Sunday, December 19, 2010

Backbencher of the Week

For the last Backbencher of the Week of 2010, we choose to recognize a Congressman who is soon to leave the House. Rep. Patrick Murphy(D-PA-8) lost his seat in last month's election but he has saved his best work for the lame duck session.

Murphy was the first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress and he made the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell a top priority. Earlier this week , Congressman Murphy introduced the bill that repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell. The bill passed the House on Wednesday and yesterday the Senate voted to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. President Obama will sign the repeal into law this week.

Even though they are too high profile to qualify as backbenchers, we recognize the work of Senate majority leader Harry Reid(D-NV) and Sen. Joe Lieberman(I-CN) who shepherded the bill through the Senate.

For serving the cause of justice to the very end of his term, we are proud to award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Doing the Double

During the first week of May 1979, Arsenal won the FA Cup and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Noted Arsenal fanatic, and political left winger, Nick Hornby, admits that he was willing to accept a Conservative victory in the general election if it meant that Arsenal would win the cup. Arsenal goes on to win the cup in miraculous fashion, and the Tories won the general election. Reflecting on this week years later, Hornby ponders if this bargain of a Conservative win was worth the bargain of an Arsenal cup victory. Looking back on 11 years of Thatcher, and a total of 18 years of Tory rule, Hornby concludes that he wouldn't settle now for anything less then the double(FA cup and league title in the same year).

I find myself in a similar position. Yesterday, Democrats suffered a large defeat in the midterm elections. The defeat of many politicians(Russ Feingold, Alan Grayson) that I admire saddens me, and the result of the elections here in Iowa leave me on the verge of being despondent.

However, the biggest event of the week was the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series. I have been a Giants fan since I was a toddler in the late 1970's. The very first sporting events I ever attended were Giants games at Candlestick Park and as I boy I would fall asleep listening to Giants games on the radio. I celebrated the hum-baby season of 1987 and I was devestated by 87 NLCS series against the Cardinals. I took great joy in the 89 pennant, and watched with horror and humiliation the 1989 earthquake World Series. I enjoyed the summer of 93 and watched with uncomprehending dread the fall of 93 as the Giants managed to win 103 games but still miss the play-offs by 1 game. In 2002 I thought the Giants were finally going to win it all but with 5 outs remaining the whole season fell apart. Along the way there have been numerous minor heartaches and frustrations.

All of that changed on Monday night as the Giants finally won the World Series and they did it in a season in which no one expected them to make a serious run. Earl Weaver's adage that pitching, defense, and the three run homer are the keys to victory held true for the Giants. 30+ years of devotion and heartache were justified during this magical run.

For me, the elation of a Giants championship makes even last night's election results bearable. For I have been a Giants fan longer then I have been a political junkie, and I have learned that Giants baseball is much more dependable then the electorate. However, unlike Hornby, I did get my double. The college team that I pull for, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, won the College World Series and I even attended a game. Even the minor league team in my hometown, the Jacksonville Suns, won the Southern League title.

So I thank the Gamecocks for a foretaste of the joy that was to come throughout the summer. Most of all I thank the San Francisco Giants who made every night of dressing in layers to attend a ball game June, and every year of being a long distance fan worth it. Mostly I thank the Giants for redeeming every season of heartbreak and frustration in one joyful and exciting play-off ride. Thank you and always Fear the Beard.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Predicitions

Here are my predictions for tomorrow's elections:

House: I predict a Republican gain of 48 seats.

Republican Wins: North Dakota(John Hoeven), Arkansas(John Boozeman), Indiana(Dan Coats), Wisconsin(Ron Johnson), Florida(Marco Rubio), Pennsylvania(Pat Toomey), Kentucky(Rand Paul), Alaska(Lisa Murkowski).
Democrat Wins: Nevada(Harry Reid), California(Barbara Boxer), Washington(Patty Murray), West Virgina(Joe Manchin), Illinois(Alex Gianoulias), Delaware(Chris Coons), Connecticut(Richard Blumenthal), Colorado(Michael Bennett)
This would lead to a Republican gain of 5 seats

In Iowa I see Republican Terry Branstad defeating incumbent Democrat Chet Culver to win the Governor's office, Republican Senator Charles Grassley defeating his Democratic challenger Roxanne Conlin, and all 5 congressional incumbents winning

There will be lots of talk that the Democrats overreached and this is why they suffered such a massive defeat. I disagree. It is virtually impossible to overreach in politics. The window for getting things done is so small that you get as much done when you can. Democrats had once in a generation majorities and they got everything passed that I think they could have passed.

The real explanation is that the country was in such bad shape that the voters elected many more Democrats than Republicans in 2006 and 2008, and voters put Democrats in charge of returning the country to the right track. The return to the right track has not happened fast enough and so voters are going to show their displeasure by electing more Republicans than Democrats. It really is as simple as that.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Running, Not Walking, to the Left

Doug J, the business and economics editor of Balloon Juice, has post up about how he moved to the left. In the that spirit here is the brief narrative of how I moved leftward.

Ten years ago I was a moderate above the fray type. Three things moved me to the left. The first was the war on terror. Everything from the idiocy and petty abuses of the TSA and Homeland Security, to the wholesale torture and destruction of our values that went on in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, to the murderous delusions of Iraq led to realize the peaceniks and hippies are right

The second event that moved me to left was taking a job in the healthcare industry. Once I saw how the patchwork system of private insurance and for-profit healthcare hindered caring for the sick as much, if not more, then it helped then I wanted a system of universal healthcare.

The final event was the economic crisis and the exposure of what thirty years of conservative ad neo-liberal policies did to the middle and working classes moved me even further to the left.

These three events, plus my theological liberalism leading me to oppose and detest evangelical fundamentalism, is what led me to move firmly to the left

Sunday, October 3, 2010

That Took a Bit Longer then We Expected

Today Germany paid the last payment related to the reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles and thus closing and balancing the books on World War 1. Ninety seven years after the war started, the lamps are coming back on all across Europe.

The costs of the war include 9 million soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed and 6 million civilians killed during Europe's four years of murderous insanity. The fighting cost the combatant nations about $180,000,000,000 in 1918 money. The Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian empires disappeared forever, and the Russian empire was replaced by the Communist Soviet Union.

While today marks an ending, of sorts, of World War 1, we do well to remember how the war began. Capt. Edmund Blackadder explains the origins of the war in this clip from Blackadder Goes Forth(yes, that is Hugh Laurie).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sibling Rivalry

Some sets of siblings, like my brother and I, play out our sibling rivalry by putting on football helmets and playing tackle football. Others, like Ed and David Miliband play their rivalry out by running against each other for the leadership of a major political party.

The former Energy Minister Ed Miliband won a narrow victory to be elected Leader of the Labour Party and become Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. Coming in second was former Foreign Secretary, and Ed's brother, David Miliband.

It is unclear which brother Mama Miliband loves the most but the love that trade unions have for Ed provided the 1% margin of victory. The big questions are whether David will serve in the shadow cabinet and does Ed's election represent a shift to the left for the party?

The Distingushed Bigot From Georgia

Can anyone be surprised that on the day the Senate voted on Don't Ask Don't Tell a computer in Sen. Saxby Cambliss'(R-GA) office was used to send a homophobic message? It's not like Sen. Chambliss has a history of bigoted statements.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


The Backbencher considers Jacksonville, Florida to be his hometown. So, we have to note the passing of the man who lent his name to the greatest band ever named for a gym teacher.

