Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Trajectory's of TV's TGIF

Like most people who came of age in the 80s and 90s, I have fond memories of ABC's long-running bloc of Friday night sitcoms that they brilliantly marketed as "TGIF" beginning in early 1990.  While TGIF's era as an institution scoring massive ratings was relatively short-lived, its various incarnations were a mainstay on ABC's Friday night for more than 15 years.  Quite honestly, most of the shows were pretty bad.  A couple were good and some had just enough charm to keep me interested as I transitioned from boy to teenager, but not many of them would stand up well to 2014 audiences given that they were barely serviceable a quarter-century ago.  Still, TGIF was above all else really strong marketing on ABC's part, and I look back fondly at the "event" that wrapping up my week and vegetating in front of the TV was during those peak middle school years of TGIF.  And I thought it would be interesting to trace the entire TGIF trajectory from its origins, to its heyday, to its nadir and ultimate demise.

The show that for all intents and purposes launched what would become TGIF several years later was an unlikely fit for the family sitcoms that would define the evening, and that was the long-running political comedy "Benson" starring Robert Guillaume.  Despite lasting seven seasons, "Benson" was never a hit, but rather functionally useful counterprogramming for ABC in tough timeslots.  By 1982, that timeslot would be Friday nights against CBS's ratings powerhouse "The Dukes of Hazzard" right at the moment that series was starting to decline.  It would have been hard to imagine that ABC's counterprogramming of "Benson" against "The Dukes of Hazzard" in 1982 would ever bring about what became TGIF, but it kind of did.

While "Benson" didn't fit the mold of TGIF-style shows, it was the lead-in for a new series in 1983 that fit the template perfectly--"Webster"--and "Webster" became an early hit, dragging lead-in "Benson" along for the ride and combined they won the timeslot against "The Dukes of Hazzard".  But there was still a long way to go before the TGIF branding would take its form.

Even with "The Dukes of Hazzard" collapsing in the mid-80s and ultimately expiring in the spring of 1985, CBS still dominated Friday nights and it slowed ABC's transition to a two-hour comedy block despite the ongoing success of "Benson" and "Webster" at the 7:00 hour.  ABC continued to program action shows like "Masquerade", "Hawaiian Heat", and "Street Hawk" at 8:00 as counterprogramming against "Dallas", but buckled in March 1985 and took on "Dallas" with its sitcom block, moving "Benson" to 8:00 and heading the night with "Webster", rounding out the hours with the short-lived sitcom "Off the Rack" at 8:30 and the much more successful "Mr. Belvedere" at 7:30.  The move was met with mixed results but ABC had another iron in its fire with their fall lineup in 1985.....

NBC was poised to cancel veteran sitcom "Different Strokes" in 1985 but ABC picked it up, moving it to Friday night as a tentpole at the 8:00 hour scheduled in between "Webster", "Mr. Belvedere", and "Benson".  The network had by now compiled a lineup that looked very much like the TGIF tradition even though it would be nearly five years before the TGIF designation became official.  Unfortunately, "Different Strokes" bombed on Friday nights against "Dallas".  "Webster" and "Mr. Belvedere" were hanging in there at the 7:00 hour with middling numbers, but all evidence pointed to ABC taking on CBS just a little too soon with their sitcom lineup to be effective.

The next two seasons were very challenging for the network and its fast-changing Friday comedy lineup.  The ratings continued to drop for "Webster" and "Mr. Belvedere" and by the spring of 1987 "Webster" was canceled by ABC (it continued in syndication for one more season).  "Mr. Belvedere" hung on by a thread and returned in October 1987 as the lone haggard veteran of a Friday lineup full of rookie sitcoms.  Two of them, "I Married Dora" and "The Pursuit of Happiness" were flops that barely made it to Christmas, but the show ABC was most excited about kicked off the 7:00 hour and hung around despite bad early ratings.....the future sitcom smash "Full House".

With CBS and NBC duking it out with ratings heavy hitters "Dallas" and "Miami Vice", ABC was struggling mightily and reconfiguring their low-rated sitcom lineup every few weeks until the scheduling coup that revived the patient's pulse was made in March 1988....when successful Wednesday sitcom "Perfect Strangers" moved to Friday night to head up the comedy lineup.  Almost immediately, ratings perked up for the entire lineup, and just in time to help "Full House" and "Mr. Belvedere" avoid likely cancellation.

The aforementioned trio, along with newcomer "Just the Ten of Us", finally became a consistent ratings force by the fall of 1988.  The risk paid off as "Perfect Strangers" held its former Wednesday night audience and introduced enough viewers to lead-out "Full House" that its ratings skyrocketed that season, so much so that in the fall of 1989, ABC pushed "Full House" to the top of the Friday night schedule at 7:00.  "Mr. Belvedere" was shuffled off to its Saturday night graveyard that fall and replaced with another new show that would define TGIF for years to come--"Family Matters".  There was nothing memorable about the earliest incarnation of "Family Matters" as it was about as generic of a sitcom as was ever created until midseason when geeky neighbor kid Steve Urkel was introduced and became a cultural phenomenon and the biggest "star" in the duration of TGIF.

Urkel's arrival coincided almost perfectly with ABC's decision to market this Friday night sitcom bloc as TGIF, which was introduced in February 1990.  The network had finally found the right mix of shows and the right marketing technique to capture lightning in a bottle.  Somewhat surprisingly, and perhaps because it was racier than the other kid-friendly shows on the lineup, "Just the Ten of Us" was canceled in the spring of 1990.  Its replacement in the fall of 1990, the Heather Locklear sitcom "Going Places", also seemed an odd fit for the TGIF lineup but would eventually be shoehorned to fit the TGIF mold.  And while "Going Places" was the weak link, the rest of the TGIF lineup was soaring in the 1990-91 season, far and away the most successful year the lineup had.  In March 1991, "Going Places" was replaced by the lackluster "Baby Talk", a sitcom that went through three different actresses playing the mother in two seasons, but ratings were nonetheless gangbusters.  In the spring of 1991, all four TGIF sitcoms were mainstays in the Nielsen top-25, with "Full House" and "Family Matters" frequently in the top-10.  But it would be a short stay at the top of the world....

ABC decided to spread the wealth in the fall of 1991 and moved "Full House" to Tuesday night.  It was a successful move for both "Full House" and ABC's Tuesday night, but TGIF suffered for it.  "Family Matters" now headed the lineup and Urkelmania proved past its peak.  While "Family Matters" hung on in the top-25, its halcyon days were soon over without the assist from "Full House" (and I must confess I never got the appeal of "Full House" and didn't miss it at all when it bolted from TGIF).  Replacing "Full House" was another show perfectly fitting the TGIF mold, the Patrick Duffy-Suzanne Somers sitcom "Step by Step", which would be a long-running mainstay on TGIF but nonetheless represented a certain past-peak aura for the franchise.  "Perfect Strangers" was tiring and in its final season, and ratings for TGIF dropped pretty dramatically over the duration of the 1991-92 season.  I was in eighth grade at the time and found that my tastes were maturing as the TGIF lineup was dumbing down.  The "event" feel that was there for TGIF the previous two seasons just wasn't there anymore.

It faded further for me in 1992, when "Perfect Strangers" ended.   I never got into "Dinosaurs" too consistently and the revolving door of shows that came and went in the 8:00 hour ("Camp Wilder", "Getting By", "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper") never grabbed me either.  All that was left to hang my hat on was "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" in the 7:00 hour and those were fading as well, both in terms of quality and audience size.  TGIF nonetheless produced one more long-running semihit that premiered in the fall of 1993..."Boy Meets World"....which lasted an impressive seven seasons where it put the entire TGIF franchise to sleep in the year 2000.  Not sure whether the show genuinely sucked or whether I had simply outgrown this kind of show by that point, but "Boy Meets World" never did it for me.  And by the spring of 1994, I finally ended my Friday night tradition of watching at least one hour per week of ABC's TGIF lineup.

