Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Well, it's official! Obama throws down on the NEA...but he starts to look more "centrist" than "tough."

To the surprise of some like Mike Antonucci at EIA Obama actually threw a couple of jabs at the NEA during his acceptance speech during their annual convention. Obama cushioned himself via satellite in Montana from the delegates and managed a couple of references to performance pay and charter schools. It was not quite a sparing match, but he did manage to stir up a few boos from the crowd.

Unlike some others, I was expecting Obama to play a little hardball with the NEA. Even though I disagree with Obama's positions because they are hyper-focused on large urban school failure and have the potential to further dismantle local control from the thousands of districts that are not named Baltimore, Chicago, etc..., I did feel that taking on the NEA would be a good political strategy in efforts to look more like a "tough liberal" (see below). Unfortunately, in the midst of taking some jabs at the NEA, Obama has managed to flip-flop on FISA and get bogged down in death penalty for child molester debates. Instead of looking tough, he looks more like a candidate who will do anything to win. He his starting to remind more and more of Jeff Merkley and less and less of the "change" candidate he purports to be.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Obama needs to be a "Tough Liberal"....So who gets thrown under the bus?

America likes Democrats when they appear to be so called "tough liberals" and favors Republicans when they fit the mold of "compassionate conservatives." The backroom masterminds of our nation's two party constipation machine know this quite well and it is why it is only a matter of time before we start seeing representations of Barack Obama: Tough Liberal. His handlers have allowed Obama to drop some hints as to where this new Dirty Harry version of Barack may show up. These hints seem centered on two areas: foreign policy and organized labor.

Now, make no mistakes "Tough Obama" will need to be tough enough for the moderates in Youngstown to take notice, but not so tough as to send his core base scurrying for cover or worse into revolt. I suspect we will continue to hear Obama temper his talk about troop withdrawal in Iraq with his Tom Petty "I Won't Back Down" to Iran mantra, but in the end, I think it will be organized labor who will take the brunt of Big Bad Obama. He has already shown his willingness to push a wee bit harder on the UAW and Detroit auto manufacturers than previous NAFTAcrats in his shoes, but picking on Big Auto these days is as easy as getting a 5 year old to eat ice cream. In the end, though, I think it will be the NEA and AFT who take the most hits when "Tough Obama" gets his axe moving this summer.

As a I noted, Tough Liberals need to hedge their bets. The auto industry and national education policy are great forums for this because they are home to some solid divides within the Democratic Party. These divides are Blue Collar Rust Belt Labor vs. College Educated Environmentalists on the auto front and Union Education vs. Democratic Reform Policy Wonks and Civil Rights Groups on the education side. The Environment is one of the hotter topics in this election and Obama needs to do some real fence mending with the Rust Belters who sided so fervently with Clinton in the primary. Obama may personally want to come down harder on the UAW and Big Auto but the "hot" nature of the topic may force his handlers to hold him in check. On the other hand, education is nowhere on the political radar. If you need to show the moderates you know how to punch, but you don't want to really beat up your friends, it is a good idea politically to look for a friend who is not in the spotlight and can truly take a punch. This should be news to the NEA and the AFT to put their collective mouthpieces in.

Obama is part of the elite college educated contingent of the NAFTAcrats. He has fans in anti-union groups like Democrats for Education Reform and many vocal D.C Based education reform policy wonks. Both of these groups are completely hyper focused on national urban education reform and view large scale implementation of charter schools and performance pay has the best mechanism to see this reform completed (while completely disregarding local control and the millions of Americans who choose not to live in New York, Washington D.C., Baltimore, etc.., but that is another story) Couple these factors with the many civil rights groups who continue to applaud NCLB and Obama's preference for urban community organization and you almost have a perfect storm of haymakers ready to unload on the NEA and the AFT.

Early July might be when we get our first taste of all of this when NEA holds its annual Representative Assembly. This year it will be in Washington, D.C. and they will most certainly be endorsing Obama for President. Whether the NEA chooses to put on its headgear now or later, we will have to wait and see.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Coming Out of My Federal Campaign Cave

I can't say that I ever truly gave up on politics at the federal level, but I can say that for a long time I have a viewed the federal government and its trading places two party structure as ineffectual and not worth my time. Something happened this year that suddenly changed that and believe me it had nothing to do with Barack Obama. It had all to do with Steve Novick.

Steve Novick is a guy who is 4 foot 9 and speaks his mind. He entered into the Oregon Democratic Senate race late last year and most of the politicos overlooked him literally and figuratively. Backing their anointed candidate Jeff Merkley, the Democratic Party establishment (full of money and forgotten values) did not realize what it was up against. Novick proved as formidable as they come, a rogue liberal not afraid to call out the shortcomings of the NAFTAcrats who have for too long been at the helm of the party. Merkley and his plain jane and joe campaign caught a few of Novick's left hooks right after the opening bell and hung on the ropes for most of the spring. It was great to see. For the first time in a long time I was hooked by a Senate candidate. The fact that this candidate had a real hook instead of a left hand made this thing even that much more surreal.

