Monday, December 27, 2010

2010's winners and losers

They say that 12 months is a lifetime in politics. And it's true that political fortunes can certainly rise and fall in a year. That means each year has its share of political winners and losers.

2010 Winners

The Tea Party - In 2010 this group went from being considered on the fringe to being credited with Republicans' big gains in this year's Congressional elections. There's no doubt the Tea Party stirred interest in the mid-terms on the Republican side (polls show most Tea Party activists were and are Republicans). However, most insurgents the Tea Party backed in primary wins over Republican insiders - Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Deleware, for example, lost in the general election. Still, the Tea Party elected enough of their favorites to influence the GOP in Congress.

Republicans - They took back the House of Representatives, closed the Democratic margin in the Senate and captured a majority of the nation's governors' mansions. That's despite polling that shows the county still doesn't trust them or their approach to the issues. November's vote wasn't so much "Yes" on the Republican agenda as "No" on the current Democratic Congress. The GOP gain was also fueled by Tea Party activism and the party is now challenged to find a way to keep those activists enthused and engaged, without letting them actually choose the party's nominees, a recipe for electoral disaster.

Ken Cuccinelli - Virginia's activist attorney general became the darling of the national Tea Party by taking on President Obama's health care reform program in the courts and winning, at least temporarily. Although there's a good chance the Supreme Court will eventually rule against him, Cuccinelli gained national exposure in conservative circles.

Barack Obama -  It might seems strange to say this less than two months after his party was shellacked at the polls, but Obama personally had a pretty good year. While some of what he pushed through the Congress, stimulus funding and health care reform in particular, may seem unpopular now, those measures give  him a chance at being re-elected. So does the additional stimulus he was able to get in the budget deal with Republicans that temporarily extended the Bush tax cuts. He's also been winding down the war in Iraq in good fashion, as promised. If the economy picks up Obama, who looked like the only adult in the room as Democrats and Republicans in Congress argued, will benefit.

Virginia Republicans - Regained the three House of Representatives seats they lost in 2008 and picked up another by knocking out long-time incumbent Rep. Rick Boucher in the 9th district in Southwest Virginia to take an 8-3 lead in the House delegation. That had to build confidence for 2012 and what could be a bloody rematch between Jim Webb and George Allen for the seat Webb won in 2006.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Obama proves he's politically nimble

After Democrats got "shellacked" in this year's elections, many wondered how long it would take President Barack Obama to move "back to the center" in the face of an incoming Republican majority in the House and a diminished Democratic majority in the Senate.

Turns out it took about a month for Obama to get on top of the situation.

And, he didn't really have to go all that far to get "back to the center," particularly compared to the incoming class of Republicans.

Although the recent deal Obama cut with the Republicans on the Bush tax cuts was roundly denounced by liberals in and out of Congress, it seems he was fairly adept at using what Republicans wanted above all else -- a tax cut for rich folks -- to get something Democrats had no other chance at -- a second stimulus package.

Republicans, who won the election saying they cared about the deficit, quickly showed where their allegiance really was, negotiating a major increase in the deficit for a two-year extension of the George W. Bush's tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 per year.

They've also put themselves in a position where they are virtually forced to vote for an increase in the nation's debt ceiling, which will alienate their Tea Party backers, to pay for the tax cuts they asked for.

The deal includes other tax cuts, including a temporary roll back of the Social Security payroll tax, that will pump money into the economy. It also included an extension of unemployment benefits. That's something that Obama and the Demcrats wanted, but had no way to get past Republicans on their own.

Those measures can only help the economy by putting more money in the hands of people very likely to spend it. Obama hopes that it helps enough to win him re-election two years from now.

In return, the GOP really got only part of what it wanted. Republicans campaigned on and negotiated for making all of the Bush tax cuts permanent. Instead they've only been extended for two years. That includes a restoration of the Estate Tax at 35% on estates worth more than $5 million. While some Democrats think that's too much, the Republicans wanted no inheritance tax at all. The two-year extension means the GOP's insistence on cutting taxes for the wealthy and trying to ensure Paris Hilston inherits as much as possible while resisting help for working folks struggling during the recession remains a potent campaign issues for Democrats in 2012.

About the only place where Obama stumbled, and this is a mistake he's been prone to, is that he wasn't tough enough in negotiations. He underestimated how much Republicans wanted that tax break for the well off.

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Monday, November 8, 2010

Gridlock to grip America again?

So the mid-terms are over.

If you believe most of the mainstream media, Barack Obama has been rejected by the people and the new Republican majority in the House has a mandate from the Tea Party to roll back spending and repeal health care reform.

It's both more complicated and simpler than that.

Is Obama doomed to be a one-term president? Well, his approval numbers at this point in his administration are higher than those of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Both of those guys managed to overcome big defeats in their first mid-term elections to win second terms by a comfortable majority.

And, in exit polls, voters Tuesday split evenly on whether health care reform should be repealed or not. In any case, Republicans don't have the votes to repeal it in the Senate or override Obama's veto if they did. They could shut down the government to leverage him, but that didn't work too well when another group of Republicans tried it against Clinton.

The simple fact is that Tuesday's results weren't about  health care reform or the deficit or foreign policy or Don't Ask, Don't Tell or even about taxes.

They were about the economy.

The unemployment rate was 9.6% on Election Day. If it had been 6%, Tuesday would not have happened. And it wouldn't have mattered what the Tea Party or mainsteam Republicans or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck had to say about it.

If the unemployment rate is over 9% on Election Day 2012, Barack Obama will lose -- unless the GOP does something truly suicidal like nominating Sarah Palin.  If the economy has improved, as it seems to be doing, he won't.

And that brings us to what the next two years will look like.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Political wheel to spin again Tuesday

Republicans will almost surely take control of the House of Representatives Tuesday.

They won't win the Senate, although they'll gain seats. They squandered a chance to win the Senate by choosing too many Tea Party wackos as Senate candidates.

Which is amazing when you consider that two years ago pundits were wondering if the GOP was doomed as a national party.

