Friday, July 25, 2008

The morality mob runs amok

I don't know if Anne Norlander is running for secretary of state in 2010, but I'm endorsing her anyway.

The Calhoun County clerk-register, an eminently reasonable Republican who's been on the job for 20 years, would provide a seamless transition from the affable administration of Terri Lynn Land. Norlander seems to be that rare public official who genuinely loves what she does.

But last month, she discovered the religious right is restless and needs new blood to feast on. That's what happens when your once-almighty power is on the wane.

Norlander happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming ensnared in the hottest House race in the state.

The 62nd District seat currently occupied by term-limited state Rep. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, is the Democrats' best chance for a pickup. Everyone expected fireworks in the fall, but they came early in the GOP primary between County Commissioner Greg Moore and Battle Creek City Commissioner Susan Baldwin.

As Nofs' chief of staff, Moore was the GOP golden boy for the Lansing crowd, but Baldwin had her own following back in Cereal City. Like all candidates, they're both pro-business and want to slash government. But being a Republican primary, what this really comes down to is the social divide.

Moore led Christian soldiers onward first as a staffer for former U.S. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Addison, and then as a quiet but potent ally for current U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton. Baldwin is pro-choice. 'Nuf said.

Then Moore admitted to the media he didn't live in the district (a big no-no, as in a five-year felony for a false affidavit) so Baldwin asked Norlander to strip his name from the ballot.

When the clerk decided to do her due diligence and consult an attorney, her own name was promptly dragged through the slop before she'd even made her decision.

Out of the blue, the statewide media and Republican activists were blasted by a press release from the Campaign for Michigan Families, a production of Gary Glenn, whom one columnist aptly described as "eerily obsessed with gays." He just had a niggling question he wanted to share with thousands of his closest friends:

Does Anne Norlander support homosexual adoption?

Truly, that is the biggest question before any county clerk or secretary of state.

Indeed, it is the No. 1 issue of any campaign this year (or any year). So stop whining about your house being in foreclosure, losing your job and $4 gas, as Uncle Phil recently intoned. Gramm's only mistake was that he didn't say God was punishing us for the queers. Somehow, I know Jerry Falwell is tenderly whispering those words from heaven.

For the record, Norlander doesn't know if she's running for statewide office and doesn't back gay adoption. (Interestingly, John McCain, who rescued a disabled Bangladesh baby and raised her as his own, has been openly conflicted on the question).

Norlander has been dumbfounded by the scrutiny. "I'm just doing my job," she sighed. In the end, both she and Circuit Court Judge James Kingsley let Moore's name stand. The race remains a toss-up.

For his part, Glenn swears the Moore controversy had nothing to do with his e-mail blast. I'm sure Moore (if he'd return calls) would say the same (Gary who?). I might gently point out, dear reader, that Kingsley established in the court record that Moore lied in his affidavit, lecturing that he doesn't believe "the truth should be treated as a trifling thing."

Anyway, we've never seen the morality mob knife a moderate in these parts, right? Surely Tim Walberg, devoted man of God, would never crucify former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz in evangelical churches from one corner of the 7th District to the other.

And I'm sure the zealots didn't yank Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley's voting privileges at the Republican National Convention this year because he's investigating televangelists. Seriously, what kind of a cynic would suspect that a dude named Creflo Dollar (who stopped by to save Battle Creekers' souls last year) might be in it for the money more than God's glory?

Nothing says more about the religious right running amok than the slapdown of Grassley, the conservative Christian conscience of Congress since before I was born.

It's time to stand up against this kind of heavy-handed bullying that has vaporized thousands of careers.

The Moral Majority and its ilk had their chance to transform the country during their dramatic ascent in the '80s and particularly under the tenure of born-again George W. Bush. Sorry, folks, you didn't make the sale with most of us. Hijacking national and state Republican parties has proved thoroughly self-destructive, yielding congressional minorities for the foreseeable future.

In Michigan, nominees for offices including SOS and attorney general are picked by party elders - good news for fans of cronyism and extremism. Backing a dedicated public servant like Norlander (who inadvertently got caught in the culture wars) would send a powerful message.

Let's take back the GOP from the Gary Glenns and restore it to the Party of Lincoln.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Progressive regression

There it was.

