November 16th, 2006

Truly Eerie —But Good Eerie — Obama/VDB Connections Just Keep on Coming

by Philip Baruth

We’ve written previously about the near-mystical connection between VDB and Barack Obama. First, our long narrative about his visit to UVM’s Ira Allen Chapel for Peter Welch found its way to the front page of Obama’s website back in March.

barack obamaAnd now this: if you go to the Wikipedia entry for Obama, and you scroll through his biographical and legislative information, and then down through a long list of super authoritative references — and then through “Further Reading” — you come to a list of websites.

And if you make your way down past “Official Sites,” you reach “Unofficial Sites.”

And there, coming in at #4 with a bullet, baby, you’ll find VDB’s “Deep Inside the Obama Effect.”

We know, we know: it’s starting to get a little eerie, the connections and coincidences. Makes the hair on the back of your neck rise, but in a good way. It’s like that list of links between Lincoln and Kennedy — except for there’s only two so far. And they’re actually links to the one post.

But you see what we’re saying.

November 16th, 2006

OJ and the GOP Just Go Ahead and Admit It

by Philip Baruth

The Fox Network intends to fight flagging ratings with an unprecedented style of interview.

“If I Did It: Here’s How It Happened,” featuring OJ Simpson, will allow OJ to walk viewers through two blood-drenched killings full of the sort of detail he might know, if he’d committed them.

Which he totally didn’t, okay?

2006 Readers Choice AwardThe interview launches a book of the same name, under the Judith Regan imprint. Regan will also conduct the interview, which Fox will tease, and then cut up into segments during Sweeps week.

It’s tough these days to impress VDB with crass synergy between news and entertainment divisions, but this move has “BOFFO!” written all over it. Call it Reality Guilt Television. But whatever you call it, it’s a money-maker.

And best of all, it allows Fox to continue exploiting racial tensions even after the Midterm Elections are complete.

Next up, a suave Karl Rove with an even more hypothetical reality: “If the GOP Used Race Baiting Ads in Tennessee, African-American Voter Suppression in Georgia and Virginia, and Gay Whisper Campaigns Across the United States: Here’s How I Kicked Your Ass With The Real Math.”

Rock on, Fox News. You anchor VDB’s world, providing a solid object against which to push.

dems sweep!

November 15th, 2006

Zephyr Rattles Free Press Op-Ed Page

by Philip Baruth

Wanted to make sure to pass on Zephyr Teachout’s op-ed from yesterday’s Free Press. Title: “Let’s Bring Life of Politics Online.” Rating: Must read.

zephyr teachoutWhy? Because in the year 2006, you can still number the serious discussions of the intersection between politics and the internet in any of the state’s major dailies on the fingers of one hand — without using your index finger.

Or your pinky.

And Zephyr has it right: the online experience can and should reform the way politicians govern, in the same way that it has forced drastic changes in the way they campaign.

One quibble only. When Teachout talks about “a little state like Vermont” as the perfect laboratory for the sort of online revolution she imagines, we agree — to a point.

Vermont’s digital divide is relatively steep, though, compared to many other spots in the nation. We have far too much poverty, and far too little public infrastructure, in far too many parts of the state.

So the digital/political revolution has to start there: with what Matt Dunne referred to on the stump as “bringing broadband the Last Mile to every community.” Something Dunne had actually helped to accomplish on a national scale at AmeriCorps/VISTA.

Which would have worked out very well, had Dunne been elected. Not to worry though: we’re sure Lieutenant Governor Dubie is hard at work on the problem, even as we speak.

Rather than getting baked on a boat somewhere.

dubie, douglas, baked, fishing

November 14th, 2006

Higher Fuel Costs, Just in Time for Xmas

by Philip Baruth

For those who were worried about a pre-election surge in their disposable income, fret no longer:
tiny bush
“LONDON (AP) — Crude-oil futures rose Tuesday as markets remained concerned about supplies heading deeper into the Northern Hemisphere winter.”

You have to love it.