A combination of the Tea Party, the still dragging economy and relentless propagandizing by Fox News and right-wing talk radio has brought the party back from the brink of the abyss and has them on the brink of their biggest election victory since 1994.

Virginia, were the polls close early, may give an early signal on how the night is going to go.

Expectations have been that Republicans would take out at least two of Virginia's six Democratic congressmen -- freshmen representatives Glen Nye in the 2nd District and Tom Perriello in the 5th. Both have trailed their Republican challengers throughout the race, although the polls in both races have closed over the last week. Still, incumbents polling less than 45% a week before Election Day are probably doomed. In both races the presence of a Tea Party-affiliated independent candidate raises the possiblity that the seat could be won with as little as 45% of the vote. That's probably the best shot Nye and Perriello have.

I either Nye or Perriello survives, the GOP wave may be smaller than predicted.

On the other hand, two races Democrats felt confident about -- long-time incumbent Rick Boucher in the 9th District and freshman Gerry Connolly in the 11th District, have begun to look shaky in recent days. Although he's held a comfortable lead over Morgan Griffith, the majority leader of Virginia's House of Delegates who actually lives in the 6th District,  througout the summer, the most recent poll in Boucher's race showed it deadlocked. Tuesday will show if that poll was an outlier or caught late movement. In the 11th, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has committed $1 million for a last minute TV ad blitz. With the number of incumbents they have in jeopardy around the country, it's unlikely they'd do that if Connolly was safe.

If either Boucher or Connolly go down, the GOP is likely in for even a better night than has been predicted.

The Democrats' problem is the stubbornly high unemployement rate and, let's face it, discomfort in the country that there's a black man in the White House.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Like kicking a crippled puppy..

This week's blog entry is about a story you didn't read in The Virginia Gazette.

You didn't read it because I, along with Editor Rusty Carter and Publisher Bill O'Donovan thought it was a tawdry invasion of someone's privacy, and a political low blow that crossed the line.

If you live in the 1st Congressional District and you've followed other media, you probably know what I'm talking about.

Last week embarrassing photos of Democratic candidate Krystal Ball appeared on a Republican blog. The photos, from a party when Ball was 22, showed her in a Santa-themed dominatrix outfit with a man identified as her ex-husband wearing a red rubber phallus for a nose.

It looked a lot like the kind of thing most of us probably did once or twice while in college. Would you want everything you did in college spread across the Internet?

The photos quickly spread through the Republican blogosphere, and beyond, though many GOP bloggers took them down at the request of Rep. Rob Wittman's campaign.

The Wittman camp said it wanted to run on the issues and, from a practical standpoint, they don't need the controversy. They stand to trounce Ball in the heavily Republican 1st District. It would be a moral victory for her to score more than 40% of the vote.

That's what made the decision the decision to post the photos so mean-spirited. It was unnecessary and uncalled for. It was like kicking a crippled puppy.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Catching up....

 I've been slack on posting to the blog lately.
I went on vacation in Vegas and had a hard time getting back into blogging mode. And, I didn't want the blog to be too dominated by posts about Ken Cuccinelli, although he does something worth talking about nearly every week, or the governor's ABC privatization plan. I've written a lot about ABC privatization. I was on that bandwagon before Bob McDonnell.

However, with the full details of the governor's plan available since my last post, I'll hit it another lick in a grab bag full of topics in the news.

  • McDonnell tries to give away the stores...and the wholesaler too: I'm on record as thinking Virginia needs to get out of the business of selling alcohol. It's hypocritical for the state to put people in prison for drug offenses while Virginia markets and sells the drug that has the most disruptive effect on society -- in terms of lives lost to drunk drivers, divorce, domestic violence, etc.  The state should never have gotten into the liquor business in the first place after Prohibition. But it did. We crossed that Rubicon more than 70 years ago. The state controls the right to sell hard liquor in Virginia. And, to paraphrase a now-disgraced former governor of Illinois, "That's a @#!$%&* valuable thing, you can't give that away for nothing." But that's essentially what our governor has planned. He's allowed a commission composed of many of the interests who will probably end up buying the business to set the bid price. They've come in at about $500 million. At a guess, the state's ABC business is probably worth closer to $2 billion, based on annual sales of more than $600 million. That's for 1,000 permanent retail licenses. To give but one example of how the governor has underpriced this asset, Paul Goldman former Zvengali to Gov. Doug Wilder points on at Blue Virginia that Maine will realize about $144 million from leasing its wholesale distribution facilities to a private entity for 10 years. Virginia has about six times the population of Maine, but the governor proposes to permanently sell the state's wholesale operation for $168 million. That doesn't smell right. An audit of the states liquor business, to find out what it's really worth, would be appropriate before the General Assembly proceeds with the governor's plan, which it's showing no inclination to do so far.
  • The McDonnell Miracle: turns up $1 billion in unspent money at VDOT : Speaking of audits, an audit of the Virginia Department of Transportation turns up more than $1 billion in unspent funds. While the McDonnell administration acted surprised by this and said it created a windfall for transportation and inferred that it bespoke of mismanagement by the prior two Democratic administrations, there's less to this story than meets the eye. All state agencies accumulate cash reserves for unforeseen circumstances. In the case of VDOT, with uncertain funding coming partially from the state's general fund and partially from the Transportation Trust Fund from fuel taxes and with uncertain expenses due to weather conditions, it's not surprising that those cash reserves are unusually large. That's what VDOT would have used to clear the roads in a harsh winter or to make repairs if we had a bridge collapse like the one in Minnesota two years ago. It's not that big a deal.
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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who died and left Ken Cuccinelli king?

We are apparently living during the reign of King Ken I.

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, aided and abetted by his liegeman Del. Bob Marshall (R-Manassas), has apparently hatched a plan to rule Virginia via attorney general's opinion.

That has the advantage of not only circumventing those troublesome varlets in the General Assembly but the increasingly irrelevant Gov. Bob McDonnell, who probably mistook last year's election results as putting him in charge of state government.

Shows how little he knows.

