Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Confirm Errol Southers, NOW!

Last week's attack on a Detroit-bound flight that originated in the Netherlands (and was thankfully stopped in progress by quick-reacting passengers) could have, as we have been told ad nauseum, been prevented by better communication between American and Dutch authorities.

A month ago Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father told the American consulate that his son had taken up with radical Islamists. The Homeland Security Department did what they should have done and placed him on a terrorist watch list, meaning that he would be subjected to additional security measures if he tried to board a plane. Only the TSA didn't communicate with the Dutch authorities, who failed to detect explosive material on Abdulmutallab when he passed through a security inspection in Amsterdam.

Why didn't the TSA do it's job? MAYBE BECAUSE THERE IS NO ONE AT THE HELM? That's right, the position of TSA director is vacant.

There is a nominee, and a counter-terrorism expert at that. The person the Obama administration nominated for the job is Errol Southers, who is eminently qualified to deal with terrorism, as a former special agent with the FBI, the Los Angeles airport assistant chief for security and intelligence, the associate director of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events and most recently the deputy director of homeland security for the state of California.

Two Senate committees have already approved Southers by a bipartisan vote. This should be a no-brainer.

Enter DeMint, one of the most combatative conservatives in the Senate. He has single-handedly blocked the nomination over the specific issue of preventing TSA workers from exercising their right to vote on whether they want to be represented by a collective bargaining agreement.

So thanks to DeMint, instead of having a highly qualified expert on terrorism running the TSA, someone who certainly would have attended to the detail of letting the Dutch know who they should pay closer attention to during an inspection, we instead have a vacancy in this critical position.

Thankfully, no one lost their life in this attack. But had 279 passengers and crew in the plane, and perhaps hundreds more on the ground died in the attack, it would be fair to ask whether Jim DeMint was at fault.

The Senate should vote to confirm Errol Southers IMMEDIATELY!

Jim Caldwell deserves coach of the year-- for losing a game

It is pretty clear after this week's games that the NFL head coach of the year should be Indianapolis rookie head coach Jim Caldwell.

What? Caldwell after all is not only a first year coach but he took over a program that if you told anyone they'd be 14-1 heading into the final week of the season no one would be surprised. He inherited a team which had been coached by a legend, and a team for which any outcome short of a Super Bowl ring would not be a successful season. And this year we've seen some amazing performances in traditional NFL backwaters like New Orleans and Cincinnati that are certainly deserving of coach of the year honors.

All of that is conceded. But Caldwell deserves it. And the best argument could be made this week. He lost a game. Almost threw it, in fact, pulling out Peyton Manning and other key starters while leading the New York Jets 15-10 at home and going on to lose 26-15.

Caldwell is no fool. He knows that two years ago Bill Belichick took a team into the Super Bowl on the cusp of a perfect season, only to be done in by a combination of the pressure of perfection and maybe reading their own press clippings. Not to take anything away from the New York Giants, who certainly deserved to win that game, but there is no doubt that the Patriots showed that they were not immune from the pressure.

Don Shula and the 1972 Miami Dolphins did something that no one has done since, but the fact is that trying to replicate it only adds to the pressure heading into the playoffs. Caldwell knows that, so when he saw that the Jets were playing well enough to stay in the game, he went ahead and got rid of the pressure by essentially losing on purpose (though he can't say that.) The Colts already have home field for the playoffs sewn up so at least in terms of the Colts (more on this below) the game had zero playoff implication. And Caldwell is well aware that there is at least one team in the AFC playing very good football right now that is very capable of coming into Indianapolis and stealing a win. San Diego proved that a week ago when they withstood the best shot of a Cincinnati Bengals team that was trying to get the number 2 seed in the playoffs and was playing inspired football following the tragic death of receiver Chris Henry. So Caldwell decided he'd rather lose a (to his team) meaningless game against the Jets than risk losing in the playoffs to the Chargers, or in the Super Bowl.

It is certainly true that in doing so he broke one of the unwritten rules of the NFL. Teams playing in games with playoff implications late in the season are expected to put their best professional effort on the field. So for example, a late season game between two teams that are already out of the playoff picture may feature a lot of non-starters that they want to get a look at heading into the offseason and draft day. But for example, with playoff seeding in the NFC on the line, Tampa Bay put their best professional effort on the field against the Saints Sunday and the Chicago Bears put theirs on the field against the Vikings last night, and both came away with victories. The philosophy is simple-- nobody backs into a playoff in the NFL, you have to earn your way in or to where you stand in the pecking order.

