Saturday, September 16, 2006


Dr. Ephraim McDowell is a local hero of Danville. In 1809 he performed the world's first successful ovariotomy. The local hospital is named for him. His office is preserved as a museum.

I was out with Mrs. Gruntled and Daughter #2 the other day when we saw a woman we know coming out of the McDowell House Museum holding her abdomen.

"That's odd," said I.
"Very odd."
"Oh, very odd to me."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fighting Democrats

One of the most encouraging political developments for me as a centrist Democrat is the emergence of the Fighting Democrats. More than 50 veterans are running for Congress on the Democratic ticket. Among them is retired Vice Admiral Joe Sestak in the Pennsylvania district that represents Swarthmore College. He is running against an increasingly bizarre Republican. I am proud to say that the eldest Gruntled child has already been out on the hustings for Sestak.

The officer corps has been overwhelmingly Republican for at least a generation. About 2/3rds of officers were registered Republican in 2004 – a 6 to 1 advantage over Democratic officers. The war in Iraq seems to be changing that allegiance, though. In 2004 there was a remarkable reappearance for the first time since the Second World War of high-ranking retired officers as Democrats – some of them as new Democrats. Former NATO commander General Wesley Clark made a serious run for the presidency (he was my candidate in the primaries). John Kerry ran on his Purple Hearts. At the Democratic Convention itself we were treated to a spectacle not seen in a century – twelve retired generals and admirals appeared on stage to endorse Kerry for president, including the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili.

Political generals are scary, of course. So far, current officers have stayed out of public political pronouncements. I hope it stays that way. But a steady stream of high-ranking officers have been retiring recently in order to criticize the way the administration is running the war. Even Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, Adm. James Webb, has jumped ship to run as a Democrat for the Senate in Virginia.

I would like to see the generation-long divorce between the Democratic Party and the military healed. The military is essential to our country, and our military today is among the most effective and trusted institutions in America. The military itself would be better off if it were not tempted to partisanship by a gross imbalance of party loyalty among its leaders. The Democratic Party, likewise, needs the leadership of those experienced in war, peace, and nation building. And a congress led by actual veterans is less likely to start elective wars than one led by chickenhawks of any party.

I welcome the Fighting Democrats, and hope they are victorious in their November campaigns – for the good of both parties and the whole country.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Marriage is Better, and it is Better Policy to Say So

The new British Millennium Cohort Study of babies born in 2000-01 compares how the parents' relationships fared in the stressful first five years after the birth. The result:

Married couples divorcing: 6%
Cohabiting couples breaking up: 32%
"Closely involved" fathers disappearing: 74%

It will come as no surprise to Gruntled Center readers that marriage works better in holding families together than does hanging out together and hoping for the best. Even I was surprised, though, at the magnitude of the difference that appears already in the first few years of the young family's life.

The other half of this story, though, is that some leaders of the Conservative Party are touting the study to push for a pro-marriage campaign. Critics, both within and outside the party, are afraid that a pro-marriage position will make unmarried parents feel bad and not vote Tory.

I don't usually find myself praising Tory leaders. In this case, though, I think Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the party who is pushing the current leaders to take a more pro-marriage stand, is right. Marriage is better for children than cohabitation is, and miles better than "closely involved until the going gets hairy" fatherhood. Promoting marriage for parents is the right thing to do regardless of whether it wins votes or not.

I think that promoting marriage to unmarried parents is also politically savvy. Yes, some people will get their backs up and vote against you. But most parents are more concerned about what is good for their children than anything else. Parents will gravitate to parties that tell the truth about what really helps children. As our own politics shows, the party that talks pro-marriage and pro-family will keep winning elections – even if they don't actually do much to help families or promote marriage.