The Cuccinelli/Marshall's coalition's latest power grab is an attorney general's opinion, requested by Marshall of course, that opines that the state already has the power to regulate abortion clinics in the same way it regulates hospitals and out-patient surgery centers. Current state law applies to facilities that perform second and third-trimester abortions, but not to facilities that perform only first-trimester abortions. Cuccinelli says the state already has that power.

That's interesting. Marshall certainly didn't think the state had that power when he repeatedly introduced legislation that would have given the state such authority. That legislation was defeated in the General Assembly.

I guess that's why Marshall and Cuccinelli, also an ardent abortion foe, would prefer to rule the state by edict. So much more efficient than that messy democracy stuff.

In Virginia, an attorney general's opinion, which can only be requested by an eligible party such as a state legislator or local elected government, is treated as the state of the law until a court rules otherwise.

However, Marshall and Cuccinelli may have made an oversight in their latest attempt to circumvent the democratic process. While the attorney general can issue his opinion, he can't force the Department of Health Professions to promulgate regulations for abortion providers. The department doesn't work for him. Cuccinelli and Marshall are Republicans who embrace a philosophy that hates government. I guess they can't be expected to know how it works.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Cuccinelli, health care and driving while brown

Monday was a big day for Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, quickly becoming one of the darlings of the Tea Party nationwide.

First, a federal judge refused to throw out Cuccinelli's challenge to the federal health care reform law. That sets up an October court hearing on the  constitutionality of the law.

Although hailed as a huge victory in the Republican blogosphere and on Fox News, the ruling was really a procedural matter. It was also made by a Bush-appointed judge considered something of a right-winger and who, according to Huffington Post, may have financial ties to Cuccinelli.

The judge ruled that because the passage of the federal health insurance reform law directly conflicted with a law passed by the General Assembly this year --in anticipation of the federal legislation -- that asserted that Virginia citizens could not be compelled to buy health insurance, Cuccinelli had standing to bring a lawsuit in defense of Virginia's law. The judge also ruled against claims by the federal government that the suit was not "ripe" because the health care reform legislation will not take effect until 2014.

That sets up a showdown likely to end up in the Supreme Court.

It also sets up Cuccinelli to become a hero to the anti-Obama Tea Party movement nationwide, enhancing his chances for election to future state or national office.

The state law that conflicts with the health care reform bill is the handiwork of Cuccinelli ally Del. Bob Mashall (R-Manassas). Marshall was also involved in  the other Cuccinelli action that made national news Monday. At the request of Marshall, Cuccinelli issued an opinion that law enforcement officers in Virginia have the authority to inquire into the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest. That's the issue in question in Arizona's controversial immigration bill, often called the "driving while brown" bill, parts of which were thrown out by a federal judge last week.

Cuccinelli's opinion is that Virginia's officers already have that authority, they don't need a new law.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

A RINO at a Tea Party

Like a bull in a china shop, a RINO at a Tea Party has the potential to be a messy situation.

That's why Rep. Rob Wittman's decision to bring in Sen. Scott Brown (R-Ma.) to headline a fundraiser July 30 is interesting.

Brown was briefly the darling of the Tea Party when, with considerable out-of -state financial assistance from Tea Party activists, he beat the odds to win the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of former Sen. Edward Kennedy. The had been in Kennedy hands for more than 50 years and a Republican victory in one of the nation's bluest states was seen as a personal rebuke to President Barack Obama.

Brown was important to the Tea Party because he was seen as the Republicans' 41st vote to filibuster health care reform. However, Democrats skillfully found a way around the supposed 60 votes required to get anything done in the Senate -- which, strict constructionists that they are, the Tea Party activists might note was never part of the founders' intentions -- and passed the bill anyway.

After that, Brown quickly began losing his Tea Party fans as he started voting like the moderate, Northeast Republican he always had been. That, of course, was the only kind of Republican who was going to win in "The People's Republic of Massachusetts." Which means he occasionally votes with the Democrats, just like Republican senators Snow and Dukakis from Maine. Which leads the Tea Party crowd to fill his Facebook page with accusations of "betrayal" and that he's a "liar" and, even worse, a "RINO." The most recent instance was when he voted to allow financial reform legislation to move forward, so hopefully the greed heads who wrecked the economy two years ago will have a slightly harder task the next time.

Wittman voted against that bill.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Gen. McCrystal and the art of being stupid in public

Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan got fired last week.

And deserved it.

McCrystal's offense was essentially being stupid in public. In a profile written for Rolling Stone, the general and the circle of frat boy sycophant junior officers he maintained around him were captured making derogatory comments about the nation's civilian leadership.

Their bosses.

So McCrystal had to go. This wasn't even a matter of military discipline. You or I would get fired for making public statements like that about our boss too.

McCrystal wasn't the first casuality of the incident. Even before President Obama called McCrystal to the White House and kicked him to the curb, the civilian public relations person who set up the interview with Rolling Stone was let go.

Right, because it was his fault that McCrystal and his cronies decided to tank up in front of a reporter and let their inner macho wannabes out.

First, never drink in front of a reporter. What you actually think might come out of your mouth.

Second, the problems apparently stem from McCrystal and his circle being senior military men who are obsessed with what tough "warriors" they still are. I've been in the military, there are some legitimate warriors in the U.S. military. None of them wear a general's star. In fact, most of them aren't officers at all. For a 56-year-old man to still be trying to impress some journalist with how "tough" he is, is rather pitiful.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Ten reasons to be glad summer is here

While sweltering in Virginia's typical 95-degrees-with-117-percent-humidity weather, there are still a few reasons to be glad the seasons have turned and that summer is here. Actually, you might not notice. We seem to be losing our springs and falls and going right from furnace to air conditioning weather these days.

