August 2004
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Month August 2004

A boat owner’s best days…

markboat1…are the day you buy, and the day you sell.

Well, today’s the latter for me. The Free Spirit, which I’ve owned with a friend for five years, is moving onto its next owners. I’m sad, of course, because it’s hard not to fall in love with a beautiful wooden boat, but I’m also happy, because it’s hard to stay in love with an old wooden boat — once you’ve taken a trip to Doc Freeman’s to buy special chrome screws and copper bottom paint at “marine” prices.

But seriously, it’s a sad day. We had some good times on the boat, cruising around Puget Sound (the picture here was taken in the Ballard Locks on Memorial Day 2002, waiting to head out to sea), and of course taking guests to buzz Gates’ house on Lake Washington. And so, farewell Free Spirit

sea-lions and birds,
sun through fog
flaps up and lolling,
looks you dead in the eye.
sun haze;
a long tanker riding light and high.

sharp wave choppy line —
interface tide flows —
seagulls sit on the meeting
we slide by white-stained cliffs.

the real work.
washing and sighing,
sliding by.

— Gary Snyder, “The Real Work”

The impermanence of the digital…

My older, non-Typepad blogs are gone. Doh! In both cases, it was because I removed the hosted directory from my email/web provider (Intermedia.NET) while trying to accomplish something else. Being a hosted service, I had backups for neither.

The first blog was written Joel Spolsky’s CityDesk, which is a decent tool but I wanted something more suited to blogging, instead of simple web publishing. Spolsky’s views on feature set simply didn’t meet my own.

The second blog was written in Userland Radio, and hosted on my email/web provider at Intermedia.NET. In theory, I can reconstruct this one by licensing a new copy of Radio (mine expired and I moved to Typepad), and restoring a backup from tape or CD.

But I’m not going to bother doing either. There were a few posts I care about, including parts 1 and 2 of “The Future of Liberalism,” and a lot of technology-oriented stuff from 2002 and 2003. But nothing earth-shattering.

It does make you think about how impermanent all of this digital writing is, however, unless you’re pretty careful to create real physical backups.

A constitutional vision for Democrats, part 1

Do Democrats have a constitutional vision? Mark Tushnet took up the question last week while guest blogging on Balkinization, following David Strauss’ article on LegalAffairs. Strauss argues that Democrats do not have a constitutional vision, in the same way that Republicans (since the “Reagan Revolution”) have. Tushnet disagrees, labeling the Democrat’s vision “something like ‘equal dignity and respect.'”

While this is, I believe, a fair characterization of the Democratic agenda, I’m less convinced that Tushnet is correct to call this a “constitutional vision.” To me, the latter term refers to a more-or-less coherent set of interpretations of the powers and structures conferred by the Constitution. Separate from such a vision is the agenda which a given group is pushing, under the rubric of their notions of constitutionality. For example, the Bork-Scalia-Thomas vision of limited judicial supremacy, with controversial issues referred to legislative decision, is a key element of the Republican “constitutional vision.” Separate from this is the Republican agenda for which issues they desire legislative control versus judicial decision: social issues including marriage and abortion, for example. The separation of constitutional vision and agenda is important, and goes a long way to describing why Democrats can rejoice when Scalia deploys formalist, textualist arguments against unlimited executive power in Hamdi v. Padilla but decry his long-term campaign to strike down Roe v. Wade using the same interpretive methods. We’re responding to the agenda, not to his views on constitutional power.

In a similar way, Democrats have an agenda, which is captured by Tushnet’s label “equal dignity and respect.” One might expand this to include “improved social justice through limited redistributive efforts” and capture much of Democratic domestic policy since LBJ. But Democrats have spent little time developing a consistent approach to using and interpreting constitutional structures in support of this agenda. Tushnet is correct when he labels the Democratic approach “opportunist.” Democrats have been perfectly willing to use judicial decision, Federal executive and legislative power, and state/local government to advance their agenda.

As Tushnet acknowledges, there’s nothing wrong with opportunism — politicians work, after all, to advance their agenda, not to attain perfect consistency with a single method of interpreting the constitution. We, as a society, are arguably better off because Roosevelt attained New Deal victories however possible, instead of blindly pressing (and possibly losing) a national effort to gain Article Five amendments before advancing policy initiatives.

Thus, a number of questions come to mind. First and foremost is whether having a constitutional vision matters for the long-term success of the Democrat policy agenda. After all, one might say, opportunism worked for the New Deal, Civil Rights Act, and Medicare. But much else within the Democratic agenda has not gained traction. Thus, it’s worth asking if the opportunistic approach to constitutional power is inferior to an agenda backed by a solid constitutional vision. If the answer turns out to be “yes,” as I believe it shall, then we as Democrats need to ponder what type of constitutional vision we should back. The nature of such a vision will have much to say about the future of the left-liberal agenda in this country, and may even illuminate ways to build a larger consensus around the role and nature of government than currently exists.

In this way, examination of a Democratic constitutional vision can help answer to the question asked by many “liberals” today: does liberalism have a future, and if so, what?