And that would be true of the Colts heading into the playoffs too. If they were playing a game that didn't matter fewer people would question Caldwell's move. But this game only didn't matter to them. By unofficially handing the game to the Jets (though the Jets did show by hanging tough in the first half that they were playing hard, to be sure) Caldwell certainly threw a joker into the AFC wildcard race. The Jets join the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos as one of five 8-7 teams in the AFC fighting over the last two playoff spots heading into the final week of the season. Certainly if the Jets grab one of the wild card spots there will be some disappointed fans in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston or Denver who will be furious with Caldwell. In fact, if the Bengals, who may have the number three playoff seeding locked in by the time they play the Jets on Sunday night follow Caldwell's lead and keep their A-team off the field it's entirely possible that New York could sneak into the playoffs ahead of one of those teams purely by the luck of playing what should have been two of their toughest games of the year in the last two weeks.

But so what? He's the coach of the Colts, not of the Steelers, Ravens, Texans or Broncos. By breaking the unwritten code, he made a gutsy decision, recognizing that he is in it for his team and with his team. A great coach is supposed to be able to think outside the box, and he did it Sunday. And for that, he does deserve coach of the year honors.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A real Christmas miracle

Some of my regular blog readers have noticed the Code Amber ticker I have at the top of the blog. For some reason it has had the same last three names on it for months but the first alert up (when one is active) is always the newest so I leave it up.

Today there was a local alert. Since I'm out and on a section of rural highway at odd hours (doing a newspaper route in the mornings to make a few extra quarters before breakfast) I always read the Arizona Amber alerts and those from surrounding states. The alert profiled a five year old Phoenix girl, Natalie Flores, who was abducted earlier this afternoon.

Luckily this one had a happy ending. Police were tipped off and spotted the suspect's vehicle and rescued Natalie, who from preliminary reports appears to be unharmed. The suspect is in custody.

This is the kind of ending that reminds us of why the Amber alert system was created and why it is so important. And for Natalie's family it helped produce a real Christmas miracle today.

Republican Senators forced to defend 'back then it was standard practice not to pay for things'

Remember the 2003 medicare prescription drug benefit? The one which cost a trillion dollars and which was not paid for at all, just added to the deficit?

Today there are still 24 Republicans in the Senate who supported it, and some of their explanations for how they can be against the current health care overhaul sound strained, to say the least.

Six years ago, "it was standard practice not to pay for things," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We were concerned about it, because it certainly added to the deficit, no question." His 2003 vote has been vindicated, Hatch said, because the prescription drug benefit "has done a lot of good."

It has done a dubious amount of good (mainly to pharmaceutical companies' bottom line) but it's hard to suggest that a bill which clearly does much more good, extending coverage to the uninsured, is less worthy of Sen. Hatch's vote than the medicare prescription bill. And given that the CBO has projected that the current bill does in fact pay for itself and doesn't raise the deficit, how is it a defense to say that six years ago it was standard practice not to pay for things??? I mean, (pardon my French), WTF?!!?!?

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said those who see hypocrisy "can legitimately raise that issue." But he defended his positions in 2003 and now, saying the economy is in worse shape and Americans are more anxious.

No doubt, the economy is in worse shape. But that's largely because of the policies espoused by the same administration that brought us the prescription drug bill.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said simply: "Dredging up history is not the way to move forward."

The simple answer: those who have been proven wrong always say that.

At least some conservatives recognize how absurd this whole argument is:

"As far as I am concerned, any Republican who voted for the Medicare drug benefit has no right to criticize anything the Democrats have done in terms of adding to the national debt," said Bruce Bartlett, an official in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He made his comments in a Forbes article titled "Republican Deficit Hypocrisy."

Bartlett said the 2003 Medicare expansion was "a pure giveaway" that cost more than this year's Senate or House health bills will cost. More important, he said, "the drug benefit had no dedicated financing, no offsets and no revenue-raisers. One hundred percent of the cost simply added to the federal budget deficit."

The pending health care bills in Congress, he noted, are projected to add nothing to the deficit over 10 years.

