February 19th, 2007

What Is This Thing Called Obama?

by Philip Baruth

When it comes to politics, I’m ordinarily a very strategically minded person, unlikely to get swept up in things, usually weighing the odds and always keeping an eye on the prize: putting people in office who share my beliefs, rather than people I happen to find charming or likeable.

obama, 2/10/07But this early 2008 Presidential primary season has been more cyclone than cycle so far, and I’ve gotten hurried along with it.

When a Draft Barack Obama movement started to percolate in Burlington, back around mid-December, I thought it was interesting.

Just that: interesting.

No more, no less.

Of course, I’d seen Obama when he came to the University of Vermont to campaign for Peter Welch in 2006, and he was very impressive, no doubt. Extremely impressive.

Still, there was no way I was going to buy a ticket before all the horses had been put through their paces. And then something weird happened: I went to the first Obama meet-up in Burlington.

More than anything else, I went to write about the group, and what struck me immediately was how many showed up: thirty people, give or take. And that was to talk about a candidate who wasn’t even in the race, on a very cold night in December a year before the first primary.

One couple even brought their four kids, all in their PJs, and the kids crashed around the place and produced the excellent sort of mayhem that kids produce near or just past their bedtimes. Since the café specialized in European foods, we all ate spanikopita and baklava, and drank incredibly strong coffee.

And the thirty people turned out to be thirty really wonderful people: thoughtful, committed, passionate. Every other person mentioned Obama’s attempt to move the discourse away from the divisive, and back toward the democratic.

I left that meet-up feeling as though I’d found something I’d been missing for a long while, the sort of common purpose and support that people say they find in their churches, and their twelve-step groups.

It didn’t bear logical examination; nothing that anyone had said made Obama seem a more logical winner in 2008.

But I came away attributing the warmth of the experience partially to Obama himself, because like Dean in 2004, he seemed to be the catalyst for something otherwise unobtainable.

This past Saturday, when Obama announced his candidacy from a platform set up in sight of the Old Capitol Building in Illinois, I watched it with the same group, now called Vermonters for Obama. There were more than forty members now, and Anita, who runs the café, had thrown the speech up onto a white bed sheet tacked to the back wall.

obama II, 2/10/07

As luck would have it, it was my birthday, and so my mother was in town, and my mother-in-law, and we were all there, with the kids, sitting on love seats thrown together into rows. Obama talked about the promise of the new generation, and I felt deep in the midst of something, maybe inextricably in the midst of something, something powerful.

Maybe it had less to do with Obama than it did with plain human contact; maybe Obama will flame out before his campaign ever truly gets up and running; maybe I’ll ultimately wind up voting for someone else.

The only thing certain at this point is that 2008 will not be a year ruled by logic. It will be made of slipperier stuff: virtual candidates, anonymous attacks, and, if we’re lucky, the thin, distant gleam of hope.

[This piece aired originally on Vermont Public Radio. The MP3 is ]

February 16th, 2007

Danziger Puts It In Kinetic Terms

by Philip Baruth


February 16th, 2007

Bill Richardson Sends Up Signal Flare: I Have Access To Enough Cash to Smother The State of Rhode Island

by Philip Baruth

The beauty part about traveling outside the state is that it moves you away from the national dailies, and into the weeds of local journalism. Case in point: the Albuquerque Journal.

Pick up the AJ and all of a sudden the world comes rapidly into focus, New Mexico style.

And what does VDB see? Bill Richardson, one-man money vaccum.

You have to understand, New Mexico is just now beginning their version of the Howard Dean campaign: well-liked Governor testing his wings across the nation, local New Mexico reporters testing their own national wings, moving in a tentative flock behind him.

But the flock gets nasty this morning, especially reporter Jeff Jones. The banner is “Richardson Hits Campaign Cash Jackpot,” and the emphasis is on the word “Jackpot,” of course: the article describes a Richardson fundraiser at the area’s largest casino that pulled in a cool $2 million dollars Thursday night.

Jones points out that while Governor Richardson’s policy on fundraisers is tactful silence, the campaign broke that policy to trumpet Thursday’s take. Think of it as a signal flare, not to the other candidates in the race but to the media: I got the bankroll, babe.