In any case, these are the reasons that I'm looking forward to summer:

1. New, more interesting Williamsburg City Council - On July 1, the era of consensus and 5-0 votes ends. With the swearing in of recent College of William & Mary grad Scott Foster and hotelier Doug Pons, the city will finally have two members of council who are not members of the Colonial Williamsburg-W&M-Chamber of Commerce power structure. That should make for some interesting council meetings.
2. Vampires and Werewolves, oh my! - HBO's True Blood is back for its third season and, if the first two episodes are any indication, we're in for a wild ride. Bill's in trouble again. Can the lovely Sookie Stackhouse get the sinister Eric to quit drooling over her long enough to help rescue him? Can Jessica learn to find happiness as the hottest redheaded jailbait vampire in Louisiana? And what of my personal favorite, Eric's acid-tongued lesbian second-in-command Pam? Will she stay perennially amused at the outrageous goings on around her? And will Sookie's friend Tara ever stop whining? And this year there are werewolves too! Good times are ahead in Bon Temps.
3. Baseball being very, very good to me - I'm a big baseball fan. As we get deeper into summer the other unimportant sports fall out of the headlines (World Cup? Isn't that a coffeehouse in Richmond?) and we get down to what matters. And it looks like a very good year. As the days heat up, so do the pennant races and we seem to have some good ones with some surprise teams looking very real. The Atlanta Braves were supposed to be in a rebuilding phase. They've rebuilt themselves right into first place in the National League East. The Cinncinatti Reds haven't been any good since 1990. They look pretty good this year. The Texas Rangers haven't ever been any good, but they look like a contender too. It doesn't look like such a great year for my teams, the Red Sox and the Cubs. While the Sox have played better of late, that just doesn't look like a championship team to me. Hopefully the Rays can beat out the Yankees in the AL East just so I don't have to listen to insufferable Yankees fans (or is that redundant?) all off season.
4. More miracles from Baseball Jesus -- I know it's still baseball, but Stephen Strasburg deserves his own bullet point. Through three games, the Washington Nationals new starting pitcher looks like some unholy amalgam of Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Cy Young. Striking out 32 guys in 18 innings of work would be a hell of an achievement for baseball's best veteran pitcher. Stiking out 32 batters in  your first 18 innings of work? That's a miracle. Hence Strasburg's Baseball Jesus nickname. The last guy who was anywhere close to this dominant at the start of his career was Bob Feller. If World War II hadn't cut Feller's career short, he'd probably be the yardstick we use to gauge pitching excellence today. Stasburg's potential is unbelievable. It will be fascinating to see if he can keep this up all summer.
5.Congressional races heat up - We've got two tight Congressional races in Virginia, in the 2nd and 5th districts, that could go a long way toward determining which party controls the House of Representatives after November. In an interesting turn of events the Republican nominees in both races, who've spent the last six months trying to appeal to Tea Party activists, are trying to keep independent candidates associated with the Tea Party out of debates for the general election. It's easy to see why they'd want to do that. The Republican primary in Virginia's 1st District, in which Rep. Rob Wittman handily beat Tea Partier Catherine Crabill, demonstrated that about 10% of the Republican electorate is stone crazy and will vote for a candidate who advocates violent revolution and mutters about putting Congressmen in front of firing squads. While 10% of the Republican electorate might not sound like much, it could mean as much as 5% of the vote in the general election. Which could be enough to tip either of the close elections in the 2nd and 5th and send an embattled Democratic incumbent back to Washington with a plurality victory. We won't have much a race in the 1st. Nothing against Democratic nominee Krystal Ball. No Democrat can win the 1st as its currently drawn, just as no Republican could win the 3rd or the 8th.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Bob McDonnell's Speakeasy

Like a Prohibition-era speakeasy, you apparently need to know the password to get into the room where Gov. Bob McDonnell's real plan to privatize Virginia's liquor stores will be hatched.

And if you are a member of the public you are definitely not invited.

Although the governor, with a great deal of hype, named an august bi-partisan commission to review and streamline state government, which was expected to come up with the privatization plan, that's not going to be the case.

That body, which holds public meetings, might prove too independent.

Instead the governor's plan will be hashed out by a small working group, meeting behind closed doors with the governor's policy staff and then presented to the larger commission for its rubber stamp.

If you want to get into that inner sanctum where the real privatization plan is being served, you'll need the password. And it's apparenlty, "I'm with the booze industry." Aside from a few representatives of the Religious Right and McDonnell staffers, the working group is made up entirely of representatives of distillers, alcohol distributors and beer and wine retailers.

Maybe I'm just a cynic, but I have a hard time believing they'll have the taxpayers' interests at heart.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Mind your own damned business

“If I want to honky tonk around 'til two or three
Now, brother that's my headache, don't you worry 'bout me.
Just mind your own business
(Mind your own business)
If you mind your business, then you won't be mindin' mine”
-Mind Your Own Business
By Hank Williams (the real one)

Minding your own business is a concept that’s gone completely out of fashion in America, with consequences for our commerce, our culture, our politics and our government.

The right to be left alone, all though it got left out of the Constitution somehow, is one Americans have always cherished. And, in fact, it wasn’t so much left out of the Bill of Rights as more politely stated. The net effect of the first sixth amendments is to spell out that the government, unless it has a good reason to intervene, should leave us alone. The Ninth Amendment points out that the rights spelled out in the preceding eight amendments are not be taken as an all inclusive list. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade confirmed the existence of a constitutional right to privacy.

But that doesn’t mean we really have any privacy in this day and age.

Recently Facebook was embroiled in controversy over changes to its privacy policy that made it easier for users' information to be accessed by a third party. That’s not a surprise.

I’m a latecomer to Facebook, but I quickly became addicted to it. I’ve gotten in touch with friends I’d thought forever lost, renewed old friendships and learned that some people I’d thought of as merely acquaintances were much more interesting than I’d previously known. It’s an interesting source of off- beat news and more than a little humor. I’m a pretty happy Facebook user.

But I never expected the company to do much to protect my privacy. That’s because their whole business model is to sell their users’ data to advertisers. They don’t charge you to use the service. You aren’t their customer. You are their product. The idea is that if advertisers know what you like, who your friends are and what they like, they’ll be better able to design advertising that will appeal to you.

I’ve got my doubts about how well that works. I’m not sure too many American of average intelligence or better who are over 12-years-old believe anything they see in advertisements. After all, modern Americans are deluged with advertising 24-hours a day, from the cradle to the grave. It makes most of us a little cynical. Maybe a lot cynical.