This bill is responsible in that it does pay for itself and it benefits far more people than the prescription drug bill. So really (though they won't say it) the only reason they are opposing it is purely political. They want to inflict a defeat on the Obama agenda. End of story.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Health Care Reform is not about being popular, it's about doing the right thing

Now that it looks like health care reform is on its way to passing the Senate, the next hurdle down the road, Republicans are claiming that Democrats are ignoring the will of the people, citing polls saying that a majority don't like the Senate bill. NRC chairman Michael Steele even came out today and accused Democrats of 'throwing the finger at the American people.'

This is ridiculous. First, the polls simply ask whether people support the current Senate health care plan. Well, the truth is, I don't like it a bit in that I support a robust public option like the one that is in the house bill. So if you asked me if I support the Senate plan I'd say 'no.' But that's not to say I agree with Republicans who don't want to do anything. Further, as a number of people who were around in 1994 said this week, 'don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.' In 1994 a number of liberals opposed HillaryCare because they felt it didn't go far enough, and in the end we got nothing. So this time around liberals held their noses at some of the more odious aspects of the bill and voted for universal coverage.

And for that matter if you insist on looking at polls, the most recent poll by CNN indicates that support for reform is now gaining again.

This bill does, even if through mechanisms I may not like seek to achieve universal coverage. That has been a big problem for years, as we have a two tier health system, of the insured versus the uninsured. I don't like mandates, much prefering a single payer system up front but at least the mandates are backed by large government subsidies that will make the premiums affordable to people who are uninsured and living on a limited income.

And this is huge. Simply put, universal coverage is something that we've been striving for, for a long, long time. Maybe how we get there isn't perfect but it is undeniably going to be a very good thing. And the United States will no longer stand out as the only industrialized country in the world that fails to make health care coverage available to everyone. Other countries, such as Japan, have systems similar to that which we are now on the verge of passing, in that the insurance itself is offered through private companies even while premiums are heavily subsidized by the government.

Further, as one supporter of the bill pointed out, this is a foundation. It can be added onto in the future if problems are found wanting.

But most importantly, this represents a fundamental change for America, and a change for the better. It ranks with programs such as Social Security as representing the finest in America, the idea that we can provide for all of our citizens. And at this historic moment, if only Democrats will vote for this, then so be it.

Let me play off the 'let not the perfect be the enemy of the good' statement. Let me say also, 'let not the popular be the enemy of the right.' Often doing what is right is not popular. But it is still right, and for that the Senate Democrats (and yes, grudgingly even Joe Lieberman) should be commended for last night's vote.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

John McCain all but admits that he doesn't represent Arizona

I've been listening to the Health Care debate. John McCain was criticizing some deals struck with individual Senators to seal their votes. He zeroed in in particular on a deal Senator Bill Nelson of Florida made to get a preferred deal on medicare for residents of Florida. McCain called it the 'Florida flim-flam' and complained, "my constituents didn't get that deal.'

He's right, medicare recipients in Florida get a better deal. That's because Bill Nelson does what is expected of a Senator and made a deal. Does not Senator McCain think that if he had asked Harry Reid for a similar deal for Arizona to procure his vote, that Reid would have jumped at the offer? Of course he would have.


John McCain has forgotten the state that elected him in order to pursue his own ambition on the national stage. The problem is not what Senator Nelson (or for that matter what the other Senator Nelson, or Senator Landrieu or others) did in making deals that benefit their constituents. That's what members of Congress are supposed to do. The problem is that Senator McCain DIDN'T get anything for Arizona, just like he DOESN'T get anything for Arizona, ever.

I hope that someone saved that speech and plays it back for some of Senator McCain's medicare-eligible constituents.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Arizona GOP meltdown pushing the tide back towards Democrats

Whatever the national environment is, the Arizona GOP is in a meltdown and doing everything they can to help Democrats in the Copper State in 2010.

Exhibit one, of course, is the continual failure of the legislature and Governor to produce a budget. Republicans have controlled the Arizona legislature since 1964, and during most of that time have also run the Governor's office. For most of that time we've had a steady diet of tax cuts, lax regulations on business (and of course right-to-work and the worst workers comp rules in the nation) and well below the national average in per capita state spending. And even when the Governor has been a Democrat Arizona has either had gridlock or compromise. The decades long Republican domination of the legislature has guaranteed that liberalism has never had its day in Arizona, certainly not since Barry Goldwater swept the GOP into control of the legislature when he carried the state against LBJ in 1964. So if conservatism was the panacea, Arizona would be about the most prosperous state in the nation right now. Only it's not, because conservatism doesn't work.