When NAFTAcratic leaders like Charles Schumer caught wind that they might lose to a guy who even had the audacity to call Obama to the carpet, they did what they do best-- spend money. In droves, the establishment came to Merkely's aid. Many of my union brothers and sisters sat back and allowed their executive boards to "play it safe" with Merkley. Merkley racked up most of the AFL-CIO top down union endorsements. SEIU even managed to miss the boat. The money from organized labor and the DNC establishment was just enough in the end as Merkley pulled out a squeaker on election night.

In some ways, I can't help but feel like the abused dog who came back to the drunk's porch for one more round of boot kicking. On the other hand, I can't help feeling good because for a short time I started to have hope again--not trying to bowl a strike Obama hope, but good old speak the truth, walk the walk, you can rely on me hope--from a modern liberal nonetheless. It some ways it is still hard to believe. Thanks Steve.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The First Step in Becoming a States Powers' Liberal: Temper Your Concern With the Presidential Race

Picture this: A 5o something year old self-proclaimed liberal. He spent elementary school watching JFK's rise and tragic demise. He spent his teen years admiring counterculture and the possibilities of the Great Society. And then, when he finally got to vote for President, his singular voice was not enough to unseat Richard Nixon. He got a brief shot at redemption with Jimmy Carter and a long time to simmer his frustrations with Reagan and Bush. Bill Clinton seemed like a blessing and once again things made sense, but then Bush 2 and we know the rest.

One would think that the 50 something year old liberal would have learned a thing or two from the roller coaster of political emotions that he has spent the better part of four decades riding on, but alas what's the main daydream racing through this liberal's mind?...."ahhh, if we could only get a new President, everything would be better..." This unflinching faith in the power of the Executive Branch to lead us to the Promised Land is one of the most significant factors limiting the liberal movement. In simpler terms, the rotating name game in the Executive Branch reminds me of a saying my uncle used to throw around---"He's just putting Brut on his B.O. when he really needs a shower."

No matter what type of perfume you throw on the thing, the odor of a rotting, bloated federal government will eventually break through just in time, conveniently, for the next round of deodorant, uh, elections. The real hope for democracy lies not in the White House or in the halls of Congress, but on your State House steps and in your City Council chambers. The next stage in our democratic experiment needs to be a renewed focus on the possibilities of states' powers. The time is right to embrace states' powers, but it will require the liberal to have faith in local organizing and planning. It will not require a full rejection of the federal government, but will necessitate an acceptance that the federal government is not almighty and a willingness to advocate for a more balanced role as far as the states are concerned. It is a leap of faith--one that will be difficult for the liberal who has difficulty acknowledging that others may have an opinion that is as valid as his own to take, but one that has become necessary. Realizing the influence of States' Powers Liberalism will be a gradual process, but taking the steps will be easier if you get off the roller coaster for a while and walk on level ground.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Oregon's Chalkboard Project Alters Union Imagery While Promoting Pro-Business Agenda

At the top left of this blog page, I have borrowed the classic clenched fist image that was created by the Industrial Workers of the World circa 1917. The Wobblies' intention with this image was clear and powerful--through solidarity workers would achieve a political might far beyond what the individual would ever be capable of accomplishing. The clenched fist image helped to define the IWW cause and over the years it became symbolic of collective activism especially when it involved the causes of the far left. The clenched fist image became pivotal in the civil rights movement especially for the movement's radical contingencies like the Black Panthers. In recent years, the clenched fist image has manifested itself yet again in the symbolism of the radical environmental group Earth First.

Bearing this history in mind, I was a little shocked this morning to find a large advertisement being run in the Oregonian newspaper for the education reform group "The Chalkboard Project." In this advertisement, the classic image is morphed into a fist that clenches a pencil and it is accompanied by the words "Power to the Teacher." It is clear that the Chalkboard Project's advertisement is making a call to action, but the actions and political motives of the Chalkboard Project make their invocation of radical iconography a bit troublesome. In short, either the group's communication team needs a history lesson or they are plainly deceptive and need to be monitored closely.

As for my background, I am not blindly opposed to the mission of the Chalkboard Project. One of the group's primary goals is to shed light on the education funding crisis that exists in the state of Oregon. I view this goal as not only laudable but necessary. It is in approach to this problem where we differ. The Chalkboard Project, similar to most Democratic politicians in Oregon, refuses to earnestly take on the daunting task of reforming the state's tax system (no sales tax+ remarkably low property taxes when compared to the New Jerseys of the world= one of the lowest per pupil spending rates in the nation. ) Instead, the Chalkboard Project has sought to fill in some of the gaps in funding through private philanthropy and business partnerships. Once again, for most educators in Oregon, any money is good money, but the Chalkboard Project has not been open enough about the amount of baggage their business connections bring to the table.

