Sunday, July 29, 2012


With Mitt Romney throwing up all over his shoes in England and Israel, insulting entire countries, leaking details of meetings with secret agent men and canceling meeting with opposition leaders, don't be surprised if this time next week you're hearing about his new running mate.  The timing would be fortuitous - next Friday brings the latest round of employment data, which, if good, would be trumped by a VP announcement and, if bad, would allow Romney to amplify his "the economy sucks, elect me" message by giving the American people their first images of him and his Vice President to-be. So, who will Mitt pick?  Noted blogger Chris Cillizza ( identified six contenders, let's take a look:

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell: Being nicknamed "Transvaginal Ultrasound Guy" may get you votes in the Tidewater region of Virginia, but good luck trying to sell your brand of reactionary right-wing social policy that includes a graduate school thesis on the evils of homosexuality and an Executive Order honoring "Confederate History Month." Plus, your economy is propped up by a torrent of government dollars that flow into Northern Virginia. This stuff won't play with upper middle class, socially liberal white people in the suburbs. Not going to happen. You've also been Governor for a whole two years, not exactly someone steeped in the complexities of the global economy, our military or the challenges we face as a nation.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty:  You remember him, right? No. Oh right, he was such a weak Presidential candidate that he dropped out after finishing third in an Iowa straw poll last summer and was never heard from again. Supposedly able to get those "Wal-Mart Republicans" (that term isn't too insulting) by dusting off his bona fides as the son of a a truck driver. Of course, Mitt calls people like this "the hired help," but have at it.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal:  Pros: Smart, young, Indian-American. Cons: Compared unfavorably to an NBC page from the show 30 Rock. Does Mitt want a guy standing next to him that looks like he just wrote his graduate thesis? I didn't think so.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman:  The mainstream media's favorite.  He comes from a swing state (where he won election by 18 points) has a resume a mile long that includes stints as a Congressman, U.S. Trade Representative, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and now, U.S. Senator. He's outwardly bland, sober and establishment.  In other words, he's Mitt Romney, if Romney had spent the last 20 years in government. Lowest risk and "safest" pick, by far, though if he is picked, expect his time in the George W. Bush Administration to be raised ad nauseum.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio: Chests heave throughout the right-wing of the Republican party when this 40something darling's name is brought up. Although his personal biography has taken a bit of a hit lately, there's no denying he is a compelling, charismatic and engaging politician. The problem? He could turn out to be Sarah Palin with a combover. 

Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan: He's buff (a P-90X devotee), the unchallenged godfather of modern Congressional fiscal policy, he gets encomiums from the Beltway media because his budget, which ends Medicare and turns it into a voucher system, cuts Medicaid, and raises taxes on poor people is considered "brave," and he has nowhere to go in his current political perch. Herb Kohl's Senate seat is up this year and the other Senator is a Republican whose re-election race is still 4 years away. His state's governor is a Republican (albeit a controversial one) who will, unless he's indicted, run for re-election. 

On top of that, for whatever human emotion Mitt Romney possesses, he seems to genuinely like Ryan, which matters on a national ticket. By picking Ryan, Romney will burnish his right-wing credentials, fire up his base and show his commitment to the GOP version of "fiscal restraint." For Ryan, there's very little downside to being on the 2012 GOP ticket. If they win, he gets to be Vice President, and likely gets handed the budget portfolio in the Romney Administration. If they lose, he goes back to being a Congressman whose reputation on budget matters remains unaffected. He's a player in any negotiation about tax reform policy, has a say over all fiscal matters, can continue to broaden his national profile and gets mentioned as a potential 2016 GOP nominee.  Seems like a no-brainer to me. 

So there you have it kids. Romney/Ryan 2012.  You heard it here first.

Book Review - Little America

Little America, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book about America's decade long war in Afghanistan, could have just as easily been called "Obama's Folly," as the author systematically dissects the errors and missteps that accompanied the President's focus on what had been our "forgotten war" under George W. Bush.  In the same way Thomas Ricks's Fiasco laid bare the myriad mistakes made in Iraq, Chandrasekaran has written the definitive account of our "surge" in Afghanistan. 

The title of the book comes from a post-World War II effort by the U.S. government to irrigate, dam and enrich the arable land in Helmand Province.  This idealism was tinged with colonialism - if only these poor peasants were provided the tools of modern agriculture, they would succeed.  Of course, our government contractors misjudged everything from the strength of the soil to its salinity, inadvertently doing greater harm than good and in the process, engendering a fair amount of ill will for promises unkept. Like so much of what we would do decades later, Chandrasakaren's framing of the effort, with an initial price tag of $17 million that ultimately more than tripled to $63.7 million (roughly $600 million in today's dollars) ended up being a cautionary tale in our ability to project our Western technology and prowess to a country that had, in many ways, missed the entire Industrial Revolution. A project that began in the early 1950s went uncompleted well into the 1970s, until the then-Prime Minister beseeched Henry Kissinger to complete it, which itself became a fool's errand when the Soviets invaded. 

Chandrasekaran's story fast forwards from Ford-era works projects to the early days of the Obama Administration - conceding, as should be noted, that the Bush years, save the first few months after we invaded Afghanistan, were a largely undersourced battle that allowed the Taliban to slowly chip away at American gains as troops were shifted to Iraq, other countries were reluctant to join the battle, and trust between the citizenry and the tribal leaders who ruled, often despotically, eroded. Indeed, threaded throughout the story's narrative is the sense that the Americans and their allies never truly grasped the little "p" politics at work in Afghanistan. Peasants and farmers did not aim for a Jeffersonian democracy, but simply wanted competence without graft from their leaders. They did not necessarily need air conditioning or modern technology, they needed a way to earn a living, free of bribery and shakedowns with a level of security that did not make them fear leaving their homes. When the allies failed to provide these things through the Bush years, the reemergence of the Taliban was unsurprising. 

As with many stories of war, the heroes are the "boots on the ground," the late teen and early 20something privates, lance corporals and grunts who do much of the fighting and dying. The higher up the food chain Chandrasekaran goes, the more dysfunction he sees. The Marine Corps, who, as a unit, come through as fearless defenders of country (and glad we should all be for that), are also zealous protectors of their prerogatives, which results in their being detailed to Helmand Province, which was considered less strategically important than Kandahar Province, but because the Marines deployed first under Obama's initial "surge" of 17,000 troops and were not within the Army chain of command, they alit for the more sparsely populated western province. As a result, large swaths of countryside were brought under control but the impact of that achievement was dubious. Marja, which was elevated by General McChrystal as an example of the so-called "counter-insurgency" (COIN) strategy, ended up being a "bleeding ulcer" because the "government in a box" McChrystal promised did not end up doing what it was supposed to do. When McChrystal brought Afghan President Karzai to Marja a few weeks after the Marines secured it, he was met with a fusillade of criticism from residents, who complained bitterly about the years of graft and corruption that stemmed from Kabul and the leaders it appointed to run Marja. 

Meanwhile, as the story unfolds, it turns out that many of the assumptions about COIN sold to the Obama team turn out to be unmet. Successes end up being largely due to more aggressive raids and use of Special Operations - something that Vice President Biden had advocated for - a smaller, but more focused footprint - but had been derided in private meetings by the generals and in print in a now-famous Rolling Stone article that ended up getting McChrystal fired for insubordination.  Further, Chandrasekaran points out that COIN was not universally adopted among the generals leading the effort. The attempt to fit what was part of a larger policy to pacify Iraqi Sunnis in a country with far greater infrastructure and natural resources simply does not end up making as meaningful a change in a rural, land locked environment with myriad tribes and allegiances. 