Remember too that Jan Brewer has now been Governor since the day after President Obama was inaugurated and Janet Napolitano was confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security, and it's not surprising that her record of failed leadership (including leaving the state as a special session she had called collapsed into chaos) has caused her standing even in her own party to fall into the cellar. Say what you want to about Janet, but she always managed to work with the Republican legislature to get a budget done. Things got so bad between Brewer and her own party leadership in the legislature this year that it featured bizarre lowlights like the Governor going to court to get the legislature to send her the budget so she could veto it, and the leadership turning off the clocks on the last night of the regular session so they could claim that it had not yet struck midnight until well after the sun was up the next morning.

Remember in June Arizona voters gave the legislature lower marks than even Congress (notoriously unpopular) was drawing. And that was before the end of the regular session. Four special sessions later and the year has been marked by complete failure as the majority party could not get their own members together to put together a budget. Remember that in the Arizona legislature there is no filibuster so the Democrats have been irrelevant (particularly since the GOP leadership has not bothered to actually negotiate with them, with house speaker Kirk Adams just telling them to vote for what he worked out.) The biggest hangup has been GOP members of the legislature who are so ideologically rigid that even after making enormous cuts in schools and services in the face of a huge budget hole, they have refused to refer a proposed temporary sales tax to voters unless it is coupled with permanent tax cuts. In some cases they have refused to refer the sales tax even with the tax cuts (though it is amazing that they tried to cut taxes at all given the present fiscal reality-- largely caused by years of huge GOP-backed tax cuts that kept state budgets on a shoestring even in times of relative plenty.)

More recently we've seen the most popular Republican in the state, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his best buddy, county attorney Andrew Thomas (a.k.a. the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John) openly flouting the law, arresting and filing spurious charges against political opponents, including the majority of the county Board of Supervisors and a judge who had issued some rulings they didn't like and was scheduled the next day to hear the case of Adam Stoddard, one of Sheriff Joe's Henchmen who was shown on national media openly and brazenly taking documents out of a defense attorney's file during a court hearing (if you haven't seen the video by now you should-- it's truly bizarre.) In fact, the charges that Sheriff Joe had chief Supervisor Don Stapley arrested and taken to jail for were so flimsy and contrived that they couldn't even find an attorney in Arizona willing to prosecute it and had to hire someone from outside the state. And after that fell through it appears that Thomas will try and get Stapley himself. And just to protect himself, he's filed a pre-emptive ethics complaint against Attorney General Terry Goddard (the most powerful political opponent he has in the state) to ensure that Goddard will be hamstrung in any attempt to prosecute this obvious and illegal power play by Arpaio and Thomas due to a 'conflict of interest.' Even conservative columnist Robert Robb, who rarely criticizes Republican officeholders, took issue with the way the duo are engineering what is effectively a coup against county government:

What's happening in Maricopa County government isn't a circus. And it's not a joke.

Not anymore. It's now a deadly serious business.

County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio are alleging that there is a massive corrupt conspiracy involving at least four Superior Court judges, the entire Board of Supervisors and senior county management.

If Thomas and Arpaio are wrong about the existence of such a massive conspiracy, they are themselves guilty of an assault on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Maricopa County.

I'm glad I don't live in Phoenix, but if this stands it could endanger everyone in the state (especially with Thomas mulling a run for Attorney General.) Arpaio may get most of the press but Thomas is the more dangerous of the two.

And a lot of people are realizing how dangerous they are, and that the term, 'loose cannon' may not even describe a cannon which is deliberately being aimed directly at the main masts of government.

Of course in addition to that Sheriff Joe is still running saturation patrols which may be popular with the nativist crowd (who will turn out and vote anyway if predictions for next year are right since most of them are also 'tea partiers') but by arresting dozens of American citizens simply because they are Hispanic and forcing them to prove their citizenship before being released he's certainly guaranteed that even if Hispanic turnout next year lags last year's total everyplace else, that probably won't be the case in Arizona because they will have at least one really good reason to come to the polls and vote Democratic.

Now, we learn that Brett Mecum, the Executive Director of the Arizona Republican Party, who has in the past been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior towards women, is facing felony charges for misusing information in voter registration files to stalk a woman and show up at a party at her home without being invited or told otherwise where she lived. I've been a precinct committeeman for years and I know exactly what the law is regarding voter files and who can access them and for what purposes, and it is incomprehensible that the executive director of the state Republican Party didn't know what the restrictions were (I mean, even common sense dictates that his personal life isn't an authorized use of the file!) Further she has said that she didn't tell him where she lived precisely because she found Mecum to be creepy and didn't want his advances.

