Imagine, if you will, that you're Frank Beamer, legendary coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies and Hillsville, VA native. Say that you just had a disappointing season (like, say, last season). You're Frank Beamer. You're not going to let it happen again. To make matters worse, you know you'll have an empty roster due to graduations, transfers, underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft, etc. Through some horrible stroke of misfortune, you now see that you're going to only have 20 players (unbelievable, but stay with me here)! You can't even take the field with a full offense or defense (never mind any players that may want to play both ways, it's not feasible today). You MUST go out and recruit in advance of this potentially disastrous situation.
So what would you call a college football program that doesn't even bother to recruit enough players to not only fill the roster, but even start the game?
You would call them a team not playing to win. In other words, losers.
So what do you call a political party that needs 51 seats (in the Virginia House of Delegates) to pass anything in its agenda that only runs 43 candidates?
As of today, we have 43 Democratic House of Delegates candidates either currently in office and not saying they will retire or challenging current Republicans. I applaud the 12 brave Democrats who have stepped up to challenge sitting Republicans, some of whom are challenging entrenched incumbents with multiple terms of experience in very red districts. At least 5 are running in districts President Obama won in 2012.
With the fights over high-profile, controversial bills related to reproductive rights laws in the General Assembly last year, a number of other seismic bills slipped through the media coverage cracks. On the education front, a bill allowing for tax credits to be granted to individuals giving scholarship donations to private schools passed through relatively easily and is expected to pass state constitutional muster. What this means, ultimately, is that tax dollars normally received into the general fund for public education will now be diverted to private schools that have more discriminatory leeway. It is expected that this controversial policy will survive legal challenges.
Much has been made in the coverage of education issues nationally of the so-called “Education Reform” movement. It's taken many forms, from the carrot-stick approach of the Obama/Arne Duncan-favored “Race to the Top,” to a straight-up, market-based voucher program, such as the one passed in the state of Louisiana last year where the per pupil funding follows the pupil to any public or private school. All of these plans claim to have the student at the center of any reforms. Neither really gives much say to the teachers, or parents who want their students to have the best teachers rather than the smartest sounding business plan. In both cases, the less power the teacher has, the better. While vouchers place teachers at the whim of market forces while also allowing for taxpayer-funded vouchers to be spent on religious education (as the Virginia bill is expected to do and the Louisiana bill did to wacky extremes), “Race to the Top” has quietly imposed upon school systems a number of controversial classroom “innovations,” including more high-stakes testing (despite the President's own admonishment of “teaching to the test”), the expansion of privately-run charter schools (who are in turn given low oversight of their activities, and have proven to be no better, if not worse than public schools), online schools (many of which, while attractive to technophiles and pitched as good options for students who have an attention deficit, are ineffective at best), and merit pay programs that demand job instability for teachers in exchange for school funding.
Two events last week reassured the Occupy moment of its effectiveness. The first, and most covered, was the President's much-ballyhooed speech in Osawatomie, Kansas on December 6th; he echoed a number of themes present in the “New Nationalism” speech given in the same town by President Theodore Roosevelt as he prepared to run for a 3rd term under the Progressive Party banner. Both speeches spoke of a desire to end the pay-to-play, business interest-dictated behavior in Washington. While this represented a new level of thinking for the evolving politics of TR at the time, it hearkened back to speeches from the 2008 campaign trail for Obama. It wasn't anything terribly new, in this respect.
What has gotten the most play in the media has been the direct nature in which the President addressed issues of income inequality in the speech. He made the case that income inequality hurts us all. When the old columns that held up Fordism (the ability for workers to buy the products or services they produce) and the few elements of the welfare state that we have here collapse, we end up with a nation that serves the interests of the top 1% as opposed to the other 99% of us.
Now, hold on a second. Does this mean Obama gets the central tenant of Occupy Wall Street and its kindred movements? To the extent that OWS has defined its central tenants (disclosure: I have been a fierce critic of the unwillingness, deliberately or not, to formulate a political program for OWS), it does seem to be articulating a clear belief that income inequality hurts us all. And Obama’s speech doesn't come at a time when the Occupy movement is enjoying runaway success in the eyes of the mainstream media. What media sympathy the movement might have had at the start has dissipated, not due to a dislike for the message, but rather due to confusion by the masses of Americans who haven't “Occupied” as to what the motives of the movement are. All they've seen recently are the pictures of the park evictions, the pepper spray, and, if you live in the Washington, DC area, destruction of one small house.
This brings us to the second important, symbolic event of the last week. For the uninitiated: Occupy DC has been set up in a park supervised by the National Parks Service since early October. The site has been covered with tents for most of its life as a flashpoint in DC and American politics. The DC City Council has supported the occupation, and the NPS has largely left the alone. However, at some point last week, it was decided that Occupy DC would have to leave its park, much like Occupy Wall Street and many other Occupies before it. But by the time this decision was made, Occupy DC had entered a new phase: a house (or fort, or shelter, depending on who you ask) had been constructed on the site by Occupiers. Negotiations with building inspectors failed; a General Assembly Meeting to discuss the immediate future of the Occupation produced only allowance for “autonomous actions” by individuals who wished to make a statement in the face of the coming raid. Subsequently, police descended, and the structure would come down. Prior to this- there was a stand-off. Some Occupiers remained on the roof of the structure, refusing to leave, with one guy apparently remaining on top for 8 hours. Police finally had to pull them off using a cherry picker. What did all of this accomplish? What did it mean?