Prior to the midterms, absolutely nothing could prevent prices from tumbling: OPEC supply-tightening, oil-related terrorism in Northern Africa, saber-rattling in Iran, the “markets” shook it all off.

But post-election? They “remain concerned” about — wait for it — winter. In the Northern Hemisphere, of all places.

Ah, Winter, you saucy, unpredictable vixen! Some years you come in the late fall — and other years you also come in the late fall. One day we’ll pierce your inscrutable rhythms, mark VDB’s words.

November 14th, 2006

On the Scuffing of the Rainville Brand

by Philip Baruth

The Midterm Elections last week spelled setback and doom for many things: one-party rule, war-zone profiteering, White House unitary executivism, and the notion that George W. Bush may not know much, but he knows Right from Wrong.

el diabloGeorge Allen and Rick Santorum had their Presidential aspirations effectively halted, which — when you throw in Ralph Reed’s thrashing in the primary — is a lot of sanctimonious hypocrites to halt in one fell swoop.

And here in Vermont, Martha Rainville lost a Congressional seat to Peter Welch, and in so doing, set back a year’s worth of careful image creation and brand development.

Because in Rainville’s case the idea was never to articulate political positions, never to engage the clear will of the voters.

The idea was to roll out a product that would take the market by storm.

From the beginning the Rainville campaign seemed to have no clearly articulated policy agenda; their issue statements were almost entirely reactive in nature, driven by the day’s news or aggressive steps taken by the Welch camp.

And no doubt a year or eighteen months ago, that made good sense: the handlers had Martha Rainville, an attractive female General, rumored to be liberal on social issues, a woman linked inextricably in the public mind with the funerals of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

They had a sure-fire political brand, the kind of brand with a 30-year shelf-life.

And the mainstream media reinforced this idea by swallowing Rainville’s narrative of her own late conversion to Republicanism: that she had been approached by representatives of both parties, had given each offer a great deal of thought, and then opted for the GOP because she found their “values” more consistent with her own.

Tellingly enough — even after Rainville’s version of the story had been contested by Democrats up to and including Senator Leahy himself — reporters continued to trot out this tale of two suitors, sprinkling it with the fairy-tale language of courtship and rejection. Rainville had been “wooed” by Democrats, “courted” and “pursued,” before picking the apparently hunkier GOP.

martha, in camoWhich is to say that the media reinforced the curiously empty logic of the Rainville camp itself: Because everyone wants Martha, it’s all about everyone wanting Martha.

Rainville’s handlers and backers must have worried — above all else — about protecting that brand, keeping it from getting scuffed up. And that’s what strikes you if you go back and look at the Rainville campaign’s first few months: no policy statements, no real hard-core campaigning, certainly no debates or unfriendly venues.

Just pictures of a smiling Rainville, smiling supporters, everyone wanting Rainville.

At that point, a day where Martha said nothing and did nothing was supposed to be a good day for Martha.

Meanwhile, though, every single poll taken during the campaign — with the exception of one suspect outlier from New Hampshire — showed Welch up by anywhere from six to ten points. His clear, sharp answers to the cycle’s most vexing questions — yes to troop withdrawal, no to permanent basing, yes to firing Rumsfeld — clearly struck a chord with Vermonters.

They wanted change, structural change, and change directed specifically at kitchen-table issues and the war in Iraq. They wanted a Congress with the power to curb an inept and power-hungry administration.

But to the end, Rainville simply refused to give yes or no answers to the most straightforward questions.

On whether she was trying to have it both ways on the war, she said, now famously, “I think if we’re smart, we’re all at one point supporters, and we’re all critics, because we need to think for ourselves, and we need to cut through to the truth” — a modern masterpiece of obfuscation.

On whether she would vote to re-install Dennis Hastert as Speaker, she had three answers: yes, maybe, and the question doesn’t matter. And her endless convolutions on the question of Rumsfeld make the previous two examples seem straightforward.

At various points during the campaign, VDB sat down with people from the Rainville campaign, and to a man they were smart, savvy folks. Any one of them individually seemed capable of thinking their way out of the box of ambiguity in which Rainville’s answers placed them.