Put on Your Rally Caps

Democrats in southwest Iowa met recently for an election rally. Since the event involved 5 countries, and attracted people from a total of 7 Iowa counties, we were able to arrange for several candidates and politicians to attend.

Lt. Gov. Patty Judge attended, and on behalf of Governor Chet Culver, outlined the incumbent party's strategy for the November election. The Lieutenant Governor said that events out of the Governor's control, like record flooding and a national recession, are making times difficult in Iowa but the state in government is in good shape because of the work of the incumbent Democrats. However accurate, this line of argument will be a hard sale, but I am glad to see that Culver and Judge are ready to fight to defend their record.

Matt Campbell, the Democratic party's nominee for the 5th Congressional district, made another appearance in Southwest Iowa. I had mixed feelings about Campbell. I want so badly to see Rep. Steve King(R-IA-5) defeated that I will support anyone running against him. However, I was worried about Campbell's self description as a "fiscal conservative" and describing his philosophy as being in line with the Blue Dog faction. However, Matt Campbell gave a stirring defense of social security and I left much reassured by Campbell's willingness to fight for the pillar of the Democrat's domestic achievements.

The headliner of the night was Sen. Tom Harkin(D-IA). Harkin took great pride in the fact that he won Mills and Montgomery counties for the first time in his 5 elections to the Senate. Harkin spoke about his service as the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions(HELP) Committee. Taking each of the letters in HELP, Sen. Harkin described how Democrats were making life better for Americans. Harkin even grew tearful when talking about succeeding Ted Kennedy as chair of the HELP committee.

I know it is going to be a rough year for Democrats in Iowa and across the nation. However, the rally was a reminder of why I am a Democrat and I find so much enjoyment in being involved in politics.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What Exactly is Going on in this Passage

Another Baptist preacher has claimed that Mohammed was a pedophile. Last time it was Jerry Vines at First Baptist Jacksonville and now Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas is making the same claim.

I have often wondered how these preachers explain away what happened between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary; who most scholars believe would have been a teenage girl.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review

Good fiction will often open up a previously unknown world and make you care about characters that you might not even like. That is exactly what Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants does. The world that Gruen opens up is the traveling circus of the 1930s and it is the circus itself that becomes the star of the novel.

Gruen's circus is world of brutality, vice, sex, and humanity and she renders this world is such great detail that you can almost smell the popcorn. Told through flashbacks by the show's vet, Gruen's novel is the story of a man trying to get come to terms with his life.

About halfway to 2/3 of the way through the novel, the direction of the narrative is clear but the precise the daily life of a traveling circus will keep you hooked until the last page.

An End in Iraq

The war in Iraq is just about over. At least that is what we are often told as the last "combat" troops leave the country; conveniently forgetting that there are still 50,00 U.S. soldiers still in Iraq.

Nevertheless this is something of a milestone and there have been no shortage of people talking about what this milestone means. President Obama gave a speech from the Oval Office while others have offered various explanations and justifications for what has gone on in Iraq since 2003.

Looking at all these justifications for Iraq I think all for should take heed of Frederick Ebright's admonition to advertisers making money of World War 2 and realize "There is dignity in silence."

I Don't Want to Work Late

As someone who likes what they do for a living, and often finds meaning in my profession, but who is ambivalent about the aspects that make what I do a job then I recommend Ezra Klein's column opposing rising the retirement age of Social Security.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What is this over here?

A Civil War prison camp.

I know exactly where this is at because when I lived in Augusta I would drive down to Millen for work and Millen was on the way to Florida. Unlike other places in Georgia, Augusta emerged from the Civil War relatively unscathed and unlike Savannah or Atlanta I never got the sense that Augusta was defined, in part, by a connection the war.

When I heard this story reported on the radio, I almost froze. It's always a weird feeling when you here about some obscure corner of the world that you think only you know about being talked about world wide. It makes the world seem a little smaller.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Muslims in Lower Manhattan

The most disheartening aspect of the debate on the Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan is that much of the debate is focused on turning American Muslims into a scary other who are undeserving of the full rights granted under the Constitution.

Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of New York and the U.S, and they have been a part for a long time. Muslim Americans have also been apart of the American story that began on 9/11. Approximately, 50 Muslims were murdered in the 9/11 attacks and the majority of people murdered by Al Qaeda and it's associates are Muslims. American Muslims volunteered to serve in our government's response to 9/11 and some died. Muslims in other countries have made the decision to side with the U.S. and many of those who allied themselves died as a result of that decision.

Muslim victims are part of the story of 9/11, they are part of the story of the response to those attacks, and Muslims Americans will continue to be a part of the story of this nation's recovery from that day.

Not only do Muslims have the Constitutional right to have space in Lower Manhattan but they are every bit as deserving as any other group.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review

This summer I decided to see if reality really does match the hype and so I read all three volume of the Steig Larsson trilogy. In a period of about 10 days(that often included staying up late) I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. After finishing all three, I can definitely say that the all three books are worthy of the hype.

Lisbeth Salander is the main character and most interestingly she is also the moral fulcrum of the trilogy. If a charcter is good then they will, directly or indirectly be on Salander's side and like wise if they are bad then the person is antagonistic to Salander. Making such a complex character the focal point and moral focal point gives the books their drive. There should be a couple of warnings attached: there is some sex and violence and a combination of the two that make you uncomfortable. The other warning is that you should be prepared for a few late nights and a few late nights is a small price to pay for three great reads.

Dear Robert Gibbs:

As the press secretary for a Democratic President, you are by definition a member of "the professional left."

Many of us who push President Obama from the left do so not because we are paid to do so but because we are passionate; often times more passionate about the President's agenda then many of his professional supporters.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Marriage and Smokies for All

As evidenced by the presence of little smokies, the marriage of my moms-in-law was, is, and will be eternally valid because the presence of little smokies at a wedding is what makes the marriage valid and legitimate.

However it is good to know that with today's court ruling in California, legal recognition for all marriages is a little closer to being a reality in the U.S.

It's What is on the Inside that Matters

George Packer wrote a great article detailing how the internal rules of the Senate allow a minority to obstruct everything in that body. In his analysis, Packer overlooks one major issue that causes the Senate to behave the way it does.

The external political world that sends senators to Washington has changed. The greater political world is more polarized then it was a few decades ago and the two parties are now aligned based on their ideologies. The problem with the Senate is not that senators are a mediocre bunch or that they are more partisan then in the past. The problem with the Senate is the world outside has changed and the Senate has not adjusted it's internal rules and norms to reflect that change.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This is How We Do It

Ezra Klein explains how the filibuster can be changed or ended

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Follow this Blog

My friends Tim and Emily are spending a year in Israel doing archaeological work. They are chronicling their year at a blog called Following Arrows. Read it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Bit of Political Wisdom

If you are a politician who gets caught lying about your military service then it is a good idea to get caught on a day when a Congressman has to resign because he gets caught having an affair with an aide he made a pro-abstinence video with.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Review

Reading Bob Woodward's Maestro: Greenspan's Fed and The American Boom is an exercise of reading about the pride that goes before the fall. The book only covers up until Greenspan's reappointment in 2000 and doe not cover the events leading up to the economic collapse.

This is not Woodward's most engaging book and it is good thing it is one of his shortest. Unless you are just enamred with in depth reporting on the Fed meetings and the debates over 1/4 percentage points in the interest rates.

