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Immigration Reform

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Now as Ever, GOP-Lite Won’t Work.

“On Tuesday night, a lot of Republican-ish candidates got crushed by the official Republican candidates, confirming yet again that a gutless, wincing version of one kind of politics always loses to the robust one. Nobody first starts drinking Diet Coke because they think it tastes better, and the only people who keep drinking it are the ones who’ve drunk nothing else for so long that actual flavor seems weird. Why vote for someone hesitantly and semi-apologetically tacking toward the right when you can just vote for someone who goes balls-to-the-wall rightward and is damn proud of it? At least that person gives off the sense of actually enjoying his own beliefs.”

THIS. Part of the upside of being newly off-the-Hill is I can escape a bit further from the dreariness of much of current politics, so no absurdly-belated, long midterm post this year. Besides, The Guardian‘s Jeb Lund has already well-articulated where I am on all this: Give people a choice between a Republican and a Republican and the Republican will win every time:

“[W]hether the Democratic Party stands for anything is a perfectly valid question at this point. On a macro level, a party that is already thoroughly militarized and corporatized — and largely indifferent to Main Street whenever it poses a conflict with Wall Street — offers little alternative to the other party that already celebrates that.”

Sure, the ground in 2014 always heavily favored the GOP: This was a six-year midterm, Class 2 year, and the seats up for reelection swung heavily Democratic six years ago, in that faraway, hopey-changey time of 2008. Still, when you have a party that hardly, if ever, has the courage of its convictions anymore, coupled with a President who seemed at times to be actively trying to discourage the base, little wonder that the lowest turnout since 1942 brought forth another shellacking. As Richard said, a withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.

So, yeah, bad times for the Democratic brand, and no mistake. The good news is the long-term story hasn’t changed: Republicans are still drawing dead, demographically speaking, even though they’ll probably hold the House until at least 2020 due to gerrymandering (and now, thanks to these 2014 results, will likely be able to hold the Senate for the first two years of the next presidency.) And, even better, Americans strongly supported progressive positions two weeks ago, be it on the minimum wage, marijuana, or misdemeanors.

But Dems can’t just assume the government will eventually devolve to them by fiat. We’re going to have to quit thinking the endless “but the other team is crazy-pants” blather will carry us over the top, and actually put up candidates that will stand for something other than GOP-lite camouflage. Of course, our 2016 standard-bearer is, at least at the moment, undoubtedly Hillary Clinton, sooo…I’m sure everything’s going to work out great.

But We Didn’t.

“Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: ‘What the hell’s his presidency for?’ His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he’s championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: ‘There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.'”

In The Guardian, Gary Younge laments anew the missed opportunities of Barack Obama’s presidency. “If there was a plot, he’s lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there’s a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.”

Sigh. If anything, this was all true of the first term too. As John Maynard Keynes said of another ostensibly progressive president a century ago, “[t]he disillusion was so complete that some of those who had trusted most hardly dared speak of it.”

Here is the House.

“Let’s see where she stands, OK? Yesterday, an amendment leaped over ‘a key hurdle’ in the Senate…The amendment in question mandates that we spend an absurd amount of money on ‘border security’ because we love to spend absurd amounts of money on anything that looks remotely military or remotely like law enforcement, and “border security” looks a lot like both. We will also spend an absurd amount of money on “border security” because that was the only way to bribe enough Republicans to vote in such a way as to allow the amendment to clear the ‘key hurdle.’ So what was the ‘key hurdle.’ Enough senators voted for the amendment to spend an absurd amount of money on ‘border security’ to allow the amendment itself to be voted on in the Senate.”

The indispensable Charles Pierce checks in on immigration reform in the Senate, and underlines anew one of the fundamental truths of our current politics. To wit:

In 2010, the American people elected what is possibly the worst national legislature in the history of the Republic. They also elected some of the worst state legislatures in the history of the Republic, too, which thereupon enacted redistricting and gerrymandering schemes guaranteeing that subsequent national legislatures elected wouldn’t be much better. In 2010, the country committed itself to decades of gridlock, mediocrity, and a perpetual state of hysterical paralysis in the national government. It would be nice if this were pointed out with somewhat more regularity.”

Update: Some telling stats by way of Dangerous Meta: “The much-criticized 112th Congress — from 2011 to 2012 — was the least productive and least popular Congress on record, according to the available statistics…only 15 legislative items have become law under the current Congress. That’s fewer than the 23 items that became law at this same point in the 112th Congress, which passed a historically low number of bills that were signed into law.”

What do you mean we, white man?