More damning is Chandrasekaran's discussion of the Pakistani ISI's complicity in cultivating the insurgency, hiding its leaders and funding its efforts. Even as U.S. troops and Marines made progress throughout the South, we learn that Pakistani elements were providing safe haven for the Taliban on the other side of the border and blocking American efforts to capture or kill battlefield leaders. The ISI turned a blind eye as tons of ammonium nitrate made its way through Pakistan to be processed into bombs by Taliban fighters, drugs were trafficked through the mountains to help fund the insurgency and, as the 30,000 troop surge that began in 2010 came to bear, providing more sophisticated weaponry directly to the Taliban. That a purported American ally had blood on its hands even as we sent billions in aid to them should outrage us all. 

But if the conspiratorial action of the ISI makes your blood boil, the sometimes comic efforts at "nation building" will make you laugh, if it does not make you cry because of the hundreds of millions that went down the drain (or more accurately, into the pockets of perfidious Afghan warlords and American contractors). Chandrasekaran tells of USAID employees who burn out quickly from being in country, or are overwhelmed by the scope of their work or are ignored/denied by their supervisors.  Everyone churned at a healthy clip, so one boss's pet projects became another's bane. One program, AVIPA, flooded Helmand with $30 million in agricultural support in ONE YEAR ($400 for every man, woman and child), a "sugar rush" of funding that provided a short-term spike in economic development but could not be sustained over the long-term. In Kandahar, a program to distribute seed for crops resulted in driving prices down and extra grain was sold on the black market. AVIPA paid farmers to clear irrigation ditches they would have done without being paid and items like protective sheeting for crops were delivered too late to be of use and largely went to waste. 

Meanwhile, many civilians rarely left protected bases to get into the country to see how funds could (or should) be directed. When ideas that made sense for Afghanis were raised, such as the utility of planting cotton as an alternative to poppy plants, bureaucrats shot down those ideas because of an overly rigid interpretation of something called the "Bumpers Amendment," which does not allow U.S. funds to help foreign cotton producers (even though the chances that any cotton from Afghanistan could have any impact on American exports was laughable). Instead, farmers were encouraged to plant crops like pomegranates, that take years to mature, instead of cotton, which can be harvested the first year it is planted and would have provided meaningful income.  Of course, left with the choice between starvation and money, farmers simply went back to growing poppy, spiking production throughout Southern Afghanistan.  A $225 million diesel generator that one general described as a "bridge to nowhere" went forward largely because others at senior levels of the military did not want to be embarrassed by having to cancel the project even though, as the general noted, Afghanis would have seen little increase in electricity, and in many villages, "when the sun does down, it gets dark and that's fine." 

At the highest levels of government, back biting, bureaucratic sniping and pettiness slowed the war (and peace) effort.  To be sure, leaders have egos, but to read about senior officials pulling schoolyard stunts like directing subordinates to not attend meetings convened by other leaders, scheduling meetings on short notice (or when another principal was known to be out of town) or attempting to keep one another out of meetings with the President is maddening. The likelihood of "success" in Afghanistan was low by the time Obama came into office, but to add a degree of difficulty like this simply defies reason. And when officials weren't taking target practice at each other, they simply ignored orders. One particularly damning statement is attributed to a member of Petraeus's staff who, when asked by Chandrasekaran about the "term sheet" Obama issued when he announced the 30,000 troop surge, replied, "we didn't pay much attention to that memo." Wow. 

Equally depressing are the smaller stories Chandrasekaran tells, of high minded people who signed up for service because they wanted to play a small part in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, only to be stymied by a host of obstacles - bureaucracy, ineffective leadership and tentativeness on the part of those in charge of making decisions to allow for those willing to take initiative and run with it.  For example, Chandrasekaran introduces us to Summer Coish, a woman who had spent a lot of time in Kazakhstan and was so eager to serve that she tracked down Richard Holbrooke and left a copy of a magazine she edited with the doorman of his building. Shortly thereafter, Coish was on her way to Afghanistan with USAID, except her paperwork took months to get through. Once there, she discovered the base she was assigned to discouraged staff from traveling while loading the heavily armed compound with the amenities of home - fast food, alcohol and air conditioning - while the people they were putatively sent to help continued living in squalor. Others, like State Department political advisor Kael Weston, Brigadier General Ken Dahl (he, of the "bridge to nowhere" statement regarding a planned generator) and Wes Harris, an agricultural specialist from the University of Georgia are all portrayed as well meaning and diligent whose efforts are frustrated by the same obstacles Coish encountered.  

Of course, Chandrasekaran's perch as a a journalist affords him the ability to advocate for a policy purity that anyone who has worked in government knows rarely exists. At times, Little America gives short shrift to the broader achievements that have occurred in such a short period of time, particularly when one considers how long this forgotten war went on before it was fully resourced.  Where policy is made at the highest levels of government, with so many competing interests and opinions, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made. What is tragic in anything related to war is that the costs end up being dead Americans while those who make the mistakes pay a far smaller price. This is not to take away from the many shortcomings Chandrasekaran discusses, but rather, to say that silver linings to these grey clouds should not be diminished. That said, the book's final chapter is damning and makes a convincing case for the folly of our effort. Little America is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this complex military, political and policy challenge that has vexed our leaders for more than 10 years.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Meaning(lessness) of Aurora

The pattern has become so familiar, it is almost as if TV networks have it in a box in a closet each time it happens - a random mass murder occurs, graphics are prepared, an appropriately somber musical number is scored, and reporters scramble to the site, accumulating knowledge about the shooter in fits and starts, interviewing survivors, highlighting a victim whose story is either tragic or heroic or senseless. Politicians express moral outrage, speak of healing and the nation as a family. We quickly grow accustomed to the briefings of law enforcement, first every few hours, then once a day, interwoven with the fast filling portrait of the lone gunman, by Facebook posts or comments by neighbors, long forgotten snippets from childhood, a teacher who might remember the killer as young boy, as we seek to glean motive or rationale for the evil that lurked within him.

A funeral is held, an appropriate level of solemnity is achieved, the gunman is buried (suicide or “death by cop” sometimes happens) or indicted and begins his long process through the criminal justice system and then .. and then, well, life goes back to normal, which is to say the camera crews pack up, the reporters return to their regularly scheduled work, the stories move to the back page of the paper or the end of the newscast before disappearing completely, the survivors are left to deal with their mental anguish, the families of the victims to grieve and mourn. The words that bubble up, "large capacity magazines," "assault weapons," "Kevlar," and others, float away because we have accepted these massacres as both freak occurrences and acts of lone wolves, failing to tie together the ease with which people can acquire not just guns, rifles, shotguns and assault rifles, but ammunition, bulletproof vests and other devices of mayhem to cause this level of destruction.

Of course, underlying our collective failure to act on random acts of violence are the dual forces of the "gun lobby" and our willful blindness to the daily, less publicized incidences of firearms-related killings, assaults and accidental deaths. Just three days before the mass killing in Aurora, a 2 year old who lived in Denver but was visiting his grandparents in Utah accidentally killed himself when he was left unattended, found his grandfather's gun, and pulled the trigger. Over one weekend in Chicago last month, 8 people were killed and 46 were wounded in a variety of gun-related crimes. On and on it goes. Consider that according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), between 2002-07, more than 182,000 people died in gun-related incidents, with 73,148 of those attributed to homicide[1]. Was public policy changed in the wake of any of these, or the myriad incidents of gun-related death that could fill a Google search from now until the end of time? No.

The gun lobby has ingrained in the public's mind that the Second Amendment is inviolate (it's not). When Charlton Heston, as a leader of the NRA, said the government would pry a rifle from his "cold dead hands," it became an iconic moment in the history of that organization and the pithy thought that people kill people, guns don't kill people, is a car bumper sticker. The idea that MORE weapons will somehow make our society safer, not more dangerous, has taken root, and in many states, gun regulation has become lax, on everything from concealed weapons to where you are legally permitted to carry that concealed weapon. In Texas, your gun permit is an acceptable form of identification at the voting booth, but a student identification card is not.