Bill Clinton had Tyson Chicken and Walmart. Richardson’s got the gaming industry behind him. Way behind him. And if you’ve ever been in a casino, you know that they move the cash with big snow shovels when it piles up and becomes a nuisance.

Of course, those attending the event were served only hors d’oeuvres. And it was a cash bar, if you can believe that.

But who’s counting.

February 15th, 2007

VDB On Last Plane Out of Burlington; Narrowly Avoids Gargantuan Storm; Absolutely Phones in WKVT Hour

by Philip Baruth

No joke.

Made the only flight to lift off from Burlington International yesterday morning, at 7 in the morning.

They de-iced the plane four times, and the pilot kept coming on to mumble things like, “Damn! Snowy morning, right . . . well, we’re going to do our best to put some mobility back in the wings. Ice has a way of locking everything up, and it’s like driving a cement mixer all of the sudden . . . don’t be alarmed by those high-powered jets of green goo. It’s better that than a spiral down over Newark . . . ”

And finally the thing lumbered into the sky. Meaning that VDB’s hour on WKVT will need to be phoned in from an extraordinary distance. But the show must go on.

Steve, being, well, Steve

As regular readers know, hosts Steve West and Gorty Baldwin are notoriously camera shy. But information wants to be free. A few pictures to whet your appetites. Join us at 11, if you can.

Gorty, rocking out

Oh, and by the way, Al Franken’s officially in. Sell VDB’s shoes, we’re going to Heaven.

February 13th, 2007

YouTube of the Day: Welch Bites Back

by Philip Baruth

If the Senate fumbled, the House has recovered, without a doubt. The debate on the Surge, as well as the greater lunacy it purports to moderate, is alive and well and underway.

Peter WelchAnd it all began in the House Rules Committee.

Ring a bell? That’s the prime slot Freshman Peter Welch landed a few weeks back.

And that’s also some major-league pressure. But as it turns out, Congressman Welch was more than ready for his close-up. He acquitted himself admirably last night.

VDB’s favorite line? “We start today. No more troops. No more phony intelligence. No more blank checks. We must end this war.”

For on-the-spot coverage, we take you to our tireless and intrepid reporter,

Late Update, Thursday, 10:48 am, Mountain Time:

Apparently Welch’s speech, limited to five minutes as it was, made ripples. Even in China. Check it out.

February 13th, 2007

The Framework Behind the Framework: Shumlin Apparently Crazy Like Fox

by Philip Baruth

On February 1, 2007, the Burlington Free Press ran a banner headline: “Agreement Reached on How to Attack School Spending and Property Tax Reform.” Big letters, way above the fold.

2006 Readers Choice AwardLetters only slightly smaller than those the Free Press might use to announce that Vermont had launched a brutal, pre-emptive ground war against the state of Massachusetts.

Certainly, anyone merely glancing at the front page might have been excused for thinking that Douglas and the Democrats had actually agreed on how to attack school spending and property tax reform. In fact, they hadn’t. Far from it. Very far.

What the two sides had agreed on, actually, was a very general list of issues to be studied and possibly addressed during the legislative session — the so-called “framework.”

And even that common list of issues, both sides agreed, was not really so common after all.

From the Free Press: “Democratic leaders said the agreement on what to study didn’t mean they endorsed every idea on the list — some of which the governor proposed previously and the Legislature rejected.”

Douglas seemed equally horrified by some of the Democratic contributions to the framework. He made it clear that he viewed the framework itself as a work in progress, to which just about anything might be added by just about anyone at just about anytime.

As the Governor casually put it, “This is a menu of options. Other ideas may come up.”

So why all the fanfare? Why the mission-accomplished feel to the Free Press coverage?

Behind the Framework: Here’s Where It Gets Weird

Well, there was real agreement in the so-called “framework,” but it had much less to do with any specific means of reducing property taxes and much more to do with the two parties’ posture on taxes in general.

The real bombshell in the piece came from the lips of the Senate President Pro Tem: “‘There is no more taxing capacity to reduce Vermont property taxes,’ Shumlin said. ‘We don’t believe Vermonters have the additional earning capacity to keep up with school spending.’”

shumlin works the crowd

In that sense, the two sides had agreed on something momentous: No new taxes, for you lip-readers in the audience.