“We should put that sign up when you sunuvabitches came!” An angry Native American man unleashes a truth bomb on Arizona anti-immigration protesters. Something to keep in mind the next time angry right-wingers start venting about “illegals.”

The fields are under lock and key.

After enactment of House Bill 87, a law designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Georgia, state officials appear shocked to discover that HB 87 is, well, driving a lot of illegal immigrants out of Georgia…The resulting manpower shortage has forced state farmers to leave millions of dollars’ worth of blueberries, onions and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields. It has also put state officials into something of a panic at the damage they’ve done to Georgia’s largest industry.

As the AJC’s Jay Bookman puts it, “it might almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad.” In Georgia, indulging in xenophobia has backfired mightily for Nathan Deal, the state’s Republican governor, who is now desperately trying to get probationers to fill the agricultural labor gap his draconian anti-immigrant bill has created.

The pain this is causing is real. People are going to lose their crops, and in some cases their farms. The small-town businesses that supply those farms with goods and services are going to suffer as well. For economically embattled rural Georgia, this could be a major blow.” And sadly, when it comes to deep, self-inflicted, and totally unnecessary economic wounds wrought by Republican idiocy, the Peach State here is just the canary in the coalmine.

Minority Report.

Imagine for a moment you are president of the United States.

You were just elected in the midst of a worsening economic crisis, one that demands bold action and decisive leadership to confront. Fortunately, you enter office with an historic wind at your back: You enjoy unprecedented enthusiasm and goodwill from millions of new voters, a clear mandate for change, and, most importantly, sizable majorities in both the House and Senate.

You also know that the political opposition — who hold a long and storied record of being ruthless, craven and despicable to get what they want — will try to prevent your agenda by any means necessary.

And, being a student of history, you know that, particularly in the face of a poor economy, this political opposition is very likely to pick up congressional seats in the next election (with a few notable exceptions, one of which I’ll get to in a moment.) In other words, a pendulum swing against you is highly probable, and so the majorities you have are probably as big as they are ever going to get.

Basically, you have two years, and likely two years only, to do pretty much anything you want in order to grapple with this economic crisis. Do you [a] take a page from FDR’s 100 Days, go big, and push hard for the progressive agenda you laid down in your election campaign, which has the added benefit of enthusing the “rising American electorate” that got you elected? Or do you [b] try to ingratiate yourself with people who will always hate you, water down your signature legislative initiatives from the outset, and seemingly go out of your way to depress the lefty base that got you elected?

I think you see where I’m going with this.

First things first, let’s be clear about why the Republicans took back the House so decisively two days ago.

1) It’s the Economy, Stupid. Though it may be mostly Dubya’s fault, the economy is obviously still in terrible shape. The official unemployment rate hovers just under the double-digits, and real unemployment and underemployment levels are much higher. Household incomes are down, consumer debt is up, millions of homeowners are stuck with underwater mortgages, and millions more feel in danger of slipping under. As everyone knows, when economic times are bad, the party in power suffers.

Compounding the situation, families are feeling under the gun at exactly the same time that those same wealthy few who precipitated the Great Recession are now rolling in dough. Having evaded pretty much any and all serious consequences for the meltdown they created, the Big Brains on Wall Street are instead giving themselves record bonuses, and trying to profit from even more rampant corruption on the foreclosure front. To no one does this ugly sight look like change we can believe in.

2) Republicans voted, Democrats didn’t. Again, not rocket science: Democrats lost because Republicans came out and Democrats stayed home. Look at the breakdown of exit polls: As per the norm in midterms, the 2010 electorate was older than the population at large. (23% of the vote versus 13% of the population.) And 57% of those seniors, worried that the threat of Creeping Socialism might somehow interfere with their federal retirement security and universal health care, pulled the lever for Republicans.

Conversely, 29 million Obama voters did not show up to vote. “Hispanics, African Americans, union members and young people were among the many core Democratic groups that turned out in large numbers in the 2008 elections…In 2010, turnout among these groups dropped off substantially, even below their previous midterm levels.” Take voters under 30, for example, who vote Democratic at about the same rate seniors vote Republican. They went from 18% of the electorate in 2008 to 11% this year. Obviously, that’s a problem.

So, working back from these factors — economic performance and voter turnout — it follows that the two best things the administration could have done to improve Democrats’ standing this year would have been to get the economy moving again and to get the Democratic base fired up and ready to go. So what happened? Let’s look at the tape.

The Economy: As Paul Krugman has already pointed out, much of the story of this election was written way back in February 2009, when the Obama administration chose to settle on a stimulus package that was watered-down to appease Republicans who would never, ever vote for it. In fact, thanks to Larry Summers, the stimulus was low-balled from the start — Summers made sure Christina Romer’s higher-end projections for the amount needed never even made it to the president’s desk.