The Supreme Court has held that certain firearms cannot be banned but others can. Further, it stated that some regulations of firearms pass constitutional muster (they even set up a handy, though somewhat tortured, "test" to determine same). So let's stop pretending that it is not possible to regulate guns. In fact, an assault weapons ban was passed in 1994, but when it came up for renewal in 2004, President Bush and the Republicans in Congress let it lapse. That law also banned, albeit with several easy to evade loopholes, the manufacture of large capacity magazines. It too expired in 2004, which allowed the man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others to shoot 30 bullets from his weapon without re-loading. Efforts to reinstate the ban on large capacity magazines after the mass shooting in Arizona quickly ran aground. Score another one for the gun lobby.

Until national political leaders stand up on gun policy, like so many other things, our country will continue to stratify - in some states, people walk into public places with concealed firearms, can "stand your ground" and fire weapons at people who they think are trying to do them harm and easily purchase copious amounts of ammunition and large capacity magazines without approbation. In others, strict limits result in straw purchasers trafficking weapons from states with looser regulation, flooding inner cities with guns that are used in the commission of crimes. And so the beat goes on, the media stand at the ready with their pre-packaged and ready to open saturation coverage of the next tragedy, full of pathos and string arrangements, politicians' lapels are prepared for the attachment of the inevitable ribbons, communities will lay flowers at the site of the shooting and we, as a nation, will do nothing about it.



Friday, July 20, 2012

My So-Called Dating Life

Phil: What are you looking for? Who is your perfect guy?
Rita: First of all, he's too humble to know he's perfect.
Phil: That's me.
Rita: He's intelligent, supportive, funny.
Phil: Me, me, me.
Rita: He's romantic and courageous.
Phil: Me also.
Rita: He's got a good body, but doesn't look in the mirror every two minutes.
Phil: I have a great body, and sometimes, I go months without looking.  
Rita: He's kind, sensitive and gentle.                  
Rita: He's not afraid to cry in front of me.
Phil: This is a man, right?
Rita: He likes animals and children, and he'll change poopy diapers.
Phil: Does he have to use the word "poopy"?
Rita: And he plays an instrument, and he loves his mother.
Phil: I am really close on this one.

- Groundhog Day

Anyone familiar with this 1993 classic knows that Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a venal, egotistical weatherman who gets trapped re-living Groundhog Day over and over again as a sort of karmic comeuppance for his bad behavior.  At first, Phil takes advantage of his free pass through the wormhole in time, drinking, stealing and seducing without any of it mattering because the following morning the day just starts over again with the slate wiped clean.  Phil ultimately decides to set his sights on seducing TV producer Rita (Andie McDowell), slowly accumulating knowledge about her so that each time they interact, she feels as though they have more and more in common.  In Phil's mind, if he can crack the code to convince Rita to have sex with him, he can simply relive *that* day over and over, making his life complete.  Eventually, Phil realizes that he has to use his odd power both for personal growth and to help others.  Once he does this, he wins Rita's heart (but without the sex), breaking the cycle and allowing him to make it to February 3rd.  

Now a little more than a year into my single life, I've started to re-think Phil and Rita's exchange.  Obviously, the thrust of the scene, and the movie more generally, was to show that this otherwise egocentric and arrogant guy needed to understand that he could not use people and manipulate them for his own personal gain, but in the context of dating, Rita put her finger on a phenomenon that has only gained sharper relief in the Internet Age - the exhaustive checklist of required personality traits that, absent even one, immediately gets one disqualified from consideration for "dating" or a "relationship," both of which feel like antiquated terms in a time where the Moore's Law of interaction can reduce screening down to a typo in a text message. 

Those of you who read my prior blog post, "Emancipation Day" (available at:, know that I am divorced. My ex-wife moved out of our home in December 2010 and our divorce became final in July 2011.  In that time, I have re-entered, in fits and starts, the dating world.  While at first I welcomed the opportunity to meet new women, I quickly came to realize that having been "institutionalized" to a certain degree by a long-term relationship (the last time I "dated," Bill Clinton had just been sworn in as President for his first term) the simple act of "getting to know someone" was tricky - you take for granted the familiarity marriage brings (even if a healthy dose of contempt comes with it). In addition, I'm not a "player" and I have no "game," I'm a very low key, some would say, shy person, who can have trouble getting to know people - always have been, always will. I'm a bit nerdy and not much for clubs and bars, spend a lot of time reading and exercising (when I'm not working) and try to limit time spent on a cell phone (not because of the radiation, but because of the generally poor quality of the service). Not exactly a promising combination for a newly single person. 

Adding to the degree of difficulty are two potential disqualifiers: First, I do not want to get married (again).  When people ask me why, my answer is simple - it's that I can't afford to get divorced again. I'm optimistic enough to believe that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience but realistic enough to know that second marriages fail at even higher rates than first marriages (and third more than second, and so forth); Second, I do not want kids. Wow. Talk about grinding conversation to a halt, Scary! Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against kids, loved loved loved my ex's nieces and nephews (and make some time for my sisters' kids) but the idea of having responsibility for another human being in that way has always freaked me out, both because I was certain I would screw it up and because I questioned whether *I* was mature enough to be a parent.  

So, put those two things together, along with the fact that I'm over the age of 40, am not particularly sociable, rarely *need* to be around other people, and live a highly structured life, and you are no doubt unsurprised that my dating life has been somewhere between non-existent and laughably pathetic.  Let's take a look at the various ways I have looked for love:

Internet Dating:  It's very 21st century.  You encapsulate yourself in a highly self-selective, intentionally vague and nondescript way while sublimating the ugly stuff until you get to know someone.  People evaluate you (and vice versa) based on photos (also self-edited, no red eye, no pictures with your mouth open and full of food!) and random bits of personal information you may (or may not) have in common.  What's not to like!?  An inch too short - too bad. No hair - out of luck. Read the wrong book - see ya. Watch the wrong TV shows (or watch TV at all!) - hopeless couch potato. And that's before you even write to, or receive responses from, someone. 

I will admit to being just as superficial and picky as the next person, about everything from reading habits to appearance, geographic proximity to musical taste, but aside from the artifice, which is substantial, the thing most missing from Internet dating is your ability to get a sense of a person like you can in "real" life - their mannerisms, how they put together ideas, make eye contact, smell - all of that is missing from the electronic medium. Photos are often outdated or angled in such a way to minimize what the person (and I think this is true of men and women) thinks is unflattering, but must highlight the FUN - invariably, there's a mud run, or a night out with the girls, a tranquil sunset or brother's wedding to show you what a boy howdy good time your potential date is. 

Don't get me wrong, I don't think there's anything wrong with Internet dating. I went out on a number of dates with women I met online - none were awful, a few were awkward, and one woman suggested I go through a re-birthing (don't ask). But what I found missing was that intangible "chemistry" that is often written about and we all know when we feel it. And I think, in part, that came from not knowing these women "IRL" (as the kids say) so that our sensibilities, world views, conveyance of tone and thought were foreign when we first met. It's an odd thing, just randomly meeting someone who you sort of know (which is to say you know things about, but you don't know them) so it's also unsurprising that I don't think I made it past a third date with any of them.  Moving on ….

In Real Life (IRL): Not the purview of the introverted, and unsurprisingly, a fallow source of potential dates. A woman I met on a lark was sweet in passing and open on the phone, but froze up when we sat down for an extended period of time. More recently, I met a lovely woman through work who seemed interested in me right up until I asked her out, then she suddenly was unavailable - AWKWARD. It took about all I had in that thimble full of self-confidence living inside me to even ask her out; to get shot down indirectly (sort of like the way a President "pocket vetoes" legislation he does not like) was doubly cruel.  I opted against trying to ask out other women I have become friendly with through two of the three avenues I meet people (gym and library) because I did not want to risk making those environments uncomfortable if they turned me down. I know, I ooze "swag," but when it comes to places I frequent, better to keep things on a friendship tip. Which leaves ….

