Monday, February 21, 2011

Still crazy after all these years?

It's said that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

I don't want to call the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives crazy, but if the shoe fits...

There's a fairly good chance that we're headed for another government shut down in the next few weeks. Like the one in 1995, it will be precipitated by the Republican House unwilling to compromise and negotiate with a Democratic president over the budget.

The 1995 fiasco blunted the momentum of 1994's GOP "revolution,” put then President Bill Clinton on the comeback trail and guaranteed that he'd be re-elected fairly easily in 1996. Although some Republicans are quick to say that Clinton was responsible for that government shut down, it's a fact that Republicans took the blame.

They'll take the blame this time too. One reason for that is that so many of them are willing to go on the cable and network chat shows and appear to be salivating at the prospect of shutting down the government.

Since Barack Obama is already better situated, in terms of job approval ratings, than Clinton was in early 1995 and because Republicans have no clear favorite to rally around for 2012, Obama's re-election chances will greatly improve if Republicans force a show down.

The odd things is, Republicans seemed to recognize this oncoming train, but still failed to get out of the way.

After winning control of the House last November Republicans, including new Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-7th), said they'd learned from the mistakes Republicans made the last time they were in the majority. Cantor, in particular, said he didn't believe the Republicans had won a mandate for their philosophy, but instead had benefited from an electorate unhappy with the Democrats.

He said that the voters would be watching the GOP with a wary eye. All indications are that Cantor was right.

He and other Republican leaders swore that, once in office, their first priority would be job creation and getting the economy turned around.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Goodbye Jimmy, we hardly knew ye

Senator Jim Webb announced Wednesday that he won't seek a second term in 2012.

The announcement wasn't much of a surprise. He only raised $12,000 in campaign contributions in the fourth quarter of 2010 and he'd seemed for months to be vacillating on the decision to run or not run.

I'm going to miss him.

I always like Webb because he never quite fit the mold of your typical modern politician.

Unlike the guy he beat in 2006, George Allen, or his Democratic colleague from Virginia, Mark Warner, Webb was never the glib, smiling, backslapping type who generally prospers in retail politics.

Webb has the hard eyes of a former Marine combat veteran, a face like a clenched fist and the temper that so often accompanies the red hair he inherited from the Scot-Irish ancestors he's so proud of.

(I'm married to a redhead. Trust me on this.)

He's not himself a fool and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

And, unlike most of our current crop of political "leaders," Webb has never found it necessary to check which way the political winds are blowing before deciding what he thinks about an issue. Once he decides, he's not shy about saying just what he thinks.

He's as blunt as a hammer.

A former Republican, Webb managed to tick off members of both parties on an equal opportunity basis.

But, despite that, he managed to put up a pretty solid record of accomplishment for a first-term senator.

He was the primary author of a new G.I. Bill that was a more significant legislative accomplishment than Allen managed in six years in the seat or that Democrat Chuck Robb saw in the 12 years before that.

Webb's political views were more complex than party labels can encompass.

Economically, Webb was a populist, understanding that over the last 30 years this country has undergone a great redistribution of wealth from the bottom up, and that the top 20% of American earners were doing well at the expense of the bottom 80%. He worried about the disappearance of the middle class.

Webb was a warrior who campaigned against what he thought of as foolish war in Iraq.

He also came out for prison reform, hardly a  politically popular cause, noting the disconnect between the cradle of liberty having one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world.

He upset Democrats by calling for a re-thinking of affirmative action programs, which he believed had outlived their usefulness and grown to favor groups who'd never experienced systematic discrimination. He suggested that class, rather than race or ethnic background, might be a more suitable basis for such programs.

Webb seemed to enjoy being a U.S. Senator more than he enjoyed running for office. I suspect that it was the prospect of another campaign that led him to bow out of private life. Running for office in the United States is essentially a phony endeavor. And, whatever else was said about Jim Webb, no one ever accused him of being a phony.

His withdrawal from the arena will likely have a huge effect, not only on the Democratic race to succeed him, but the contest for the Republican nomination as well.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Where McDonnell's ABC plan went wrong

Governor Bob McDonnell' s much-discussed, often-changed, plan to privatize the state's ABC stores and get the Commonwealth out of the liquor business is likely dead for the year.

Del. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), chairman of the House General Laws Committee has said he'll use his chairman's discretion not to bring the bill up in committee. The Senate had previously said it wouldn't take up the bill until it passed the House.

That's really too bad. The state should get out of the liquor business. I was writing about it before McDonnell brought it up as an issue in the 2009 gubernatorial campaign.

But the governor and his staff made just about every mistake they could in rolling out a plan.

The first mistake, made back during the campaign, was linking privatization with funding the state's highway needs. There's no logical nexus between alcohol sales and road funding.

The amount of money that the plan would raise, even under the governor's most optimistic scenario, is fairly trivial compared to the state's unmet highway needs. It also created opposition to the plan among people who weren't necessarily against ABC privatization, but wanted to see the state pursue a more rational course -- such as a gas tax increase -- to fund highway improvements.

Given that a gas tax increase wasn't in the works, McDonnell is better served by his latest transportation plan, which is to borrow $3 to $4 billion. That's more than has been accomplished for transportation under the last six governors.

The second, and perhaps most critical mistake, the governor made was to let the people most likely to buy the stores essentially write his plan. The plan was crafted by a senior McDonnell aide in conjunction with lobbyists representing beer and wine wholesalers, convenience stores and large retailers like Walmart.

That was critical because it led to choices that made McDonnell's plan less saleable politically and less beneficial to the taxpayers.

First was price. While the interests that wanted into the liquor business set a nice price for themselves, they set one that wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the taxpayer.

Essentially, they set the price for Virginia's entire liquor business, which generates about $650 million in gross sales, at $550 million.

From a business point of view, and certainly from the point of view of the state's taxpayers, who own that asset, this made no sense. Soon after it was announced, two GOP businessmen on the Peninsula, both supporters of McDonnell for governor, called me and complained that he was "selling off all the state's assets just to keep from raising taxes."

Both said the real fair prices for the state's alcohol business was several times what McDonnell was asking.

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