But with or without me, the lineup went on into the mid-90s with "Family Matters", "Step by Step", and "Boy Meets World" continuing as mainstays and "Sister, Sister" and "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" going along for the ride in some capacity for a few more years.  One final modest hit was added to the lineup in 1996 with Melissa Joan Hart as "Sabrina the Teenage Witch", a show I probably watched more than any other TGIF show in the second half of the 90s, but mostly just for Melissa and often with the mute button on!  But the TGIF world got shook up like never before in 1997 when ABC canceled "Family Matters" and "Step by Step", believing they were burned out.  But CBS saw an opening and picked both shows up, directly challenging what was left of ABC's TGIF lineup (anchored by "Sabrina" and "Boy Meets World").  The CBS challenge proved ineffective though as "Family Matters" and "Step by Step" flopped on CBS and were canceled in 1998.

In 1998, the CBS challenge was behind ABC and they had TGIF turf to themselves for a couple years before the death spiral.  They even revived the now mid-teen Olsen twins for a sitcom called "Two of a Kind" that only lasted one season.  The TGIF branding stuck around for two more seasons until "Boy Meets World" and "Sabrina" both went of the air in 2000.  ABC returned with sitcoms that fall but ditched the TGIF branding and went for an older audience.  After more than a decade, the official TGIF promotional coup had ended, probably outlasting the expectations of most.  There's been a half-hearted revival of the format in recent years with Tim Allen and Reba McEntire sitcoms airing Friday evenings, but they haven't made much headway in restoring the TGIF brand, which is likely dead at least until sitcoms are en vogue again with television audiences.

You can't blame the network for unearthing the TGIF time capsule though as there was something oddly special about that snapshot in time when a mostly silly grouping of sitcoms was successfully sold to younger-skewing TV viewers and turned into ratings gold.  And since I happened to come of age at the pinnacle of TGIF mania in 1990 and 1991, I have more nostalgia for it than most.  Most of these shows would be pretty terrible revisiting as an adult, but I'm sure even now I could still identify that touch of charm that endeared me and millions of my contemporaries to these shows a quarter century ago.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The 20 Best Depressing Country Songs

Every few months I get on a music kick, usually triggered by something, that results in me gobbling up a plentiful dose of a certain kind of music from a certain genre, usually from a certain timeframe.   The combined triggers of a miserable love life and the empty, dark hours of winter have recently pushed me straight into the throes of stone cold country music heartbreakers.  Now an important distinction has to be made about what I'm going for here.  I love tearjerker country songs and thematically dark country songs, and sometimes those songs overlap with the depressing "downer" songs I'll be profiling below, but this list is comprised entirely of songs that don't drive me to tears or goose bumps, but which accommodate a tearless yet mellow and defeated mood with their lyrics and arrangement.  To the people who don't like country music because it's "depressing", these are the exactly the kinds of songs they're talking about.  But to those of us who feed off of emotional dysfunction, these are the kinds of songs that make country music exceptional.

I was planning to make a top-25 list here but honestly couldn't find 25 songs that genuinely fit this list's limitations.  There are literally fewer than two dozen songs out there that I run to when seeking to feed a sadness fix, at least for songs released as singles.  I have a considerably larger number of songs on this pedigree as album cuts from my CD collection, but I'm only counting songs released as singles here.  It's quite fascinating how many first-rate singers who would seem capable of recording a perfect downer of a song never have, at least not as a single.  Crystal Gayle and Don Williams' musical legacy doesn't consist of such a song.  Nor does Martina McBride who has a number of dark and tearjerking songs, but her songs that are simply downers were not worthy of making this list.

And when comprising this list, I couldn't help but notice that none of these songs predate my birth in 1977.  Obviously there are a lot of great downer country songs from before my era, but it's harder for me to connect with most of those songs especially on the arrangement front.  Country music production values progressed considerably in the mid-1970s and the quality of the musical arrangement is often just as consequential to a good depressing country song as are the lyrics.  And even among songs from my era, some songs just don't take me down personally the way they do others.  For instance, George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today" would be the song that most country music aficinadoes would rate as the hands-down best song to fit this list's metric.  While acknowledging that it's a great song, it doesn't hit me the way the songs on my list do.  Ditto for Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You", an indisputable country classic that for whatever reason just doesn't hit me in the gut.  And contemporary crooners who pride themselves for their mastery of these honkytonk weepers like Alan Jackson and Mark Chesnutt have a bunch of really good songs that qualify for my list, but nothing that I find myself specifically turning to when looking for a downer country song fix.  And another song that I've always loved that fits this criteria is Gary Allan's "Smoke Rings in the Dark".  Here's a song that's among my top-100 country songs of all-time, but for me it doesn't work as a bring-me-down in the sense of many others.  Needless to say, the list is kind of hard to define in a measurable's just based on my personal instinctive reactions to certain songs.

With those qualifiers out of the way, here's my top-20 list which I will begin with two "honorable mentions" for songs I couldn't go without discussing....

Honorable Mention #1.  Not a Day Goes By--Lonestar (2002).....Fewer songs qualify for my list in a more tangible way than this top-5 Lonestar ballad from last decade, but I still couldn't quite bring myself to put it in the top-20 because it's a little bit over-the-top in a "drippy" way.  Richie McDonald's powerhouse vocals shone brightly as always, but in this case overshot the runway, at least for it's impact on being a true "downer" song.  Still, it doesn't get much more deliciously depressing than the lyric "I still wait for the phone in the middle of the night...Thinkin' you might call me if your dreams don't turn out right".

Honorable Mention #2. Sticks and Stones--Tracy Lawrence (1991)....The ascent of Tracy Lawrence came at the tail end of country music's New Traditionalist era, and managed to persevere well into the "Hot New Country" era with a decidedly traditional country sound and song selection.  But the most impactful song of his career was this midtempo ballad about a man lamenting the heartbreak of a marriage at the onset of its dissolution with a clever lyrical hook about their broken home that "these sticks and stones may break me, but the words you said just tore my heart in two".

#20. I'd Rather Miss You--Little Texas (1993).....Very few would equate the musical legacy of Little Texas, a Hot New Country-era hybrid of 80s hair bands and pale Eagles ripoffs, with greatness, but they had one song that in my opinion stood out amongst the rest of their body of work, and interestingly it was not one of their biggest hits, only going top-15 in the summer of 1993.  A perfectly melancholy musical arrangement accompanied solid harmonies and the great lamenting lyrics of "If I have to choose between living without you and learning to love someone new...Then I'd rather miss you".

#19. Some Fools Never Learn--Steve Wariner (1985)....Steve Wariner was one of the pioneers of the modern mellow heartbreak classic, his smooth voice and guitar wizardry combining to make some of the best country music of the 80s.  The best song of his career was 1987's "The Weekend" and in all honesty that song should be on this list but because of its thematic similarity with another ahead on the list, I decided to go instead with this very relateable downer about a guy who keeps going for the wrong girl and sets himself up for inevitable heartbreak time and time again.

#18. I Never Quite Got Back From Loving You--Sylvia (1984).....For my tastes, the 80s were the heyday of depressing country songs, with the right mix of capable, distinctive vocalists and musical arrangements with just the right level of production (there was too little production in country music before the 80s and too much after the 80s).  Sylvia had a number of great sad songs, all brilliantly sung, but the purest heartbreaker of her career was this 1984 ballad where the narrator can't move on from a broken relationship and is "still out that world you took me to".