Blind Dates:  Technically, blind date (singular) and it didn't even happen. A lengthy phone call followed by a strategic decision that my "match" was not geographically desirable combined with the same odd feeling of having a random conversation with a stranger led me to leave what was probably the most rambling, incoherent and moronic voice mail message ever recorded (I'm guessing she saved it and shared it with friends <bows head in shame>).

And …SCENE. There you have it, folks. The life of a recently divorced, does not want to get married again or have kids 40something. Unappealing to those in their late 20s to early 30s looking for one or other, uninterested in dating those with kids or an ex, and unwilling to settle for anything other than fireworks on the 4th of July connection because frankly, I am totally cool with being alone. That is not to say I do not want to find someone to spend time with, who understands who I am, supports me emotionally, engages me intellectually and satisfies me sexually (and vice versa), but having spent the better part of 18 months looking for this unicorn, I have resigned myself to the idea that the search may be longer and harder than I initially expected and that if I come up empty, that is an acceptable outcome. Life's pageant is far too rich to think it incomplete if you never find your mythical "soul mate." 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Shutting Down Strasburg

Time was, any story about the Washington Nationals in the middle of the summer had to do with whether the team was going to sign its (inevitably high) first-round draft pick or was going to set a new team record for losses in a season. Aside from the team's 2005 inaugural season in the nation's capital, when they improbably got off to a 50-31 start (only to invert that record in the second half of the season), the Nationals have been a complete after thought.  Times have changed.

This season, led by All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the pitching staff has been second to none, leading the league in team ERA, allowing the fewest runs in baseball and dominating line ups from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The everyday players are a mix of a talented young core (1st time All-Star Ian Desmond, Silver Slugger Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and some kid named Harper) and steady veterans (Jayson Werth (currently on DL), Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse).  Put the two together and you get a team that is not only leading the National League East by 4 games but has a great chance to make its first playoff appearance since moving to D.C. seven years ago. 

So what's the problem? The park is drawing big crowds, die hard Nats fans don't have to wait until the end of Sports Center or MLB Tonight to see Nats highlights and the team sent 4 players to the All-Star Game in Kansas City. These should be halcyon days in Washington, but an artificial controversy is being stirred up about whether the team should shut down Strasburg at around 160-170 innings pitched, as they intended to do when the season started. Strasburg is just over a year removed from Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament replacement) and in an abundance of caution over his long-term prospects, the team decided, as is common with young pitchers (including Strasburg's staff-mate RHP Jordan Zimmermann) to use an "innings count" and then shut him down for the year.

But now, with the team in the midst of a playoff chase, commentators are second guessing the decision. The theory goes that chances to contend for a title are iffy year to year, and if you have the chance to go to the World Series, you put your foot on the pedal and go for it. So let's consider that argument because most of the people saying this stuff seem to know very little about the team, its players or its front office's philosophy.

The future is not guaranteed. The team could have injuries that stop it from contending.  Seems like a fair point on its face. After all, the Phillies, who have won the NL East five years in a row, are circling the drain in large part because of injuries to Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley - three of the cornerstones of their franchise. What about the Nats? Surely all this success has been because they have escaped the injury bug? Not so. In fact, the Nationals have had as many players on the disabled list as the Phillies - and these are not bench players, the list includes their closer (Drew Storen) who is still a few days away from making his season debut, Werth (who has been out since May and is not expected back for another few weeks) and starting catcher Wilson Ramos, who tore up his knee in May and is out for the season. Zimmerman spent time on the disabled list and Morse missed the first 50 games of the season.  If anything, the fact that the team is playing so well in spite of all these injuries says a lot about how much talent is on the team.

The future in not guaranteed. The "baseball gods" may not smile on the Nats in the coming years.  The team's core is littered with young talent under team control for anywhere from the next year to the next six years (for a full breakdown of players under team control, read my blog, In fact, of this year's everyday players, only one, Adam LaRoche, as anywhere close to free agency, and that is not until after next season. And while RHP Edwin Jackson only signed a 1-year deal, the team could re-sign him, or try to trade or sign another pitcher to replace him.  In other words, the team is more likely to get better, not worse, in the years ahead. 

That pitching staff just won't be the same without him. Fair, to a point; however, a 3 man rotation of Gio Gonzalez (currently leading the NL in wins), Jordan Zimmermann (2.48 ERA and 1.11 WHIP) and Edwin Jackson (World Series appearances with 2 teams) with a deep bullpen anchored by Storen and current closer Tyler Clippard, along with stalwarts like Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett is formidable even without Strasburg.

Stop babying Strasburg!  This argument seems to be that the young man's arm can withstand the strain of more innings, but let's consider several points.  First, Strasburg has never pitched more than 109 innings in a year, and that was at the college level.  Currently, he's at 105, so at 160-170 innings, he will have pitched 60-70% more innings than he ever has, at any level, in his life. If they let him go to 170 innings, that's about 10 starts, which would mean he would still be pitching until mid-September, or about 135-140 games into the season. At worst, the team would be losing about 4-5 regular season starts from him.  

But even if they let him go through the end of the season, then what? Let's say they make the World Series - assuming at least 1 start in the NLDS, 1 (maybe 2) in the NLCS and at least 1 in the WS, that's 3-4 additional starts, under much greater pressure, than the regular season.  All tolled? Maybe 8 starts, another 45-50 innings, which would push him to about 220 innings, or more than double what he has ever pitched in one season.  To me, this is like asking someone who has never run more than a half-marathon to run a full marathon a year after having major foot surgery. Not smart. 

Moreover, if you don't have him on an innings limit, you are committing yourself to using him as long as the season goes along because if the rationale for letting him continue pitching is that you want to compete, you can't decide, say, after the Division Series, to shut him down for the League Championship or, if you win the NL pennant, to shut him down before the World Series. In for a penny, in for a pound. 

The fans won't tolerate it!  What "fans?" Until six months ago, the Nationals were an after thought in the nation's capital. Now that the team is winning, fans will learn more about the team, about all that young talent, and about its future.  They do not expect a World Series this year - most of them didn't even know the team existed when the year started.  Look at the great fan base the Capitals have built up over the past few years in D.C. They've done it without winning a Stanley Cup but competing consistently. For this year, getting to the playoffs is a reasonable goal.  Next year, expectations will be higher, but Strasburg will also be ready to go a full season.  The fans will follow the team as long as its winning, and that is likely to be for the next 5 years, if not longer. 

The team is going to have to shut Strasburg down at some point. One need only look at players like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and others, whose work load early in their careers resulted in injuries, to understand that the team has invested way too much money into a potential once-in-a-generation talent to risk ruining his career because the team "arrived" a season ahead of schedule. In my view, better to shut him down with 20-25 games left in the season where the team can adjust to his not being there and get prepared for the playoffs.  The risk of his injuring himself is simply too great to do otherwise. 

Follow me on Twitter: @scarylawyerguy

Friday, July 13, 2012

Politics Ain't Beanbag

During the GOP primaries, Mitt Romney had a simple strategy any time another candidate popped up as a legitimate challenger to him. He, his team of advisers and affiliated Super PAC buried Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and finally, Rick Santorum under an avalanche of negative ads, deft (for Mitt) debate performances and sharp edged attacks to solidify in primary voters' minds the idea that Mitt Romney was the only acceptable challenger to the President.  While the strategy was not subtle, it was effective, in large part because of the overwhelming financial advantage Romney had over his foes. When Gingrich generated some momentum after winning the South Carolina primary, Romney crushed him in Florida, a state where Gingrich simply could not match Romney's ad barrage (and did himself no favors in the debates between the two states' primaries). Similarly, any time it looked like Santorum might make it a contest, Romney was able to take advantage of Santorum's verbal gaffes and cherry pick votes from Congress to dilute Santorum's reputation for rock ribbed conservatism. 