And yet together, they all apparently fell victim to an odd sort of circular group-think: Rainville is the best commodity on paper, everyone wants her, and the best way to preserve that desire is to fail to define her. The clearer she comes into focus, the less desirable she will become.

Near the end of the campaign, when the Foley scandal broke, we were certain that Rainville would take that moment to liberate herself from Hastert and Blunt and Boehner, the corrupt Washington establishment that had proven such a drag on her campaign.

In light of Foley, and the continuing questions, no one could have blamed Martha for drawing a bright line between herself and Hastert.

But she simply couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t.

And as a result of missing that last fleeting chance, the Rainville brand remained linked with some of the nastiest corruption scandals ever to darken the halls of Congress. The brand wasn’t just scuffed — it was soiled.

Rainville will be back. She ran a clean campaign, and that too was deliberate and long-term branding, part of the larger marketing plan. She may run against Peter Welch two years down the road, or she may turn up in a State Senate race when she’s least expected.

The smile will be back. The nice hair, the red pant-suit, the camouflage.

And people will remember. Because that’s what brands are all about.

[This piece ran first in The Vermont Guardian.]

November 10th, 2006

Cue Up Maureen McGovern: Bruised Democrats Finally Escape S.S. Poseidon

by Philip Baruth

I don’t know if you remember Irwin Allen’s original 1972 Poseidon Adventure, but I’ll never forget it: I was ten years old, it was my first disaster movie, and Gene Hackman was like a living god to me.

the poseidon adventureThe thing about disaster movies, as a genre, is that they’re designed to make you experience the disaster not just vicariously, but in some real, physical way. You’re supposed to feel trapped, and claustrophobic, and desperate.

In fact, when the genre hit its baroque period, studios used equipment like Sens-A-Round to transmit actual shock waves into the theaters.

But Sens-A-Round never really cut it for me. It was trying too hard to do what The Poseidon Adventure managed with just one brilliant high concept: an overturned oceanliner, full of survivors who have no idea which way is up.

So I never again witnessed that same dizzying mixture of dread and confusion and desperation. At least until the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections.

If you remember November 2000, Clinton’s eight years in office had left us with a pretty cushy ship. Al Gore and Joe Lieberman were barnstorming Florida, imploring voters to “keep the prosperity going.”

They had Joe-mentum, or so the papers said.

Then Florida was moved into Gore’s column, and as quickly moved out again.

And the world went belly up for Democrats. Democrats blamed Gore, blamed themselves. Bush began to govern far more conservatively and aggressively than most anyone had predicted, and Democrats — especially following 9/11 — were utterly rudderless.

By the run-up to the 2004 election, the party had split into two loud factions: those who wanted to attack Bush for the failures of the Iraq War, and those who wanted to hug him close on the War, and fight the election on domestic issues.

For me, it was like watching the Poseidon Adventure all over again, with the survivors trapped inside the ship unable to agree which way is up. In the film, half do what seems only logical — they climb up, but to their doom. And the other half — Gene Hackman’s people — attempt the counter-intuitive: they descend, but toward salvation.

The thing is, though, neither group knows whether they’ve chosen correctly, until it’s too late to go back.

Which brings us, of course, to Howard Dean’s Fifty-State Strategy. Democrats should funnel money to all fifty states, Dean argued in 2005, regardless of whether a state seemed destined to become a key battleground in the coming cycle. Critics said the strategy would leave the party defenseless where the money was needed most.

But last night it became clear that Dean was right.

Investing in party structure nationally, even in ruby-red states, left Democrats well-prepared to capitalize on a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Pick-ups in the West, the Mid-West and the South fueled Democrats’ take-over of the House, and kept alive the prospect of Senate control as well.

Now, there’s a moment at the bitter end of the Poseidon Adventure, when Gene Hackman has bullied and dragged his people to the engine room, and they’re huddled there, where the ship’s metal skin is thinnest, without any idea whether they’ll live or die.

gene hackman runs it down

And that’s when they hear rescuers banging on the hull.