The past couple of years have not been kind to Greenspan's record and if Woodward had been willing to engage more deeply we might have a book that could serve as a record of penetrating foresight. Woodward explains Greensapn's upbringing as an acolyte of Ayn Rand and often talks about his belief in an almost unregulated market as the answer to almost any problem Woodward's weekness comes in exploring those ideas; he treats his intellectual roots as a fact of his life.

Woodward also fails to examine the American boon he mentions in his book's subtitle. What was the American boom like? Woodward never explains except in terms of the stock market. During this period the gap between wealthy and poor increased and much of the boom was financed by debt. Woodward also goes to great lengths to explain that one of the great conundrums of Greenspan's time dealth with an increse in productivity. By eventually figuring that workers were producing more but not getting paid more, Greenspan effectivly managed the changes in the encomy and helped Wall Street and U.S. Treasury but Woodward never explains how boom that fails to increase worker's wages is really a boom. Woodward's title builds the expectation that there will be a telling of the story of the boom but their is no indication how average Americans experienced the boom.

I am not really impressed with Greenspan even though Woodward really wants me to be as enamored with Greenspan as he is. Woodward makes it clear that Greenspan is not the all knowing oracle that myth makes him out to be. He often does not understand what is going and sometimes appears to have gotten lucky at times with the economy. This, of course, is Woodward's biggest failing. He mistakes luck for expertise and minuta for in depth understanding.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Backbencher of the Week

The Backbencher is a fan of the rumpled socialism(ahem, Liturgygeek) of Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-VT) and for the third time he is the Backbencher of the Week. Ever since TARP and the bank bailouts, members of Congress from across the spectrum have wanted to take a closer look at the actions of the Federal Reserve. Even though the Fed is an independent agency it is still a political actor whose actions impact everyone from the very rich to the poor.

Sen. Sanders initially proposed an amendment to completely audit the Fed but the White House, the Fed, and the Wall Street all strongly opposed the measure. Sen. Sanders then negotiated a compromise that allowed for an audit of all of the Fed's actions during the economic crisis. Among the provisions is one that will make public the name of who received emergency assistance from the Fed and in what amount. On Tuesday, the Sanders Amendment passed 96-0. Rep. Alan Grayson(D-Fl-8)who, along with Rep. Ron Paul(R-TX-14), authored a House bill to completely audit the Fed called the Sander Amendment "a significant step."

Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan once said in a speech(ironically the one in which he coined the phrase "irrational exuberance") "The Fed must be as transparent as any agency of government. It cannot be acceptable in a democratic society that a group of unelected individuals are vested with important responsibilities, without being open to full public scrutiny and accountability."

For taking a step towards making Greenspan's words a reality, we award this week's Backbencher of the Week to Bernie Sanders.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thinking About Elena

I have been thinking about President Obama's nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to be on the Supreme Court and why I feel skeptical about the nomination. My thinking has been shaped by some comments made by Matt Yglesias and by Kevin Drum.

I don't think that Kagan is a stealth candidate and I think that she will undoubtedly be a consistent liberal voice on the coourt. In the same way I believe that President Obama is a mainstream Democrat and will constantly move the country in a more progressive direction.

However, I also know what kind of Democrat Obama is turning out to be. He is the type who makes labor unions accept an excise tax to get healthcare passed but refuses to do much to push for labor's most important agenda items like the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama is the type of Democrat who is pushing for the closing of Guantanamo Bay but who also believes in issuing an executive order to assassinate a U.S. citizen. He is the type of Democrat who consistently gives away liberal positions in hopes of courting conservatives who have no intention of supporting him. Obama is the type of Democrat who signed some of the most progressive legislation in a generation into law but still seems enthralled by the consensus, elite economic opinion that got us into the mess and seems to think that the way out is to inflict pain on the middle and lower income classes.

My uncomfortableness with Kagan ultimately has less to do with her then with the President who nominated her. While I am broadly supportive of President Obama and his agenda, I am fully aware of what objectionable positions and actions he is able to take. I have the same worry that Kagan will be a mirror image of the President in that regard.

The Conundrum of the Stupak

I found this story while reading John Cole at Balloon Juice. I want to focus on this little fact:

"In a devastating review of the blowout preventer, which BP said was supposed to be "fail-safe," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight, said Wednesday that documents and interviews show that the device was anything but."

I found Bart Stupak’s anti-choice efforts on the healthcare bill to be damaging and reprehensible. However, he has done some good work investigating corporate malfeasance. It was his sub-committee that did much of the work of bringing the practice of health insurance rescission to light and now he is investigating the criminally negligent behavior of the off-shore oil companies. He is a perfect example of why I am a Democrat and why I find being a Democrat so frustrating

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Backbencher of the Week

This week we recognize a Senator who actually failed to get his amendment passed. Sen. Ted Kaufman(D-DE) served as a longtime and trusted aide of Vice President Joe Biden. He was appointed to fill Biden's seat and hold until Beau Biden could win election. However, the younger Biden decided not to run and Republian Congressman Mike Castle looks likely to win the seat in November.

During his time in the Senate, Sen. Kaufman has focused much of his efforts on financial reform. Kaufman, unlike the administration and much of Congress, supports a more comprehensive type of reform that restructures Wall Street firms. Partnering with Sen. Sherrod Brown(D-OH). Sen. Kaufman proposed an amendment to the financial reform bill that would have limited the size of lage banks. This week the Kaufman-Brown amendment failed by a vote of 33-61.

Even though his amendment failed, we recognize Sen. Kaufman for not just filing a seat in the Senate but using his time towards productive ends and for willingness think big in response to the financial crisis. Congratulations to Sen. Ted Kaufman for being Backbencher of the Week.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Clear as the Thames

Yesterday's election obscured as much as it cleared up. David Cameron and the Conservatives won 306 seats but that is still 20 seats short of what is needed for a majority. After a day of jockeying, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats are working on some type of deal; either a coalition or some type of informal power sharing arrangement. Gordon Brown and Labour lost 91 seats and are currently on the sidelines. If the Tories and Lib Dems can't form a government then Brown as offered to work with Nick Clegg and for a Lib Lab government.

In a strange election, nobody can claim they did great. The Tories fell short of a majority, labour lost 91 seats, the Liberal Democrats momentum faded and they actually lost seats. Labour, as the current party of government, has the right to be the first to try to form a government. However Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said that the Conservatives deserve to get the first crack because they won the highest portion of the popular votes and the most seats. Cameron earlier today offered the deal to the Liberal Democrats that is currently under discussion.

That is the big news but there were several smaller stories about the election that we should note. Both former Home Secretaries, Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke along with several other ministers lost their seats. In Northern Ireland, both of the unionist leaders lost their seats in Westminster. The Speaker was able to hold his seat and Rory Stewart won in Penrith and the Border. History was made when Caroline Lucas won the Green Party's first ever seat in Parliament when she won Brighton Pavilion.

The other big story was the confusion that reigned in some polling places. Some polling places were not prepared for the hight turnout and some voters were turned away and not allowed to vote. One of the constituencies involved was Sheffield Hallam, which is represented by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. Clegg, and his party, are the biggest supporters of electoral reform and some type of referendum on electoral reform might be their asking price.

Whatever happens, the election is sure to stretch into the weekend and possibly until the new Parliament convenes later this month.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

UK Election Viewing Guide

Tomorrow voters all across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will go to the polls and vote. Voters will vote for their local MP and the party that means a majority of seats forms the next government. To help follow the election, here are some of the seats that whose results I will be watching for. Some of these are bellwether and threshold constituencies that will give hints about the trend in the election and some of these are constituencies that I am just interested in. Much of my understanding comes from the good people at ukpollingreport.