What has quickly emerged in the general election is not only that Romney cannot run a campaign simply as the "anti-Obama," but more importantly, the slowness of his team's reaction to damaging stories about the candidate. Like a boxer who did not do enough sparring or ring work before the big fight, because Romney's team so easily beat back his underfunded challengers during the primary season, they have walked into the ring against the champion a little flabby and without their reflexes sharply honed.  By comparison, Obama's team has been in the crucible of hand-to-hand combat with Congressional Republicans since the day he was sworn into office.  Moreover, having the luxury of sitting out the primary season, the Obama team has compiled a mountain of information to portray Romney as an out of touch rich guy with questionable business ethics. 

Of course, Exhibit A for this narrative is Romney's time at Bain Capital.  What began, well, as early as 1994 when he first ran for public office, as a story of capricious capitalism that fed on the weak, shuttered what were once profitable businesses in the name of the almighty dollar and stood for the "greed is good" ethos of Gordon Gekko, has now metastasized into a broader narrative about Romney's personal responsibility for outsourcing jobs, when he left Bain, if filings by Bain with the SEC contradict his claims about when he left the firm and precisely what types of firms (aborted fetus disposal anyone?) Bain invested in while Mitt was either directly involved or still had legal responsibility as the company's CEO, President and sole shareholder.

That this is happening should not be surprising.  Much of the recent reporting on Bain is based on publicly available documents that any opposition researcher, journalist or blogger could have obtained and reported on. That the Romney team has been so slow footed to react, particularly when their candidate knew all of this information was out there is the surprise.  Smart campaigns do opposition research on their own candidate, better to know the warts and all narrative than trust that information will not be publicly released. And, as opposed to the primaries, when the first wisps of Bain smoke by Gingrich, Perry, et al were snuffed out by their own party, there are no such constraints on the Obama campaign or the desire of the general electorate to learn about the Republican nominee for the Presidency.  His campaign's flaccid, tepid and contradictory statements have done nothing to tamp down the story. 

And if the first rule of getting out of holes is to drop the shovel and stop digging, Mitt did not get that memo.  He's come up with various latter day explanations for his "retirement" from Bain even as the public record continues to contradict him.  When public filings with the SEC show him as President, CEO and sole shareholder of Bain all the way into 2002, Romney's attempt to explain that he was "retired" has now changed to his having no "responsibility" for Bain after 1999.  All of which would be fine except that earlier comments described his separation from Bain as a "leave of absence" and he admitted, in sworn testimony when he was trying to prove his Massachusetts residency when running for Governor there in 2002 that he returned to the state for Bain-related meetings after his purported retirement.  

Further, Romney's refusal to release his tax returns from that period, or, in fact, any period prior to last year, is now like a small fire merging with another turning each into an inferno that cements the view of Romney as an out of touch rich guy who is above the law. Not where you want to be less than 4 months from a general election.  Moreover, Romney's call for an apology from President Obama was weird and tone deaf.  For one, the story broke in the media, who Romney lamely attempted to get corrections from (both The Washington Post and Boston Globe declined). All the Obama campaign did was pick up on that reporting, something otherwise known as "politics." 

But more importantly, his story simply does not pass the smell test.  Americans know when someone is trying to bullshit them, and folks, Mitt is slinging cow pies like he's at an Iowa State Fair. One cannot be both the President, CEO and sole shareholder of a company and also claim to have no responsibility for that company.  That simply does not square with common sense and reason.  You cannot claim you paid every penny of tax owed (and not one penny more!) without allowing people to see for themselves.  You cannot have both a law AND business degree from Harvard University and claim you just signed your name to Bain Capital documents after you retired for …what reason? No one is quite sure. Mitt's definition of "retirement" keeps changing.  That a well funded opponent can take advantage of this merely illustrates Romney's weakness.  Had a Gingrich or Santorum had the financial wherewithal to make these claims stick in during the primaries, Romney may never have won the nomination. 

In this way, Romney's lame defenses and excuses feel like political karma.  After savaging his opponents during the primaries, bending truths and bombarding the airways with misrepresentations, he is in a mess of his own making.  And that fact should not get lost.  No one signed Mitt Romney's name to those SEC filings, no one forced words into his mouth claiming he returned to Massachusetts after 1999 for Bain-related work, no one created investment vehicles through Bain all the way until 2002 in his name - HE did all of this, of his own free will.  All that is happening now is the proof of what happens when you lie - you have to keep lying to cover the original lie, except in today's day and age, that doesn't work. This may not sink Romney's campaign, but the hill he must climb to convince people he is something other than a plutocrat who manipulated the system for his financial gain just became much harder to climb. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Dispatches from The Fail Decade

Penn State University. The Catholic Church. Washington, D.C. Wall Street. The Media. This rogue's gallery of institutional failure forms much of the thesis for Chris Hayes's eminently readable first book, Twilight of the Elites. In brisk prose sprinkled with enough 50 cent words you will want to keep your Oxford English Dictionary handy, Hayes persuasively argues that our current state of affairs, where middle class values and dreams are stymied, the wealthy are more distant than at any time since before the Great Depression and our faith in the institutions that form the foundation of our society is at historic lows, is so dire because those very institutions have ceased being (pick your poison) above board in their dealings, available to the masses, little "d" democratic, and/or accessible. 

It is hard to argue with Hayes's premise or the litany of examples he uses to prove his point. His view, that a true meritocracy should reward ability and not serve as a feeder system for the propagation of the rich, has been blunted by the ability of wealthy people to game the system.  As a prime example, Hayes discusses his own matriculation at the widely renowned Hunter College High School, which bases its admission on a single test administered throughout New York City.  For many years, this policy ensured Hunter's admissions were relatively diverse across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, but as a cottage industry of preparatory courses sprouted up specifically to assist kids in scoring well on the test, that diversity sank, as wealthy families were able to hire tutors that would bolster their kids' chances of admission. 

While these parents didn't rig the system so much as take advantage of it, Hayes also considers the financial crisis, where lots of traders and supposedly smart people manipulated banking rules to their advantage without repercussion or a sense of anything other than their devotion to the almighty dollar.  Indeed, during the bubble years, traders had a nomenclature loosely called "you won't be here, I won't be here," which, reduced to its core, encouraged speculative behavior because neither party to the transaction would be around if (or when) the deal went sour.  When things did blow up, the government bailout affirmed, rather than punished, this bad behavior while leaving struggling homeowners and the unemployed twisting in the wind.

And if the collective punishment for blowing up the world's economy has been next to nothing, Hayes also points to the run up to the Iraq War as a turning point in our distrust of elite institutions, because it was not just the government that was cherry picking information, but complicit in their efforts were lap dogs throughout the media who acted as stenographers instead of skeptical reporters when the Bush Administration fed them misinformation.  The journalistic after action mea culpas rang particularly hollow when that war went south and those who had been proven so obviously wrong scrambled to justify their lack of scrutiny. Of course, this did not stop the Administration from churning out rosy talking points or keeping the war's cost safely insulated from either the appropriations process or taxpayer responsibility (the whole thing was put on the "credit card"). Unfortunately, between the prevarications that were ultimately uncovered and other failures, most notably, the government's pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush not only created deep division in the country, the public's trust in the Presidency was severely harmed.

But Hayes's point is not to say that people and institutions sometimes do morally wrong or criminal things - they do, regardless of the era, but rather, that absent some reckoning, some punishment, some purging of the attitudes (and people) who encourage this type of insularity, little will change. The copious letters, notes and memos Hayes shares from the now rich archive of information available about the Catholic Church shows a casual depravity mixed with dangerous group think about wanting to protect pedophile priests because exposure would reflect poorly on the institution, victims be damned.  By the time all of this information became public, little could be done to punish the perpetrators, either because they had died, statute of limitations had expired or there was simply little desire for authorities to prosecute. Victims' lives were rendered asunder, families were cleaved and faith eroded, but for the Church, these were small losses compared to the risk that attended addressing the problem when it happened. Meanwhile, current leaders can wash their hands of culpability and point to reforms without being blamed for the sins of their predecessors - another example of "you won't be here, I won't be here." 