So the crystal was in the steel at the point of fracture, and mainly because Obama, doing the President Goldilocks routine that would become a trademark, watered down the Recovery Act early-on to appease an opposition that was unappeasable.

By late 2009, the warning signs that ARRA was probably too small were all over the place — not the least in the growing state budget crises seen all across the country. But even as Republicans throttled congressional attempts to remedy the situation, the Obama administration remained mostly passive…or, in the case of food stamps, worse. Many in the White House took up the standard of the deficit witchhunt. (Yes, there was some rhetorical urging of the tsk-tsk variety eventually, but that, as on so many other fights, was after the chips were already down.)

Going along with this frustrating passivity was the increasing sense over time that this administration, elected to be change we could believe in, was more than a little cozy with the Wall Street yokels who caused the economic disaster in the first place. Yes, TARP was originally Dubya’s baby — not that very many voters seemed to remember that fact. (And it’s hard to blame them when folks like Geithner keep touting its merits.) Still, acceding to the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street — with little to no strings attached — was an extraordinarily inopportune way to kick off an administration theoretically premised on fundamental change.

I have to confess that, at the time, I thought TARP was unfortunate but probably necessary. Two years later, I’m thinking I probably just just got railroaded, and didn’t know what I was talking about. (Hey, it wasn’t the only thing I was wrong about in 2008.) But, even back then, I argued that TARP had to come with game-changing restrictions on Wall Street’s behavior. Those, clearly, were not forthcoming.

Yes, Congress did pass financial reform — But let’s remember, Team Obama worked openly to weaken the bill, and even now certain admin folks are clearly trying to derail Elizabeth Warren, the best chance the financial reforms, however tepid, have at working as intended for consumers. (Or, to quickly take another example, there’s the matter of the HAMP foreclosure program, which, as David Dayen has documented, seems more concerned with recouping money for lenders than helping families in trouble.)

As on the finreg bill, so too on other fronts — and this is where we get to the suppressing turnout issue.

On health reform, which thank god eventually passed, we now know that the administration cut deals early on to kill drug reimportation on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry (even after Sen. Dorgan reintroduced the idea) and, more egregiously, to kill the public option on behalf of AHIP and the hospitals. Looking back, the president signaled the public option’s expendability in his September 2009 health care address, another classic example of the wait-too-long-then-try-to-swoop-in-and-save-the-day legislative strategy usually preferred by the White House. And by the eve of the midterms, he was openly mocking public option supporters at fundraisers.

But, even those fundamental breaks with real reform aside, the entire health care process got badly screwed up when the administration, in a misguided attempt to curry bipartisan favor for reform, let Max Baucus dink around for weeks on the Senate Finance Committee. While Republican Senators Snowe and Grassley played Lucy to Baucus’ Charlie Brown and kept moving the football, the Tea Party August of 2009 took shape, and almost a year in legislative time was lost. And, by the time Baucus finally released the durned thing, the bill had once again been watered down to gain imaginary Republican votes that were never, ever going to be forthcoming.

The litany of Obama’s other sins by now are well known. As noted before, this administration has been absolutely egregious on civil liberties, all the while telling us to “look forward, not backward” on Dubya’s torture regime. (But different rules for everyone else, it seems.) Meanwhile, Gitmo is still open, and DADT is still enforced. Immigration reform did not happen. Nor did energy reform, despite House Democrats going out on a limb to pass a bill way back in June of 2009. (Yesterday, Obama the “shellacked” buried this bill for good.) And so on.

If all these compromises and capitulation — which were never political necessities so much as unforced errors — weren’t enough to depress the base, the administration’s press arm continued a steady diet of hippie-punching. “Left of the left“, pajama-wearing bloggers, the “professional left” — time and again, “senior advisors” and press flaks went out of their way to scorn the people who sweat blood and tears to get them elected. I already mentioned Obama ridiculing public option supporters — Well, where did folks ever get the notion that a wonky, badly-named fix like the public option was the ground to fight on anyway? Because the president told us it was important.

To be clear: I am not arguing that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything (although, in almost all cases — including health care reform, much more credit should really go to the very unfairly maligned Speaker Pelosi — she’s the one who made it all happen.) But, at every point down the line, for every piece of legislation that did pass, you have to factor in the opportunity costs that were lost. And consistently, this administration has pursued the politics of the lowest common denominator. To quote the prescient Drew Westen once again:

I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either. What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast — but getting there by November.

And, hey, look what happened.