The first seat to watch is Houghton and Sunderland South. This constituency, when it was known as Sunderland South, was the first to declare the winner and did so every election since 1992. Chris Mullin, the outgoing MP, used to joke about forming his own government during the brief minutes when he was the only elected member of Parliament.

Based on uniform nation swing, Labour will lose its majority if they lose Stourbridge. If the Conservatives win in Dudley South then they will be in the largest party in the Commons and if the Tories are victorious in Derby North then they are assured a majority.

If you are looking for some Bellwether seats then look to see who wins Dartford and Chorley. The winning party has won both of the these seats since 1964. Luton South, and its predecessor seats, are the most reliable bellwether seats. The victorious party has won this seat in every election since 1951.

Since all 3 major parties are significant players in this election there are 3 seats in which all 3 parties poll within 10% of each other. Ealing Central and Acton, Watford, and Filton and Bradley Stoke are the seats to watch get an idea of which of the three parties can expect to have a good night.

Since ministers are member of Parliament, most general elections see a minister or two lose their seats. The Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy in East Renfrewshire and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling in Edinburgh Southwest are both considered somewhat vulnerable. However, the most likely to lose their seat is the Minster of Culture, Sports, and Media Ben Bradshaw in Exeter and Children, Families, and Schools minister Ed Balls(who is a close ally of Gordon Brown) in Morley and Outwood. Two former Home Secretaries could also lose their seats. Jacqui Smith in Redditch will almost certainly lose her seat and Charles Clarke in Norwich South could be vulnerable.

It's always good to watch the leaders and how they do. Gordon Brown is in the Scottish constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, David Cameron represents Witney, and Nick Clegg represents Sheffield Hallam.

I am also interested in seeing if the Green Party can win in Brighton Pavilion and win their first ever seat in Parliament. As Speaker, John Bercow is a non-partisan figure and the major parties don't run candidates against a sitting speaker. However the UK Independence Party is running against Speaker Bercow in the traditional Tory seat of Buckingham. I am also watching to see if the Tories can win back Margaret Thatchers old seat of Finchley and Golders Green.

Finally, I am interested in Penrith and the Border because former army officer, diplomat, best selling writer, Harvard don, and critic of U.S. and UK efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq Rory Stewart is the Conservative candidate and the heavy favorite to win.

Enjoy election day and I hope to join you some tomorrow night to share some of my immediate observations.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Book Review

My reading has focused on the recent history of the Supreme Court. Reading Bob Woodward's The Brethren followed by Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine gives a reader a pretty complete history of the Supreme Court over the past forty years. If there is a theme of both books it is how the center held throughout the past forty years of jurisprudence. For Woodward this means a focus on the work of Justices Potter Stewart(Woodward's main source), Byron White, and Lewis Powell. For Toobin this means celebrating Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This two books combined tell the story of how a liberal court became a moderate one and a moderate one became a court with conservative leanings.

An underrated figure in this book is Richard Nixon. Soon after his inauguration, Nixon had the opportunity to replace Chief Justice Earl Warren with Warren Burger and Justice Abe Fortas with Henry Blackmun. Later in his administration, Nixon was able to appointment two more justices, including future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The Court went in a very short time from a liberal one to a more moderate one.

The next big change came when Samuel Alito replaced Justice O'Connor. A court that had stayed pretty moderate became a court with strong conservative leanings. Some of this is O'Connor's responsibility and the fact that she was a very political creature while on the court and she continued to hold to her Goldwater type Republican leanings. Through Toobin tries to obscure her role, and engages in some unwarranted pox on both houses interpretation, it is clear that O'Connor along with Justice Kennedy played a decisive role in placing George W. Bush in the White House. This allowed Bush to eventually replace O'Connor with the hardcore conservative Justice Alito.

Since Toobin wrote his book, both Justice Souter and Justice Stevens retired from the court. Obama replaced Souter with Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Obama is currently working on nominating Steven's replacement.

To change the direction of the Court, the key is to replace Republican appointees with Democratic ones. Nixon and Ford replaced 3 Democratic appointees with Republican ones and George H.W. Bush replaced one Democratic appointee. Only President's Clinton's replacement of Justice Blackmun with Justice Breyer allowed a Democrat to replace a Republican appointee.

Unless there is an unexpected change, for example Justice Kennedy leaving during the Obama administration, there is little chance for President Obama to drastically change the Court's direction. However, Sotomayer and the next justice will both replace Republican appointees. Though Stevens and Souter were both considered liberals, that was more because of the change of the composition of the Court. Obama will at least be able to place younger and more comprehensively liberal justices on the Court.

Forty two years have passed since the first term chronicled by Woodward. It took that long to change a liberal Court to a Conservative Court and it will probably take just as long to fully change direction. President Obama's has the chance to begin the long march back towards a jurisprudence that pays more heed to the voiceless and those on the margins. Jeffrey Toobin describe Chief Justice Roberts, and consequently the Roberts Court, this way:

"In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party."

President Obama has the chance to be figure as important to the Court's history as Nixon. If Obama is willing, he can seize the opportunity to moderate a conservative march and start the process of starting a liberal one.

To understand how the stakes became so important and how Obama and the Supreme Court reached this moment of history then read both Toobin and Woodward.

Backbencher of the Week

The big story this week is Arizona's new law that requires police to ask people they suspect to illegal immigrants for identification of citizenship and arrest those they suspect of being in the country illegally. This law badly written, terribly vague, open to abuse, and unconstitutional. There is no criteria for how a police officer should base his or her suspicions and that will lead to profiling and harassment of latinos.

Felling like they are caught between a rock and a hold place, most Republicans have stayed quiet. The first GOP congressman to speak out was Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart(R-FL-21). Rep. Diaz-Balart, who is of Cuban descent, came out quickly and denounced the new law.

For being the first Republican in Washington to lodge criticism of the Arizona bill, we award Re. Lincoln Diaz-Balart this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is This Thing On?

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister the mic was on.

It is tough to analyze Gordon Brown's gaffe except to say it was a huge one and that it makes it very hard for Labour to gain any traction in the polls.

Andrew Rawnsley, who has written two accounts of Labour's 13 years in government, puts the episode in context of Gordon Brown's general manner of conducting himself while Prime Minister.

All I know is that Liturgygeek will be terribly upset.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Price of Victory

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has named his price for forming a coalition with Labour and the price is apparently Gordon Brown's departure. Gordon Brown's most likely replacement would be David Milibrand, the current Foreign Secretary. A big question then would be where does Nick Clegg end up in a coalition government. The most logical place would be to replace Milibrand at the Foreign Office but does the Liberal Democrats reputation on economic matters put Clegg or Vince Cable at the Treasury?

The Liberal Democrat strategy is now clear. They are telling voters if you want a center left government, and if you want to keep the Conservatives out, but you don't want Gordon Brown then vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Lib Dems Ascendent

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg won the party leaders debate and the results have shaken this election its core. Recent polling shows a strong surge in favor of the Liberal Democrats and one poll even had the Lib Dems moving ahead of Labour.

So, who are the Liberal Democrats?

They are first and foremost a fusion of two political parties. The Liberal Democrats are the heirs of the old Liberal Party that was a major party in the UK until overtaken by Labour in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. The second group was formed when a group of moderate Labour MPs, called the Social Democratic Party(SDP), split from the party in the 1980s and joined forces with the Liberals and by the early 1990s they resulting party was known as the Liberal Democrats.

