes, everyone was shocked, shocked this month to learn Mr. Schauer wants to go to Washington. Ever since former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz fell to Tim Walberg in last summer's bloody GOP primary, Dems have sounded an anguished cry: "If only Mark had run."

Maybe that's why his political machine didn't do battle for Sharon Renier, the ne'er-do-well turkey farmer who last fall came within four points of beating Walberg anyway.

Schauer is now the Fred Thompson of the 7th District, undeclared but almost a lock to jump in. He's got star power in a crowded field.

On paper, the Bedford Township senator is everything the Democrats would want: smart, attractive, experienced, hardworking and well-connected.

But here's the problem.Michigan is facing its worst crisis in history, between the hemorrhaging auto industry, embarrassingly low college-graduation rates and a state government that lacks the dough to keep the lights on.

Schauer can't possibly accomplish more for the state as a freshman congressman — one out of 435 — than as minority leader of Michigan's upper chamber. He's Gov. Jennifer Granholm's go-to guy and the Dems' strongest voice on budget matters.

Leaders don't quit when the going gets tough. And make no doubt about it: Schauer will depart the Senate in spirit long before the 2008 election.

Running against Walberg and his unlimited Club for Growth war chest is more than a full-time job.

Right now, Schauer's constituents need him in Lansing.Most disappointingly, the senator seems fixated on strategy, not issues. In an interview this week from Israel, Schauer ticked off the economy, Iraq war and health care as major campaign issues.

He spent some time blasting Walberg for voting no on the minimum-wage hike and claiming credit for W.K. Kellogg Airport funding he voted against.

But Schauer's main argument was that he's the most electable candidate — everyone has told him so. There was no vision, no real fire for working for Michigan.

It wasn't the earnest voice of the small-town guy with that Ned Flanders mustache, who had run the Community Action Agency and upstart races for City Commission, state House and Senate because he wanted to serve.

It sounded like he'd swallowed the pill of politics as usual, fed by overweening advisers.

In the rush to defeat an ethically challenged congressman, politicians can't abandon their own principles.

It's fair to judge Walberg on how he's slickly dispatched his enemies, like Schwarz and former state Sen. Jim Berryman.

But it's also fair to judge Schauer on how he has treated both men, his friends during the past two decades.

When Berryman declared his candidacy in the 7th, Schauer was right behind him, swearing he'd never run himself. But he and his advisers abruptly decided Berryman didn't collect enough cash and figured Schauer could do better.

Schwarz has mulled a run — possibly as a Democrat — and polling shows he'd beat Walberg by three points. He's told Schauer he can't run for office until he wraps up chairing a nonpartisan, state health care commission this fall, but his old chum says Schwarz has missed the boat.

Though he vowed he'd never run against Schwarz, Schauer said he's now prepared to do just that.

The political game, as it's played today, dictates Schwarz and Berryman bow out if Schauer gets in. That's exactly what the senator's advisers are smugly counting on.

But even if Mark Schauer now believes the politics-as-usual mantra, his friends don't.Both are fighters. Berryman once debated Walberg 27 times in a state House race. Schwarz signed up for a stint in Vietnam and went back for more in the CIA.

If they think running for Congress is the right thing, they'll do it.

The only thing Schauer can count on is the 7th District race will be an interesting one. And it just may make him long for the tranquility of jousting with the GOP in Lansing.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Dem hopefuls fumble on compassion

CHICAGO — As with any spectacle at Soldier Field, impatient, nacho-chomping fans shrieked at the stars on the 10-yard line and didn't hesitate to hiss at shady maneuvers.

The 95-degree evening heat underscored the fact that it was only an exhibition game — the seventh this summer — but fevered followers gyrated like it was the season's kickoff in January.

Of course, the Chicago Bears never took the field Tuesday at the space-age stadium — and the 15,000-person crowd couldn't have cared less.

Teachers, steelworkers, firefighters, nurses and autoworkers came to catch a glimpse of seven Democratic presidential contenders at the AFL-CIO forum and see what they'd do about health care, organizing rights, trade, infrastructure and Iraq.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich wooed the rank and file, pledging a "workers' White House" and an end to NAFTA, the bane of their existence.

No matter.

The leadership clearly was smitten with frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who defended taking bundles of corporate lobby cash while brazenly declaring "I'm your girl" against the right-wing machine. They want to back a winner, and the Clinton name is still election gold.

But more than halfway through, it became clear the debate was not about them. It wasn't about the talking heads' prognoses or flag-waving graphics on MSNBC.

When Steve Skvara stood at the microphone, neck throbbing in nervous pain as he gripped the metal braces at his side, the cheers and catcalls stopped.

After putting 34 years into a company that went bankrupt, the disabled Union Township, Ind., steelworker lost one-third of his pension and all his health insurance. He's had four heart attacks and a hip replacement, and his wife is still recovering from shattering her hip and pelvis in an auto accident.

Skvara knows he's not alone; 47 million Americans lack insurance. Health costs are the No. 1 reason for bankruptcy and he thinks Medicare should be available for all.

"What's wrong with America?" he asked, voice quavering. "And what will you do to change it?"Former Sen. John Edwards grinned, clapped and dispensed vague promises to reform pension law and health care.

Then he promptly returned to his theme of being the true workers' candidate, having walked 200 picket lines since leaving the Senate.

"Who was with you in crunch time?" Edwards smiled broadly at the crowd.

