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Kennedy, a federal government employee, published his well-received children's book in 2006.

Kennedy, a federal government employee, published his well-received children's book in 2006.

            Noted children’s book author Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy died on Tuesday night at the age of 77.  Kennedy, who worked in the District of Columbia, was best known for his 2006 book My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C.  The story is narrated by a Portuguese water dog named Splash, who takes the reader on a journey through the city and explores the functions of the federal government.

            The 56-page fiction book, published by Scholastic Press, cemented Kennedy’s reputation as one of the most-admired contemporary children’s writers.  In a press release, Scholastic praised how Kennedy “rose from relative obscurity to pen a unique and touching story that is also an educational lesson” for young Americans.

            Kennedy’s writing style was both humorous and earnest, with the main character telling readers that, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”  Kennedy’s collaborator, Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator David Small, said that “If he is only known for one accomplishment, I’m glad that it is this.”

            While best recognized for My Senator and Me, Kennedy lived quietly, working for the federal government for many years.

            Yesterday in The Washington Post, columnist Robert Samuelson criticized President Obama’s plans to finally provide funding for high speed rail projects across the country—the likes of which Europe and Asia have, but we lack.  His initial point—that Amtrak only serves a small amount of people—is essentially correct.  However, Amtrak is not high speed rail.  Amtrak is as much a political tool as it is a transportation network.  Politicians agree to fund trains that run through sparsely populated areas so that their constituents are able to have an alternative to driving.  Plus, these trains are used as leverage, with more populous sections of the country only receiving support for rail service if the countryside is covered, too.

            On balance, though, Samuelson’s harangue of high speed rail might have been more credible had he not made a few glaring omissions in his opinion piece:

  1. He argued that train travel caters to only a small percentage of the population, citing daily Amtrak ridership of 78,000.  This ignores the fact that more than one million people ride commuter trains (which often are operated by contracted Amtrak employees) in dozens of major cities.  The Virginia Railway Express estimates that its operation takes roughly one lane of car traffic off of I-66 and I-95 during the morning and evening rush hours.  To imply that no one rides trains anymore is ludicrous.
  2. Samuelson said that the U.S. does not have the population density of other nations which have high speed rail.  But no one is talking about building high-speed rail coast to coast, though the less populous states.  The plan is to build corridors in California, the southeast, the Midwest, and the Northeast—where the people are.
  3. It is misleading to ask whether all of the train ticket subsidies would be “justified” without asking the same of highway and air subsidies.  Trains are much safer than automobiles and have fewer carbon emissions per passenger mile than planes.

            Democratic state senator Creigh Deeds is lagging behind in the gubernatorial polls.  What’s more, he’s running about even with his opponent in Northern Virginia—a majority-Democratic area within a state that voted for Barack Obama and Mark Warner last year…and Jim Webb and Tim Kaine in the cycle before that.  What’s handicapping Deeds?

            Two things: one, it’s not a “Democratic year.”  Independents who were willing to give Obama a chance and are now wary of his policies are taking their frustration out on statewide elections.  There is not too much that can be done about that unless the economy turns around (it will eventually, just perhaps not by November).  But the other factor is fixable: liberals, particularly in Northern Virginia, are just not that enthusiastic about Deeds.

            Which is strange—considering that he beat two Northern Virginians in the primary by large margins even in their own backyards.  Former Congressman Tom Davis, who is a Republican but not a staunch conservative, said of Northern Virginia that “People here don’t get up in the morning and ask if I can go hunting and fishing.”  The inference is that Deeds is too much of a backwoodsy, gun-loving, Bible-thumping enigma to be trusted with cosmopolitan issues—even though his opponent fits almost the same caricature.

            Republican Bob McDonnell may seem like the more urbane candidate on the surface.  As a legislator, he represented Virginia Beach in the House of Delegates, he worked at Newport News at an Army hospital as a lieutenant colonel, and he is sure to mention that he grew up in Fairfax County.  But Fairfax County in the early 1970s was a far cry from Fairfax County today.  In McDonnell’s childhood, Fairfax had fewer than half a million residents.  There was no Metro, no commuter rail, no HOV lanes, and no corridor of defense contracting and IT firms.  Today, the County is affluent, one-third non-white, with large enclaves of Asian and Latin American immigrants, and has excellent public schools.

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            So, neither of these men is really familiar with the Northern Virginia lifestyle.  What are the issues important to us?  Well, healthcare and the economy, of course.  But the governor does not really have control over those issues.  Deeds could try to run away from the controversial stimulus package and healthcare legislation.  Or he could embrace what the Obama administration is doing, saying that thousands of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and state workers have avoided being fired because of the stimulus.  He could also agree with Obama that every citizen needs quality, affordable insurance—something he can appreciate after growing up in rural poverty.

            The issues over which he will have control, however, are essentially two: education and transportation.  At George Mason University this week, he made an earnest—though at times stuttering—defense of state-funded public schools and universities, citing his own experience and that of his children in working their way through college.  On transportation, he has made only one thing clear: his opponent’s plan to divert money from schools and utilize the one-time revenues from liquor store privatization is bad news.  Deeds is open to any other means of funding, which traditionally infers that “new sources of revenue” (or higher taxes) are on the table.