The party tends to be the most left leaning party but economic issues do cause divisions and tensions within the party. Originally they were more moderate then the democratic socialism of Labour but Labour under Tony Blair moved right on economics, and now the Lib Dems might be more left than Labour. Liberal Democrats are most assoociated with pushing for reform of the political system, strong support for civil liberties, and for their opposition to the Iraq War.

Nick Clegg is the party leader but the real star is the treasury spokesman Vince Cable. Cable is popular, in large part, because of his predictions of the financial crisis and for his criticism of London's banking culture. Cable is also credited for the best insult of Gordon Brown when he said that the Prime Minister transformed himself from "Stalin to Mr. Bean."

Since the 1997 election, under the leadership of previous leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats have made gains in the number of seats in the Commons. Yet as the Lib Dem success has increased, the level of expectation also increases and many success are interpreted as disappointments when compared with the party's goals.

This year may be different. The Lib Dems may achieve their goal of becoming the official opposition party. More important they are slated to be kingmakers and Clegg is coy about how he will decide which party to support. The possible eclipsing of Labour by the Liberal Democrats and the possibility of the traditional UK two major party system become a 3 party system are two of the most important stories that will develop over the final stretches of the campaign.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Manifesto Destiny

The parties launched their campaign manifestos this week. A manifesto is a like a campaign platform but unlike in the U.S. the parties adhere much closer to their manifesto then American parties adhere to their platforms.

Two major issues are appearing to dominate the election. Since the UK is mired in the global recession then the parties are making a big deal out of economic and budgetary matters. The other issues deals with reform of the political system and gaining the people's trust after the scandal involving MP's expenses.

Labour addresses the budgetary issues by promising to halve the deficit in 4 years. They do so by promising to cut wasteful spending. However, Labour went to great pains to promise to not raise taxes on most incomes and to keep the Value Added Tax(a type of national sales tax) from being extended to food and children's clothes. However there is no promise to not raise the existing VAT. To reform the political system, Labour promises to end the last hereditary peers and to pursue reforming how MP's are elected.

The Conservative plan to end the deficit by the end of the next parliament and they plan on doing so by cutting 12 billion pounds in wasteful spending over the next two years. The Tories big splash came in there ideas for reforming the political system. David Cameron announced that the Tories would cut the number of MP's by 10% and also cutting the pay of government ministers. Votes would also be able to recall a sitting MP under the Tory plan. The Conservatives also plan to allow for local referendums if 5% of the population wanted one and these referendums could be used to veto tax increases.

The parties also put forth some ideas that are distinctly their own. Labour focused on household budget issues. They propose creating a 4 week period of paternity leave for new fathers and giving tax credits to families with young children. The Tories idea focusing on scrapping the plan for a nation ID card and they want to hold a referendum on lifiting the ban on fox hunting.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg(the Liberal Democrat leader) will meet on Thursday in the first of 3 debates. Now that the parties have set the terms for the election, the real campaigning begins.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hang 'em High

The big question in this year's general election is will the results lead to a hung parliament. A hung parliament occurs when no one party garners a clear majority of seats. When voters go to the polls, 650 seats in the House of Commons will be up for grabs and the winning party will have gain at least 326 seats to form a majority. Labour will lose it's majority if losses 24 seats and the Conservatives gain a majority if they win 116 more seats then they have now.

While it is all but certain that Labour will lose the 24 seats, there are serious questions about whether the Tories can win 116 seats. For the Conservatives to win enough seats there will have to be a swing of 6.9% of the vote away from Labour and towards the Conservatives. The current polling appears to indicate a swing of less then what is needed and the Conservatives being 21 seats of the absolute majority needed.

If there is a hung parliament then the party with the largest number of seats can try to form a majority or the various parties can try to form a coalition government. Gordon Brown might have the advantage in this because as the sitting prime minister he, almost by default, will get the first crack at forming a government. The most likely possibility is that Labour will try to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and whatever 3rd parties can be brought into the coalition. If Brown can't form a coalition then the Conservative will probably form some type of government.

The most recent election to produce a hung parliament is 1974. Ted Heath's Conservative's lost on election day but Heath held on through the weekend trying to form a coalition before finally resigning in favor of Harold Wilson's Labour party. Peter Hennesssy tells a great story in his book The Prime Minister. During the weekend while the 1974 elections were in doubt, the cabinet secretary and the Queen's private secretary walked around St. James Park discussing all the options.

As an observer, and a person with no stake in the results, I want a hung parliament because I want to see what happens and how a hung parliament will resolve itself. Strictly as an interested observer, I am pulling for a close election and a hung parliament.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Cover It Up

Two news stories about our country's wars in the Middle East have garnered a lot of attention. The first story involves wikileaks, a website that publishes confidential government information, releasing a video that shows U.S. military helicopter crew members killing civilians; including a reporter from Rueters. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the exact nature of the video and the context around which the helicopter attack occurred. The U.S. military initially claimed that all the civilians were insurgents but now there a lot people are alleging cover-up.

Which brings us to the second story. General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, admitted that U.S. soldiers have killed :an amazing number of people who were not threats." A soldier under his command asked Gen. McChrystal a question about problems with escalations of force and the general responded,

"I do want to say something that everyone understands. We really ask a lot of our young service people out on the checkpoints because there's danger, they're asked to make very rapid decisions in often very unclear situations. However, to my knowledge, in the nine-plus months I've been here, not a single case where we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it and, in many cases, had families in it. That doesn't mean I'm criticizing the people who are executing. I'm just giving you perspective. We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force."

There is, I believe, a conspiracy and General McChrystal gets at the reason for it in his reply. The U.S., and other western nations, put in a lot of effort to give the impression that there are rules and order to what happens in war. The reality is quite different and the conspiracy is the effort to hide that reality. You cannot make orderly what is by definition disorderly, chaotic, brutal and inhumane. The conspiracy is in place so that people who don't know better, and quite a few that do, will continue to support the war effort thinking that the means and the ends are more nobler than they really are.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

To the Hustings

Gordon Brown went to Buckingham Palace today and asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament, which will lead to a general election to be held on May 6. This parliament's last day is April 12 and then the campaign events really begin in earnest. The first big event after the dissolution of Parliament is the first of 3 television debates on April 15 between the leaders of the 3 main parties. Currently David Cameron's conservatives hold a lead in the pools of roughly 8 points.

The Backbencher is a complete anglophile and will spend much of the next month following the campaign. I hope to blog on the issues, personalities, and events surrounding the campaign as much as possible.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Here We Go Again

I watched with dismay as President Obama announced his intention to allow for more offshore oil drilling. For me, what is especially galling is his explanation that he is seeking "to move beyond the tired debates between right and left."

Every time I hear Obama talk about getting beyond the debate between left and right, I just assume he is about to sell out liberals and get nothing in return from conservative Republicans.

Fool Me Once

The Guardian ran a great April Fool's story about Labour's efforts to use Gordon Brown's temper as an electoral strategy.

Update: The Guardian has a series of posters that they and readers created.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Theological Dictionary

Tebowed: To be profanely reminded of Jesus' admonition about public prayer found in Matthew 6:5

Friday, March 26, 2010

My One Shining Moment

As I mentioned last week, I attended the 1st and 2nd rounds of NCAA tournament. I experienced too much to give the full impression but here are some tidbits to give a taste of what my March Madness was like.