Within minutes, a torch is cutting an escape hatch, and then suddenly they’re out in the open air, helicopters hovering all around them.

And last Tuesday night, at the Democrats’ Burlington Victory Party, that’s all I could think about: the end of the Poseidon Adventure [Cue up Maureen McGovern, “There’s Got To Be A Morning After”].

A clean sea breeze, and Maureen McGovern singing about the morning after.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. The audio file is ]

November 9th, 2006

The Silence of the Lawn Signs: Final Justice

by Philip Baruth

Don Shall writes in with another sign of the times: the welter of candidate signs on Rt. 30 in Cornwall gives way to a single sharper, clearer message. As well it should.

thanks, Howard

Of course, inside the Beltway, they see it differently. Dana Milbank, in a piece purportedly about the Republican blame-game, mocks Dean pretty savagely, and manages to convey the idea that Democrats are “determined to show their disunity.”

Milbank on Dean: “Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, the party’s bantam rooster, barely waited until sunrise to start crowing.”

Get ready for more of this bogus line, people: in spite of historic gains, Dean’s extreme style actually hurts his Party more than helps. To argue otherwise would be an implicit repudiation of their long-ago coverage of The Scream, and for the mainstream media that represents the unthinkable.

November 9th, 2006

Media Begins Long Attempt to Digest Bernie

by Philip Baruth

Back in January, when David Zuckerman was still mulling a third-party challenge for Bernie’s House seat, VDB made a long, multi-faceted argument that David should reconsider.

It boiled down to the idea that Zuckerman is a good man, and a promising legislator, but this race was simply too important to complicate unnecessarily. We wrote:

bernie beats the graph“But not this race, not now, not if it means throwing Bernie Sanders’s seat — of all the seats in all the aisles in all of the halls of Congress — to this particularly corrupt gang of Republicans. It would be like watching Gandalf relinquish his place on the Council of Elrond, only to have Saruman somehow slither into it.

And there VDB cannot go.”

Granted, ex-Senator Santorum has long since discredited all Lord of the Rings analogies.

So let’s rework Richard Nixon instead: we could have replaced Bernie with a Republican, but it would have been Wrong.

Not to worry, though. Instead Bernie passes his seat to his chosen successor, and one Independent replaces another in the US Senate.

But as always in Vermont, what seems only good and fitting to us can prove difficult to digest in the country at large.

VDB-reader Russell has apparently spotted the first in a no-doubt long series of failed attempts by the mainstream media to account for the Sanders phenomenon. “Now I’m proud to note that CNN’s campaign graphic is unable to cope with Bernie,” Russell writes. “Notice that it shows 0 independents, but still includes a yellow bar for our hero.”

A zero? Yellow? We beg to differ, Ted Turner.

November 8th, 2006

Rummy Out in Disgrace — As Predicted

by Philip Baruth

Three weeks back, we made the argument that Bush would fire Donald Rumsfeld if Bush’s administration were repudiated in the midterms. From “Rough Notes on the Most Poll-Driven President in History,” which appeared in the Vermont Guardian on October 27:

rummySo when Bush told George Stephanopoulos that his strategy never had been “stay the course,” it was more than just a desire to fine-tune vocabulary. It was a deeply desperate and personal attempt to cast off something now hated by Americans, to allow Bush to be loved again by Americans, because Bush is nowhere near strong enough psychically to leave the Presidency without seeing his numbers soar again.

Prediction: Expect Donald Rumsfeld to go the way of “stay the course” in the weeks following the election.

Rumsfeld will frame it as a deserved retirement, and Rumsfeld’s people will spin it as a victory — Rumsfeld bested the election-season calls for his head, they’ll say, and the old warrior left at a moment of his own choosing.

But Rumsfeld’s termination will really be about love and digits. Because Bush needs, baby, and a jones is a jones is a jones.

And here we are, November the 8th, and what do you know — Rummy’s getting the bum’s rush.

Point: VDB.