            These are good core issues around which to run a campaign.  But the message needs a medium in order to get through.  Deeds needs to stand out on Metro platforms at 7 a.m. and rap with commuters about transportation funding.  He should hop into one of Arlington’s enviroCAB “green” taxis or get on a bus with local officials and drive through the Springfield Interchange.  He and Mark Warner (the most popular elected official in Virginia) should be touring the construction of Metro’s Silver Line and talking about how many jobs the Metrorail extension will bring to the Dulles corridor.

            Unfortunately, Deeds has hinted at his willingness to bring abortion into the campaign to rile up social liberals.  Now, I’m not saying that abortion isn’t a fair issue, considering that McDonnell pursued anti-abortion policies quite vehemently as a legislator.  And obviously if the McDonnell camp tries to link the moderate-to-conservative Deeds with liberal Obama policies, Deeds is right to pull the mask off of McDonnell’s centrist costume.  But considering that Deeds won the primary amid misguided negative campaigning by his two rivals, having a progressive plan and demonstrating it to voters may be a better strategy—as is constantly reminding the base that his opponent has a bad plan that is regressive.

            President Obama has always been very clear on what he wants to see in healthcare reform: 1.) ensure that all Americans have insurance that will provide them with the care they need. 2.) Make reform deficit neutral.  And 3.) bring down the costs of healthcare expenditures for families, businesses, and the government in the long term.  Being a pragmatist, Obama has remained open to different methods of accomplishing these goals.  If the answer lay in a single payer system, he would probably support that; if the answer required as little government intervention as possible, that would be acceptable to him also.

            However, there came a point at which universal healthcare has turned into “incremental” healthcare—out of concern for fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans.  But now, each passing week that the Senate Finance Committee cannot come up with an outline for a new system is time in which town hall protestors, Fox News commentators, and the general dynamics of next year’s midterm elections may prevent reform from occurring at all.

            Obama has given the Finance Committee negotiators until September 15 to come up with a bipartisan bill, at which point he presumably will press for action without the Republicans.  While I worry that imposing such a deadline may alienate any GOP senators who are thinking of supporting reform, there comes a point at which thoughtful deliberation turns into purposeful obstruction.  There is no point in watering down reform in order to meet Republicans at some imaginary middle point where they will say, “Okay, that’s good enough for us.”

            That point probably lies somewhere to the right of insurance cooperatives—a proposal that the small-state senators in charge of the negotiations have proposed in lieu of a public option.  Critics on the left say that co-ops will be too small to be effective competition and will have to negotiate rates with healthcare provides like private insurers.  Critics on the right, like Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) are calling co-ops a “Trojan horse” that are just disguising a planned government takeover of healthcare.

            If GOP senators feel that even a concept as weak as a cooperative is too much government intervention, then I think that it is time to pull the plug on bipartisanship and return to the public option commitment.  The public plan is a compromise that liberals made after a single payer system was taken off the table.  What exactly have conservatives compromised?  The fact that they seem not to be willing to support anything other than the status quo is hardly a commitment to improving the healthcare system.

            To be fair, some Republicans are taking the reform effort seriously.  Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) was the only Republican on the Finance Committee not to draw a line in the sand in opposing a public option.  Like the president, she remains open-minded on the means to the overall end of accomplishing the three key goals.  Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and George Voinovich of Ohio may also be open to the Democrats’ plan.

            Realistically, the Democrats have 60 senators; they do not have 60 votes, however—meaning support from GOP moderates is key.  But in looking at the record of the current Congress, the most important votes were taken with almost solid Republican opposition: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January, the stimulus package in February, and Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation in August.  Although I don’t believe in the helpfulness of drawing strict lines, President Obama should seriously enforce the September 15 deadline.  Otherwise, he may not have another opportunity to build momentum to pass this crucial legislation.

            This is a bit of a stretch for me—mostly a geographical stretch—but I thought this story was too quirky to pass up.

            Cory Gardner, a Republican state representative in Colorado who is planning to challenge freshman Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey, is bashing Markey for not holding health care town halls in her district over the August recess (she is on an overseas trip to Israel).

            Rather than let his criticism simmer, though, he decided to designate himself de facto congressman for the district and hold his own meetings on healthcare (his website has a press release posted entitled “Look who is not afraid of holding town halls”).

            And the fact that Gardner is stomping on her turf is not even the kicker: not only did he invite her to what is essentially a campaign debate over healthcare, but he sent the letter on his “Cory Gardner for Congress” stationery, revealing his not-so-innocent intention to take her job.

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            So, here’s the recap.  Gardner accuses Markey of not representing her district’s needs.  Gardner proceeds to play the role of pretend congressman in advance of an election for which he’s not even the official challenger.  Then, Gardner blasts Markey for not accepting his invitation to debate him (in a campaign she is under no obligation to participate in)—even though he is trying to portray the event as a favor to her in being able to listen to her constituents.

            It’s going to be a looong fifteen months until the midterm elections.

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