Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday Reading

Cage Match: Paul Starr vs. Frank Rich and the Democrats’ prospects for the fall elections.

Mr. Starr notes that the Democrats still have a shot at blowing the election.

Until recently, like most liberals, I was convinced that 2008 was going to be a Democratic year. While Republicans have been listless and divided, Democrats have been passionate and enthusiastic about their candidates for president. An unpopular war, a sinking economy, a general sense of conservative exhaustion: All pointed toward a Democratic triumph in November. A lot of conservatives had come to grudgingly agree and were preparing to spend four years in political rehab.

But after the first rounds of caucuses and primaries, the prospects don’t look so rosy for the Democrats or so bleak for the Republicans. The presidential race now looks like a tossup — perhaps even with a Republican edge. If Democrats don’t stay smart, tough-minded and realistic, we could blow it yet again.


It was never going to be easy to elect a woman or an African American president of the United States. And it is a cruel historical twist that the republic has its first serious female candidate for president at the same time that it has its first serious black candidate, forcing the two to fight each other for the Democratic nomination. Neither Obama nor Clinton is running on their identity, but because the substantive policy differences between them are so small, identity has become central to their showdown. Even with the best of intentions, this kind of competition can easily take an ugly turn as incidental remarks or minor episodes get turned into symbols of seeming disrespect or become viewed as forms of strategic insinuation.

I am not concerned that the losing candidate will refuse to endorse the winner. The dangers for the eventual nominee are that the early enthusiasm among the Democratic base could wane, dragging down turnout in the fall, and that other voters, particularly working-class white men, could become alienated from the party altogether.

Winning back these so-called Reagan Democrats has long been the party’s principal political challenge. The last thing the Democrats need is to have this year’s primaries devolve into a factional, fractious debate over racism and sexism that reminds some people why they deserted the Democrats in the first place.


All of which leaves 2008 looking like an uncertain gamble, rather than the sure thing that so many Democrats were anticipating last year. According to every indicator of trends in public opinion, fundraising and the economy, this should be a Democratic moment. But a referendum on racism and sexism in the spring does not seem like a prelude to victory in the fall. Keeping the election focused on the manifest failures of conservative Republican leadership is the only way the Democrats can grasp the opportunity at hand.

Mr. Rich says that as long as the GOP insists on doing a sequel to Weekend at Bernie’s starring Ronald Reagan, the Democratic chances haven’t been this good since 1964.

Contemplating the Clinton-Obama racial war, some Republicans were so excited you’d have thought Ronald Reagan had risen from the dead to slap around a welfare deadbeat.

Never mind that the G.O.P. is running on empty, with no ideas beyond the incessant repetition of Reagan’s name. A battle over race-and-gender identity politics among the Democrats, with its acrid scent from the 1960s, might be just the spark for a Republican comeback. (As long as the G.O.P.’s own identity politics, over religion, don’t flare up.)

Alas, these hopes faded on Tuesday night. First, the debating Democrats declared a truce, however fragile, in their racial brawl. Then Republicans in Michigan reconstituted their party’s election-year chaos by temporarily revivifying yet another candidate, Mitt Romney, who had been left for dead.

The playing of the race card by Hillary Clinton’s surrogates to diminish Barack Obama was sinister. But the Clintons are hardly bigots, and the Democratic candidates all have a history of fighting strenuously for inclusiveness. By contrast, the Romney victory in Michigan is another reminder of how Republicans aren’t even playing in the same multiracial American sandbox.

The conservatives who hyperventilated about the Democrats’ explosion of identity politics seemed to forget that Mr. Romney also dragged Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into this campaign — claiming that he “saw” his father, a civil-rights minded governor of Michigan, march with King in the 1960s. The point of Mitt Romney’s invocation of the race card was to inoculate himself against legitimate charges of racial insensitivity; he had never spoken out about his own church’s discrimination against blacks, which didn’t end until 1978. Instead, the tactic ended up backfiring. Late last month The Boston Phoenix exposed this touching anecdote as a fraud. George Romney and King never marched together.

