Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Reading

Bait and Switch — Why politicians switch parties and the people who love/hate them.

Last summer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, The New York Times conducted a just-for-kicks survey of delegates over which of the previous two vice-presidential nominees they were angrier at, John Edwards or Joseph I. Lieberman. Both had become party pariahs but for different reasons: Mr. Edwards for having an affair while his wife was treated for cancer, Mr. Lieberman for hooking up with the enemy party (and, at the time, campaigning for John McCain).

Mr. Lieberman dominated the unpopularity contest. While Mr. Edwards was hardly beloved, his sins were dubbed milder. As one delegate from Massachusetts, Phil Johnston, put it: “Edwards was only unfaithful to his wife. Lieberman was unfaithful to his entire party.”

We are living in a time when bipartisanship and independence are supposedly virtues. Yet allegiance to party never seems more sacred than when people decide to leave theirs. This came to mind again last week after Senator Arlen Specter (rhymes with “defector”) turned from the R’s to the D’s. It set off one of those Washington-stopping stirs that seems to drown out everything else for approximately 11 hours until the next spectacle (President Obama’s news conference), stunner (David Souter’s quitting), or shoe story (Michelle Obama’s $540 sneakers).

Like professional wrestling, politics loves a good turncoat tale. We seem to get a satisfying one every few years here: Mr. Lieberman straying from the D’s in 2006 (but never fully leaving, still calling himself an “Independent Democrat”), Senator Jim Jeffords bolting the R’s to become an Independent in 2001.

What’s always striking about these instances — and the Specter shocker has been no different — is the passions they elicit. “It’s like Johnny Damon going from the Red Sox to the Yankees, which will take years to forgive,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican (and Red Sox fan) of Maine.

“Party switching has all the emotional edges and baggage of divorce,” said Mark McKinnon, a longtime Democratic media maestro who fell hard for George W. Bush in 1997 and remained one of his closest aides and confidants into his White House years. “Rejection, betrayal, humiliation, jealousy and anger for the aggrieved party. Jubilation, titillation, pride and power for the successful seducer. Everything but the broken glass.”

That pretty much summed up the vibe on Capital Hill after Mr. Specter announced his switch on Tuesday. Conservative purists said good riddance (“Dead weight,” Rush Limbaugh called him); Republican leaders like Senator John Cornyn of Texas derided him for acting out of “political self-preservation.” (Imagine a politician acting out of self-preservation!)

Indeed, more often than not, parties are vehicles of self-interest — which was one reason the country’s framers were suspicious of them to begin with, said Ted Widmer, a historian at Brown University. “It’s odd that parties are sacrosanct to so many people now, given how little the founders liked them or how fluid they have been in American history,” Mr. Widmer said. “George Washington detested the ‘baneful effects’ of parties, and spent considerable time warning against a mentality that placed party over nation, even then.”

Frank Rich — This way lies madness.

Arlen Specter’s defection is the least of the Republicans’ problems, a lagging indicator. Though many characterize his departure as a “wake-up call” for the party, it’s only the most recent of countless wake-up calls the party has slept through since 2006. That was the year that Specter’s Pennsylvania Republican colleague in the Senate, Rick Santorum, lost his seat by a margin of more than 17 percentage points. Despite that rout and many more like it of similar right-wing candidates throughout America, the party’s ideological litmus test is more rigid than ever. The G.O.P. chairman, Michael Steele, and enforcers of Republican political correctness like William Kristol and the blogger Michele Malkin jeered Specter and cheered his departure. A laughing Limbaugh seconded e-mail from listeners commanding Specter to “take McCain with you — and his daughter.”

You can’t blame the president if he is laughing, too. As The Economist recently certified, the G.O.P. is now officially in the throes of “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” The same conservative gang that remained mum when George W. Bush praised Putin’s “soul” and held hands with the Saudi ruler Abdullah are now condemning Obama for shaking hands with Hugo Chávez, “bowing” to Abdullah, relaxing Cuban policy and talking to hostile governments. Polls show overwhelming majorities favoring Obama’s positions. But his critics have locked themselves in the padded cell of an alternative reality. Not long before The Wall Street Journal informed its readers that 81 percent of Americans liked Obama, Karl Rove wrote in its pages that “no president in the past 40 years has done more to polarize America so much, so quickly.”