#17. One Solitary Tear--Sherrie Austin (1997)....Australian-born country singer arguably overpowers the vocals a bit on the choruses here, but the case could also be made that she sold a more believable emotional attachment to the song with the power vocals.  Either way, it's a great song where every little nugget of the daily grind is a reminder of love lost, best illustrated with the lyric "The mailman still brings all your catalogs...The radio just keeps on playing our songs".

#16. Addicted--Dan Seals (1988).....Dan Seals vocal stylings were perfect for these kinds of songs, and he knew it as clearly they were in both his vocal and songwriting wheelhouse.  In this song, a woman in a one-sided marriage drives herself delirious with despair and a slow-motion trainwreck of coming to terms with a husband who doesn't love her.  Some of the rawest anguish ever conveyed in a commercial country song along with a memorable chorus assured this song would make my list.

#15. Home Ain't Where His Heart is Anymore--Shania Twain (1996)....For my tastes, Shania Twain was a net negative for country music by forcing a rising emphasis on image over substance coupled with the mostly immature body of musical work that she brought to the table.  But the one song of her career that was a true gem was this mellow ballad from her breakthrough album that nobody would ever describe as immature.  The narrator's grief is less raw and self-destructive as the narrator from the previous song on the list, but the sorrow of a loveless marriage is conveyed well its own way, coupling fond memories of the good old days with the pure exhaustion present-tense of trying to make something work that isn't working anymore.

#14. Inside--Ronnie Milsap (1983)....Nobody else in the world of country music was better positioned to make the stylistic leap into the country music of the 1980s than Ronnie Milsap with his wide vocal range and being his generation's premier maestro of the keyboard.  Couple that with Ronnie's long-standing preference for some of the saddest heartbreak songs ever set to music and you had a match made in heaven.  The musical arrangement here was one of the most sophisticated for any country songs at the time and it's "tear in my beer" musical grooves really punch the listener in the gut when "Suddenly it occurs to me...she's trying to say goodbye" even though the listener pretty much knew that before the narrator's epiphany.

#13. Why They Call it Falling--Lee Ann Womack (2001)....While her album cuts are full of awesomely depressing ballads to the point of making her this generation's top auteur of sad songs, Lee Ann Womack never released too many of her unparalleled downer songs as singles.  But the song that was easily the darkest of her career was also the most depressing, particularly given how bubbly and flowery it starts.  But after the second verse, reality sets in and the narrator who was previously "walking on the ceiling" gets the answer to the song's core question after darkly acknowledging that "It's a's a's kind of like a grave....when he tells you that he's found somebody knew."

#12. Has Anybody Seen Amy?--John and Audrey Wiggins (1994).....Most songs on this list are about love lost, but the outlier of the group is this tale of a narrator's return to a hometown that he no longer recognizes and feels empty and alone in, sung by the underrated brother-sister vocal duo who never had a major hit besides this song.  There are a couple brilliantly haunting arrangement riffs in this song that add to "lost in his own hometown" lyrical overtones where "I can't see the stars through the neon lights".  I always look back at 1994 as the best individual year in country music history, as it's a shame that a song this good mostly got lost in the shuffle a generation later.

#11. Rose Bouquet--Phil Vassar (2001)....One of the most promising starts to a country career came with the first-rate debut album of singer-songwriter Phil Vassar.  He has in no way lived up to the high standard of that rookie effort with subsequent albums, but nothing will take away from the extent to which Vassar hit the ball out of the park in his first at-bat.  And he earned a berth in the depressing country song Hall of Fame with this nicely arranged weeper that looks at lost love through the prism of a magical wedding day where everything seemed so perfect until "we threw it all away like your rose bouquet".

#10. My Heart Will Never Know--Clay Walker (1995).....Clay Walker danced on the edge of being a cut above the wave of "hunks in hats" that took over the charts in the mid-90s, but ultimately rode a safe, commercial-friendly road to oblivion in the second half of the 90s.  But he still had some great songs in his early albums, including this first rate heartbreaker about a narrator who refuses to even accept that the love of his life has left him for good, always thinking she'll come home any day after leaving without saying goodbye.  "It's been a long, cold December....the snow outside keeps falling...I'll light a fire for when you come home".  Nothing like being a third-party watching a naive slug set himself up for a major league faceplant.

#9. Heart Half Empty--Ty Herndon and Stephanie Bentley (1995).....Most country music duets are uninspired affairs with powerhouse vocalists collaborating for a song with the quality of the song being more or less an afterthought.  One of the best exceptions to that trend came with two rookie artists who managed to find one of the best depressing country songs of the decade and giving  just the right level of vocal flare to a very cleverly written metaphor of a departing couple's bottle of wine that precedes their separation.  "Will your memories taste sweet as they linger....or the bitterness stay on my tongue....Is my heart half full of the love you gave me...or my heart half empty...because your love is gone".  Soul-crushingly depressing country songs rarely come with cooler lyrics than that.

#8. Whiskey Lullaby--Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss (2004).....One of the best country songs of the last decade would be amongst the top-five on any list of the darkest country songs of the last few decades, but also clearly works as a song to help suck the life out of anybody in a good mood.  My one grievance with this song is that the double suicide narrative seems a little melodramatic without context, but this song has one of the best videos ever made and the context necessary to make the song work is delivered in spades with the video.

#7. When You Think of Me--Mark Wills (2003)....I hesitated to include this song on the "merely depressing" list because it's emotionally charged enough to qualify for the "tearjerker" category, but thematically it comes closer to being a depressing song than the template for most bona fide tearjerkers.  The narrator tries to find the best way to "leave with dignity" without seeming like a complete asshole, but finds that easier said than done, ultimately walking away in the middle of the night while she sleeps and hoping she remembers the good times rather than his gutless departure.  It's almost as if he's written his "dear jill" letter in his mind with the lyrics "I think about the time I met you...I said I'd never forget you...and I won't."  Something tells me it's gonna be awhile till that pacifies her, and unlike most songs on the list you sympathize not with the narrator, but with the person on the receiving end.  Mark Wills gets a lot of perfectly fair criticism for gooey songs, but I found him to be pretty good at emotionally interpreting a good sad song, and never better than on this one.

#6. Matches--Sammy Kershaw (1998)......Here's a truly storybook country heartbreaker if there ever was one....the kind of song that could drag you down no matter how good of a mood you're in with haunting music and vocals along with masterful lyrics.  Very rarely has metaphorical allegory been employed as brilliantly as when the narrator uses the book of matches where he wrote the number down of the girl who would be the love of his life later gets employed to commit felony arson.  "Everybody at the Broken Spoke....they all thought my crazy story was a they're all out in the parking lot staring at the smoke".  Yikes!  Something tells me the narrator's clever fit of passion will be seen as a miscalculation when he's stepping into the prison shower in a few short months.

 #5. Till Summer Comes Around--Keith Urban (2009).....Since the dawn of the "redneck and proud" era of country music in the past decade or so, the depressing country song genre has taken it on the chin more than previous eras of my lifetime.  The one golden exception to the trend was this masterpiece by Keith Urban from five years ago.  Set to a genuinely haunting guitar backdrop, the narrator keeps returning to his lame summer job at the carnival year after year to rekindle the summer romance of the girl who "promised she'd be back again".  The narrative is entirely relateable as I did a less melodramatic variation on this gambit during my college years, with equally disastrous results.  But this narrator still hasn't gotten the hint that the love of his life won't be coming back although the final lyric hints that he finally sees the writing on the wall..."Baby I'll be back again....You whispered in my ear but now the winter wind is the only sound...and everything is closing down....Till summer comes around".  Keith Urban has been all over the map going back and forth between excellent songs and very mediocre songs, but it's a safe bet for me that he'll never top this....and that nobody in the current list of country artists is capable of a song this deliciously depressing.