Remember that earlier this year Mecum was clocked driving 109 mph on an urban freeway in metro Phoenix. Yes, folks, this is the executive director of the Arizona GOP.

Maybe the national climate is shifting to favor Republicans (though it may be radically different by next November) but here in Arizona it's hard to imagine voters wanting more of this next year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

New study suggests marijuana is the drug of choice among teens

A new study out shows that the old news is now still the new news: marijuana the choice drug among American teenagers.

Back a couple of years ago there was a story out in the Flagstaff Daily Sun about how more kids smoked marijuana than smoked cigarettes. The new study seems to suggest that is part of a national trend, and also that marijuana and prescription drug abuse are the biggest drug issues among today's teens. They have cut down on smoking, drinking and methamphetamine use (not coincidentally the drugs they get the most information about while they are in school.)

I've long supported legalization of marijuana for adults, and one reason is precisely because it would make it harder for kids to obtain (the Circle K clerk checks your ID, or is supposed to, but the drug dealer doesn't care how old you are if you have the money.) The counterargument, that drug dealers might still buy pot to sell to kids, is unlikely to hold water if it is legal for adults because the relative size of the clientele would be small and temporary (only until they became legal) which is one reason why drug dealers in general don't sell booze to kids, for example (though on occasion they do sell them cigarettes, mainly so they can reach more kids and try to get them to buy into harder drugs.)

The fact of the matter is, that drugs which are legal for adults only (i.e. cigarettes) are now being used less by kids. One can argue there are a lot of reasons for this, such as the fact that a kid hardly gets out of the second grade before being told by at least a dozen different people that cigarettes are bad for them but nevertheless it is worth noting that we are having more success at keeping cigarettes out of the hands of youth than marijuana. So maybe it is time to ask whether legalization for adults might help protect our kids.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Why should we assume that because someone is a great athlete they are also a great person?

I guess that Barack and Michelle Obama, Sarah Palin, Oprah Winfrey and a whole lot of Hollywood celebrities owe a lot to Tiger Woods right now. Mainly, that he's hogging the whole front page of the tabloids (and therefore keeping them off the cover.)

After two weeks of almost continuous scandal coverage that began with a minor car crash the day after Thanksgiving and quickly ballooned into allegations that he is a serial womanizer, complete with mother-in-law in and out of the hospital, Woods today announced that he is suspending his professional golf career indefinitely to work on healing his family.

Mind you, I'm not defending Tiger or any of his alleged behavior here. But I think it's fair to ask what a role model is, anyway. We routinely put sports and entertainment figures on a pedestal and forget that they are human beings, subject to human foibles, and if someone seems too good to be human, well caveat emptor.

For example, Babe Ruth was some sort of a baseball God but he was an alcoholic and hardly someone you'd want your son to grow up to be like. I still remember Mickey Mantle (another alcoholic Yankee) giving his fans his last piece of advice, "Don't be like me." There was a time when Pete Rose, the guy who didn't have the talent but through hard work made himself one of the greatest of ballplayers was considered a hero by a lot of people. But don't go visit Rose in the Hall of Fame, because he's been banned for life for gambling on the game and then has years of whining and lying about it. A whole lot of ballplayers will not be going in there because of steroid scandals, and that's just one kind of drug.

On the other hand, you will find O.J. Simpson in the football Hall of Fame. True, he was acquitted, but I doubt if anyone considers O.J. a role model anymore. He was once though. Former Panthers receiver Rae Carruth wasn't as fortunate with the jury as Simpson was. He's in a North Carolina prison serving time for conspiracy to commit murder.

Meanwhile we seem to hear all the time about another suspension for drug abuse, in just about every sport. Olympic Champion Marion Jones even went to the extent of crusading against steroid abuse, even while (as we know now) she was virtually awash in steroids herself.

The old joke about a Hollywood marriage lasting about as long as the movie is in theaters is often true (though not always, there are some that have endured.) Drugs are as rampant in the entertainment industry as they are in sports. My kids, who grew up watching Mary Kate and Ashley movies, were disappointed to hear that Mary Kate had had some issues with drugs. But I explained to them that some people do. She's human, and they realize that she's not the best role model.