A hulking, 12-foot paper-mache likeness of Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, complete with lavender housecoat, lumbered in front of the Capitol steps Tuesday next to a 20-foot inflatable black coal plant.

Her nametag read, "Smokestack Patty," and dangling from her hand were three marionettes of Republican Sens. Mike Bishop, Roger Kahn and Randy Richardville. Smug environmentalists took to the podium to blast Birkholz and "her Senate coal industry stooges" for an energy bill they claim will rape the earth.

Meantime, they were content to molest the senator's reputation, rather than do the grownup thing and negotiate on policy.

Dan Farough, the extremist left's favorite carnival barker, defended the ogre-like effigy (his words), saying it sends out a message to Birkholz and others that "there's a price to be paid for bad legislation."

"Sometimes you have to use the hammer," he grinned and I just couldn't imagine why he wasn't working for a reasonable intellectual like House Speaker Andy Dillon anymore.

As far as political theater went, it was a cheap Michael Moore knockoff, but tee-vee showed up and that's what counts. That's pretty much the M.O. of Farough's Progress Michigan, an ain't-we-cool, in-your-face liberal hype machine that usually can't be bothered with the facts.

In February, the group hyperventilated that there were 89 lobbyists in Lansing working for the pharmaceutical industry, but a Michigan Information & Research Service investigation revealed the number was less than half that. Firms like Public Affairs Associates hadn't hired or even heard of some of their supposed employees.

This is a group that carted around woeful widow Leslie Richter, claiming she'd never get a dime from Big Pharma for her husband's death, long after the media exposed her settlement in a New Jersey suit over Vioxx.

But considering the fact that PM's crack research staff includes Julielyn Gibbons, she of the mindlessly indignant "Liberal Lucy" blog, it all starts to make sense.

Some of my Democratic friends, bless their hearts, have wondered why I have to blast progressives, even when they play fast and loose with the facts or denigrate John McCain's years in the Hanoi Hilton. For years, my stomach churned as the right-wing attack machine eviscerated its enemies as gay-marryin' abortionists out to steal our guns.

Too many on the left, emboldened by the 2006 electoral tsunami, have adopted that playbook down to playground taunts and character assassination. If that's the sewer the netroots want to bathe in, fine - but expect most of us to chuckle when you huffily try to claim the moral high ground.

So the ironies of this latest stunt were many - starting with the fact that Birkholz, who always dons purple and a smile, is beloved by Democrats and Republicans alike at the Capitol and would never bludgeon her opponents so crudely.

Yet this is the second time in a few months enviros have turned their fire on Birkholz, one of the most green-friendly conservatives in the Legislature who just shepherded passage of the landmark Great Lakes Compact.

Oh, and she was hardly the mastermind behind the Senate energy package. Anyone actually paying attention would know GOP Sens. Cameron Brown and Wayne Kuipers were the ones pushing the free-market envelope. I'd love to see how far the protesters would get with that pair.

Right now, I'm sure they're both devastated they won't live on in infamy via yarn, paste and chicken wire. Dare to dream, boys.

Look, I'm not a big fan of coal and think we need an aggressive alternative energy policy. Environmentalists back the House bills, which really just gave Consumers Energy and DTE carte blanche, along with a meager 10 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2015. The Senate RPS was 3 percent less.

Let's be honest. Neither will create the 45,000-job bonanza enviros were crying about this week - not when states like Iowa enacted a standard back in 1983 and New York will have 25 percent renewable energy by 2013.

So beyond tastelessness, inaccuracy and misplaced rage, there's the simple fact that activists were just boneheaded this week. They disparaged the very people with whom they'll have to negotiate. Even sensible, sunny folks like Patty Birkholz don't relish being repeatedly insulted.

Farough sloughed off such criticism, maintaining his antics were "a good tactic politically and legislatively." He laughably said Progress Michigan had a good track record, citing the so-called "drug immunity" bills, which passed the House but have been strangled in the Senate.

"It flipped the House," he blustered.

Oh, please. Farough knows he has the carnage in Iraq and Mark Foley's (remember him?) fondness for male pages to thank for the down-ballot victories two years ago. Talk about an overblown sense of importance.