#4. Still Losing You--Ronnie Milsap (1984).....I already established that Ronnie was a maestro at crafting the perfect sad country song and this was the most melancholy, slit-your-wrist depressor he ever recorded, or at least that he released as a single.  Set to an elaborate jazz-meets-rhythm-and-blues musical arrangement, the lyrics are stone cold country and Ronnie's vocals seal the deal with one of the most shamelessly moribund songs around, hitting one sad theme after another from the "fleeting memory in the image of your face" to the undeliverable phone call to the "party you have tried to reach has recently moved away" to my personal favorite "And so I paid my check and I buttoned my coat....Stepped into an evening rain...Made my way down the avenue....Softly whispering your name".  And best of all, the narrator was the one who initiated the break-up.  Dude, you screwed up big time!

#3. Broken Hearted Me--Anne Murray (1979).....I look at this as the first modern country heartbreak song.  Anne Murray built a name for herself in the 70s with mushy love ballads that seem too saccharine by the today's standards, where sentimentalism is ridiculed.  But the production polish she brought to those glossy, sappy ballads ultimately delivered in this gloomy love-gone-wrong ballad that has stood the test of time better than many of Murray's biggest hits of the late 70s.  The sweeping arrangement was quite unlike anything heard in country music before and can turn any smile into a heavy-hearted frown 35 years later.

#2. Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold--Dan Seals (1986).....The song that most music critics agree is the best song of Dan Seals' career almost serves as an anthology of every downer metric that can be pushed in a country song, with Dan Seals' vintage lyrical tricks on full display, giving the narrator false motivations early on only to reveal his true feelings.  In this case, the embittered narrator spews venom about the woman who left him and his young daughter while selfishly pursuing her rodeo queen dreams, but ultimately still can't get his love for her out of his head no matter much he resents himself for it.  Seals' vocal stylings on the choruses really take this song to the next level and no depressing since has depressed us so skillfully in the nearly three decades since.

#1. Blue Moon with a Heartache--Rosanne Cash (1982)....If there was only one depressing country song that I could listen to for the rest of my life, this would be the one.  Johnny Cash's daughter proved her artistic mettle on her breakthrough second album, and put together one of the darkest, droopiest, and most melancholy songs ever recorded, the kind of song Rosanne Cash excelled at in subsequent albums but never quite captured the dreary heartbroken funk of this song featuring lyrical gems such as "I'll play the victim for you honey...but not for free" and "what did I say to make your cold heart bleed this way...maybe I'll just go away today".  Even more than the lyrics, however, the musical arrangement seals the deal for this song, such a downer that you can practically feel your heart drop in your chest as it plays.  I suppose it's possible for another country song this depressing to be recorded again, but it could easily be another 32 years into the future before it happens.

Perhaps in the months ahead, I'll compile separate lists of country music's best tearjerkers and darkest songs and all categories have a number of songs worthy of acclaim, but for now I'm gonna revisit some of these classics again as they continue to fit my mood at this bleak juncture of winter 2014.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

A Blogger Divided on Marijuana Legalization

Never will there come a time that there isn't a silly distraction for the peasantry to keep their minds off the fact that their livelihood is being stolen from them by an economy that rewards work and human capital less with each passing year.  The distraction du jour is the long-festering debate about marijuana legalization that has recently come to a head because of successful ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington that legalized recreational use in those states.  A highly incomplete experiment on the merits of marijuana legalization is being conducted in these two petri dishes and for a number of reasons, I suspect the trend will catch on and a rising tide of legalization will ensue state by state in the decade to come.  How do I feel about this?  Suffice it to say my position is nuanced.

I've long had libertarian leanings when it comes to one's freedom to put whatever they choose into their bodies without persecution.  Ten years ago, I would have been firmly on the side of marijuana legalization.  But one pervasive trendline in the political realm over the last decade has led me to believe that a greater degree of persecution is likely to ensue against marijuana users in the aftermath of legalization than it does today.  But before I get into that argument, I don't think it's unreasonable to be libertarian on this yet still believe that legalization, and subsequent normalization and increased usage, of marijuana will be a scourge against society.  More intoxicated drivers on the highways, a less motivated workforce, and a larger number of young people already less well off financially than their parents and grandparents blowing thousands of dollars a year on pot are all inevitable consequences of increased marijuana usage.  And with more and more marijuana advocates loudly selling their drug of choice to the public as "completely harmless" or as "medicine", the lesser the social stigma will be when availability increases.  That strikes me a bad combination.

But what continues to trouble me most is my ongoing concern that marijuana legalization is poised to be another means for the political class to engage in reverse Robin Hood tax policy, with criminal justice implications ultimately going far beyond what marijuana users face today with the drug being quasi-illegal.  Colorado wasted no time imposing a 25% tax on the retail price of marijuana as it was legalized.  Now that's a bargain compared to a pack of cigarettes in the state of Minnesota where the combined state and federal tax now approaches 200% of retail, but it's also just an opening bid.  Every time the state is looking to plug a budget hole or to dole out money to a crony capitalist looking for a publicly funded sports stadium, you can expect to see an extra 0 added to that Colorado marijuana tax.  Simply put, legalized marijuana is an expansion of the litany of disproportionately working-class lifestyle choices that government views as a path-of-least-resistance means to extract revenue in the most regressive and predatory way possible.  And however bad it would get if Colorado was a stand-alone experiment, just wait until the feds start looking for their pound of flesh.

The naivete of the marijuana legalization advocates becomes most obvious when the topic turns to what legalized marijuana would look like if it went national.  Many of them seem to believe town squares full of hippies would be gathering to exchange homegrown marijuana to each other, not appreciating just how much government is gonna demand an ever-growing cut of the action in a nation where marijuana is legal.  The same phony argument of "externalized costs" associated with tobacco use will spread to marijuana, and all of the legislative supporters of legalization will instantly turn on it five minutes after it's legalized, blaming marijuana use on societal ills ranging from lower student test scores to growing obesity.  Not taxing this stuff through the nose will not be an option for lawmakers, and since tax collections will not be manageable through a mishmash of guys growing a dozen plants in their basements, government will seek to consolidate production and distribution of legalized marijuana by consolidating tax stamp authority into the hands of a few corporations, most likely the tobacco companies.  There is no major consumer item I'm aware of where production and distribution hasn't been consolidated by corporate America, and there is zero chance of marijuana being the exception to that.

Far as I can tell, the only reason marijuana wasn't legalized 25 years ago is that government recognizes that its multibillion-dollar annual profit-sharing racket with tobacco companies over cigarettes will be more logistically challenging to pull off with marijuana, simply because it's so easy for the aforementioned guy in his basement to grow his own marijuana than it is tobacco.  So what we're looking at a few years down the road, if current trendlines continue, is a junk corporate product chock full of cancer-causing chemicals being sold at stratospheric tax-inflated prices, but with a huge black market of pure homegrown product found in the basements of Joe Stoners across the country sold to a larger customer base of marijuana users than exists today at lower prices than what the government product sells for.  And this will undercut legalization advocates' argument that the criminal justice footprint related to marijuana today will shrink.  Anybody growing marijuana plants in their basement who undercuts the "sin tax" revenue bonanza that Uncle Sam fancies himself entitled to is gonna be squashed like a cockroach and made an example of.  If anything, I think more people will be going to prison for marijuana "crimes" five years after it's legalized than are today.