This type of mendaciousness, which Hayes notes occurred at a micro level at Penn State, where officials and school leaders ignored clear signs of pedophilia by Jerry Sandusky, feeds into the narrative that the elite are unaccountable and merely serves to deepen skepticism in these institutions.  While Hayes notes that prior times in our nation's history, particularly the progressive era of the 1890s, the New Deal and the 1960s resulted in meaningful social change, from wage and labor laws, to Social Security and Medicare, to the abolition of de jure segregation in the South, what we have also seen is strong reaction to each of these movements - indeed, the whole Lochner Era in the Supreme Court strove to dismantle modest wage and hour reforms, the Republican party has been fighting a rear guard action against FDR and LBJ's social policy for decades (admittedly, to little effect), "white flight" from many cities in the 1960s and court-mandated busing turned many middle class and blue collar white voters away from integration and of course, in our current political environment, Voter ID laws have been passed that will disproportionately impact minority voting rights, gerrymandering has created "majority white" Congressional districts that are safely Republican and courts have pared back affirmative action to the point of a nullity. 

While Hayes is quite effective at diagnosing the problem, I am not so certain of his solutions. His first, to reduce inequality through higher taxation on the rich is one that garners an enormous amount of popular support, but Republican tax orthodoxy, when it even flirts with tax increases, does so in the guise of "reform," which they define as reducing deductions or loopholes that can easily be reinserted at some future date (as happened after the 1986 tax "reform" passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan) in exchange for lowering marginal rates.  A tax structure that was progressive, with escalating rates of taxation at high end thresholds ($1 million, $5 million, $10 million, etc.) along with treating things like carried interest as ordinary income instead of dividend income, would be welcome, but the likelihood of that happening is remote.  If anything, Democrats are likely to bite on the "reform" idea, signing off on reduced rates (which are almost impossible to raise in the future) for closing loopholes that will reappear months after the ink dries on the agreement.

I am also skeptical of Hayes's definition of "direct organization," as the reshuffling of the social order in response to a crisis. Here, Hayes uses Occupy Wall Street as an example of such an opportunity. While OWS had its moment, it passed, and quickly, when officials shut down camping sites and the media lost interest. Further, nothing that OWS was protesting against was affected - JP Morgan recently announced a $2 billion loss (later revised to $6 billion) on just the type of dodgy trade that helped cripple the system in 2008, but their CEO, Jamie Dimon, was given a king's welcome when he was called to testify before the U.S. Senate.  Tea Party favorite Jim DeMint went so far as to ask Dimon for his recommendations on how the financial industry should be regulated - might as well have asked the fox how to set up the security at the hen house. Moreover, as Matt Taibbi and others have chronicled, even the modest regulatory changes that were created under Dodd/Frank are being eroded by a steady drumbeat of pressure by banks and their army of D.C. lobbyists.

Hayes also sees parallels between OWS and the Tea Party movement, both of which, he asserts, were reactions to institutional failure.  In this, I agree; however, what the Tea Party movement has done far more effectively than OWS (or any "left" movement of the day) is achieve political relevance through the ballot box, not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level as well.  I think there is a key take away (and something I blogged about many months ago: - while the visual of OWS was powerful, running (and electing) candidates who will advocate for policies that will reduce inequality is the necessary long-term strategy.  

Of course, the larger question that is unanswerable is whether institutional or insurrectionist change can help us achieve the meritocratic society Hayes advocates for. He pins his hopes on upper middle class outrage, of people who play by the rules, but are not only a few rungs below the top, but are denied the ability to share in the spoils of society while being treated no differently by the elite than are the poor and middle class. I question whether, if invited into this inner sanctum of success, much will change. New Journalism and the "Boys on the Bus" of the late 1960s and 1970s were iconoclastic in their time, but the leaders of that movement slowly morphed into the very establishment they upended. Bob Woodward helped break Watergate wide open but flash forward 30 years and he was (rightly) lambasted for writing a largely hagiographic portrait of George W. Bush as a steel-spined commander in chief while Bush and his underlings were (at best) deeply shading the truth of what threat Iraq posed to the United States. This may also be true of Hayes and the new breed of journalists covering American politics. Today, they flirt at the fringe of outrage, but they are already compromised in their employment by corporations like Comcast, which owns MSNBC and airs Hayes's show twice a week.  This is not to take a dig at him, or others, like Rachel Maddow, both of whom I have enormous respect for, but rather, to suggest that "the system" tends to subsume the people who attempt to uproot it, instead of the other way around. Bobby Rush may have been a Black Panther, but now he's just another liberal Democrat representing a safely 'blue' Congressional district from Illinois. The Who once sang about hoping to die before they got old, but their music is now used to sell retirement accounts and introduce television programs. 

In reading Twilight of the Elites I was reminded of Animal Farm because we cannot assume the folks pressing their noses against the window of the confluence of money, power and networking will end up any differently than the pigs who espoused equality to overthrow the evil farmer only to declare that all animals are equal, but that some are more equal than others. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Previewing Season Five - Breaking Bad

"What if you just do stuff and nothing happens? What's it all mean? What's the point?" - Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad Season 4, Episode 7 - Problem Dog)

At its most general level, Breaking Bad, AMC's unlikely story of a fifty year old high school science teacher with a knack for producing the best methamphetamine in New Mexico, is a story about people making a lot of bad decisions who suffer incalculable moral consequences even as they appear outwardly unaffected by the choices they make. 

When Walter White, a brilliant but meek high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer, a lifetime of bad choices suddenly come into sharp relief.  As a young man, he left a struggling, but potentially lucrative biotechnology firm for the safety and security of teaching, only to watch his former partner walk off with the money and the girl. When he is diagnosed with cancer, his modest savings and limited health coverage will not protect his wife Skylar, son Walter Jr., and baby on the way (Holly) from a lifetime of penury when he dies. All Walter has is his freakish, but long dormant skills in the laboratory; so, when a former student and low level drug dealer named Jesse Pinkman pops up on his radar screen, Walter realizes that he can use his talent to produce methamphetamine and avoid the humiliation of accepting his former business partner's offer to pay for his cancer treatment. 

And that's the set up.  From this improbable premise, the show, like the endless vistas of the Southwest that Vince Gilligan uses to such great effect, has unfurled over four seasons of ever heightening tension, jaw dropping scenes of raw human emotion and a steadily increasing body count to draw viewers into a morality tale where we know things will end badly. And unlike its AMC brethren Mad Men, which traffics explicitly in the manipulation of time as a plot device, because Breaking Bad plays out in real time, that is, each season picks up where the prior one left off, the viewer is treated to a ringside seat for the death spiral. But what makes the show so appealing is that rarely is there one defining moment where a suddenly good life goes bad - rather, there are small sign posts along the way, opportunities to take off ramps back onto the straight and narrow that are considered and jettisoned, which only serves to make the next set of choices narrower, more lesser of two evils than good or bad. 

We may have met Walter White at a vulnerable point in his life, and he may have rationalized the sale of methamphetamine as a means to an end (he even calculated what he needed to earn to ensure his family would be taken care of when he passed away) but it quickly becomes apparent that the trade offs Walt has to make cannot be reconciled within the boundaries of his moral universe. Walt cannot segregate his meth production from the end result of his labor - whether it is in turf wars that result in Jesse's friend "Combo" getting killed, a dust up between the Mexican cartel and Walt's distributor landing brother-in-law Hank in the hospital with gun shot wounds and no use of his legs, or the disintegration of his marriage to Skylar. Hell, Walt isn't even at the hospital for the birth of his daughter Holly because he's scrambling to reach a rendezvous point to off load a huge stash of meth that he thinks will set his family up for good. 