Now, some might argue that by pledging to fix property taxes this session, and by also agreeing to take new revenue off the table, the Democratic leadership gave away a great deal of maneuvering room and simply accepted the Governor’s basic bargaining position.

Those people would be right. And, of course, they would also be wrong.

First, Shumlin and Symington are both very able legislators. They know full well that the current trend-line on education costs, driven mostly by surging healthcare premiums, is unsustainable. The system itself must be addressed, and by dramatically taking new taxes off the table Shumlin committed his party to doing so.

Douglas now stands ready to pummel the Democrats for any backsliding. And the media stand primed to give Shumlin the George H. W. Bush treatment if that tax pledge is broken, or even substantially bent.

(Note the treatment Shumlin got two days after the announcement of the framework, when Democrats passed a bill out of committee to create a one year temporary surcharge on commercial property transfers. Douglas responded by sinking his small, even teeth into Shumlin’s neck: “We didn’t even get out of January and they couldn’t help themselves.”)

In this way, with his eyes wide open, Shumlin has made Douglas the de facto enforcer of Democratic fiscal discipline. Does that reduce political running room in the short term? No question.

But it should also lead to significant structural improvements in the long.

Second, there’s another substantial political benefit to the Democrats’ No New Taxes approach. It isn’t any secret that Jim Douglas has only one arrow in his quiver — taxes and affordability. His re-election campaigns are utterly predictable on that point.

Any Democrat who would be Governor in 2008 knows above all else that he (Shumlin) or she (Symington) must blunt Douglas’s lone arrow.

Because then he’s just a relatively nice guy with a relatively limp bow string.

Managing the Short-Term: Reduce The Deficit Reduction Act

But how to deal with the short term complexities of the No New Taxes pledge, you ask? What about attacking unfunded mandates?

Among other things, the Federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2006 requires states to check documentation for anyone enrolled in or applying for Medicaid coverage. The idea, of course, is to stem the supposed tide of illegals growing covertly healthy on the dime of the American taxpayer.

In Vermont, the provision requires scrutiny of some 150,000 prospective Medicaid recipients; Jim Douglas was forced to include $1.3 million in this year’s budget to cover the administrative costs of this oversight. And the costs will be ongoing.

Number of illegal recipients nabbed without the proper documents thus far? Three (3).


Now, VDB’s math has never been at the Stephen Hawking level, but according to our calculations that’s an administrative cost of about $434,000 per potentially unqualified recipient.

To put it in context, consider this: the package of aid to dairy farmers over which Shumlin and the Governor just finished wrestling comes in at just under $4 million. Eliminating this single provision of the 2006 DRA — especially given its almost eerie disconnect from the realities of the Vermont Medicaid system — would magically return at least a third of the money needed for dairy farmers to the state’s coffers.

Of course, changing the Deficit Reduction Act would require some serious juice at the Congressional level. Which sort of makes you wish Vermonters had loaded up the state’s delegation with Democrats and like-minded Independents when they had the chance.

Oh right, they did. VDB’s bad.

[This piece ran first in the Vermont Guardian.]

February 12th, 2007

Rumor of the Week: Condi Out, ‘Ponte In

by Philip Baruth

This week’s most intriguing rumor comes from a longtime reader with big-time connections, the sort that pan out 65% of the time — a pretty stunning figure for rumors.

condi, rampantHere it is stripped of any identifying marks:

Lot of people couldn’t figure out why John Negroponte left the DNI for what looked like a step down to Deputy Sec. of State. The buzz around the agency is that he did it with the understanding that Rice is stepping down very soon, maybe within the year.

Then Negroponte becomes Secretary of State and, as my source put it, “writes his ticket.”

Makes sense. With Rumsfeld gone, Rice is now drawing all the enemy fire, and she’s not happy about it. And this administration likes Negroponte.

A few things ring true here. Negroponte’s “step down” was the most puzzling move of the year; it seemed to suggest 1) internal chaos at his strange new agency, 2) a brewing scandal there, or 3) some hidden career agenda (because if not, why not simply retire?)

And one thing is undeniable about Condi: she is ambitious, and she has been left holding several bags in her time with the Administration. Her recent poll numbers have been dismal. She might well want to leave before the War grinds to a historically embarrassing halt.

Just a rumor, though. Don’t bet the farm.