Most disheartening is that there's no reasoning with marijuana legalization advocates, as most of them are too giddy about the prospect of being able to legally get high on their drug of choice to entertain any dissenting voices.  They all but stick their fingers in their ears and say "la, la, la I can't hear you" when I outline what seems to be an inevitable and unsavory trajectory of legalization if it goes national.  It sickens me to see working-class America on the cusp of being taken advantage of in yet another way by government and corporate America yet it seems as though marijuana legalization is all but certain to become yet another means to accomplish that predatory end.  Ordinarily I would simply wish this issue would be resolved one way or another so we could move onto the economic stagnancy of the vast majority of Americans that is strangling the life out of the country, but I feel as though I have no choice but to chime in here since the outcome of this issue seems very likely to exacerbate the conditions of economic stagnancy and shift even more resources to the robber barons.

If I had any faith at all in legalization being done right I could grudgingly support this, but as the threshold of cynicism relating to legalized tobacco gets more shocking with each passing year, I have zero faith in legalization being done right.  Couple that with the fact that more pervasive use of marijuana will produce more tangible societal downsides than tobacco use and I find myself siding more with David Brooks than with doe-eyed marijuana legalization advocates whose arguments tend to be thinly guised 25-year-old talking points from the NORML website, failing to think more than one move ahead on what a nation of legalized marijuana will become.  My ultimate preference thus continues to be what it's been for a few years now......settle for marijuana decriminalization and quit while you're ahead, lessening the foolish criminal implications for those who use or sell marijuana while simultaneously keeping a lid on mainstream production and distribution, limiting usage and keeping government and corporations from getting their fingerprints on it.  As naive public opinion shifts more to legalization though, I'm less confident every day we can establish best practice here.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Updated 2014 Senate Race Predictions

With each passing week, the Democrats' midterm Senate situation looks more precarious.  The party is extremely luck it had such a good cycle in 2012 Senate races, allowing them to lose five seats this coming November and still hold the Senate.  However, at this point, it looks as though the best-case scenario for Democrats this fall is losing ONLY five seats and thus hanging onto a 50-50 Senate.  The usual caveats apply that some Tea Party nutjob could prevail in the primaries of some of these contested races and make the Republican nominee unelectable, or even an experienced GOP pol could make a giant gaffe, but at this point it certainly seems as though the Democrats' best chance of holding the Senate is through a fluke.

It was easier to predict at this point in 2010 where the midterms were the Democrats were clearly going off a cliff and their level of overexposure with the final throes of southern Democrats and Blue Dogs still in office was jarring, leading them to their 63-seat loss in the House.  It's harder to tell where the 2014 midterms are heading in on sense.  Particularly in the House, the Democrats are no longer overexposed, and while they could still lose 10-15 additional seats if the election's a blowout, the polarized and gerrymandered House districts insulate them from suffering major losses.  The Senate is a different story as many of this year's Senate class consists of red-state Democrats that were victorious in the huge Democratic year of 2008 but will be playing defense this cycle.  The magnitude of defense they'll be playing is the X factor of whether the Democrats lose merely five Senate seats or lose 10+ seats, a scenario that is entirely possible without the GOP even really breaking a sweat.  With Obama's approval ratings currently at 40% and with ObamaCare incredibly unpopular even without any of the serious disruptive possibilities that could yet happen, I think the Democrats should prepare for the worst.  On the other hand, if ObamaCare plods along without further calamity and the economy grows at 3% with minimal increase in energy prices, Senate Democrats will still have a shitty night but just might hang onto their majority by a thread.

But let's look at the races state by state, cognizant of the fact that there's still time for further retirements or candidate recruitment coups or fails that could flip the races' current narratives on their head.

Safe Democratic Seats
Delaware--Chris Coons
Illinois--Dick Durbin
Rhode Island--Jack Reed

Safe Republican Seats
Alabama--Jeff Sessions
Idaho--Jim Risch
Kansas--Pat Roberts
Nebraska--Open (vacated by Mike Johanns)
Oklahoma A--James Inhofe
South Carolina A--Lindsey Graham (or whatever Tea Party nutjob beats him in the primary)
South Carolina B--Tim Scott
Tennessee--Lamar Alexander
Texas--John Cornyn (or Steve Stockman!)
Wyoming--Mike Enzi

The lopsided number of safe GOP seats speaks volumes of the extent to which the party is playing offense this year.

Now onto seats likely to go one way or the other, with brief explanations why....

Likely Democratic

Hawaii--Very tough state for a Republican to win but the open seat that emerged with Dan Inouye's death is being fought over by two Democrats and if the winner gets battered enough, a popular Republican like Charles Djou could conceivably capitalize.

Massachusetts--It would be surprising if Ed Markey, who won the special election to fill John Kerry's seat last year, didn't get a full six-year term, but he's not exactly Mr. Charisma and I think the potential exists for an upset if the GOP finds another Scott Brown.

New Jersey--Cory Booker had a very mediocre 10-point win in last year's special election to fill Frank Lautenberg's seat, even against a terrible challenger.  While he's still easily favored to win a full term in November, things are just a little bit crazier than usual in Jersey politics right now and depending on how things shake out, he could find himself vulnerable in a worst-case scenario.

New Mexico--Not aware of any major challenger to incumbent Tom Udall, but given that his state is still a lighter shade of blue and popular Republican Governor Susanna Martinez is sharing a ticket with him in November, the possibility exists of a Republican tidal wide could wash him away.

Virginia--I've always thought incumbent Mark Warner has a higher potential for vulnerability than the pundits often predict as a Democrat in a blue-trending purple state.  Republican challenger Ed Gillespie has the fund-raising and political skills to take advantage of a disastrous political climate, and Warner's dominating performance of 2008 is not likely to be repeated as Virginia continues to polarize along regional lines. Warner's still a heavy favorite, but I'd be less shocked than most if he got upset.

Likely Republican

Kentucky--If it was Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes challenging Mitch McConnell in 2008 instead of Bruce Lunsford, Grimes would be running for re-election this year.  But Kentucky Democrats just can't get their timing right for these Senate races and the state seems completely gone for Democrats now with east Kentucky coal country now realigned to Republican stronghold status.  Kentucky Democrats need a perfect storm to win statewide even during years when they're on offense, and the coal issue combined with the cultural hatred towards Obama is too much of a headwind for Grimes to compete with in 2014.  This race will break hard for McConnell in the campaign's final weeks and he'll end up winning by at least 10 points.

Maine--I only put this in the "likely Republican" column on the off-chance that popular GOP incumbent Susan Collins follows the lead of former colleague Olympia Snowe and retires.  If she doesn't, and there's no indication that she will, this race leapfrogs to "Safe Republican".

Mississippi--Long-time Republican incumbent Thad Cochran will handily win the election if he wins the primary, but he has a Tea Party ankle-biter that has a very good chance of taking him out.  And the Democrats have a surprisingly strong bench in Mississippi if a perfect storm emerges and they get the opportunity to run against flawed Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel.  Travis Childers, Mike Moore, Ronnie Musgrove, and Attorney General Jim Hood could all pose a viable challenge here, but as always in Mississippi, raising that Democratic ceiling from 45% to 50% +1 will require some olympic gymnastics.

Oklahoma B--This seat opened up just last week with the retirement announcement of Tom Coburn and is likely to take the form of a "safe Republican" seat, ya know, since it's Oklahoma, but Democrats have two powerhouse candidates in Brad Henry and Dan Boren if they can manage to recruit them...and there's always a chance a Christine O'Donnell Tea Party clown emerges victorious in the primary.  That's all a huge longshot though as Henry and Boren are unlikely to run and mainstream Republican Congressman James Lankford has already announced his intentions to run for the seat and would be impossible to beat if he was the party's nominee.