Watching the Murray State vs Vanderbilt game at the Atlanta airport while on the phone with my brother who was watching the same game. I was standing outside a bar with 100 other people because we could the big screen TVs. My brother's TV was 5 seconds faster and I knew before it happened that Murray State would hit a buzzer beater.

Playing with the Gus Johnson Soundboard.

Seeing media personalities Brent Beaird, Clark Kellogg, Jim Nantz, Stephen A Smith, and John Feinstein.

The fans in the arena always pull for the underdog if they are hanging tough and have a chance to win. This happened twice; When Wofford almost upset Wisconsin and when Cornell upset Wisconsin to go to the Sweet 16.

A Cornell fan had a sign that said Cornell: Our other fans are studying.

The University of Arkansas Pine Bluff had a 16 seeded basketball team but a 1 seed pep band.

Pine Bluff's players got everything out of the experience. The gave fist bumps to their teammates, the players and coaches from Duke, and the officials.

Coaching legends Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino both coached in Jacksonville and used the benches closest to my seat so I could easily watch what they were doing.

I saw Christian Lattner come to support his alma mater and for reasons that probably defy explanation he wore a shirt that had his jersey number and last name.

Over the course of two days I saw a cinderella in Cornell. I saw a great game in Wofford and Wisconsin that Wisconsin won with 17 seconds left and I saw Duke look good and advance to the Sweet 16. All in all a great weekend and I am ready for another opportunity to go again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

At Least You Have Your Healthcare

President Obama and the Democrats scored a big victory this week with the passage of the healthcare bill. Other people(Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn are my go to people) can talk about the substance of the bill better than I can but I want to focus on some of the political aspects.

The passage of this bill means the Democrats will maintain their majority in 2010. Various historic and political trends will mean Republicans gain congressional seats but since they did not defeat Obama and congressional Democrats then they will not gain the majority. Unlike in 94, Democrats have a success to blunt the Republican criticism and popular items they can use to attack Republicans for opposing.

Republicans know this and know the magnitude of this defeat. They also know they lost to an African-American and a woman and many conservatives can't stand that fact either. The world is changing and the old guard is giving way to the new. The healthcare bill demonstrates that the new guard can do what they said they were going to do and that they will be around for a while.

So, Kudos to President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, Sen Harry Reid(who may well have sacrificed his seat) and every Democrat who voted for the bill for achieving the biggest legislative advancement since the Great Society and hopefully ushering an area of more progressive governance.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Look What I Found

C-SPAN just put an archive of all their videos online. The possibility this offers is endless. It is literally a video history book of the last 20- 30 years and I can't wait to explore.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

32 Teams and then Some

The Backbencher is headed for Florida for a weekend of NCAA basketball. Every few years I go with my dad and my brother to the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament. I like college basketball and I love the tournament, and I would hate to see anything change greatest three weeks on the sports calendar.

Sadly, the NCAA is thinking of increasing the field of the tournament from 65 to 96. The reason is money but this is a bad idea.

Due to the NCAA and conference tournaments, the regular season contains very little meaning. Increasing the field would render the regular meaningless and the lack of meaning would cause people to spend less money on regular season games. I also fail to see how increasing the field would increase interest. Since the top teams would get a bye, the interest generated by possible upsets would be non-existent and without the interest in upsets I think the money would gradually shrink.

Many coaches support this idea because they think that more coaches will keep their job by making tournament. Just as many coaches would be fired within and expanded tournament as they today. Just like SEC football coaches can fired if they don't play in New Years Day or BCS bowl games even if they play in bowl games, basketball coaches would be fired if they don't get enough byes.

Sometimes you just shouldn't mess with a good thing, and I am afraid the NCAA is doing just that.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Kind of Church

So, Glenn Beck wants people to leave their churches if the church preaches a message of "social justice. Well, for once, I am glad to say that I agree with Beck. Instead of attending a church preaching "social justice" I want to attend a church that preaches the message of the Bible.

To that end I will only attend a church where "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything the owned was held in common(Acts 4:32)." Any church I attend will also follow only the Bible and not "social justice" because "there was not a needy person among them for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to each as they had need(Acts 4:34-35)."

That is my kind of church and I expect to see Glenn Beck sitting beside me in the pew on Sunday.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Backbencher of the Week

This week we honor a Senator from the Pacific Northwest. Sen Maria Cantwell(D-WA) is recognized for her work cracking down on Wall Street.

Since her election in 2000, Sen Cantwell has focused much of her attention on making sure Americans get a a fair deal from Wall Street corporations. In her first term, she cracked down on Enron and other energy companies that gamed the market at the expense of consumers. Now in her second term, Sen. Cantwell is going after derivatives and other Wall Street practices that have contributed to the country's economic problems. This stance puts her at odds not just with Republicans but also with leading Democrats in the administration and Congress.

The Backbencher is not the only one to recognize Sen. Cantwell's work. Read a detailed account of her efforts to curb Wall Street abuses in The American Prospect and The Nation named her Most Valuable Senator.

The Backbencher is pleased to join the chorus recognizing the work of Maria Cantwell.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Book Review

I am trying to expand my understanding of the American system of government and the area that I understand the least is Federal Judiciary; especially the Supreme Court. The beginning of my quest to understand the Court, it's justices, and the Constitution is with Linda Geenhouse's study of Justice Harry Blackmun titled Becoming Justice Blackmun.

Greenhouse did not try to write a comprehensive biography of Blackmun but used the release of his papers to study the man and the Court during his time of service. Blackmun is best known as the author of the opinion in Roe vs Wade. The decision, which came early in Blackmun's term as a justice, is the fulcrum for understanding Blackmun's jurisprudence.

Even though Blackmun initially viewed Roe as a means for preserving doctor's ability to treat women, the case began to expand Blackmun's view of justice. He slowly began to expand his conception of justice to include the poor, victims of sex discrimination, and those who have no voice in our legal system.

Greenhouse won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the Supreme Court and it appears it was well deserved. She explains constitutional issues well and makes the world of the Court very accessible. Greenhouse is helped by having the good fortune to chronicle a jurist whose thinking evolved towards a more inclusive understanding of the law.

Tying the Threads Together

White House news this week was dominated by two major stories. The first was a series of articles that all praised Rahm Emanuel, and blaming Obama's difficulties on not listening to Rahm's more conservative advice. The other story is Washington Post's story about Obama getting ready to reverse course and try 9/11 plotters in a military tribunal.

Ezra Klein has the best take on the Rahm story and what it all means. I have been interested in Rahm ever since the Michele Norris gold star incident. My opinion is that Emanuel is a ruthless genius when it comes to gaining power but he seems to have little concern for what he wants to use the power for.

As for the decision to use military tribunals, Glenzilla, Josh Marshall, and Yglesias all say what needs to said. I will add that what I have noticed that President Obama seems to be able to find the exact limit of what is politically possible(in this case closing Gitmo but keeping miltary tribunals) and then doing what is possible but he does not seem to be able to expand what is politically possible. I find this sad because one of the reasons I supported Obama was I thought he would be able to expand what is politically possible.