November 8th, 2006

DEMOCRATS OPEN NOT ONE BUT APPARENTLY TWO CANS OF WHOOP-ASS; The House Now in Hand, Senate Pending; Santorum Cooks Up Real Nice; And VDB Says A Fond Farewell to Part-Time Junkies

by Philip Baruth

It was a night marked by the death of myth.

Well, and drinking. And walking around in the rain after midnight, from pizza joint to late-night greasy spoon, looking for a dozen decent chicken wings.

But it was the falling away of myth after myth that truly struck VDB.


For months leading up to the vote, we’d brooded over the possibilities: that Bush would do more than simply taunt Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, that he would in fact provoke a conflict; that the Department of Homeland Security would suddenly pick up ominous “chatter,” in that loveable way they have of ramping up insecurity prior to Voting Day; that Rove’s smug certainty about “the math” would turn out to be rooted in overt corruption in the eerie realm of the paperless ballot.

But no: Yesterday, dawn came without fanfare. It was a day like any other. And people surged out to vote.

And they voted to repudiate George W. Bush, the War in Iraq, GOP Congressional abuses, one-party rule.

A Partial List of Now-Dead Myths:

Myth #1) That George W. Bush has a mandate, or political capital, or anything amounting to public ratification of his policies, or of his personal style of governance. His demeanor, facial expressions, style of dress, and choice in pets have all been firmly discredited.

Myth #2) That Karl Rove is a strategist. He is not. He is a fairly bright, somewhat portly guy who hooked on to a really, really, really rich and well-connected candidate early on, and rode a single, gut-level approach to a series of historically narrow victories.

The idea of building a permanent GOP majority is now as dead as a Bush Square in the center of Baghdad — the tribute to The Decider we were told to expect from a grateful Iraqi people.

The reason for that is simple: Rove, and Bush, have never varied their approach one iota since taking office. Contrast that approach to Clinton’s, who managed to maintain 60% approval right through the impeachment debacle, because he was willing and able to adjust politically, strategically, and stylistically.

Myth #3) That Republicans are tougher, badder, better prepared, more willing to throw down over what they believe. In this election, Democrats and those across the Center-Left worked relentlessly, contested every cheap shot and empty talking point.

And by any measure, Democrats fought both a fairer and a far more effective fight. Bush won ugly in 2000, and 2004. Last night we won, and won beautiful.

Myth #4) That Democrats can’t frame issues, because the GOP has cornered the market on disciplined, strategic use of media. Exit polls show that the Democrats’ two central frames for this midterm cycle — the now long-standing “culture of corruption” frame, and the desperate need to cease staying the course in Iraq — became voters’ top concerns.

rainville, as GOP soldierMyth #5) Here in Vermont, as in the country generally, the myth remained that a uniform and a crisp salute can generate enough support to drive a cautious or under-prepared candidate into office.

Peter Welch and his crack team dismantled that myth almost completely last night.

Rainville’s campaign — based almost entirely on her military background, and her perception of herself as a new and valuable political brand — remained stuck in first gear because both the candidate and her handlers were so confident and so cautious for so long.

But it was a year for clear-eyed answers to vexing questions. And not even the butch photos of Rainville in camouflage could erase the growing perception that she was, in the end, a good soldier — rather than a leader.

And for every one of those myths that died, a truth was born. For instance, that the new Nectar’s has far and away the best Buffalo Wings VDB has ever eaten, at least in the state of Vermont. They were deep-fried, crackled a bit under your teeth, just perfectly cooked.

Like Rick Santorum.

A last, parting note:

Email traffic from this site has grown exponentially over the last two months; many of you have written in with predictions, advice, tips; many of you took a moment to say hello last night.

And many of you will be gone tomorrow.

Nothing wrong with that: they don’t call it a political cycle for nothing. But rest assured, we appreciated your presence every day, your attention and good will.

And for those hard-core among you, VDB will be going precisely nowhere.

We will be here every day. Every freaking day.

And when the part-time junkies eventually tune in again, a year from now — to find out the state of play in New Hampshire and Iowa — you’ll find VDB just as you left it.

Unflinching. Edgy. Fifteen pounds overweight. Banging on Bush until the cows come home.

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