Now, moving onto the remaining 14 races which are all still in play to some level or another and have a reasonable chance of still going either way....

Alaska--There's nothing to indicate this race has changed much since the last time I analyzed it, aside from the fact that Sean Treadwell, the most electable Republican, is the frontrunner to be the nominee.  And beyond that, Obama's approval ratings have taken a dive, which probably puts Democrat Mark Begich in deeper peril, particularly given that Begich has been a pretty reliable Obama Democrat outside of energy issues.  He can still win if the rotten Obamacare headlines mostly subside and if the economy keeps ascending, but it seems like more things have to go right for Begich to win than for his opponent, which is not where an incumbent wants to be.  Tilts Republican  +1 GOP seat

Arkansas--The last time I analyzed 2014 Senate races, Arkansas' Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor was in about the same situation as Alaska's Begich.  Victory seemed odds-against, but neither was so far down that they couldn't still win.  Begich is still largely in that position, but I would argue that Pryor's chances have taken a turn for the worse given the highly effective smackdown he's received at the hands of conservative interest groups running nonstop ads against him for months.  His Republican opponent, Congressman Tom Cotton, was the party's best possible recruit, and unless he makes a whopper of a gaffe in the next several months, it's hard to see how Pryor wins in a state turning red faster than an angry drunk after a pint of whiskey.  Pryor's not as far gone yet as Blanche Lincoln was at this point in 2010, but he can probably only win if his opponent blows it. Leans Republican  +2 GOP

Colorado--Given the nature of politics in purple-trending-blue Colorado, I always suspected Democrat Mark Udall could emerge vulnerable in a challenging political climate, and minimal available polling suggests that's indeed true which Udall below 50% and barely ahead of potential GOP competitors.  With that said, it's hard to get too worried about this seat yet given that the Republican candidate best positioned to get the nomination is Ken Buck, the Tea Party nutjob who managed to blow a would-be slam dunk against Michael Bennet in 2010.  It defies belief that Colorado Republicans are undisciplined enough to run Buck again, but it speaks volumes about why their party has been beaten down so badly in the state in the past decade.  Udall is still more vulnerable than just about anybody in mainstream punditry believes, but if Ken Buck couldn't beat Bennet in 2010, it's hard to see how he beats Udall in 2014.  Leans Democrat.

Georgia--The demographics of Georgia are changing fast and by the end of the decade I suspect there's a real chance it will be a swing state.  Ordinarily I wouldn't think it's there yet, particularly in a midterm, to where Democrats have any chance at picking up the open seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss.  But Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn is no ordinary candidate, as being the daughter of Sam Nunn could help her get the votes of some rural "demosaurs" while her background with the metropolitan Atlanta business community could help her score a few country club Republicans as well.  Couple that with a divided Republican Party that's gonna have a contentious primary battle between three sitting Congressmen each trying to be the furthest right guy in the room, and you have an unusually tangible path to victory for a Georgia Democrat.  It's still odds-against with this being a midterm year when black turnout tends to decline, but if Paul Broun is the Republican nominee, as he well may be, this thing isn't out of the realm for Nunn.  Leans Republican.

Iowa--The biggest recruiting fail on the part of Republicans this year is in Iowa, where all the top-tier and second-tier GOP would-be candidates passed on running for the seat vacated by long-time Democrat Tom Harkin, leaving Republicans facing a primary crowded with candidates nobody's heard of.  Meanwhile, Democrats settled early on Congressman Bruce Braley, who right now looks pretty formidable despite the shaky political environment for Democrats.  With all that in mind, Iowa has been known for swinging pretty hard from left to right and if the political climate gets ugly enough and one of the Republican candidates ends up running a strong campaign and catching the right breaks, this one is still easily winnable for the GOP.  Leans Democrat.

Louisiana--Only a fool would underestimate Mary Landrieu who has threaded the needle and pulled off three victories as a Democrat who is well to the left of center in a state that is Republican and getting more so.  But she's always had the good fortune of running in favorable or neutral political environments.  She won't have that good fortune in 2014 and running against her strongest GOP challenge since at least 1996 with Congressman Bill Cassidy, I'm leaning towards her borrowed time running out.  She can still win to be sure, but considering the tide she's fighting in Louisiana, I'd much rather be in Cassidy's shoes.  Tilts Republican +3

Michigan--The conventional wisdom suggests Gary Peters still has the inside track to holding Carl Levin's seat for the Democrats, but Republicans have a viable challenger in Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land given the state's Democratic tilt, but early polling shows Land is definitely in this should she get the nomination.  It would take a tough political environment for Democrats to lose a Senate race in Michigan, but with Obama's approval rating at 40-42% right now, the environment may be sufficiently tough for the Democrats to pull it off.  Tilts Democrat.

Minnesota--Recent polling shows Al Franken pretty well-positioned for a second term, but knowing the wild volatility of Minnesota the way I do, I just sense he's gonna have a tougher go of it than polls currently indicate.  Neither of his two primary Republican challengers inspire much confidence, but State Senator Julianne Ortmann has pressed the flesh pretty impressively since declaring her Senate bid while businessman Mike McFadden's ability to self-finance could prove hazardous to Franken's future if McFadden has campaign skills to match his cash.  It's still an uphill climb for either of them, but at the same time it would surprise me if Franken survived this race with the upper-single-digit margin of victory that some early polls show.  Leans Democrat.

Montana--Obama and the Democrats pulled a very clever trick last month by appointing the retiring, execrable corporate Democrat Max Baucus to some ambassadorship.  Once confirmed by a Senate that no longer has to abide by filibuster rules for executive appointments, Montana's Democratic Governor gets to appoint his replacement to fill out the rest of Baucus's term.  The likelihood is that Lieutenant Governor John Walsh, who was running for the seat anyway, will get the appointment and then have a quasi-incumbency heading into the 2014 general election.  It was a very crafty little scheme, but I'm not convinced it's gonna help Walsh (or whoever the Democrat who gets appointed ends up being) in keeping this seat in Democratic hands.  It's entirely possible that it could hurt the cause if the Democratic Senator has to make some unpopular votes in Republican-leaning Montana.  Congressman Steve Daines is running on the Republican side and in this political climate would seem to have the advantage either in an open seat or against half-year incumbent Walsh.  Leans Republican.  +4 GOP

New Hampshire--Scott Brown is probably not buying a home in New Hampshire and going through the whole process of moving from Massachusetts just to give the DSCC heartburn.  That's why I think he's planning to run against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, and polls indicate he's the only possible Republican candidate who puts this seat in play.  Given that Brown shocked the world in Massachusetts just four short years ago and held Elizabeth Warren to single digits two years ago, it's a fair bet that he'll pose a real threat to Shaheen in a purple state in a more defensive political climate.  Of course, nobody knows yet if Brown is running as it could still be a headfake, albeit a very complex and costly headfake, on his part.  If Brown does run this race is Tilt Democrat and if he doesn't it's Likely Democrat, so given the ambiguity, I'll split the difference and rate it as Leans Democrat.

North Carolina--When I last analyzed these races, Kay Hagan seemed like the one red state Democrat well-positioned for victory, but as Obama's fortunes have soured, polls suggest Hagan's have as well, and she's either tied or behind in the recent round of polls.  For an incumbent that's a terrible place to be, but still working in her favor is a contested Republican primary where the frontrunner is the GOP leader of the extremely unpopular state House, Thom Tills.  By a thread, I'm sticking with my instinct that Tills will provide enough material for Hagan to anchor him to the state legislature which is even more unpopular in NC than Obama, perhaps enough to eke out a win if Dems can raise turnout above the recent midterm standards.  That's a lot of ifs, but the law of averages says the Dems will catch a break somewhere in the country no matter how strong the partisan headwinds, and this still strikes me as the state where they're most likely to catch that break.  Tilts Democrat.