After an uproar from Facebook users, the company walked its privacy policy changes back. A little. Call me cynical, but I expect they’ll slip the revised policies through in the future. Because their real clients want them.

Apparently we’re not so cynical that we don’t cling to the belief that we should have some privacy. Even in the age of Google – where you can find out practically anything about practically anyone – we cling to the notion that other people should have the good manners to mind their own business.

Even if we aren’t minding our own.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Going to Hell in a handbasket

     First, did you ever notice that nobody ever goes anywhere else in a handbasket? Apparently, handbaskets are an even more inefficient transportation system than Virginia's highways, which only take you from one pothole to the next.

Now, let's count the ways that the world is going to Hell this week.

  1. The BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast: As crude oil washes into Louisiana wetlands and threatens the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida, it's apparent that this is an environmental catastrophe on a scale we haven't seen before. And, so far, BP's repeated efforts plug the hole have all failed. The frustrating thing about this situation is that only the industry that caused this disaster has the know-how to fix it. The federal government does not, although they've assembled a team of experts and big thinkers including, believe it or not, "Titanic" and "Avatar" director James Cameron, to brainstorm solutions. We might profitably ask why we let a foreign company operate a well with the potentially disatrous effects of this one off our coast, at least without a better plan as to what to do should something go wrong. Because something will always go wrong. Technology isn't perfect. It's made by humans. A sound "Plan B" would have gone a long way in this situation. The answer to that is that the oil industry and the people who are supposed to be regulating the oil industry have had way to cozy a relationship for at least the last 30 years. The spill has become a political issue, with Republicans looking to make it "Barack Obama's Katrina." While there's nothing Obama, or any other president, could have done to prevent the spill, his response has been weak. He should be threatening to seize all of BP's assets to pay for clean up of the spill and to compensate those damaged by BP's failure to properly operate their well. He's continuing to be "no drama Obama" when the country could use a little fire and drama from its chief executive. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the spill is that it has put the brakes on plans to drill off the coast of Virginia. So Virginia Beach will be spared the devastation currently going on on the Gulf Coast. I'm not all that "green." I could have been persuaded that drilling off the coast made sense. But that would have required a reasoned analysis showing that potential benefits to the Commonwealth outweighed the potential risks. In the rush to "drill, baby, drill," that analysis was simply not done. Maybe now oil industry advocates will realize that a slogan does not an energy policy make.
  2. Israel's botched raid on the "humanitarian aid" flotilla to Gaza: Israel is one of our major allies and, like the U.S., sometimes they make it hard to root for them even though you know they are the good guys.  Boarding the ships taking aid to Gaza in contravention of an Israeli blockade was an extreme reaction and probably caused more public relations damage to the Israeli cause than the negligible security benefits warranted. That said, it's important to remember that Israel is involved in a seemingly endless war with an enemy that believes using suicide bombs to blow up children and indiscriminantly firing missles into civilian settlements are legitimate means to wage war.
  3. Rand Paul: Republicans in Kentucky really just nominated a candidate for the U.S. Senate who disagrees with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically Paul, the son of former GOP presidential aspirant Rep. Ron Paul, disagrees with the portion of the law that forbids private businesses from discriminating as to who they will serve. He thinks restaurants and hotels, for instance, should have the right to refuse to serve patrons on the basis of race. He's wrong. He's not just morally wrong and logically wrong, he's legally wrong. That issue was argued thoroughly before the Supreme Court after the Civil Rights Act passed. Paul's side lost. But he's likely to win his bid for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by senile baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, because Kentucky is a very red state.
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Monday, May 24, 2010

Voters on grassy knolls of Pennsylvania shoot down Specter

The best news out of last week's bevy of primary elections was that Democrats in Pennsylvania decided they weren't buying what turncoat Senator Arlen Specter was selling. Which was, essentially, his soul.

Specter, who at 80 probably really needs to get out of Senate and get a life anyway, was a Republican until last year.

Then he switched parties when it became abundantly clear that he couldn't beat the wingnut who was challenging him in the Republican primary. So he took Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama up on their kind offer to switch parties and become the Democrat's 60th vote in the Senate.

Let's be clear about this. There wasn't any change in Specter's philosophy. He didn't have a Road to Damascus experience. He just switched parties in an effort to save his own political skin. And Pennsylvania Democrats decided that they didn't have to abide by any back-room Washington deals that they hadn't been consulted about anyway and said "Thanks, but no thanks" and chose Rep. Joe Sestak to carry their banner against far-right GOP nominee Pat Toomey in November. After all, those Democrats had been voting against Specter their whole lives.

Polls show Sestak will have a tougher time beating Toomey than Specter would have. I guess Pennsylvania Democrats decided they'd rather lose with a real Democrat than win with an ersatz one. And make no mistake, Specter isn't a real Democrat. Despite what his Tea Party detractors would have you believe he isn't even a particularly liberal or moderate Republican. He mostly toed the party line during his long tenure in the Senate.

Aside from the fact that I'm still mad at him about the Single Bullet Theory -- and authoring that rationalization by which the Warren Commission fit the uncooperative evidence in the John F. Kennedy assassination with its predetermined conclusion presaged the intellectual dishonesty that would allow Specter to disavow a lifetime in politics and switch parties without a look back -- I hate to see treachery rewarded.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Reinventing commissions to reinvent reinventing government

Now that he's got the General Assembly out of town and he can get down to business, Gov. Bob McDonnell has turned his sights on "reinventing government."

He's appointed a commission to suggest ways to do that.

As usual for such commissions, it's filled with eminent names from state and local politics and government, as well as business interests and lobbyists. McDonnell's commission is huge, 31 members, so it might have trouble reaching consensus by July 16, when its report is due.

If what the governor is trying to do is cut down on red tape and unnecessary government spending, he could  have just read the last five or six reports issued by commissions on reinventing governments. After all, none of their recommendations have been acted on yet.

In fact, since the current commission is really just a way to get to the governor's goal of selling off the state's liquor stores, he'd really only need to read one report, the Wilder Commission report from Gov. Mark Warner's administration,

That report suggested selling the ABC stores, both to simplify government and to pump $400 to 500 million into the state budget. The primary objection to this proposal was, and remains, that in order to realize that one-time cash infusion, the state would be giving up a steady stream of revenue -- more than $200 million per year -- from ABC profits.