If environmentalists want to associate with the circus act that is Progress Michigan, they'll continue to grab headlines. The price, of course, is forfeiting their reputations and effectiveness at the bargaining table.

Decisions, decisions.

Friday, July 11, 2008

For whom the center holds

When I was in Washington last week, I strolled over to gaze at the White House because it knocks me out every time.

A mom asked her blonde ponytailed daughter what the building was.

"That's where Barack Obama lives," the 5-year-old said matter-of-factly, before requesting ice cream.

I wondered if her confidence had anything to do with the fact that she doesn't get viral e-mails smearing him as a radical black Muslim, or read Daily Kos where posters want to try him for treason for voting for the FISA bill or any editorial page gasping about his unprecedented shift to the center.

In this lull between Obama securing the nomination in early June and accepting it at the Invesco Field in Denver in late August, his campaign is doing some soul-searching to find the right general election pitch. It hasn't been the smoothest transition in terms of messaging and fundraising - and the 24-hour news cycle hasn't been his friend.

Any misstep from the minor (like that tacky presidential seal) to the boneheaded (volunteers removing head-scarved women from sitting behind Obama at a Detroit event) is covered in breathless detail. I frequently open agitated e-mails from readers determined that the latest flap will be the end of him, although I never seem to receive them when John McCain confuses Sunnis with Shiites (again).

Want me to spill the beans on the super-secret pundit code? We don't know what will stick and what won't. We need a little distance to see if a gaffe will congeal into a pattern (the Howard Dean scream underscoring the unhinged persona theme) or if it will be a one-day story.

Not that this is not how campaigns should be covered, mind you. But it is the glossy, issue-free infotainment bent of cable news that drives perception and polls far more than the Economist's thoughtful analysis of the candidates' jobs programs.

There's no time for reflection in the frenzied rhythm of the election cycle, which goes something like this: Candidate's surrogate says something stupid; media and operatives feign outrage; surrogate apologizes; media declare this will kill the candidate's chances; the other candidate's surrogate picks up the baton the next day; the cycle continues.

And Barack Obama is usually at the epicenter of the storm.

That's because this election is all about Obama, as the kindergartner outside the White House can see. Even McCain knows that. His real hope is that "hope" will flame out and he'll be the safe, practical choice bolstered by his lifetime of service.

Now would be a good time for Johnny Mac to march into the vacuum. There are some promising signs, like his long-awaited economic speech Thursday in Michigan, home of 8.5 percent unemployment (go Wolverine State!). He's shaken up his campaign and made it more centralized, adding an office in the strategic location of Farmington Hills in vote-rich Oakland County.

But even during the primary, McCain's campaign was never on fire. Part of that is it's hard to whip up much excitement for any Republican during what's clearly another good Democratic year. But the maverick has failed to excite and inspire people like he did eight years ago, partly because he's ditched a lot of his core reform message.

Instead, McCain has morphed into the GOP standard-bearer (inviting unflattering comparisons to the bumbling Bob Dole '96 campaign). He's spent a lot of time talking up conservative judges and courting religious right leaders (some so radical like the Rev. John Hagee that it calls his judgment into question). He's also flip-flopped on the Bush tax cuts and unbelievably on torture, after spending more than five years in the Hanoi Hilton.

We hear little of campaign finance, other than to rightly criticize Obama's opt-out. His message on alternative energy is a quasi-lurch to the left, but it's ultimately unconvincing given his thin record on the issue and eagerness to jump on the gas-tax holiday and drill for the fun of it bandwagon.

While diehard McCainiacs have eagerly awaited his move to the middle, it's been Obama making a play for independents, while trying to blunt the right's traditional attacks.

His shifts haven't been that pronounced, to be honest, other than his blatant about-face on expanded government surveillance powers. But hell hath no fury like liberal bloggers scorned, so Obama is taking his share of hits right now. Welcome to the club, Barack - you've passed the IQ test and it's a good place to be.

His measured position on troop withdrawals in Iraq didn't translate well into sound bites, but means we'll be less hasty in pulling out than we were jumping in. And not supporting a mental health exception for so-called partial birth abortion - a procedure that should only be performed when the mother's health is in danger - is just common sense.

"The center cannot hold," poet William Butler Yeats once wrote. And while that's prescient in party politics and often legislation, campaigns contradict that maxim.