Now, I'm not just trashing athletes and entertainers because all of the evils I've just described are found in all walks of life. But that's exactly the point. We seem to think as a society that because someone can hit a golf ball accurately, run well with a football or belt out a song on stage or play a part in a movie that somehow that skill also makes them a better person.

But they are not better people. They are still the same as anyone else. True that there are still people to admire both in sports (i.e. Cal Ripken Jr.), entertainment (i.e. Patrick Stewart) and in may other areas and it's great to admire them. But here too, you can look around your neighborhood and find people you can admire just as much.

Really, the only difference is that if an athlete or an entertainer does something like this, you will read about it. And the bigger they are, the harder they will fall. But to err is still human and that's worth remembering.

When someone does a great thing in an athletic contest or turns in a great performance on stage, appreciate it for what it is. But not for what it is not.

I hope for his sake and for the sake of his family that Tiger gets things in order. Call him a cad if you like, but don't be shocked. Because the world is full of cads.

Former legislator who was removed for violating clean elections law seeking comeback

Apparently in LD-7, David Burnell Smith is running again for the legislature.

If you don't remember, Burnell Smith was the guy who knowingly violated Arizona's clean election law in 2004 just so he could take it to court. Eventually the courts backed the clean elections board and he was removed from office.

Besides making it clear just what he thinks about following a law he might not agree with (awwww....) Burnell Smith was part of the legislature when the seeds of the present fiscal mess were being sown, and as a member of the majority party (Republicans have been the majority party in the Arizona legislature since 1964) he bears part of the responsibility for the fact that our taxes are so low that even with some of the lowest per-capita state spending in the country we still don't have enough money to fund state government.

Hopefully the voters in district 7 will realize that voting a guy who was part of creating the problem back into office isn't the way to fix the problem.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

TCU-Boise bowl matchup shows the cowardice of the BCS

Certainly a lot of college football fans are looking at the major bowl matchups with more than a bit of disbelief, and it's not about the championship matchup, nor about which schools got in ahead of which other schools.

Certainly it is true that after Texas' lackluster, last second win yesterday against Nebraska one could make the case that Texas Christian is a better team and deserves to play Alabama for the national title, but that's debatable.

What is not debatable is that the BCS took a mulligan when they announced their bowl pairings Sunday night.

Their argument has been in the past that top schools from non-BCS conferences aren't competitive with the top schools from the six 'power conferences' that make up the BCS. Only over the past few years, non-BCS 'bowl busters' have made mincemeat out of that argument by going 3-1 vs. BCS competition in the major bowls. Clearly, that qualifies as 'competitive.' This wouldn't be such a big deal except that tens of millions of dollars are involved, money the six BCS conferences want to keep exclusively for themselves (or at least as close to exclusively as they can get away with) and the non-BCS conferences want a share of so they can use it to benefit schools in their conferences (and more importantly students who attend those schools.)

This year is the first year in which two non-BCS schools, Boise State (from the WAC) and TCU (from the Mountain West) both forced their way into the BCS bowl series. Not only were they undefeated but there were no one-loss teams available to sneak in ahead of one of them (as happened last year when Boise State was undefeated but couldn't get a break since Utah was also undefeated and ranked ahead of Boise State in the computer rankings.)

It would be great to see both of them play conference champions from the BCS conferences (or for that matter to play Florida, which was ranked number 1 before losing to Alabama.)

So what did the BCS do? They sent Boise State to the Fiesta Bowl (not that I blame the Fiesta for wanting the Broncos back after they played probably the most exciting and fun game in BCS history against Oklahoma three years ago in the Fiesta.) Then they also sent TCU to the Fiesta Bowl.

That's right, they play each other.

Not only is the game a rematch of last year's Poinsettia Bowl (won by TCU, 17-16) but it suggests that the BCS is afraid of being embarrassed again by one or both of these teams if they were to beat a BCS conference champion (maybe the memory of last year's domination by Utah of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl is still too fresh.) Both Boise and TCU deserve to play a top BCS school from a BCS conference, and that's what the fans would rather see, too!

It's hard to escape at least the passing thought that the movers and shakers in the BCS were afraid that if they let Boise State and TCU both play high level BCS competition, it is possible that could result in two BCS losses and certainly that outcome would ratchet up the pressure to overhaul the system.