But the show's dirty little secret is that Walter White does not want to reconcile these contradictions. The respect (and money) he commands by producing his high quality product offers something that was desperately missing from his life - respect. Walt is able to invigorate his flaccid ego above the many indignities life has dealt him. One day, he was just a poor schmo driving one of the worst designed cars in history (Chevy Aztec) and being tuned out by high school students; the next, he's negotiating six figure drug deals under the sobriquet "Heisenberg." Overshadowed by his gregarious alpha male brother-in-law Hank, a rising star in the Albuquerque office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Walt subverts him by building a criminal empire right under Hank's nose. 

Of course, Walt does not become a drug lord overnight. He and Jesse, in fits and starts, move up the food chain through deals with other low level pushers, mid level traffickers, and ultimately, with the man who runs methamphetamine along the border - an unassuming fast food chicken owner named Gustavo (Gus) Fring. But along the way, the bodies (and poor decisions) pile up.  Walter and Jesse are in over their heads but don't even know it. Jesse's band of street level dealers infringe on a rival gang's territory and one of his friends is killed. Jesse gets involved with an addict who draws him deeper into drug use, upgrading him from meth to heroin.  When the big score Walter and Jesse have been waiting for finally comes in, Jesse has nodded off in a heroin haze with his girlfriend Jane, forcing Walt to scramble to make the deal even as he misses the birth of his daughter. Walt can quantify the amount of money he needs to make sure his family is provided for ($737,000), but wantonly permits the erosion of his own morality in the process. 

By the time that big score comes in, Walt is in too deep, but also realizes he is ill-equipped to handle the volume of drugs he needs to produce or the protection he needs to ensure his safety and so he makes a deal with Gus to become his "cooker," bringing Jesse along in the bargain. While the custom lab Gus builds Walt appeals to the latter's inner chemistry nerd, Gus keeps him to a taxing schedule, expecting 200 pounds of meth each week that is then spirited out in Los Pollos Hermanos chicken batter. Of course, because Walt is out of his depth, he does not realize that he has been targeted for murder by a ruthless Mexican drug cartel for killing a mid-level guy named Tuco. When Gus intercedes on Walt's behalf, it is Hank who suffers the consequences, narrowly avoiding death at the hands of the cartel's executioners. In one of the show's poignant but cruel bits of irony, it is Skylar who pressures Walt into covering Hank's additional out of pocket medical costs with the very drug profits that were generated for the people who ended up shooting Hank. 

Walt and Gus's partnership is the pivot point where Walt truly "breaks bad." Up until then, Walt had surely done morally reprehensible things, not the least of which included murder, profiting enormously off the sale of a drug that is more addictive than heroin and sacrificing his family life, but when Walt becomes Gus's cooker, things change. While both men exhibit a calm exterior, they also have a rational view of "business," and for Gus, he needs Walt just long enough to train a well-credentialed chemistry dork named Gale Boetticher to take Walt's place. To Gus, Jesse has no value, and when he catches Jesse skimming product, targets him for assassination. For Walt, the stream of money flowing to him is great until he realizes that his utility to Gus has an expiration date on it and decides to act, getting a reluctant Jesse to pull the trigger and murder Gale.

Gilligan has deftly raised Jesse as Walt's mirror opposite -an otherwise "bad" person who finds himself less and less comfortable the more successful a criminal he becomes. Jesse may have initially been a stoner with little ambition, but as he and Walt have achieved more financial success, Jesse's level of comfort with the world he inhabits has become lower and lower. He toggles between self-destruction and nihilism, at times immersing himself in a drug induced haze and at other times being so disgusted with the fat knots of money he has earned that he literally crumples them up into balls and watches meth heads scurry to collect his discarded $100 bills. 

At his core, Jesse is a shy kid who was a bad student and a run of the mill street dealer. What he lacks in self-confidence he makes up for in bravado, but in his relationships with women, it is clear he just wants love, something denied to him by his parents, who will not speak to him. First, he falls for Jane, a recovering addict who becomes his co-dependent, as they spiral into a heroin-induced oblivion stopped only when she ODs and, unbeknownst to Jesse, is left to die by Walt, who could have saved her. Andrea, Jesse's new girlfriend, is also a recovering addict, but has a son (Brock) of her own and is the sister of a young boy who killed Jesse's friend Combo and was himself killed by Gus's goons. Brock's poisoning is the ruse Walt needed to lure Jesse back to his side in his war with Gus because he knows that going after Andrea and Brock, two people Jesse cares about, will have the effect Walt desires.  

Season Four played out against this morally bleak backdrop, where every character made massively poor decisions that only served to draw each deeper into the morass. Skylar handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars (which Walt was saving so they could go into some unsanctioned form of "witness protection") to former lover Ted Beneke so he could avoid being indicted on tax evasion, but when he was preparing to abscond, he ends up getting killed (accidentally) by do-it-all lawyer Saul Goodman's henchmen. Saul, who when we met him was a cheap suit lawyer, has evolved into a mix between Winston Wolf and Lionel Hutz, always ready to help an entrepreneurial drug dealer set up a sham business to launder his money, but less able to navigate the deeper waters of internecine drug warfare. Hank's wife Marie is a sticky fingered kleptomaniac who escapes the drudgery of caring for her paralyzed husband by stealing items from open houses while Hank aimlessly channel surfs and pities himself. 

And in the center of all of this was the battle of wits (and wills) between Walt and Gus, each using whatever tactics were necessary to get over on the other, knowing only one could survive. While Gus went from attempting to kill Jesse building Jesse up as a cook-in-training, playing a long game of cleaving Walt and Jesse's relationship, Walt was even more devious - poisoning the young son of Jesse's girlfriend and pinning it on Gus to cement Jesse's allegiance to him. In the end, Walt leveraged the enemy of his enemy, Hector, a mute cripple who can only communicate by ringing a bell on his wheelchair and turned Hector into a suicide bomber - killing him and Gus simultaneously while throwing Hank, who was tantalizingly close to blowing open Gus's secret, off Walt's trail. 

What Breaking Bad gets right in ways that so few of today's TV shows do, is both the big picture and the little things. The narrative arcs feel cinematic and are worthy heirs to such touchstones as The Godfather and GoodFellas. Gus's killing of his Mexican rivals rolls out in sepia-toned flashbacks that borrow liberally from Scarface (even guest starring Steven Bauer) and have a "Michael settling all scores" vibe from the first Godfather movie. Walt's diligent attempts to assassinate Gus are framed in set pieces that feel like 70s conspiracy movies, and Gilligan's lovingly shot cinematography of mesas and deserts pay homage to everything from Natural Born Killers to A River Runs Through It
While Gilligan does the broad strokes well, the small scale stuff is there too - haunting images and quiet moments that stay with viewers, from Jesse tricking a meth head into coming out of his home by digging a hole in his front yard, to Walt Jr. being handed the keys to a PT Cruiser after his tricked out Dodge Challenger is sent back to the dealership (but never makes it), to Mike coolly dispatching enemies with a small piece of his ear dangling off his head (a narrow gunshot miss), and Andrea's little brother, wheeling in circles telling Combo to "bounce" right before shooting him.  Gilligan's pacing is pitch perfect and also keeps viewers on their toes. At times, the show feels like it will careen off the tracks, bombarding viewers with verbal and visual stimuli that barely lets you catch your breath, and at other times, is so deliberate in its story telling that it feels like non-fiction. 

