Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learning from LBJ

While the nation and the world await President Obama's decision on Afghanistan, it helps to look back on another president confronted with the prospect of escalating a war in a far-off land: Lyndon Johnson weighing his options in Vietnam. Comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam are a dime a dozen, but Bill Moyers has done an excellent job of bringing to life Johnson's agonized thinking.

So if you haven't yet seen it, check out the latest broadcast of Bill Moyers' Journal and LBJ's Path to War, Parts I and II.

LBJ's Path to War is composed almost entirely of still photographs accompanied by tape recordings of Johnson's telephone conversations with politicians, friends and government officials. Johnson's strong sense of Vietnam as a bad war, and his fear of the political consequences of withdrawal, make for agonized musings. I've seen references to these tapes before, but still find them riveting--and proof that you don't need "high production values" to make great television.

Moyers' broadcast is a great service. Let's hope our president and the country learn something from it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Mayoral Election in New York City

Mayor Bloomberg's surprisingly narrow victory over William Thompson illuminates two important issues: the mayor's relatively thin popularity in the city and Democrats' failure to win mayoral elections

With all the money he had to spend, all his ads, and all the powers of incumbency, Bloomberg won by far less than expected. Early in the evening, when the returns had him and Thompson only one percentage point apart, some people were even talking about an upset.

Early explanations with the narrowness of the race have turned on pollsters' fallibility, voter disgust with the mayor's flipflop on term limits, and resentment of his massive spending. But there's also the gnawing fact that Bloomberg's New York seems less and less hospitable to the middle and working class people who form its majority.

In his victory speech the mayor promised more jobs and more affordable housing, but it is his relatively thin achievements in this area that explain a lot of voters' frustration with Bloomberg. In many ways, he has been a very good mayor. But it is hard to escape the feeling that his city functions better for the rich than for the rest of us. And that, I suspect, contributed mightily to Bloomberg's relative unpopularity.

Thompson ran a weak campaign and came closer than anyone expected to beating the mayor. There will be many explanations for why this happened, but it is part of a pattern in recent New York history: the Democrats' inability to come up with strong, winning candidates.

In a city where Democrats are the great majority, more than once we have seen Democrats lose narrowly to Republicans. Giuliani over David Dinkins and Ruth Messinger; Mike Bloomberg over Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer, and now Bloomberg over Thompson. The Democrats don't seem to be able to turn their advantage in numbers into consistent mayoral victories.

The explanation for why this is so will have to wait for another day. But the Democrats really have some soul searching to do. In retrospect, more than anyone imagined, this was an election that their candidate could have won. Now they job is to figure out why he lost.