Oregon--This is a pretty borderline state for competitiveness, particularly since the Republicans don't have a serious challenger at this point, but Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley has never really lit Oregon on fire with his popularity and in a rough enough political climate I can envision him vulnerable, much like Patty Murray from neighboring Washington was in 2010, before ultimately prevailing.  But again, there is no tangible evidence at this point that Merkley is in any trouble, so I'll stand by the conventional wisdom that he has a decisive edge here.  Leans Democrat.

South Dakota--If Oregon is barely within the ranks of the competitive in one direction, South Dakota is barely competitive in the other direction.  If everything goes according to script on the Republican side and former Governor Mike Rounds gets the GOP nomination, this race is almost certainly over and Tim Johnson's seat will effortlessly flip red.  Democrat Rick Weiland looks like a lightweight on paper and it's hard to imagine him having enough game to win in South Dakota in this political environment if he's up against Rounds.  But Rounds doesn't have the nomination yet, and former Senator Larry Pressler's oddball independent run throws another monkey wrench into the race.  Still, everything points in the direction of a Republican pick-up for this seat.  Leans Republican.  +5 GOP

West Virginia--The Democratic Party is in a state of collapse in West Virginia, largely as a result of the declining coal industry and the role the national Democratic Party has played in its decline, and as a result it's odds-on that Jay Rockefeller's retirement will bring about the first Republican Senator in the state in nearly 60 years.  Frankly Joe Manchin should consider himself lucky to have snuck in to a six-year term before the bottom fell out.  Secretary of State Natalie Tennant was an impressive recruiting coup for the Dems and is easily their best candidate to hold this seat, but if Shelley Moore Capito gets the Republican nomination as predicted, it's very hard to see how Tennant comes within 10 points in the current political climate.  There are still some variables in this race but right now I'd be shocked if Capito didn't skate to victory.  Leans Republican.  +6 GOP

So even after several months since my last round of predictions, my ratings are unchanged as I predict the GOP will regain Senate control by picking up the same six seats I picked before.  The unchanged final outcome undersells the extent to which Democratic strength has slipped, however, with a few more seats in play (all with Republicans on offense) and with one additional seat (North Carolina) perilously close to the tipping point of tilting GOP.  As I said in the beginning of this writeup, the Democrats could lose 10 or more seats if the GOP scores the kind of inside flush that aren't unheard of in wave elections.  Right now I don't think that worst-case scenario for Democrats will happen, but any more drama at all with the Obamacare rollout or slippage in the still-fragile economy is likely to make that 10+ seat GOP gain a reality.  Democrats better really hope the Republicans screw up as badly as usual in their candidate selection in this spring's primaries.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Saying Goodbye To "Inside Washington" After A Quarter Century

It was January 1992, when I was in eighth grade, when I first stumbled into "Inside Washington" during the Saturday evening dinnertime hour on PBS.  I was obsessed with the Democratic primary drama unfolding in what, at the time, seemed like a kamikaze race against popular "war President" George H.W. Bush.  I had taken a passing interest in politics in the weeks leading up to elections in prior years, but it was the 1992 primaries that was my first foray into politics at the obsessive level I've operated at since then.  And despite my frustration with the minimal conversation about my preferred candidate that year, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, "Inside Washington" was a guiding light to mainstream media sentiment about the state of the race that I wasn't getting from conversations with my dad on the issue. 

I deviated from "Inside Washington" quite a bit throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, catching it only semiregularly except during the heat of election season.  But in late 2002 or early 2003 during the march to war in Iraq I settled into a weekly pattern of watching the show and have followed it loyally in the decade since as it's been bounced around the PBS schedule from Friday nights to Sunday mornings back to Friday nights.  And having consumed many hours of "round table"-style political shows over the years, I can say without hesitation that "Inside Washington" was my favorite.  It wasn't as tabloidy and gimmicky as cable news, not as exhausting and confrontational as "The McLaughlin Group", not as technocratic as "Washington Week", and featured a much more stable and reliable cast of characters than do the revolving door "round tables" on Sunday morning shows like "Meet the Press".  It hit the sweet spot with an engaging and intelligent discussion of political events with a "comfort food" panel of old reliables.

The pundit panel was really made "Inside Washington" stand out.  Moderated by Washington broadcaster Gordon Peterson, journalists such as Charles Krauthammer, Evan Thomas and Nina Totenberg were mainstays on the series going back to my first viewings of the series nearly 22 years ago.  A couple of other old Washington hats like Jack Germond and Carl Rowan have come and gone as series regulars, but in 2006 the series found its missing puzzle piece with the incomparable left-leaning political old hat Mark Shields, a PBS mainstay who brought his sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of politics to the set and added even more chemistry amongst the regulars.  With the addition of Shields as a more aggressive counterbalance to the right-wing Krauthammer, I thought the last several years of "Inside Washington" were its best.  Shields also helped offset one of the show's biggest drawbacks...the elitism of its insulated political journalists who seemed detached from the human toll of public policy.  Shields seemed to speak to the plight of the average joe in a way the others did not.

I've always been someone who holds on tight to institutions that I have a history with.  In a world that constantly changes, I've been forced to let go of a lot of pastimes that for whatever reason haven't stood the test of time.  But one of the few rocks of my upbringing that has always been around and that I never even considered would go away was "Inside Washington".  After this evening's broadcast, another one bites the dust.  And I don't expect to find another political talk show as engaging to replace it either.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

No, Obamacare's Failure Will Not Be The End of Big Government Liberalism

People who analyze politics and elections for a living are prone to breathless, sweeping proclamations of permanent realignment.  When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, most election analysts echoed Karl Rove's long-standing fantasy that a generation-long conservative Republican majority had just been solidified.  Two years later, the Democrats took back both Houses of Congress.  After the 2008 election of Obama, the same people who overinterpreted the 2004 election results returned to tell us that it was the Democrats who now owned the hearts and souls of American voters for the foreseeable future, and that the Republican Party had become a rump regional party of the South similar to the late 19th century Southern Democrats.  Two years later, Republicans picked up the House with a sweeping 63-seat gain in the 2010 midterms.  And after Obama's re-election in 2012, the hourglass was again set on the Republicans' demographic doomsday.  Suffice it to say that I think both parties will be equally strong, on balance, for the rest of my lifetime no matter how much the "coalition of the ascendant" is currently aligned with Democrats.  Political circumstances change and the painful consequences of governing a nation in systemic decline will always pivot the partisan allegiances of the governing party's coalition.

With that in mind, what to make of the disastrous rollout of Obamacare and its political consequences?  In the short-term, it probably means the Democrats are looking at a 2014 midterm election comparable to the 2010 midterm, losing a lot of their coalition from last year that will be rendered losers of Obamacare, functional website or not.  But the long-term political fallout is trickier to calculate.  Democrats will own Obamacare like a scarlet letter for a generation to be sure, but what about all the grandiose, overarching proclamations by histrionic political analysts and giddy right-wing columnists talking about Obamacare's failure representing the permanent death of big government liberalism?  To put it bluntly, ain't gonna happen.  Why not?  Because in today's America, voters have no other choice but government to avoid spiraling into Third World conditions.

Had Medicare proven as disastrous of a policy shift back in the mid-1960s as Obamacare appears poised to be today, it's very possible we would have seen a shift away from big government liberalism.  In a sense we did as the rest of the Great Society legislation was met with widespread voter revulsion and produced the shift towards conservatism in the 1970s and Reaganism in the 1980s.  But big government's overreach in the late 1960s occurred amidst the backdrop of an ascendant middle class who earned the vast majority of their incomes and benefit packages from the unionized private sector that they worked in.  Two generations ago, the majority of Americans could live without the help of activist government in a way they no longer can after nearly 40 years of declining wages and stolen benefits that have skinned and gutted the shrinking middle class.