In a scenario where the state just got out of the liquor business, allowing it to be taken over by private industry, while the state liquidated its inventory and warehousing operations and terminated its retail employees, the state would also lose control over liquor sales.

And that worries some people, including legislators.

Because the future they see is one with liquor stores proliferating on every corner or victimizing disadvantaged neighborhoods or marring other neighborhoods with tacky advertising. And that's a prospect that many -- including many of the conservative, religious Republicans who are part of McDonnell's base -- oppose. That plan probably can't pass the General Assembly, even the Republican-controlled House.

So the pure "free-market" approach won't work. It doesn't generate enough money for the commonwealth and it will be very unpopular. That means the McDonnell administration needs to think outside the box and get beyond the GOP's free-market dogma. It needs to adopt a scheme of "quasi-privatization."

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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Multiple Choice Section

Fate hinges on the choices we make.

This week different choices in the news are on my mind.

  •  On the world stage, the European Union decided to put together a bail-out package for Greece, which is broke. The package takes the form of billions in cheap loans both from Greece's partners in the "euro zone" and from our own Federal Reserve. The goal is to stop the collapse of the Greek economy before it triggers similar collapses in Spain, Portugal and Italy. That could jeopardize the tentative recovery from the Great Recession and throw the world into a double-dip recession. That's a choice the rest of Europe didn't want to make, but apparently has to make, much like our bank bail-outs two years ago.

  • President Barack Obama chose Solicitor General Elena Kagan as his next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, to take the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. Kagan is generally seen as the safe choice. She's already been confirmed by the Senate for the Solicitor General's job and even garnered a handful of Republican votes. She's liberal, but not so liberal that the Republicans will try to filibuster her nomination. She's never been a judge before, so she doesn't have a history of opinions for opponents to sort through looking for an issue. As dean of Harvard Law School she did try to ban military recruiting at the school in protest of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gays serving. That's likely to be the biggest objection raised against her, but it was raised during her previous confirmation hearings to little effect. In fact, if the Republican blogosphere is any indication, the fact that Kagan has never served as a judge is itself going to be the major argument against her. It's a poor argument. More than half of the nation's previous Supreme Court justices had not served on the bench before being nominated for the high court. We just haven't done it that way in awhile. The last nominees who had not previously been judges were Richmond lawyer Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist, who had also served as Solicitor General, both nominated in 1971 by Richard Nixon. If Kagan is confirmed, it would be the first time three women have served simultaneously on the court. It might also mark the first time that the court was without a Protestant. Kagan is Jewish. She would join two other Jewish members and six Catholics on the court.

  • Speaking of Jews and the Nixon Administration ......Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is taking some heat over his choice of Fred Malek to head his commission on restructuring government. That's because one of Malek's previous experiences in restructuring government was an effort to reduce the number of Jews in the federal government at the request of President Nixon. Malek was responsible for putting together a list of the Jews in the Labor Department, which Nixon was convinced was riddled with "disloyal" Jewish employees. Turns out there were 13. Malek resigned as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee when the story was first reported in 1988. Let's see, since taking charge five months ago, Virginia Republicans have offended gay and lesbian people with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's unsolicited opinion that state colleges couldn't protect them from employment discrimination, African Americans with McDonnell's proclamation of April as Confederate History Month and now Jewish Virginians. Who's next?
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Monday, May 3, 2010

Keeping abreast of Attorney General Cuccinelli

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli continues to amuse.

The a.g. couldn't do a better job of keeping his name in the press if he were trying. Maybe he is. After all, he has gubernatorial ambitions in 2013. And I guess being repeatedly mocked by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show does raise his name recognition.

His latest comedy tour de force involves a John Ashcroft impersonation.

Former U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft raised eyebrows when he draped togas over the bare breasted statuary at the Department of Justice.

Cuccinelli's foray into the realm of priggish prudery came at the expense of the seal of Virginia. The seal, which is repeated on the state flag, portrays the goddess of virtue standing triumphant over a deposed  tyrant. One breast is exposed.

But not on the lapel pin recreation of the seal that Cuccinelli recently passed out to staff members of the attorney general's office. Virtue finds herself covered in a breast plate in that rendition.

The a.g. joked that her less risque apparel was more appropriate.

Perhaps Cuccinelli wanted to make sure that impressionable children weren't corrupted by the depiction of that topless hussy, Virtue. I can put his mind at ease. I spent my adolescent and teen years in Virginia and, like most teenage boys had a  more active fantasy sex life than real sex life. But I gaurantee that the state seal was never a factor.

As an example of being prissy and silly, the above would suffice. But Cuccinelli didn't stop there. Because he didn't invent his new version of the seal. He copied it. Where did he copy it from? The battle flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry, Army of the Confederacy. That's right, the Confedracy.

Can't you just see Gov. Bob McDonnell doing a slow Moe burn and giving Cuccinelli the Three Stooges eyepoke on that one?

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Punch your ticket in City Council race

The first thing that strikes me about the upcoming Williamsburg City Council election is that none of the five candidates is awful..

That's unusual.

In a mutli-candidate race like this, you'd usually have at least one candidate whom only his mother or a crackhead would vote for.

This year, however, one can see any of these candidates serving with distinction on council. Which isn't to say they are are all on the same page. Each brings different strenghs to the table. And since two seats are up for grabs, various combinations of candidates might play out very differently.

There are 10 possible "tickets" that could result from the May 4 election. Which voters choose depends on what they want council to look like for the next two years, at least.

 1. Nice Guys Finish First Ticket (Bobby Braxton and Dr. David Dafashy):  Incumbent Braxton and Dafashy, a physician with the student heatlh service at the College of William & Mary, are the most amiable of the five candidates. Each is quick with a joke or a smile. That doesn't mean they'd do a great job on council. As the stories of Mark Warner, Rahm Emaneul, Tommy Norment or George Allen point out, sometimes you need a highly-motivated jerk to get things done.