While much of Season Four found Walt impotently raging against the world, against his ex-wife, who spirited away the money that would have allowed them to escape, against Hank, as he slowly put the pieces together of Gus's criminal enterprise, and against Jesse, for, alternately, being in a drug induced fog and then becoming Gus's trainee, he desperately wanted to be "THE DANGER" he warned Skylar he was. Now, having killed off Gus, who had himself killed off their Mexican rivals, Walt has no enemy or peer, what is left is just his own darkened soul.  This will not end well. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Embrace Your Natitude

Back in Spring Training, I posted a blog (is that the proper vernacular? I'm old) about the promise that every baseball team experiences when they convene in Florida (or Arizona) to start the season (you can read it for yourself:  At the time, the Nationals' storyline was something like this - lots of young talent, may contend for a playoff spot, but probably a year or two away from being really good.  Well, with four games remaining before the All-Star break, that narrative has changed to, can they win the division and is it unreasonable to think they might get to the World Series.  Gotta love baseball.

For those of us who remember that first season in Washington, with the out of nowhere 50-31 start, this team has a much different feel.  While that inaugural season was put together with rubber bands and chewing gum (actually, guys like John Patterson, Chad Cordero and Jose Guillen, none of whom have played for the Nats (or any other team) for some time), the 2012 Nationals are so deep with young talent it's scary. Unlike prior seasons, where the team would get off to a rocky start and then have to dig itself out of a hole, this season's squad came out like a house on fire, starting the season 12-4 before a postponement against the Marlins in late April and they haven't let up since, sitting atop the division, 3.5 games clear of the second place Mets. 

The Nationals' success has not be a fluke. If anything, it has come in spite of a rash of injuries that other teams like the Phillies, the perennial bully on the block, have been unable to overcome (Philadelphia sits in last place, boo too).  When you consider that the Nationals started the season without their closer (Drew Storen, who has still not played) and starting LF (Michael Morse, who missed the first 50 games of the season), and that other major contributors, like starting C Wilson Ramos (torn ACL) and RF Jayson Werth (broken wrist) are missing all or most of the season and that other players, like 3B Ryan Zimmerman (shoulder), SP Chien-Mien Wang (hamstring), all world PH Chad Tracy (adductor), and P Brad Lidge (abdominal strain - ultimately released by the club) have all missed significant time this season, the fact that the Nationals are not only in 1st place, but have the best record in the National League is all the more remarkable.  

So how did this happen? For the most part, it's come down to two words - pitching & defense. Until about 10 days ago, the offense was mediocre, but the pitching staff has been lights out from the minute Stephen Strasburg took the hill in Chicago to start the season against the Cubs on April 5th. The Nationals' pitching staff has the lowest ERA in the majors and the starters all sport ERAs between 2.70 (Jordan Zimmermann) and 3.73 (Edwin Jackson). Meanwhile, Strasburg leads the NL in strikeouts and Gio Gonzalez is tied for third (both were named All-Stars earlier this week).  And when the starters hand the ball off, the bullpen has been equally effective.  Set up men like Craig Stammen (1.41 ERA, 45/17 K/BB ratio) and Sean Burnett (1.52 ERA 15 Holds) have been virtually untouchable, and former set-up man Tyler Clippard, who was promoted to the closer's role when flame-throwing (but erratic) Henry Rodriguez showed himself to be unprepared for the role, has been unhittable, converting all 13 of his save opportunities while surrendering only 16 hits in 34.1 innings. When Storen (43 saves in 2011) comes back, the bullpen will be even deeper.

All of that pitching depth has resulted in the team yielding the fewest runs in major league baseball (271 - 29 fewer than the #2 team on the list, the Pittsburgh Pirates), with opponents batting .229 against the team's pitching staff. While the team makes its share of errors, these mistakes are not being converted into runs thanks to the pitchers' dominance.  And their wins are not coming against cellar dwellers - fully two-thirds of the team's schedule thus far has been against teams with a better than .500 record. In short, the work GM Mike Rizzo put into molding a starting rotation through the draft (Strasburg), trade (Gonzalez) and free agent signing (Edwin Jackson) has paid enormous dividends when put with two other starters Rizzo had a hand in getting when he was head of scouting under former GM Jim Bowden (Detweiler and Zimmermann). The fact that the bullpen has remained sturdy in the absence of its closer speaks to its depth (Clippard, a steal from the Yankees, came aboard under Bowden's tenure) and to Rizzo's keen eye (trading for Burnett and Rodriguez, drafting Stammen). 

While pitching and defense have been the team's mainstay, offense has been a little harder to come by. Early season injuries resulted in much heralded phenom Bryce Harper receiving an earlier than expected call up to the majors and he has not disappointed.  In an early May series versus the Phillies, he was plunked by SP Cole Hamels. After advancing to third on a single by Werth, Harper stole home when Hamels made a slow pick off throw to first, bolting for home and barely beating the attempt to tag him out. Harper has hit a couple of tape measure home runs, gone viral with his "that's a clown question, bro" statement to a reporter and, according to all reports, been a model teammate who "plays the game the right way" (the highest compliment a big leaguer can give to one of its own) - going for the extra base, moving runners over, being patient at the plate (he's already amassed 25 walks and gets pitched to like a multi-year all-star) and, even when he makes the occasional blunder, owns up to it (except the 0 for 7 collar he took in a 14 inning game against the Yankees - dude was pissed). 

Recently, the offense has started to put it together. Zimmerman took a cortisone shot to relieve the pain in his aching shoulder and started hitting the cover off the ball, Morse not only returned, but has started to find his .300 stroke from last season, 1B Adam LaRoche gives the team stellar field work and good power, and SS Ian Desmond is having a break out season, clubbing 14 home runs with 47 RBIs and a selection to the All-Star Game now on his resume. The team has also received contributions from utility player Steve Lombardozzi, pinch hitter Chad Tracy (until his injury) and 2B Danny Espinosa, who, while struggling a bit at the plate, makes, along with Desmond, one of the most exciting double play combinations in the league. 

And the best part? This is only the beginning.  While the team sits at 47-32 and will, in all likelihood, contend for that playoff spot this year, many of the team's stars have not even approached the prime of their careers.  The core of the team is both ridiculously young and also under team control for the foreseeable future (player age in parentheses):

2015: Jordan Zimmermann (26), Ian Desmond (26) and Tyler Clippard (27);
2016: Stephen Strasburg (24), Gio Gonzalez (26), Wilson Ramos (24), Craig Stammen (28), Danny Espinosa (25) and Drew Storen (24);
2017: Jayson Werth (32);
2018: Bryce Harper (19); and 
2019: Ryan Zimmerman (27)

And that list does not include Tyler Moore, who was recently called up from Triple A and has hit more than .400 in his last 15 games, Lombardozzi, who is projecting into a "play him where you can" utility guy who can get meaningful innings in LF, SS and 2B, or Chris Marrero, who showed flashes of power during a late season call-up in 2011.  Add to that the fact that the team's owners are the wealthiest in major league baseball, attendance is spiking and the team's cable contract is scheduled to reset with a substantial addition to its bottom line and you've got a situation where free agents to be like Edwin Jackson may want to stick around and players coming up for free agency like Morse, Tom Gorzelanny and Burnett (who are only under team control until the end of next season) may pass on bigger contracts elsewhere.  Further, the team is in a position to lock up its younger talent to long-term deals, as they did when they traded for Gio Gonzalez and signed him to a 5-year extension and when Zimmerman signed an extension earlier this season that will keep him with the team for the rest of his career.

Of course, every team suffers set backs, freak injuries or just bad luck, but all other things being equal, the Nationals "window" of opportunity to compete for not just division championships but World Series titles appears to be open for at least the next 5-6 years. Rizzo continues to stock the farm system with a steady stream of prospects, giving the team flexibility to make trades, the major league club is deep and talented (they've gone through 4 catchers this season, all, with the exception of Ramos, "home grown") and winning will make the team an appealing destination for free agents. To watch players develop, to see the city embracing them and the team starting to play like an elite squad is incredibly satisfying for those of us who suffered through the lean years as we look forward to October baseball and dream of D.C.'s first World Series pennant since 1924.