Remember how I mentioned a midterm outlier way up at the beginning of this post? That was 1934 — when, in an economy even worse than the one America faces now, Roosevelt managed to pick up seats in both the House and Senate. FDR gave us the 100 Days, a flurry of political activity we haven’t seen before or since. Now, granted, the Roosevelt team did not have to contend with either unfettered money corrupting the system or a pathetic Fourth Estate in a death spiral — both severe problems with our current political culture that must be addressed. Still, when elected in the midst of a similar economic crisis, with similar expectations, this administration did not bring about a 100 Days. It gave us Three Months of Max Baucus dicking around to appease intractable Republicans.

So why did the 2010 shellacking happen? Because of the economy, yes. And because of low turnout, yes. And also because of troubling trends like corrupting money everywhere and a national press in severe decline — The fact that the media followed Christine O’Donnell more than any other 2010 candidate tells you all you need to know about that broken-down disaster we call the Village these days.

But, nonetheless, all of these determining factors were exacerbated in the wrong direction by the administration’s fatal addiction to the Fetal Position fallacy. As I said of this year’s State of the Union address, “people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.

Some argue politics is the art of the possible. That’s true, but I believe much, much more was possible if this administration had actually deigned to fight for it.

Some say the president can only do as much as Congress lets him — he needs 60 votes, yadda yadda yadda. I’d say that he had 60 votes, and even then did not push to make things happen as much as he could. I would also argue that the presidency of the United States is actually a remarkably powerful position these days, that Obama has showed no inclination to act progressive on crucial matters like civil liberties that are totally in his bailiwick, and that, even now with a Republican House, the administration could move forward with a progressive agenda, if it so desired.

Some — such as pathetic, DLC-brand fortunate sons like Evan Bayh and Harold Ford — say progressivism was tried and found wanting. I would argue progressivism was not even tried.

Some say it is time to go for the Dems to embrace a more “centrist”, GOP-lite Third Way from now on. I think we’ve been experimenting with that sad sack of failure for decades now — it’s our First Way — and it’s been proven over and over again not to work. (Just ask the Blue Dogs, who got eviscerated on Tuesday. Why vote for Republican-lite when you can have the real thing?)

Basically, it comes to this. Without vision, the people perish…and vote GOP. And because this administration did not go big, because it did not produce the change people so desperately desired, and because it forsook the possibility of real progressivism early and often to indulge their fantastical belief in the magical unicorns of High Broderism, the Democrats have now lost the House — ironically the one branch of government that, under Speaker Pelosi, actually tried to get done what had been promised.

Now, matters are worse.

Come, Ye Huddled Masses, to Prison.

According to Corrections Corporation of America reports reviewed by NPR, executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market…In the conference room, the group decided they would turn the immigration idea into a model bill. They discussed and debated language. Then, they voted on it…Four months later, that model legislation became, almost word for word, Arizona’s immigration law.

This will probably be the most disgusting story you read all day. On what happens to be the 124th birthday of the Statue of Liberty, NPR’s Laura Sullivan delves into how the private prison industry got Arizona’s racial profiling law passed.

Even accustomed as I am now to stories of how money in politics has completely broken our republic — and why in holy hell do we countenance a private prison system in America anyway? — this is truly vile. “The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

A House of Ill Repute.

Two days after financial reform became law, Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not take up comprehensive energy-reform legislation for the rest of the year. And so climate change joined immigration, job creation, food safety, pilot training, veterans’ care, campaign finance, transportation security, labor law, mine safety, wildfire management, and scores of executive and judicial appointments on the list of matters that the world’s greatest deliberative body is incapable of addressing. Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.

Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call: In a decent companion piece to James Fallows’ foray on the subject earlier this year, The New Yorker‘s George Packer tries to figure out what the hell is wrong with the Senate. And one of the best answers is buried in the middle of the piece: “Nothing dominates the life of a senator more than raising money. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat, said, ‘Of any free time you have, I would say fifty per cent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising.’

The other big and much-needed solution: Filibuster reform. But with a handful of Democratic Senators already balking at the idea, that’ll be a tough climb this coming January, and no mistake. Nonetheless, it is very much a fight worth having. “[O]ver the past few decades the reflex has grown in the Senate that, all things considered, it’s better to avoid than to take on big issues. This is the kind of thing that drives Michael Bennet nutty: here you’ve arrived in the United States Senate and you can’t do fuck-all about the destruction of the planet.

Heroes Among Us.

Most of the U.S. national news about immigration is very sad: bitter political disputes in Arizona, or images of desperate immigrants trying to cross the border. So much pain numbs you. It is easy to overlook the practical contribution of immigrants to American society, as well as the enormous financial contribution they make in sending remittances home. A lot of Latino communities survive on that money…Comic-book superheroes have an alter ego, and so do immigrants in the United States. They may be insignificant or even invisible to much of society, but they are heroes in their homelands.