2. Status Quo Ticket (Braxton and Sean Driscoll): Braxton, of course, is on council. Driscoll, a member of the Planning Commission, has recycled some of retiring Mayor Jeanne Zeidler's rhetoric and of all the challengers is probably closest in philosophy to the current Council. So he'd fit right in with a Council run by likely new Mayor Clyde Haulman. If you think everything in the city is going just great, this is your ticket.

3. Age Ain't Nothing But a Number Ticket (Braxton and Scott Foster): Braxton is 50 years older than Foster, a 22-year-old graduating senior at W&M. Braxton  has a lifetime of experiences. Foster, who'll enter law school in the fall, basically has none. They don't agree on much. Foster supports student efforts to expand the three-person rule to four. Braxton wavered before voting against the expansion but has brought his negative vote up repeatedly during rhe campaign. I guess you could say they balance each other.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare 5 to 10 in the Federal Pen?

The next big battle in Washington in heating up.

And, as they have since January, Republicans are ready to "just say no." They should probably re-think that plan.

 Because this fight won't be over providing access to health insurance, which could be characterized as "helping poor people," although it actually benefits everyone. You can always drum up some opposition to helping the poor in America.

The coming battle will be over punishing the bankers, traders and Wall Street fat cats whose greed and dishonesty almost threw us into a second Great Depression. And, so far, the GOP has come down firmly on the side of the bad guys. In a letter to President Barack Obama, every Republican member of the House and Senate declined to support financial reform legislation backed by the president.

You'd think Republicans would have learned something from the first Great Depression, when Herbert Hoover sided with the folks who'd caused the crash and handed Washington over to the Democrats for a generation.

The Great Depression also created a long-standing distrust of Wall Street and the financial system among working class and middle class Americans.

My Dad, a Depression baby, used to tell me that the stock market was just a scam to fleece the little guy for the profit of the big guys.

Turns out he was right.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Hey Bob, stop whistling Dixie.

C'mon Bob.

I'm really getting tired of explaining to my out-of-state friends that we aren't all neo-Confederate cesessionists who hate gay people and the unemployed.

You ran for office as "Bob for Jobs." Remember that? You haven't created any yet. In fact, the state budget you helped craft will cost thousands of teachers and other local government employees their jobs.

But, look, that's okay. It's a tough economy. Everybody understands that.

You've been trying to stick to your message.  You went on cable news shows and claimed that you'd filled a $4 billion hole in the state budget without raising taxes. That's a good message for you. Of course, it isn't quite true. There are taxes in the budget, although some of them are called "fees," and you filled a large part of the hole by borrowing from the Virginia Retirement System. That's money that will have to be paid back, with interest. The difference between that and the "deficit spending" your pals in the GOP are all over the President for seems largely a matter of semantics to me.

But the fixed-the-budget-without-raising taxes claim is close enough for politics. Particularly on televsion news.

So if that's why people were  talking about Virginia today, you'd be in clover. You'd have to start listening to all those people are who are lining up to tell you, "Yes, you can" in 2012's national elections.

But Bob, that's not why people are talking about Virginia.

They're talking abuot the damned Civil War again.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Virginia: Bursting with Energy?

Gov. Bob McDonnell this week said he wanted to see Virginia become the "energy capital" of the East Coast.

The governor was commenting on a ruling by the Obama administration which might lead to drillling for oil and natural gas off Virginia's coast.

While Interior Secretary Ken Salazar somewhat downplayed the prospect, saying the administration had okayed a "look/see," Republicans, whose motto is "Drill, baby, drill," are already spending the money. In McDonnell's case, he wants to spend Virginia's future oil royalities on transportation.

Before the new governor of Texas-on-the-James gets fitted for a ten-gallon hat, there are a couple of problems with his plan.

First, under current law, Virginia can't collect any royalties for oil and natural gas extracted off its coast. Congess, dominated by non-coastal states, has been very relectant to allow East Coast states the same right to collect royalties that states on the Gulf Coast and Alaska have. Virginia's congressional delegation has introduced bills to change that, but there's no gaurantee that they will pass.

So, right now, an oil well off Virginia's coast won't benefit anyone except the oil company that drilled it.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

A Civil War over health care?

President Obama signed the health care legislation he’d fought so hard for into law last week.

It was a bit of a disappointment if you believe, as I do, that affordable health care is a basic right that should be available to everyone, as it is in the rest of the civilized world.

Because this bill doesn’t really do it.

It does make some advances over our present system. It limits insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage base on a prior existing condition or cancel people’s coverage when they get sick. It extends insurance coverage to the majority of the nation’s currently uninsured through public insurance exchanges with subsidies for those who can’t afford coverage.

It also requires that everyone have health insurance, either through their employers, from a private company or through the exchanges.

Mandatory coverage was initially a Republican idea. The plan Mitt Romney oversaw as governor of Massachusetts has coverage mandates. It was trade off with the insurance industry, for losing their ability to refuse to insure those with pre-existing conditions.

But now the mandates have whipped up a frenzy among Republicans who – a few years too late to keep George W. Bush from wiretapping Americans and reading their e-mail without a warrant and suspending habeas corpus – have discovered that they love the Constitution.

And, they claim, that nothing in the Constitution gives the government the right to make you buy a product, like health insurance.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rotten to the core

So now we have a budget.
It’s an ugly, ugly budget.

Granted, it’s not as bad as it could have been.

That’s because the Senate prevailed and scaled back some of the cuts that the House of Delegates and Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed for public education. Still, with the cuts the legislature added and those in former Gov. Tim Kaine’s introduced budget, public education got hit for about $1.2 billion in the next biennial budget.

That’s more than a quarter of the $4.2 billion in reductions that had to be made due to declining state revenues.


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Monday, March 8, 2010

Are we living the thesis?

Remember Bob McDonnell’s thesis?
The one we were supposed to forget about?

The one where he said government should punish homosexuals and ban abortion and that working women were a threat to the family?

Remember how that was supposed to be just something he’d written back in his youth (he was in his 30s) and how what we were really supposed to look at was his record as a legislator and attorney general (dozens of bills co-sponsored dealing with social issues, none on job creation).