Next: why should having a constitutional vision matter to Democrats?

Will Kerry’s campaign squander its natural advantage?

I’ve refrained thus far from commenting on “Swift Boat Vets” and the whole Vietnam service mess. Mostly I’ve been hoping it won’t, in retrospect, become “the moment when Kerry lost momentum” and squandered his natural advantage in this election. And Kerry definitely has a natural advantage in the election since historically, incumbent Presidents haven’t done well unless they’re further ahead than Bush now is.

But two months is a lot of ads, attacks, and responses by the Kerry campaign. And thus far, the strategy for responding to Republican attack is underwhelming. In my view, Thomas Schaller has it right on Gadflyer: Kerry’s mistake was to respond rationally and try to refute the attack point by point. Operating on the thesis (previously discussed with respect to Krugman v. O’Reilly) that political discourse today is “about” strength, appearance, and dominance, the Kerry campaign looks weak, worried, and anything but masterful when they try to take the Swift Boat attacks seriously.

Schaller is right on the money:

…here’s what John Kerry and cohorts should have done when the Swift Boaters launched their attack ads: Laughed and laughed and laughed some more, scoffing repeatedly that this episode is the best thing that could have happen for their campaign. In unison, Kerry and his surrogates should said they were pleasantly bemused that Bush was, in effect, conceding defeat so early in the campaign by resorting to desperate tactics that will only steer more Americans toward the Democratic ticket.

…the storyline could have been, Bush Is Desperate. (And, returning for a moment to the rational world of political normality, isn’t that the underlying truth of this whole episode?) Instead, the opposite storyline being promoted by the Bush campaign is gaining currency: Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, are desperate.

A hint about why Schaller’s view is correct can be seen in today’s news — Bush is now going to work on court action against the “shadowy” outside groups who are attacking Kerry. For looking like the magnanimous statesman: Bush 1, Kerry 0. Also, for looking like a statesman while neutralizing the fact that his own campaign staff actually worked with and advised the “shadowy” outside groups: Bush 2, Kerry 0. Those who expect both candidates to operate on the basis of fact and reason will naturally ask why it’s taken so long for Bush to disassociate himself with the smear campaign, given that this has dragged on for the whole month between the DNC and RNC. Oh…wait, that explains itself. Bush gets to talk about this at the convention next week, and look good reigning in his own attack dogs on prime-time TV: Bush 3, Kerry 0.

Could Kerry have neutralized this whole thing by choosing a high-profile spot to laugh himself silly over the Swift Vets? Possibly. The larger point is that we’re seeing a dangerous trend where the Kerry campaign, in their fervor over fighting a campaign of ideas, is getting their asses kicked up and down the field in the court of appearances and opinion.

No set of facts we can possibly put in front of the American people at this point will change the perception of many that Bush is a strong leader, or better able to secure America. Rational examination of this administration’s track record simply doesn’t bear out the opinion of those who believe Bush is a strong leader whose actions have made us safer. That opinion is being formed, I believe, through appearances and rhetoric and stage-craft, not logic. It’s not like the facts haven’t been available, after all — they’re simply less important to winning this election than we’d like to believe. And that hurts to say, because I believe politics should be about ideas and deliberation.

But we also have to win. The next two months aren’t about ideas, and they’re certainly not about facts, they’re about Kerry challenging Bush on the only ground where the latter is still strong: the court of appearances. If Kerry can win, he’ll have four years to talk about his ideas. To get there, he’ll need to spend two short months going toe-to-toe with a master of political appearances and indirection.

1994 Guigal Cote Rotie Brune et Blonde

Coming down to the last of my 1994 Guigal mid-priced Cote Rotie and Hermitage. Bought pretty cheaply at release, these were good wine values. The 1994 Cote Rotie Brune et Blonde has been very nice over the last couple of years, but I think it’s time to drink up. Still deep red, there’s a hint of orange and the nose was muted on this bottle. I’ll try the Hermitage next week and see if I think that’s generally true over the mid-priced bottlings. The Cote Rotie has a meaty spicy aroma, but still a bright citrusy high-toned note and some floral hints (usually from the small amount of Viognier in CR’s).

My book addiction…

I have an addiction to books, and now that Will Baude and Heidi Bond have gone public, I feel safe acknowledging my problem. I disabled “one-click” ordering on Amazon last month, because it was entirely too easy to read a reference or review and think, “oh, I need to read that.” There’s a bookcase in my living room which is stacked with books waiting to be read…and we won’t discuss the rest of the house.

Like Will, books and reading are an essential part of my daily routine. I can’t imagine not reading at some point during the day. I often turn down lunch opportunities in order to dine by myself and read. I get grumpy if my schedule doesn’t allow at least some time to read and think. When I visit someone’s house and they have bookshelves, I find myself drifting over to their shelves, to see what they read…see if there’s anything I need to read.

I’d go on but the chair by the window looks comfortable, and I’ve got a few more pages of Randy Barnett’s Restoring the Lost Constitution to go…