That's why no matter how much blood is spilled with the implementation (and possible outright collapse) of Obamacare, voters will still look to government to clean up the pieces and provide them a worthy replacement.  Because even amidst Obamacare's hypothetical wreckage, there will be a complete vacuum of private sector remedies, as the puppetmasters in the private sector will respond to Obamacare's collapse in the same way they have responded to everything that's happened in American life in my consolidating resources for themselves and producing no viable alternative for the overwhelming majority of Americans whose grasp on maintaining their livelihoods is slipping more each year.

The demand for services that used to be provided by employers but no longer is will not disappear no matter how outraged Joe Sixpack is at government for Obamacare's failure. And government is the only game in town to fill the void.  If not government, then who?

Nobody.  That's why it's gonna be big government every single time.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Obamacare: The Democrats' Iraq War

Long-time readers of Mark My Words were aware of my long-standing misgivings about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act dating back to 2009.  While I understood the dilemma of having to pass a health care reform plan within the confines of the politically possible, the Rube Goldberg contraption that we ended up with for health care reform seemed like a minefield rife with pitfalls, any number of which could sabotage the legislation and the political future of the Democratic Party that single-handedly pushed it through.  For the last three years, I've anticipated the moment of the PPACA rollout, preparing for the worst but hoping these guys knew what they were doing.  But nothing could have prepared me for the extent of the ineptitude that has been Obamacare's rollout.

The primary issue has been the nonfunctioning website, which most people have simply rolled their eyes at, viewing it as the typical operational incompetence of the federal government, but not something cataclysmic for the law itself.  Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but the longer the website is down, the more problematic it becomes for the implementation of the law itself.  Raising more eyebrows has been the recent revelation that Obama misled Americans with his promise that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it".  While there were some grandfather clauses in the original legislation that made that claim technically true at the time, everybody tacitly understood it wouldn't hold up with newer policies picked up in the three years between the law's passage and its implementation.  The result is that Obama now looks like a used car salesman playing fast and loose with the facts and resulting in some health care consumers paying up to thousands of dollars per year more for their health care.  Whether the canceled policies were deemed "junk" or not, that qualifier is too complicated to sufficiently explain and be taken seriously following Obama's iron clad assurances in 2009 and 2010.

Predictably, Obama's approval rating  has dropped a few points in recent weeks, but we've only scratched the surface regarding the potential ill effects of the law and of the political fallout for the Democratic Party in 2014 and beyond, which is already making Democrats up for Senate re-election next year sweat.  Thus far, the public is mostly just shrugging and laughing about the website's failures, not making the connection for how it will affect their own health care premiums next year if this website situation isn't fixed.  And even though Obama's fibs about keeping your own plan have left a bad taste in the mouths of just about everybody on both sides of the political divide, only 5% of health care consumers are in the individual market, and most of them are small business owners, the self-employed, and farmers, who are generally already Republican voters and who hated the law before finding out the extent to which they would be screwed by it.  Don't expect the list of Obamacare "losers" to remain this contained in another 12 months.

On the list of Obamacare untruths, "if you like your plan you can keep it" may not even rank among the top-three by next year at this time.  A much bigger fib with the potential for much greater long-term damage is the delirious notion that Obamacare will "not add one penny to the deficit".  The public never believed that nostrum, and rightfully not.  There were a few inside baseball provisions inserted into the PPACA that could potentially reduce some costs in our dysfunctional health care delivery apparatus, but nowhere near enough to offset the Medicaid expansion or the subsidies offered to those in the exchanges.  The public is supposed to be assuaged about the fact that those being kicked off their current plans will be able to sign up for a more comprehensive plan, and even if they can't afford it, there are likely subsidies that will be able to help them.  But if as many people qualify for the subsidies as even the law's proponents suggest, that money's gotta come from somewhere, and that will almost certainly increase the deficit.

The administration insists it was a little surprised by how many states opted out of running their own exchanges and thus being dumped into a federal exchange that will be forced to serve far more people than originally predicted.  They also point to the successes of state-run exchanges thus far compared to the federal government, but even that is misleading.  Even in the states with most successfully run exchanges--Washington and Kentucky--nearly 90% of the people that have signed on have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  Only around 15% have signed up for actual policies from the insurance companies, and the conventional wisdom is that most of those 15% are sick people with preexisting conditions, denied coverage up until now.  There's little indication that the uninsured 20-somethings needed to sign up for these policies to funnel money into the insurance pool are doing so, and in my opinion, little reason to expect they will.

If it's a choice between a $300-per-month insurance policy or a $100 per year tax penalty, budget-challenged young people will see little upside to the former.  And as for the latter, I still don't understand how this tax penalty will be enforced.  How will the government know who should have bought health care but didn't?  Everything is adding up to a reform plan where the economic model will not work, and I can't see how anybody ever expected it would even with a perfectly running website.  Since the PPACA's passage, I figured there had to have something I was missing which would make the complicated legislation make sense upon implementation.  Policy wonks like Ezra Klein and Jon Chait who are far smarter than I am insisted repeatedly this plan was structurally sound, and eventually I came to believe that they had to be mostly right.  But as of November 10, 2013, I'm less able to see it than ever before.

I guess I take partial solace that, after a rocky start, Massachusetts has been fairly successful with its health care plan that would later become Obamacare, but Massachusetts didn't have to deal with the systemic sabotage of an opposition party the federal the overseers of Obamacare will at the federal level.  And that leads us to the most sickening part of this sordid saga, the part where the monstrous cynicism of the Republican Party will be rewarded by voters, potentially for a generation to come.  From its inception in the halls of the Heritage Foundation and the brainstorms of Newt Gingrich to its original implementation at the hands of Mitt Romney when he was Massachusetts Governor, the Rube Goldberg contraption that is Obamacare IS the Republican template for health care reform.....yet the Republican Party has forced the Democrats to own it.  They have no fingerprints at all on the health care reform policy their party championed up until January 20, 2009, and they can and will point to every speed bump that emerges in American health care for a generation or longer to come as a byproduct of "what Obama did to them".

I get that the Democrats had to seize their narrow window in 2009 and 2010 to reform our disastrous health care system, but in retrospect they signed on to a terrible deal, both in terms of public policy and for their own political future. The toxic flotsam of Republican cynics and Democratic judases in their own midst first insisted on the passage of a health care reform plan designed first and foremost to placate insurance companies and preserve their extortionary business model rather than provide health care services to the American people, and then still walked away from the deal after they got what they demanded, decrying as "socialism" the very reform plan they not long ago offered up as a free market alternative.

Some of the most craven Republican cynics grandstanded at townhalls and on the floors of the House and Senate how health care reform should simply have consisted of a few tweaks to allow the uninsured and those with preexisting conditions to get coverage "rather than fundamentally change the entire health care system".  These guys are smart enough to know the economics of insurance doesn't work in a way where this was possible, but it's an effective sell to low-information voters worried about losing health insurance that they are satisfied with.  Ultimately, what the Democrats passed is likely to turn out much like what those grandstanders insisted upon, with only sick people joining the insurance pool and the people intended to bankroll them opting out, at which point we'll find out just how badly the economics for this are when we get our next health care premium notification in the mail.  And when that notification does come in the mail, far more Americans will have skin in the game for the failures of Obamacare than do today.....when Obama and his party are already losing credibility.  The new few election cycles look to be a bumpy ride for the Democrats, and it's astonishing how few people saw coming that it would be.