I don’t mean to pick on Mitt Romney — though heaven knows it’s a thriving national pastime — but his retro persona exemplifies much of the present Republican dilemma. It’s not just that the old Reagan coalition of social, economic and foreign-policy conservatives has fractured. A more indelible problem for the Republicans in 2008 is that their candidates are utterly segregated from reality as it is lived by the overwhelming majority of their fellow Americans. The G.O.P. presidential field’s lack of demographic diversity by age, gender, ethnicity or even wardrobe, let alone race, is simply the leading indicator of how out of touch its brand has become.


At the last Republican debate, the candidates invoked Reagan nearly three dozen times and Mr. Bush just once. “I take my inspiration from Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush,” said Mr. Romney on his Michigan victory night, in a typical example of the candidates’ circumlocutions about the incumbent president.

This, too, is laughably out of touch with reality as practiced in most American living rooms. Imagine if Mr. McCain’s Straight Talk Express stopped taking detours around the one figure who unites 60-plus percent of the populace in ire. Imagine if he started talking straight about how he’d clean up the White House mess. That might at least break the ice with the vast majority of voters who look at the G.O.P. presidential field and don’t see Ronald Reagan so much as also-rans for “The Bucket List.”

Jeff Fecke at Shakesville handicaps what’s left of the Democratic and Republicans fields going into Super Amazing Tuesday on February 5. Shorter version: things don’t look so hot anymore for John Edwards, Mike Huckabee, or Rudy Giuliani, and while Fred Thompson still claims to be running, the betting is that by the end of the month he will join Duncan Hunter (who?) in pulling the plug.

In For a Penny: Public art celebrates thirty years in Toledo.

A penny.

It seems almost ridiculous to imagine that a city could be graced with art, one penny at a time.

But Toledo’s 30-year-old One Percent for Art program, which sets aside one cent for each buck the city spends on construction, is an exemplary lesson in economies of scale.

Since 1977, when Toledo became the first Ohio city to embrace a national trend of earmarking public dollars for city art, about $3.5 million in local tax dollars and
$1.2 million in private and other funding have enhanced the urban landscape with 47 sculptures and murals.

“It’s a great thing that City Council did,” says Susan Reams, who introduced the ordinance establishing the program in 1977, and has worked tirelessly for it ever since. “The arts are all about quality of life.”

On March 4, Toledoans will be asked to renew the 0.75 percent temporary income tax, which, if passed, will increase the budget for public art for the first time in four years.


Art in high-profile, urban locations softens hard edges and refreshes the soul. It can create a gathering place, a conversation piece. The notion prevailed in ancient Greece and Rome and even earlier, in the time of idol-carving and cave-painting.

Philadelphia led the country with its percent for art program in 1959 and other cities followed suit, particularly after the National Endowment for the Arts, created in 1965, promoted its Art in Public Places program.

Mrs. Reams, appointed in 1974 to the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, was asked by the commission’s director to explore the possibility of a One Percent for Art program here. She ran with it, finding a model in Seattle.

Still successful, Seattle has nearly 450 permanent and 3,000 portable pieces and revenue of just over $3 million last year for its program. The biggest hurdle it has faced was a lawsuit filed in 2002 that unsuccessfully challenged whether ratepayer funds from the city-owned electric utility could be used for the art-funding program.

“The lawsuit questioned the use of utility dollars for public art. If it was upheld, it could have been viewed as a significant precedent,” explained Lori Patrick, spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs in Seattle.

Nationwide, about 350 such programs spend $150 million a year, according to Americans for the Arts. In addition to culling one percent from a city or county’s construction budget, some municipalities derive money from dedicated bond revenues or hotel taxes. It’s an upward trend, particularly in growth areas such as Florida, notes Liesel Fenner of the Americans for the Arts.

“I think it’s the rise in basic real estate development and the fact that art is seen as an enhancement in furthering the sense of identity of a place, or a new town, or a new civic square. It improves civic design exponentially.”

Art Deco Clips – The Miami Herald put together a video with sights and sounds and people from the Art Deco Weekend on Miami Beach.

Doonesbury: Tales of the heart.

Opus: Gross encounters.