What a World, What a World

Notes from the road

 The Center Cannot Hold

I've spent a lot of hours driving in the past few weeks, during much of which I was too fried and too preoccupied to think of listening to music--too demanding by far, too solicitous--or even books on tape. And so I have listened mile after mile to AM news and talk stations instead, until their hourly recycling of topics began to play over in my head like words overheard at the edge of sleep.

In all those hours the phrase that struck with the most force and clung to me longest was the war with Iraq. It was used in all the same well-worn settings--tactical deployments, the tortuous and dishonest path through UN weapons inspections with the whole world looking askance, the future economic implications--but never once was it discussed as anything but a foregone conclusion. So it was shocking but not surprising when on a few occasions the host or the copywriter slipped and referred to "the war with Iraq" in the present tense, as though it were already occurring.

James O'Brien

As it is, practically speaking. The dispatch of war matériel continues unabated, and by now there can't be more than a dozen souls anywhere who actually believe that the contents of Iraq's weapons declaration or its degree of cooperation with UN inspectors could have any bearing on W's preconceived course of action. For Bush to go back and win Pappy's war, à la Rambo II, was in the cards from the start, even before September 11 happened. Meanwhile W is also hoping that the drumbeat of war will drown out meaningful comment on his larcenous tax proposal and his brazen efforts to steamroll any checks on his personal power. Norm Coleman heading up the subcommittee charged with investigating government ops--and therefore any misdeeds of the Bush White House? Thank you, Senator Frist. It's the next best thing to having Karl Rove do the job himself.

Right now it appears W can do anything, that anything goes. But the pretense that the public is with him can't be maintained much longer. Vocal opposition to Bush's war aims is growing by leaps and bounds. A good many people likewise bristle at the rich handing themselves bonuses and heaping on the tax breaks. These brewing public energies won't come to anything in time to keep W from plunging forward on both counts, but there is every reason to think his popularity will crash under the weight of his own designs sooner rather than later. An encouraging thought until you see what's on the Democrats' plate: TV news anchor manqué John Kerry, the sallow, ferret-like John Edwards, and pious, sepulchral Joe Lieberman, who stalks the national stage like a vengeful, anxious Old Testament patriarch who can't wait for God to tell him whom to sacrifice next. And all of them running on a me-too line yet again, charging that W hasn't been draconian enough in homeland defense. The Democrats may bail out W yet, just as the Gingrich class of Republicans saved Clinton.

 

Suddenly Wisconsin

It was a long time in the making, but the Pawlenty administration now inherits a moment of considerable poignancy. For many years Minnesota was a progressive leader in social programs ranging from welfare to health care to public works, and that's coming to an end once and for all starting with the current legislative session; the only question is what they'll kill now and what they'll leave bleeding for later. The state's various medical assistance programs are the last major province of "discretionary" social spending in the Minnesota budget, so they will be a special target. The same goes for the dwindling funds allotted to public defenders' offices and Legal Aid societies--once you have done away with habeas corpus and Miranda, who needs them anyway? Education faces deep cuts. Everything's ripe for slashing but the Corrections budget, which faces a system at absolute full capacity by this spring.

Where have you gone, Wendy Anderson? To see how we got here you have to go back to Bill Clinton and welfare reform in 1996. By slashing federal welfare supports and standards and making bloc grants to states, the Clintonites set in motion a state-by-state race to the bottom of the spending barrel. The logic is simple enough. In the wake of federal abdication, some states are rich, some states are poor; some have an edifice of relatively comprehensive benefits, and some have almost none. And so states inevitably begin to compete for the assurance that their benefits for the down-and-out are no more attractive than those of their neighbors, lest they become known as "welfare magnets" to their region's saddest cases. In the Midwest, Tommy Thompson's Wisconsin and John Engler's Michigan got to work early doing away with their own programs. Minnesota lagged. But the deal was sealed by Jesse Ventura's anti-tax populism, which resulted in multiple contractions of the state revenue base and forced the question of spending cuts as soon as there was an economic downturn.

But you can't measure what's happening here just in dollars and cents. It marks the passing of an era in the ethos of the state--in the idea of what it means to live here. Shaped in myth and partly in fact by a long tradition of northern European radicalism and prairie populism, Minnesota for generations has stayed largely ahead of the pack in social spending of various kinds. The government and the citizenry wore this fact proudly; business perennially carped about it and perennially reaped the benefits it brought. Unfortunately the Scandinavian social welfare ethic that shaped the Minnesota way has not stood up well to the intrusions of the larger world. The social generosity at the heart of it was reserved for "people like us," and the less the subjects of our largesse looked like us, the less stomach we retained for it. A generation's worth of new faces--in-country migrations of black and brown from other, more depressed Midwestern cities, and an influx of multihued refugees from the world over--has hardened the Twin Cities and the state in ways we'll be years coming to grips with.

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