Come on, BCS! You still claim we don't need a playoff and yet you continue to defend a system that locks non-BCS schools out of any kind of contention for a national title? Then PROVE YOUR CONFERENCES ARE BETTER!! In the first year when two non-BCS schools force their way into your party, making them play each other isn't the way to convince anyone. Well, maybe it's a way to convince some people that the BCS really is afraid of the Mountain West and the WAC. But that's about all this pairing will convince anyone of.

On a lighter note, I happen to be a fan of the Montana Grizzlies (the only college I've attended that had a football team.) Montana beat Stephen F. Austin yesterday in the first round of the Division I playoffs. Yes, read it again. The Division I PLAYOFFS. Something the BCS is deathly afraid of, because it would force them to decide the whole thing on the field, instead of their pre-stacked computer ratings (hey, the computers even start out with pre-season rankings, though most aren't published. What could possibly go into a 'preseason ranking' besides last year's statistics and/or the bias of the programmers?)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Obama is making a big mistake in Afghanistan

As I've written before (President Obama is making a big mistake in Afghanistan.)

His commitment to send 30,000 more American troops will succeed only in more Americans coming home in coffins.

I will say that in October 2001 when the Afghan was began, I was fully in support of the mission. And I was among those who argued in 2002 (and since then as well) that it was a mistake to not finish the job in Afghanistan and instead be detoured into a costly and time- and resource- consuming war in Iraq.

So why not go back and finish the job now? Well, for starters it's not the same job. Back then it was pretty clear that we were fighting the people who attacked New York City and their patrons. But by now things have become considerably more muddled and it's hard to know who the good guys are, or even if there are any good guys.

Once again we are stuck in the middle of a civil war, this time between a corrupt and despotic government and the previous government which was run by fanatics. This has strong ethnic, regional, religious and tribal overtones as well as blood feuds that go back to the beginning of time.

There are, as General McCrystal himself said, very few members of Al-Qaeda even in Afghanistan right now, so in effect we are fighting the Taliban. Yes, the Taliban are terrible masters, fundamentalists who stone women to death just for speaking to a man and who kill barbers who shave off beards. But the truth is there are many terrible masters in the world, ranging from some of our 'allies' in the arab world to the North Korean regime to Robert Mugabe to the Chinese leaders who the President was just hob-nobbing with a couple of weeks ago. The decision about whether to commit American forces should be made using one metric and one metric alone, which is what is in the best interest of the United States? And I don't see how fighting the Taliban (a local Afghan movement, which thanks to our bumbling intervention over the past several years spilled over the border into Pakistan) solves anything.

Further, there is a definite risk that we could lose. In Iraq it was relatively easy to seal most of the borders when we ran the 'surge' (though I still contend that the best we can claim in Iraq is a pyrrhic victory.) The only mountainous borders Iraq has are with Turkey in the north and parts of the border with Iran to the east. But the Kurds who control northern Iraq and the Shi'ite government of Iran which controls Iran are both hostile to the Sunni Wahabbi sect that Al-Qaeda subscribes to and so won't tolerate Sunni fighters seeking refuge (even from us) on their soil. In contrast, it is well known that the weak Pakistani government has little or no control over areas along the border and the terrain is such that it is virtually impossible to prevent the movement of fighters across the border. Unless we are willing to remain there indefinitely with enough troops to squelch the insurgents it's safe to say they will simply hang out in Pakistan until they outlast us. Remember the Soviet Union tried doing this with half a million troops, five times what we will have, and they also came up short. It's easy to say that the Soviet military was overrated (though doing so just points out the scare tactics we had to live through to justify enormous military budgets in the 1980's) but by the same token it seems that the Mujahedeen who fought them (the direct precursor to the Taliban) were underrated.

What about the argument that if we just let the Taliban take over they will invite AQ back in and we will be back to a pre-September 11 world, waiting for the next horrific terrorist act?

First, I'm not sure how having our army there prevents terrorist attacks from taking place (since AQ can just as easily plan them when they are in Pakistan, as it is believed their senior leadership is.) But beyond that, we have been successful in attacking AQ in Pakistan without a massive commitment of American troops, even in areas where the Pakistani army has little presence. We've done it through the collection of intelligence, predator drone and other kinds of missile strikes, special forces operations and covert operations. I have no problem with these kinds of things (and have advocated for them in the past--- there are after all bad people in the world and if you don't advocate for war then you have to have a workable alternative for dealing with people who simply want to kill you if you don't kill them first.)