Translation: It's not about you, Steve. It's about me.

Deborah Hamner didn't fare much better when she talked about the death of her husband, George, in the Sago mine disaster last year and asked what the candidates could do to improve workplace safety.

Joe Biden announced he felt her pain — he'd lost his first wife, after all — and then took the rest of his time piling on fellow Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials on Pakistan.

Neither Skvara nor Hamner felt the hopefuls really answered their questions. They couldn't say if anyone on that Soldier Field stage truly responded with compassion.

Skvara said he's met enough politicians to know they'll launch into a stump speech if you ask about the weather.

But he's not giving up.

"Union people want straight answers," he told me, "because we deal with companies all the time that don't give us straight answers."

He and Hamner deserved better Tuesday night. And the candidates on stage should have known better than to grandstand. There are five long months before the Iowa caucus to do that at pig roasts, coffee shops and stockcar races from Des Moines to Daytona Beach.

Tuesday was the time for them to dignify the courage of two Americans voicing real problems and concerns.

That's real leadership.If societies are judged by how we treat the least among us, so too should those who aim to run ours.

And if the candidates' stony stock answers are any indicator, we may as well adopt the sober sign-off of Edward R. Murrow, invoked by debate moderator Keith Olbermann:

"Good night and good luck."

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Losing the war against complacency

Everybody's against this war and pretends to have been since the start.

Yes, there's still a solid 20 percent of true patriots who back the war — a record low, making the Bushies yearn for the numbers Nixon pulled for Vietnam.

But let's get back to the majority, even as our voices are drowned out in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress.

And let's fess up. The polls represent a complete reversal from when we started bombing Baghdad to kingdom come on March 20, 2003. Back then, better than 80 percent of us joined the war pep squad, right down to the ubiquitous yellow ribbon magnets on our SUVs.

Now we've ripped those babies off as quickly as we slapped them on, without even chipping the customized paint job.It's a somber and potent symbol of our complacency.

Complacency marked our initial euphoria with the war — bless the troops, don't send my boy and hand me another tax cut.And it's the hallmark of our current revulsion with the conflict that has left more than 3,600 U.S. troops dead and another 26,000 wounded. Can't protest now; "America's Got Talent" is on.

We've come a long way from rocking the nation with rallies during Vietnam.

The Iraq war appealed to the best of our nature — love of country and those who protect it, faith in freedom and the desire to help those suffering.

But this war also appealed to the very worst in our psyches — the visceral need to kick some ass, even if innocent people (say, 650,000 Iraqis we were supposed to be liberating) die in the crossfire.

It was the wrong war. But it felt right.

The pain still throbbed of almost 3,000 Americans being incinerated; al-Qaida and Osama had proved slipperier targets than we thought and somebody had to pay, dammit.

We just knew Saddam Hussein was laughing at us dumb Americans. Boy, did our bunker busters wipe the smile off his mustachioed face.

When we invaded Iraq, three-quarters of Americans believed Saddam was behind 9/11. More than 90 percent thought he possessed weapons of mass destruction.Both were dangerous lies propagated by a delusional, demagogic administration.

And we bought it.

But who today admits they did, aside from requisitely remorseful Democrats duking it out for the presidential nod? Even their normally bellicose Republican counterparts have backed away, sheepishly muttering something about "mistakes being made" in Mesopotamia.

We insist Sen. Hillary Clinton flagellate herself at the altar of smug sanctimony — "Forgive me, Father, for I have pandered" — but who among us is without sin?

We bought President Bush's Shock and Awe ad campaign that he'd made us safer since 9/11 — and gave him four more years as the Leader of the Free World.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops died in Iraq by Election Day 2004. But three-quarters of Americans believed the country was doing better than under Saddam's rule, and more than 60 percent thought he had posed a serious threat to U.S. security.

By the next year, we came down with buyer's remorse and the president's polls plummeted. It wasn't because everyone collectively pored through the 636-page 9/11 Commission Report and realized the Iraq-al-Qaida link was a neoconservative hoax.

It was the wrenching site of flag-shrouded coffins carried through our hometowns. They kept coming — with no end in sight.

And the high-decibel defense of this war — usually by those who had skirted their own duty to serve, like Vice President Dick Cheney — sounded terribly hollow against those caskets.

The Bushies continue to muddle the issue and unleash a new marketing strategy every few months. (Was al-Qaida in Iraq before the war? Who knows? You know how hard it is to muddle through the intelligence bureaucracy. The important thing is, the terrorists are there now and we're blowing 'em to bits.)

The administration is still desperately trying to exploit the worst in our nature. Its latest tagline is Americans may want to high-tail it out of Hilla, but they really want victory more.

It's too late. We ain't buying. But that's not enough.

The troops are being asked for superhuman sacrifice. Some are on their fifth deployments in a war that cannot be won militarily and whose objective and justification constantly change. And the sickening part is, the intelligence shows Americans aren't any safer.

Our troops will fight as long as we ask.We need to stop — now. All of us own this war and its eventual $1 trillion price tag.

We need to tell our leaders in Washington — however many times as it takes — that we want them to end the war. It's not enough to do that via osmosis while sitting on the sofa snickering at "Big Brother 8."

Our silence doesn't protect us. And it doesn't protect our troops.

We were supposed to have learned painful lessons from Vietnam. But perhaps only our cynical politicians have: No draft, no demonstrations.

And no accountability.