Tying these threads together, I would say that the disappointment that exists with Obama comes from his being a President who doesn't know what he will uncompromisingly fight for who is served by aides who don't know what they want power for.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Don't Call it a Comeback

Gordon Brown and the Labour party are skyrocketing in the polls and look poinsed to possibly pull off an upset and win the elctions. The real question is does Gordon ride the wave of momentum and call for an early election or does he wait things out in hopes that his poll numbers solidfy in advance the expected election date?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

So You Want to be a Rox and Roll Star

On Saturday 10 hearty souls braved the winter cold and a forecast of 5-8 inches of snow(that never materialized) to hear the frontrunner for the Democratic senate nomination. Roxanne Conlin was once a rising star in the Iowa Democratic Party; she was a U.S. attorney during the Carter administration and she was the Democratic nominee for Governor in 1982("I was first runner up," she said). After her gubernatorial bid, Conlin retired from frontline politics. Conlin said that Sen. Chuck Grassley's(R-IA) antics during the debate over healthcare drove her to run against him.

Conlin came off as a typical Democratic candidate. She favors the healthcare reform and even appeared to endorse the idea of "medicare for all." All of the questions were related to domestic issues. Every participant asked about, or voiced support for, healthcare. There were also questions about further stimulus, jobs, and immigration. It also appeared that everyone is sick with American political culture. Most specifically attendees were distressed by the corporate role in American politics and the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. Strikingly, there were no questions about foreign policy or national security. Nobody asked about Iran, Afghanistan, Iran, terrorism or any other foreign policy issue. It is clear that the 2010 election will be focused on domestic issues.

I am glad Roxanne Conlin came to Southwest Iowa, which is the part of Iowa most ignored by the Democratic establishment. I do think her run speaks to the difficult conditions for Democrats this year. The most effective possible challenger is off in D.C. working as the Secretary of Agriculture and the other big names in Iowa Democratic politics all passed on the race when their names were floated as possible challengers. Even though Sen. Grassley disgraced himself with his conduct over the healthcare debate, it seems clear that no major Democrat wants to risk anything to hold him accountable and that is sad.

Even though it is an uphill climb to defeat Grassley, all Iowa Democrats should commend Conlin and the other candidates in the Democratic primary. They have shown a willingness to risk all and hold an incumbent Senator accountable. That deserves our respect and support.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Book Review

From my days in seminary, I have been interested in English soccer. My roommate was a fan of Arsenal and I often went with him to an English pub in Atlanta to watch the games on satellite. I read, and enjoyed, Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch and I now like to watch Premier League games on ESPN.

I thought I was ready to take my enjoyment of English soccer to the next level and it turns out that I was not quite the connoisseur I thought I was. My attempt came in the form of reading David Peace's tale of soccer legend Brian Clough's disastrous managerial tenure of Leed's United titled The Damned Utd. Peace's book is considered a modern classic and for good reason. The probing of the inner workings of Clough's mind is brillant.

The problem is I lacked the requisite understanding of 1970's English soccer. I felt like I was adrift in a world that I knew little about. It just seemed like I knew very little about he inner workings of a soccer team and the writer wrote with what appeared to be an assumption that his readers would be die-hard soccer fans. An American writer would probably have similar assumptions about baseball or football.

Perhaps in another few years, if my understanding of English soccer grows, then I might return The Damned Utd. and enjoy it more.

Mardis Gras and the Preacher

A friend of mine from the same young minister's group where Liturgygeek and I met recently became the pastor of a Baptist Church in New Orleans and experienced his first Mardi Gras. He wrote a column and the Times-Picayune published it.

I am taking this Lent off because dealing with a winter that has seen 50 inches of snow is penance enough.

The Play's the Thing

I have not been posting lately because I have been busy exploring my theatrical side. Our local community theatre put on Alfred Uhry's play The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Liturgygeek and I had roles.

Ballyhoo tells the story of a family of Jews(the Freitags) living in Atlanta in 1939. The start of World War 2 and the Premiere of Gone With the Wind serve as the background historical events of the play. The play, however, centers around a Jewish cotillion called Ballyhoo. In the Feitag family are two cousins; Liturgygeek played the cousin named Lala Levy. I played one of the cousins suitors named Peachy Weil, and I had the red hair to match.

Ballyhoo is a marvelously written play and I had the opportunity to work with a fine director and a talented cast. This was the first play I had been in since I played a watermelon farmer in an elementary school play(a fact that was in the playbill and commented on by at least one audience member after every performance).

I enjoyed every moment of this experience; from the rehearsals in a empty theatre to the performance night; I had a great time. Being in the play was like discovering a hidden treasure. I never thought I would enjoy performing and yet I discovered that I did. This, I believe, is one of the joys of growing older. I discover more things that I like, I try new activities, and my horizons broaden. Liturgygeek has a bacground in theatre and one of the great things about being married(both in general and in specifics) is having a spouse introduce you to their loves and you discovering that you share that love and enjoyment.

Now that I have discovered this enjoyment of theatre, I am learning the other side of being in a play. While Liturgygeek directs a performance of The Hobbit, I will be learning the ropes as the assistant stage manager.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why the Healthcare Bill Needs to be Passed

I work at a hospital, and lately I have noticed flyers around my office advertising a benefit for a fellow employee. The benefit is to help with medical costs for the employee and the employee's family. I do not know this person and do not know any details about the illness.

I think that what the hospital employees are doing is admirable and deserves to be commended. However, it points to the biggest weakness in out healthcare system. A hospital employee with good benefits is still in financial straits due to a major medical problem. In the richest and most powerful country in the world. this is unacceptable and needs to change. Yet the U.S. system of employer based private insurance is no longer sustainable.

The House of Representatives could change this tomorrow if would pass the Senate healthcare bill. The Senate could help if it would produce a reconciliation bill. The President could help if he would signal what he wants done.

The bill is not perfect and it is not what I would dream of having but it is a good bill. It makes sure that people will always have insurance. It makes sure that the government will help people who have have trouble affording insurance buy insurance, and it sets the groundwork for controlling medical costs. The healthcare bill will do a lot of good for a lot of people and a little bit of good for a lot more.

Pass the Damn Bill.

Beagle Blogging

From fellow beagle lover Andrew Sullivan comes this headline from the New York Post, Savage beagles terrorize East End. The story itself is sad and infuriating; wild beagles are loose on Long Island because hunters realease them in the woods when they are no longer good for hunting. However, it must be said that the headline is great.

Here is a photo of our dogs, named Leroy Brown and Rory, practicing their savageness by playing a little game called frogger.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama and the State of One Year

A year and a week after Obama was inaugurated, he appeared before Congress to deliver his first State of the Union. Even though, Obama should be in good political shape(Democrats actually hold more seats today than they did a year ago and there are incremental but substantial successes to point to) recent events made it feel like the President was in political trouble. The recent Massachusetts special election, and ensuing Democratic freak out, made the situation look worse then it should.

Obama used his speech to give a reset to his administration. I liked that the President came out fighting and defending his record. I also enjoyed the air of silent tension in the House chamber. While the audience was outwardly more respectable, there appeared to be a constant undercurrent of reaction to Obama's speech(even from Associate Justice Samuel Alito). It felt like a Prime Minister addressing the House of Commons on a serious subject. I am also glad that the President affirmed his support for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and Defense Secretary Gates endorsement.

I wanted to hear a firm commitment on Obama's plan for passing the healthcare bill. While he did not give the firm direction I was hoping for, Obama did appear to give a guiding hand to the direction he wanted to go. He said he would not "walk away" from healthcare, and then later said the Democrats still had large majorities and "should not run for the hills." My belief is that this is the boost needed to encourage the House to pass the Senate bill and for the Senate to promise to use reconciliation to address the needed fixes but granted I am reading between the lines.