Pro-marriage is good politics. It also has the advantage of being true.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Centrists Against Political Pork

In the current online New Republic, Bradford Plumer makes the liberal case for pork-barrel spending, for special earmarks in federal spending bills designed to pay off particular legislators and their districts. Plumer says that pork is necessary for "activist government." If some legislators weren't bribed with special spending in their districts, they wouldn't vote for good laws. He cites as examples Reagan's tax cut in 1986, and Clinton's tax hike in '93. I think the Reagan tax cut is a somewhat peculiar example of "progressive legislation" and if there hadn't been so many payoffs in '86, it wouldn't have been necessary to pass budget-balancing tax hikes seven years later.

Still, Plumer's larger point is that "Any big-government program on the progressive wish list … won't get done without an orgy of earmarks to entice the inevitable skeptics in Congress. That won't be pretty, but if the price of, say, universal insurance is a bit of borderline corruption here and there, it's a tradeoff worth making. " Plumer notes the obvious sauce-for-the-gander objection – that conservatives can use earmarks to pass their own bills; nonetheless, he believes that "in the long run, institutional mechanisms that are biased toward activist government will favor liberals."

I think this is a point at which centrists part company with ideologues on both extremes. Corruption corrupts. Short-term gains do not justify the long-term erosion of good government or faith in government.

Centrists are typically loyal to the existing institutions of society more than they are tied to a theoretical ideology. Loyalists to our democracy know that Congress has always had some corruption, both of the pork-barrel kind and the Duke Cunningham bribery kind. Our loyalty to our government, though, is despite the bad way it sometimes works, not because of it. Our larger loyalty is to the long-term viability of Congress, beyond the issues, personalities, or even parties of any given term.

The long-term effect of pork on Congress is trichinosis.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Scaring My Son

Last night, as part of the family's commemoration of 9/11, we saw "United 93." We made sure that our son, who is 12, saw it with us. He was 7 when 9/11 happened, and doesn't really remember it. We wanted him to know.

He fell asleep soon after it began, and didn't wake up until the last half hour of the movie.

"United 93" is a superb film. It is done in a documentary style, without famous actors, and with real flight and air traffic people in critical roles. It unfolds in the real time of the flight, and was largely improvised, using official records and the recollections of the passengers' families as checkpoints. It is so powerful because it is not at all sensationalized. It is hard for me to imagine how this film could have been made better.

When the passengers hear that two planes have been flown into the World Trade Center, they realize that they are not in an ordinary hijacking, but a suicide mission. They have a few minutes to figure out what to do, and do it. Ordinary American guys size up the threat, coordinate quickly, and act. As we all know, they did not succeed in taking control of the plane before the terrorists crashed it. The text on the screen at the end said there were "no survivors."

But there were survivors – probably thousands of them. All the people survived who might have died had that plane reached the Capitol. The passengers on the plane died, but they died doing the right thing.

When the film was done, my son was in tears. He is a tough kid. He faced down a bully in elementary school and got a broken arm for his trouble. He has been studying martial arts to give him discipline as well as skill. And, like most boys his age, he had seen thousands of virtual deaths on television and in video games.

This was different. This was real. He doesn't really want to talk about it yet, but I think he saw that you could really be in a terrifying, life-or-death situation, and be called upon to act.

I assured him that the grownups would try to make order in the world so that he wouldn't have to face terrorists. But I know that he, like me, like most American men and many American women, would be ready to act in the face of evil, even unto death.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My Conclusions on 9/11, 2006

We are supposed to be the Good Guys. That means:

We shouldn't torture.

We shouldn't weasel about it when we have been torturing.

We shouldn't have secret prisons.

We shouldn't hold prisoners without charges or trials.

We shouldn't put prisoners in forbidden military bases to keep lawyers from helping them.

We shouldn't declare American citizens "enemy combatants" in order to strip their rights.

We shouldn't make a "pre-emptive" war on a country that is not even close to attacking us.

We shouldn't overthrow a government without a plan for installing a new government.

We shouldn't scorn our allies to make elective wars.

After 9/11, 2001 the world supported us and opposed the terrorists. Today, we have lost most of that support, and created more terrorists, because we did all of the above. It will take decades to undo the damage.

Today would be a good day to start being the Good Guys again.