From derangement it’s a small step to madness. Last week, the president of a prime G.O.P. auxiliary, the Concerned Women for America, speculated that the president’s declaration of “a state of emergency about the flu was a political thing” to push through Kathleen Sebelius’s nomination as secretary of health and human services. At those tax-protesting “tea parties” on April 15, signs and speakers portrayed Obama as a “fascist,” a “socialist,” a terrorist and Hitler. Republican governors have proposed rejecting stimulus money for their states (only to fold after constituents rebelled) or, in the notorious instance of Rick Perry of Texas, toyed with secession from the union.

But this is funny only up to a point. It was in 1937 — the year after the Democratic landslide left the Republican national ticket with a total of eight electoral votes — that a hugely empowered F.D.R. made two of the biggest mistakes of his presidency. He tried to pack the Supreme Court with partisan allies and, overconfidently judging the economy recovered, retreated from the New Deal by instituting spending cuts that prompted a fresh economic tailspin.

After Gitmo — The anxiety of locals who live near the brig at Charleston, S.C., one possible place Guantánamo detainees may be sent, is typical of opposition nationwide.

Once a storage depot for Cold War missiles, this military base is quiet these days, with miles of oak and pine, freshwater marshes, fishing piers, and a sleepy golf club.

But the serenity of the 16,000-acre base could change soon if, as nearby residents suspect, the Obama administration chooses suburban Charleston as the next lockup for some of the 240 or so detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Debate has simmered here for months, mostly out of the national spotlight, over whether the base should be the next lockup for the men accused in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or swept up early in the war on terror.

”I’d like to see them out in the middle of the desert somewhere,” said Mayor Michael Heitzler of Goose Creek, which, along with the town of Hanahan, abuts this sprawling, secluded base.

”But you don’t win wars by pushing responsibility down the road. If it’s our time to serve, it’s our time to serve.”

On his third day in office, President Barack Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge by ordering that the prison camps at Guantánamo be emptied within a year. Attorney General Eric Holder is leading a task force to determine which detainees to transfer to the United States and prosecute for alleged crimes and which to send oversees.

Holder said the detainee dilemma was ”indisputably the most daunting challenge I face” as the country’s top law enforcer.

So far, only France has agreed to accept a single prisoner.

The Long and Winding Road — A 1971 Mustang with 619,284.5 miles (and the records to prove it) keeps on going.

IF you visit Richard Fuchs, an inventor with six patents — “all income generators,” he says — you are likely to see a few curious things.

Mr. Fuchs might walk you to the back patio and ask you to push a metal switch, which automatically opens an umbrellalike line for drying clothes.

In the kitchen, you would encounter a sink that operates without faucet handles. Nudge the left cabinet door below the sink with your knee to get hot water. Push the right cabinet for cold.

There are other inventions, devices and models lying around his modest suburban house, but you are most likely to end up in the garage where he parks his 1971 Ford Mustang, which has gone more than 600,000 miles and counting.

And counting is what Mr. Fuchs does.

Actually more than count — he has two 2-inch-thick binders in which he has logged every mile, every trip, every hour and every fill-up relating to the car. Indeed, counting does not do Mr. Fuchs’s endeavor justice. While the Mustang packs a 351 cubic-inch Cleveland V-8 with a four-barrel carburetor, Mr. Fuchs has spent most of his life in pursuit of low fuel consumption.

“First drive, 13 miles, from the dealership,” reads the first line of the log, which included details of his first fill-up. “I averaged 16.3 miles per gallon and spent $6.81 on gas.”

Wearing a loose red-and-green flannel shirt and dark brown corduroy pants, Mr. Fuchs sat at a table in his clean, sparse kitchen, hunched over the log as if he were analyzing satellite data. He is 81 years old and “speeding up,” he says. The log charts are neatly delineated in columns for date, mileage, fuel economy and notes. He brought out a magnifying glass.

“Here, I changed the rear axle ratio from 3.25 to 2.75,” he said. “I guessed I would get a 12 percent improvement. That’s what I got.”

Doonesbury — Peers.