Modern presidential elections are determined by the center - that 40 percent of us who can't swallow the rigidity and pettiness of either party line.

If McCain continues to cede this ground to Obama, it's game over.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Puerile patriot games

PHILADELPHIA - Fourth of July has never really tripped my patriotic trigger.

Even as a kid, I found the star-spangled napkins, cookies and God forbid, swim trunks garish and empty. Most holiday barbecues I've attended over the years have featured good burgers, beer and the requisite fireworks and exactly zero discussion of America, Thomas Jefferson or the Declaration of Independence.

Now I get that I'm a history geek and most people are content on a rare day off to grouse about the Tigers' trades instead of debate whether property should have been listed as an inalienable right.

But I do deeply love this country. And it makes me a bit queasy to have such a disconnect with that on Independence Day of all days.

When I am filled with absolute wonder and gratitude for our still nascent nation is while reading tomes like Tom Paine's "Common Sense" or David McCullough's "1776," so I've spent many a Fourth with my nose buried in a book.

And there's nothing quite like stepping foot in defining landmarks to make our brief history hit home. So for the past three years, I've observed the birth of our nation at Fort Mackinac, the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and now the City of Brotherly Love.

Standing in the sweltering silver-swathed room where the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration 232 years ago today, I thought it wouldn't be such a bad thing if every American was required to spend the holiday at a museum or significant site before kicking back with a brewski. It isn't a substitute for teaching civics in school like in the days of old, of course, but it's a start.

Given the popularity of Williamsburg, Valley Forge, the National Mall in Washington, Salem, Mass., and The Henry Ford in Dearborn, there's hope yet.

What gives me pause, however, is that patriotism has become a hot topic in the presidential race when most citizens can't name five signers of the Declaration or when most did so (Aug. 2, 1776).

My first reaction when this cropped up during the Democratic primary was that this was one of those idiotic non-issues that would disappear in a few news cycles. With spiking unemployment, $4-plus gas and war in two countries (three counting Iran, according to Sy Hersh) who cares if Barack Obama dons a flag pin?

But then Bill Clinton weighed in about the glorious matchup between his wife and John McCain, musing, "I think it would be a great thing if we had an election between two people who loved this country."

And Michelle Obama's remark that, "For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback" continues to be reverberate in the right-wing echo chambers online and on the airwaves as proof that she's an angry black woman who hates America.

In her less-than-finest hour, Cindy McCain attempted to furrow her tightly lifted brow and cattily responded, "I'm very proud of my country." Well, isn't that special.

I think first lady Laura Bush got it about right when she discussed the pressure of being a new public figure and said Michelle probably meant she was "more proud." It's refreshing to see a little grace in politics.

What this really comes down to is trust. That's what the Swift Boat ads were about with John Kerry - could we really trust his military record and his ability to lead the country in an age of global terror? Three years after 9/11 (and a year of his conflicted, lumbering campaign), we got our answer.

So do we trust the half-white, half-black, Hawaii- and Indonesia-raised son of a Kenyan Muslim and Kansan Christian? Is he American enough? Or is Obama the Other who couldn't possibly be entrusted to lead our nation?

That is the crass question. And in the blogosphere and viral e-mails, it's put in shockingly racist and bigoted terms.

In case you thought our politics couldn't sink any lower, the left netroots have started to strike back, questioning McCain's flag-waving credentials. This, of course, is one of his unmitigated strengths, as a storied Vietnam War hero Americans trust by double digits to better handle terrorism.

But bloggers like Julie Powers on are willing to swan dive into the cesspool and actually slander McCain's heroism.

"So John, how exactly does sitting on your ass in a POW camp for five years (and then returning only to cheat on your disabled wife and dump her for the Budweiser Barbie) exactly make you such a military expert?" asks Powers, who does PR for gay rights Equality Now group, which I doubt sanctions her inflammatory rhetoric.

OK, then, Jules. Let's throw your butt in the Hanoi Hilton, break your arms and subject you to psychological trauma even worse than reading your own posts and then we'll talk.

On this Fourth of July, I suggest we take a much-needed break from letting the fringes dictate the debate. And let's celebrate our country, which gives people the freedom to say whatever they want, no matter how asinine.