Some have theorized that this was meant to draw attention to the foreclosure and eviction crises happening daily in our neighborhoods. Others, including Dave Weigel of Slate.com (an even handed guy, despite being a former Reason magazine correspondent) have labeled it, simply, performance art. It's hard not to see much of this event as such. There was the house built in a National Park. One guy peed off the side of the house (some witnesses say it was because he legitimately had to go). Another shook his ass at the police for some time. Another was apparently well-known as a guy who once circumsized himself for a public art installation. I'm sure plenty of people disagree with the characterization of this event as performance art, but to the casual observer, it was at best “autonomous action” artwork, and at worst a collective freakout by a bunch of hippies. Do I wish people saw it as some sort of statement on housing issues? Sure, if that's what Occupy wanted to portray. But it's not important at this point.
If Occupy is to continue to be a cultural phenomenon with a political conscious, it's going to have to move out of the parks and play to its momentum. The conversation has been completely flipped. There was no expensive ad campaign. No barnstorming politicians. There was a Canadian magazine, but how many people showed up in these parks because of them and not because of the 99% message? It's that message that has become for our political discourse what debt and deficits were this past summer during the Debt Ceiling Crisis. The president has now given a major speech centered on that theme, one that will probably go into the archives next to his one from the 2004 DNC. Occupy didn't have a political program or a set of demands, but it had a message. That message is at the core of our political discourse (as long as we can peel people away from “shocking” entertainment-news like Michelle Bachman's latest thoughts on the gays or how Muppets are communist or whatever else bored Fox producers shove on us), and if the park phase, where the 99% message started, is over, then it's time to declare victory.
Even if Occupy heroically survives the cold winter, the story won't be the message, it will be the spectacle. The spectacle brings attention, much like the Occupy DC performance art, but the message will still be the same regardless. Continuing on as performance art risks turning Occupy into a new Yippie movement. I loved the Yippies for their sheer guts and sense of humor, but they were the comic wing of a larger New Left, and the New Left was collectively despised (or at ignored) by Middle America, blue collar joes, white collar stiffs, suburban housewives, rednecks, and the fracturing working and middle class of the early 1970s. In other words, most of the 99% didn't stand them. Before Occupy loses this moment in the sun, where even a president who very well could have taken December 6th to raise money from Goldman Sachs, rather than to channel the early 20th century Progressive, it's time to declare victory on the major central tenant of the 99% movement and move on to the next phase.
It's safe to say that if we end up with a sharp reduction in any sort of Federal spending due to the automatic triggers built into the deficit reduction plan, the DC area will certainly feel a more acute pain than many other regions. I almost hesitate to mention this, because, let's not forget, this isn't Detroit here. This is the wealthiest metro area in America. Loudoun, Fairfax, Montgomery, and Arlington Counties have average household incomes far above the average for most counties. But let's not pretend these people are government workers. Take a drive around the beltway, especially on the Virginia side. The defense contracting buildings are impressive and dominate the skyline. You'd be led to think that these folks at these contracting firms are doing pretty well, and you'd be right.
A recent report submitted to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee by its Democratic members (including local representatives Elijah Cummings of Maryland, Eleanore Holmes Norton of DC, and Gerry Connolly of Virginia), laid bare the taxpayer rip offs that are many of these contracting firms. According to the study, "currently, government contractors can charge taxpayers $693,951 a year for each of their five highest paid executives, while there is no cap for other contractor employees."
The 12th House of Delegates district just got interesting for almost 130,000 new reasons.
Like many watching Virginia politics, I've come to rely on the amazing folks at VPAP.org for almost any information related to elections in the Old Dominion. For most of the summer, I was pleased with the fundraising numbers I was seeing for many of the Democratic candidates for toss-up seats, both occupied and vacant. I was especially happy that Blacksburg Town Councilman Don Langrehr was out-raising his opponent, a 25 year old Radford graduate named Joseph Yost who's bio was lacking on public service substance (well, he's chair of the Young Republicans in that area) when compared to the incomparable former New River Valley's "Elected Official of the Year", as selected by readers of The Roanoke Times. Most of Don's dollars were rolling in from small donors and local supporters. It seemed as if this seat, which is currently held by the retiring Jim Shuler (D-Blacksburg), had a good chance of staying blue despite redistricting, which took the seat from a 42% McDonnell seat (to be fair, a lot of that can be explained by Creigh Deeds having formerly held this seat a redistricting cycle ago and currently representing part of the current district in the Senate), to 51% McDonnell. It is a toss-up seat, but Don was looking strong.