Because, as McDonnell said during his campaign for governor last year, it’s all about the economy. It’s not about divisive social issues. He was running as the smiling centrist, “Bob for Jobs” McDonnell.

The campaign tactic worked. McDonnell won in a landslide.

But if it was supposed to be a strategy for governing, McDonnell forgot to send Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli the memo. And the centrist stuff may have slipped the new governor’s mind as well.

Late last week, Cuccinelli sent a letter to the administrations and boards of visitors of the state’s public colleges and universities telling them they don’t have the authority to adopt personnel policies that protect gays and lesbians from discrimination in hiring or from harassment.

Let’s be clear about this, if you’re against protecting people from discrimination, that makes you pro-discrimination.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Common sense cut out of budget

It could have been worse.

Both houses of the General Assembly unveiled drafts of their budgets Sunday. They’re a little different, but probably not enough for anyone to go to war over. They each differ somewhat from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s belatedly revealed suggestions, but they each head in the same direction.

That’s because, like McDonnell, the legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, are expert politicians. They know how to read election returns. Some of them don’t know much else.

And looking at last fall’s election returns, it’s pretty clear that Virginia voters are in no mood to be magnanimous. We aren’t interested in tax increases. We aren’t interested in what’s best for our state or our communities. We’re scared for our jobs, we’re worried about the economy and we want our leaders to pander to those fears.

There’s no question that cutting $400 million (the Senate), $600 million (the House) or $700 million (the governor) from K-12 public education while retaining the $950 million in car tax “relief”, which for the vast majority of people in Virginia amount to less than $1 per day, is shortsighted and selfish.

The governor and the legislators looked at the voters of Virginia and decided that yes, that’s just how shortsighted and selfish we are.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Can this country be governed?

We the people have lost another one.

The big money boys have scuttled health care reform. The citizens of the United States will not have the same access to health care enjoyed by the citizens of every other civilized country in the world. We’re the richest, most powerful nation on earth. We can accomplish anything we set our minds to, yet we can’t do this simple thing for our people.


Because the lobbyists who keep Washington, D.C.’s money wheel turning don’t want it. So they killed it.

And they killed it in exactly the same way that they did in 1993, the malicious stirred up the ignorant with a pack of well-funded lies.

So “Obamacare” meets the same fate as “Hillarycare.”

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Monday, February 8, 2010

Hiding out in the Governor’s Mansion

There’s something odd going on in Richmond.

It’s a budget year and there’s a process the state normally goes through to reach a balanced budget.

In a gubernatorial election year that process starts with a proposal by the outgoing governor.

Gov. Tim Kaine did his part, although nobody liked his contribution. He proposed a budget with more than $2 billion in cuts and more than $1 billion in tax increases to fill a hole in the next biennial budget that may be as big as $4.4 billion.

With Republican in firm control in the House and “No Tax Increases” Bob McDonnell newly installed in the Governor’s Mansion, the tax hike was quickly disposed of.

But that’s where the process has broken down. Because the next step in the process should be budget amendments submitted by the new governor to change the old governor’s budget.

While McDonnell has submitted a few amendments to balance new spending programs he’s proposed – largely economic development measures – he has not addressed the large cuts that need to be made to balance the budget. Even if McDonnell were to accept all of Kaine’s cuts – and the new governor has said he disagrees with some, including cuts in public safety, higher education and state employee retirement contributions – he needs to make nearly $2 billion in cuts. If he restores any of Kaine’s cuts, he’ll need to make even deeper cuts.

But the governor has not submitted any budget amendments to propose those cuts.

And recent comments by his press secretary suggest that he may not.

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em

I thought I’d give politics a rest this week.

I’m sick of the health care mess and there doesn’t seem to be any point in talking about the General Assembly until they start getting serious about what they are going to cut to make the budget balance.

So I thought I’d talk about something more personal.

Over the last several weeks I’ve been trying to quit smoking.

That’s sort of a big deal for me. I’ve smoked for nearly 40 years, since I was 12 years old. This is the first time I’ve ever tried to quit.

Well, voluntarily tired to quit. They didn’t let us smoke for the first week of basic training in the Air Force. When they finally said “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,” I inhaled the first in one long drag.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Fools rush in

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to the news lately, there was a terrible earthquake in Haiti.

That’s big news.

And then Pat Robertson said something stupid about it.

And for some reason that was big news as well.

The details of what he said are that Haiti is cursed because its founders made a deal with the devil to free themselves from slavery to the French. But the details really aren’t important.

There was a disaster. And Pat Robertson said something stupid about it. Pat Roberson says something stupid after every disaster. How is this news?

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

When ‘No Tax’ pledges come home to roost

In 2005 Bob McDonnell won an attorney generals race that went to a recount.

By the time the 2010 session of the General Assembly is over, he might want a recount of the 2009 governor’s race that he won in a landslide.

Because Virginia’s new governor faces a no win situation.

McDonnell campaigned on a pledge not to raise taxes. And he’ll honor that promise. He comes form the branch of the Republican Party that believe any tax, at any time, is evil. He’s a believer in the Gospel according to Ronald Reagan. (St. Ronnie, like my Dad, was apparently from the old “Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school. Both as governor of California and as president, he raised taxes when he thought it was appropriate.)

So there won’t be any new revenue to plug the $3 billion hole in the state’s next budget.

And, the commission that monitors the state’s debt just informed the governor and the General Assembly that they can’t borrow any more money, either.

Actually, McDonnell and the legislature could raise the state’s debt ceiling. But that’s not exactly a conservative way to begin one’s administration. And it could put the state’s AAA bond rating at risk. McDonnell certainly doesn’t want to be the governor who lost Virginia’s AAA rating, which it has held for more than 70 years.

If you can’t raise taxes and you can’t borrow money, the only thing left is to cut the budget.

Theoretically, that’s not a bad position for a Republican governor to be in. After all, the Republicans are supposedly the party of small government. They could see this as an opportunity to scale back state government.

Except they’ve been beaten to it. Liberal Democratic Gov.

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