February 9th, 2007

Where Were You When Barack Obama Announced, Grampa? A Story of History, Hope, and The Sauce of Eternal Regret

by Philip Baruth

The year is 2032, and Thanksgiving’s at your house this year: family’s flown in from all over the country, turkey’s browning, guys in tight stretch pants are killing each other over a small leather object on the TV.

barack obamaThen someone switches the coverage to CNN, and they’re breaking a story that gives everyone the warm fuzzies: Barack Obama has won a second Pulitzer, this time for his long-awaited memoir, a two-volume set covering both Presidential terms.

And everyone begins to tell their Obama stories: someone shook the guy’s hand once in Jersey, your niece the lawyer tells a story about working in the Obama Justice Department when they busted Google and Microsoft for full-scale collusion in creating a global, predatory monopoly.

Your grand-daughter comes up and takes your hand. The room is suddenly quiet, and her little tinkerbell voice suddenly loud: “Where were you when Obama announced, Grampa?”

And you feel, frankly, half the man you might have been, if things had been different all those years ago.

Because there was a moment, in 2007, Saturday, February 10, 10:45 am, at the Euro Cafe on Main Street in Burlington, Vermont, when you had the chance to jump on that train just as it was looking to head out of the station.

It was the third meeting of Vermonters for Obama, and this one was scheduled to coincide with Obama’s now legendary speech, broadcast from the Old Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois. You knew people who were going; you felt a little tug yourself.

But then, at the last minute, you went to Denny’s instead, and porked down a Grand Slam and a chocolate milk shake.

And it has made all the difference. And your grand-daughter knows it, as the silence stretches out. So does everyone else. But no one says anything, of course, because they’re family. No one wants to spoil the turkey with the bitter sauce of eternal regret.

an obama christmas

February 9th, 2007

Breaking: Leahy Holds The Line on the Java

by Philip Baruth

So much of the world has changed since November. Dennis Hastert and Rick Santorum lumber only through our nightmares now. Paul Bremer is getting public raspberries, instead of shiny medals.

the LeahyAnd Pat Leahy, whom VDB once dubbed “the tireless cage fighter of the Democratic Party,” has been unchained. The guy has become a one-man Congressional oversight machine.

His bark is louder and stronger than it’s ever been, powerful enough to produce visible motion in the hair of Alberto Gonzales when they face off in the committee room.

But Leahy didn’t stop there.

No way, baby. He pushed it to the limit: Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is now the official java of the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate. Red-staters, Blue-staters, everyone now shares the same intense Vermont buzz.

Can’t get any more hard-core than that, you say?

Dream on: at the Committee’s Executive Business Meeting Thursday, Leahy introduced Vermont Pure Natural Spring Water as the bottled water of choice.

And of course once you control the water supply, the debate’s over, my friends. The debate is over.

Why? Because this way here, when the other side goes to mix up their Kool-Aid — well, you see VDB’s point.

February 8th, 2007

VDBea Culpa: That’s SIX Choppers Down

by Philip Baruth

Two items on the agenda this morning, and a business-like management of the agenda is always Job #1 here at VDB, closely followed of course by Customer Satisfaction.

Item the First: as we do every week, VDB will be mixing it up with Steve West and Gorty Baldwin, Brattleboro’s “tree-hugging dynamic duo,” in WKVT’s 11:00 to noon spot this morning. (That’s Steve, lurking in the stairwell, on the left.)

As always, it will be a heart-stopping, taboo-snapping political gab-fest, and you can stream it from any location on the planet.

As Howard Dean liked to put it, you have the power.

Item the Second: we reported yesterday that US forces in Iraq had lost their fifth helicopter in three weeks, in spite of much-vaunted new operational tactics.

It turns out we were wrong.

Actually, according to today’s Times, yesterday’s chopper was the sixth to go down in three weeks. For some crazy reason, a security contractor’s helicopter crash on January 31 went unreported until this morning.

(And for the obsessive number crunchers in the audience, this latest report brings the number of choppers brought down in the course of the War to just shy of 60.)

So in the interest of clarity, that’s six helicopters downed as the Surge ramps up, not five.

We deeply regret the error, and we apologize for giving the erroneous impression that the new military offensive was shaping up slightly less disastrously than it now, in fact, appears to be.

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