The Chalkboard Project has the support of numerous educators with good intentions. Unfortunately, these supporters fail to recognize the extent to which their decision making is influenced by what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman coined in the 1990's as the "Golden Straitjacket." In short, the notion of the "Golden Straitjacket" holds that politicians, decision-makers, etc... have come to accept economic incentives as fundamental, competition as spiritual, and the free market as a cure-all to the extent that they are now caught in the "golden straitjacket" and incapable of making informed decisions based on their own supposed core values. The Chalkboard Project and its business allies find themselves especially stifled by the golden straitjacket as they propose one of their key reforms--the use of pay for performance and merit pay as a means to revolutionize public education.

Pay for performance and merit pay brings a whole new light to the Oregonian advertisement. These market incentive reforms have their basis in the idea that an individual teacher will find his or her worth in the public school on an individual basis. I will get paid what I am worth and the rest of the teachers will have to compete to get what they are worth. Many Americans, fully limited by the golden straitjacket, find appeal in this perspective, but it must be noted that there is no perspective that could be farther from the intent of the IWW clenched fist image. The accompanying statement in the advertisement--"Power to the Teacher"---further emphasizes this. This is a singular teacher. This is not the group working together to shoulder the burden and improve public schools. This is one individual finding his worth on his own terms. The Chalkboard Project's fist image may as well be the hand of J.P Morgan or Rupert Murdoch because it is certainly not from a Wobblie.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Debate on Progressive Discourse Blog Style

Over at Blue Oregon, one the Northwest's most substantial progressive blogs, there is a debate or "bar fight" going on to assess the merits of the blog's six year run. Here's my take on Blue Oregon and progressive discourse in general:

For the most part, Blue Oregon does a good job as a forum for progressive discourse. The real problem as I see it (and it is certainly exemplified in the election season) is what "progressive discourse" has become. The root of the frustration that some folks have with Blue Oregon's propensity to back candidates such as Jeff Merkley for U.S. Senate is the same core shortcoming that many progressives reveal in their inability to accept that another's position is as reasoned and as intelligent as their own.

The majority of the voters who will help carry a Democrat back to the White House or replace Gordon Smith do not work in front of a computer all day. They do not have the time nor the inclination to peruse progressive blogs. And if they did, it might only prove to enhance their disdain for the party that they are "supposed" to be aligned with. Sometimes, I feel like the best thing that Blue Oregon does is reveal the deep extent to which progressives like to hear themselves speak and not listen. On a regular basis, Blue Oregon is able to reveal the progressive's increasing disconnectedness with the working people who are his or her only ally in achieving the political ends that he or she seeks. For that, I applaud Blue Oregon because we won't fix the problem until we realize how substantial it is.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Here's a Way to Tinker with NCLB: Eliminate the Department of Education

Margaret Spellings got some air time yesterday with the announcement that the Bush administration would use some of its executive power to tinker with the No Child Left Behind Law specifically addressing some graduation issues. George Miller, Democrat from California, who had already tried to leave teachers' unions behind with suggested revisions of the law that included items such as merit pay chimed in with his two cents that tinkering was not enough for a law that needed a significant overhaul. In the end, those most impacted by NCLB, teachers and students, are the ones left throwing their hands in the air once again in the face of the ineptitude of the federal government and its ongoing to desire to infringe on the decision making of local schools.

In my past fantasies where I actually thought that proclaimed conservatives would actually promote conservative ideals, I wondered whether a Bush White House would actually take steps to limit the scope of the Department of Education. This was clearly pure fantasy as Bush, demonstrating maybe one of the worst political attributes in our elected leadership, became a conservative mouthpiece with a big government agenda. See free market zealots granting enormous government subsidies to J.P. Morgan as it "bought out" Bear Sterns for the icing on the cake. Nonetheless, Bush never limited the scope of the Department of Education and in fact, allowed a department never conceived in the Constitution to become even more of an undermining force to states' powers across the nation.

I believe firmly that discourse around the elimination of the Department of Education is one that is necessary for the political left. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act served a moral necessity. There were too many states entrenched in racist ideals incapable of making the necessary decisions to meet the needs of the disenfranchised for the federal government to just sit back idly and watch the madness play out. That heavy-handedness served a purpose, but as is often the case, the federal government did not know when to say when. The end result now is that we have far too many states dependent on federal Title 1 dollars. States, especially in the West, have allowed public ballot measures to disintegrate their capacity to adequately fund public education forcing inextricable Title 1 welfare dependence.

Teachers and students want to know when the testing mania will end and when politicians will stand up for balanced curriculum and professional decision making. The answer to that question may have to be when we get the feds off our back and actually get a state-based tax structure that is adequate and self-sufficient. Now that's a difficult battle!