Ultimately what will determine the success and effectiveness of Obama's 1st State of the Union is the passage of healthcare, and a change in the jobs and economic outlook.

Book Review

For a long time I have been interested in reading E.L. Doctorow, and this week I dived in by read City of God. It is clear why people consider Doctorow to be one of our greatest living novelists. Doctorow is able to take difficult and complicated ideas and through his use of language and narrative mastery make those ideas accessible. There is no bigger idea then the idea of God and that is the idea that Doctorow tackles in City of God.

Doctorow addresses the the issue of God by intertwining a series of narratives, reflections, and commentaries. The tie that holds all these narrative threads together is the story of the theft of a cross from an Episcopal church and its subsequent discovery on the roof of a synagogue. This theft and investigation bring together the iconoclastic priest of the episcopal church and the female rabbi at the synagogue.

Doctorow's theme is the necessity to strip away all the trappings and build a belief system based on the most primal yearning for God. For Doctorow that means religion and God are what brings us closer to each other in either love or a quest for justice.

City of God is thought provoking and so well written that it draws you in as you read it. However, Doctorow's method of jumping from thread to threat is distracting. For me, I was almost a third of the why through the book before I was able to untangle the threads to get a handle on what is going on. As a card carrying(and paycheck receiving) member of the professionally religious, I have my doubts about being able to strip away all the trappings to get to the essence of religion.

Doctorow focuses on Christianity and Judaism and the essence of those religions is that God communicates through the events of history. In effect the method and the message are indistinguishable from each other. To strip away the method is to strip away the message, and Doctorow seems to want to do both; even though his different narratives make underlie the idea of the method is the message.

Even though I had some quibbles with City of God, I am impressed enough by Doctorow that I want to read some more of his books.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Review

I took a trip to Savannah, GA and I was able to read two books on my vacation from winter. One disappointed me and the other provided me great joy as I read.

The first book I read was The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. A follow up(but not a sequel) to Zafon's masterly The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game does not live up to its forebearer. Zafon creates a tale with a great number of plot twists and unexpected turns. However, the book reads like Zafon got so carried away with creating plot twists that he was unable to find a good way to end the story. Zafon also seemed to get wrapped up in the spiritual aspects of the story that it did not seem that he was able to weave this strain into the story in an effective way. In spite of these disappointments, Zafon is such a gifted user of language that the book was a pleasurable disappointment.

Due to an unusually long mechanical delay on my flight to Savannah, I ran out of reading material and needed to buy more books. The book I bought was Clyde Edgerton's The Bible Salesman and I am glad I did. The book focuses on a 20 year door to door Bible salesman in 1950's North Carolina. The salesman is a little on the naive side and ends up getting involved in a multi-state car theft ring because he believes he is actually helping undercover FBI agents. Along the way, our salesman begins to read the Bible and realizes what it says isn't what his fundamentalist upbringing led him to believe the Bible said. As someone who grew up in a religious culture that revered a certain view of the Bible, and tried to pretend it was still 1953, I greatly enjoyed the gentile satire that recognizes the good that people in that culture are capable of but also recognizes the mental childishness that thrives in fundamentalist religion. Oh, and the book will make you laugh out loud. It is that funny and that good.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Mass Reax.

Last night in Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley to win the special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat most recently held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy(D-MA). I feel obligated to share some of my thoughts about this development.

1. Congratulations are in order to Senator-elect Brown. He ran the better campaign; he diagnosed the mood of the electorate better, he ran a more disciplined campaign, and he was quick to pounce on Coakley's many gaffes. Sometimes in politics the person who does a better job is rewarded.

2. This is a setback for President Obama and the Democrat's agenda but it is only any insurmountable obstacle if Obama and the Congressional leaders allow it it to be one. I have long thought that Obama spent most of his political capital cleaning up the mess the Bush administration left. However, I thought there was still enough capital to pass the healthcare bill. All the the other major agenda items are probably of the table; except for economic and job issues that can be addressed through the budget and reconciliation process. Still with helathcare added to the mix this would be a substantive first Congressional session for Obama.

3. There is a Senate helathcare bill that the House can pass tomorrow if it wants to and there is still an empty healthcare reconciliation bill that can also be used. The House needs to pass that bill and then come back and use the reconciliation bill to pass the compromises the White House and Congress are currently negotiating. Morally this has to happen because people need to have access to healthcare and they need to know they will always be able to have health insurance. Politically, this bill has to pass because Congressional Democrats and President Obama cannot afford to not have this bill pass. If this bill fails then it will be the end of Democratic power in Washington for a long time. Also Democrats need to change the narrative. Right now the narrative is that the Democrats are in disarray and their agenda is possible. If healthcare passes then the narrative changes to Democrats fight and overcome setback to pass healthcare bill.

I have been watching Democrats for too long to think they will choose the obvious path. However, I hope they soon see that this is only real path they have.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

No Time Like the Present

If Labour's 1983 general election manifesto is "The longest suicide note in history," then it appears that the ensuing 27 years Labour has become more concise and efficient in committing political hari-kari.

During yesterday's session of Prime Minister's Questions (a session that the press said Gordon Brown won), two former Labour ministers circulated a letter asking for a secret ballot vote of the Party's confidence in Gordon Brown's leadership as Prime Minister. Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon launched the coup believing that up to a half dozen Cabinet ministers would join in the coup. The coup fell apart as during the afternoon and evening Cabinet ministers announced their support.

With a General Election this year, and the campaigning informally begun, there could not have been a worse time for an attempted leadership coup. All the recent polling indicates that Labour had pulled close enough to the Conservatives that a hung parliament was a possibility. At the very least the Tories would have a small majority in the Commons, and small majorities make it harder to push an agenda through and can often lead to early elections.

It seems to me that this aborted coup is the type of event that can seal a party's fate. The end result will be, I think, a reasonably comfortable Tory majority and a bloody Labour leadership election.

UK Political Nerdiness

Since the temperature is hovering around zero, and the wind chill makes it feel like the temperature is well below zero, I am spending my day off inside watching my DVD collection of Yes Minister. I am also spending my time playing with the greatest online political toy on the internet.

Ukpollingreport is the must go to site for making sense of events in the run up to the UK general election. They have a swingometer map that allows you to enter the projected percentages for each party. On a map of Great Britain(the map does not appear to have the Northern Ireland constituencies) the constituencies change color based on the party expected win the particular seat. I have spent the better part of the new year entering different percentages to see what seats would change hands.

Anyway, the swingometer map is a great way to waste time on the internet and yes I realize that I expose myself as more of a nerd then previously acknowledged.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mom's Chili

The Backbencher's mom makes the best chili; an impressive feat when you consider she lives in a climate that allows people to eat chili for about 3 weeks every year. She sent me the recipe this weekend and I made a pot. Liturgygeek said that it was teh awesome, and so I decided to share the recipe with you.

1 1/2 lb. of ground beef (or a combination of beef and sausage)
1 medium chopped onion
1 pkg. Chili-O seasoning
2 tsp. of cumin and paprika
1 tsp. of salt and pepper
1 can of stewed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste
1 cup of water
1 can of chili beans and kidney beans
1 beef bouillon cube
5 tbs. of chili powder

Brown ground beef in a large pot. While browning meat chop the onion. When the meat is browned add the onion and then season with the Chili-O, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Add the tomatoes, sauce, paste, and water. Add the beans and the chili powder. Cook for at least 20 minutes, stirring often and adding more chili powder to taste if you so desire. Serve with tortillas, crackers, chopped onion, or cheese.