Second, if the hangup is AQ, why not see if we can negotiate a deal with the Taliban in which we won't fight them if they don't let AQ back in? Why would they honor the deal? Because we'd pay them to, of course. What? throw money at them? Well, the war is costing us a heck of a lot to fight, and one thing we've learned in the middle east is that allies can be bought. AQ needs the cover of the Taliban (in both Afghanistan and Pakistan) to have a place to operate. Why not just deny them that? Yes, that's a radical idea but as far as I know it hasn't even been tried yet. Let's see what their price is before we massively escalate a war which may in the end be unwinnable.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

In defense of Mike Huckabee (a title I never thought I'd write.)

Occasionally I make a post in which I take a very unpopular position because I believe it is right.

Also occasionally I end up having to defend a conservative Republican because they were right about something.

And both of those are the case in this post.

A lot is being made in the media about the murder of four police officers in Washington State by Maurice Clemmons, an ex-con from Arkansas who was sentenced there to 95 years for a series of violent offenses but who subsequently had his sentence commuted by then-Governor Mike Huckabee (who ran for President in 2008 and may run again in 2012.) It's not the first time that Huckabee has been criticized for a pardon or sentence commutation; during last year's campaign he was criticized for letting a man go who later killed a woman in Missouri.

Certainly the families of the victims have a point that had Huckabee not commuted Clemmons' sentence to time served then the tragic events of this week would never have happened and four parents (and all four of the murdered officers were parents) would have tucked their children into bed last night instead of a grieving spouse having to explain to those children why daddy (or mommy, as one of the murdered officers was a woman) won't be there to tuck them in ever again.

And you can be sure that people working for Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty and any other potential 2012 Republican nominee is filing every story about this for use later (and yes, I'm sure that David Axelrod has been putting together a file on this story too, in case Huckabee gets far enough to be running against Obama in 2012.)

However, Huckabee is correct when he points out that the board which makes recommendations made this recommendation and he acted on it. Further the whole affair highlights a broader issue.

Governors have the right to make pardons and commute sentences. But (Huckabee apparently being an exception) most make very few or none. The reason why is obvious: Even if 999 out of a thousand pardons or commutations go on and live productive, meaningful lives (meaning among other things that we as taxpayers are no longer paying to keep them locked up) it is the one out of a thousand who does something like murder four police officers in cold blood that you will keep hearing about. Nowhere is the old adage "nobody remembers what you've done right but everyone remembers your mistakes" more apropos than in politics. So most Governors simply don't want to take the electoral risk, and often refuse to even go along with the recommendations of a pardons board that in may cases they hand-picked themselves. Many never issue a single pardon or sentence commutation the entire time when they are Governor. True that pardons boards are far from infallible but when the system gets to the point where the final arbiter (a state Governor) because of fear of being attacked in some future election automatically refuses to consider a pardon or commutation request when one comes up, then the system has defeated itself. Why even have a way on the books to get a commutation or pardon if the answer even before reading the application is "NO?"

The truth is, most people who receive a commutation prove the people who gave it to them right (it's not like it's easy to even get a recommendation from the appropriate board in the first place,) and don't go on and re-offend. And at that, there are many who might not even need to be there in the first place: Millions incarcerated. But do they all need to be? I have a friend who is a convicted felon. He's made some mistakes and paid for them but he's not dangerous or evil, and he just wants to live his life (despite all the hurdles that are in the way every time he applies for a job or tries to get anything else done.) That Governor Huckabee had the decency when he was Governor to recognize that there was some hope for those felons who had been cleared by the pardons board (and knowing that he was putting his political career at some risk but taking it anyway) is commendable and should be applauded.

I wrote several years ago about the tough life that people have when they leave prison anyway (the prison that follows prison.) It's almost like we want them to fail. This isn't about revenge or about wanting to save a few dollars on rehab or job placement programs. It's about what we can do to prevent the return to prison by people who could be doing something with their lives besides eating food and sleeping in guarded institutions (very expensive guarded institutions) that the rest of us pay for.

Clearly in the case of Maurice Clemmons, Mike Huckabee turned out to be wrong. But it was no mistake to (in the broader scheme) be willing to take seriously his role as arbiter of these kinds of decisions and make the best decision he could, even knowing that it could hurt his political career someday.
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