In Foreign Policy, photojournalist Dulce Pinzon shares her photo collection of Mexican migrant workers dressed as superheroes. (Officially here.) “The principal objective of this series is to pay homage to these brave and determined men and women that somehow manage, without the help of any supernatural power, to withstand extreme conditions of labor in order to help their families and communities survive and prosper.

Los Suns and La Machete.

‘I think it’s fantastic,’ Nash said…’I think the law is very misguided. I think it’s, unfortunately, to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties. I think it’s very important for us to stand up for things we believe in. As a team and as an organization, we have a lot of love and support for all of our fans. The league is very multicultural. We have players from all over the world, and our Latino community here is very strong and important to us.

In honor of Cinco de Mayo and in protest of Arizona’s straight-up ignorant new ethnic profiling law, the Phoenix Suns will don their “Los Suns” jerseys tonight. “Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is on board, and the team even tried to get their ‘Los Spurs’ jerseys, though it was too late to do so. When asked for approval to wear the jerseys, the NBA “was all for it,” said Suns general manager Steve Kerr.

This is Machete, with a special Cinco de Mayo message…TO ARIZONA.” If the Arizona GOP won’t heed the carrot of the Suns’ inclusive orange unis, perhaps they’ll fear the sharpened stick of a ticked-off Danny Trejo, in the new holiday trailer for Robert Rodriguez’s full-length version of Machete, also with Jeff Fahey, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert DeNiro, Lindsey Lohan, Jessica Alba, Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, and Steven Seagall. I know I was just badmouthing this project in my review of The Losers, but I have to concede, it still makes for a pretty fun trailer. (Extra points for DeNiro channeling his inner JD Hayworth therein.)

Obama: Give Peace a Chance.

“‘I’m here tonight to say a few words about an American hero I have come to know very well and admire very much — Sen. John McCain. And then, according to the rules agreed to by both parties, John will have approximately 30 seconds to make a rebuttal.'” Now here’s a prez worth hugging…On the eve of his inauguration, Sen. Obama publicly makes nice with his former adversary, John McCain.

And, apparently it’s not just for show: According to the NYT, the president-elect has been trying to forge a bond with McCain (and his No. 2, Lindsey Graham) since soon after the election. “Mr. Obama arrived for their Chicago meeting on Nov. 16 with several well-researched proposals to collaborate on involving some of Mr. McCain’s favorite causes, including a commission to cut ‘corporate welfare,’ curbing waste in military procurement and an overhaul of immigration rules.

Hey, rapprochement is good, bipartisanship is good. And working Senators McCain and Graham (and, I’d presume Maine’s moderates, Snowe and Collins) is simply smart politics. Still, when push inevitably comes to shove on Iraq, health care, and a host of other issues, hopefully the president-elect will remember to dance with who brung him.

The Car that Goes Boom.

Neither as resonant as Letters from Iwo Jima or Mystic River nor as atrocious as Million Dollar Baby or Flags of our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is a solid, decently engaging, and even well-meaning two hours of cinema, despite the seemingly endless tirade of dated ethnic slurs issuing from Eastwood’s mouth therein. (Like Alvy Singer, Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski is a bigot, but for the left.) Its goofy and often didactic racists-have-a-heart-too messaging aside, Torino — or, as my dad accurately labeled it, Dirty Old Man Harry — pretty clearly attempts to be the coda and meta-commentary on Eastwood’s famous vigiliante films that Unforgiven (more successfully) was to his westerns.

Yet, even if it’s clunky and heavy-handed at times, and even if its over-the-top ending seems lifted straight out of your average Mel Gibson movie (you’ll know what I mean if/when you see it), I still ended up feeling reasonably charitable towards Torino in the end, perhaps because it’s good to see Eastwood, aged and wizened but with a undeniable twinkle in his eye, still willing to draw outside the lines of his cinematic legacy. (And perhaps because, speaking as someone of the Caucasian persuasion — or at worst a “mick” — we get off easy. I could imagine feeling much less sanguine about listening to a mostly-white audience chuckle and guffaw their way through the litany of racial slurs here, if they felt directed at me or my kids.)

If you saw any of the trailers for Gran Torino, you’re pretty much up to speed. The 1972 muscle car in question is the MacGuffin of this particular tale, and, with the passing of his wife, one of the three things left in this world still loved unconditionally by retired autoworker and Korean war vet Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) — the other two being his aging golden retriever and watery American beer. Basically written off by his biological family as a cantankerous, curmudgeonly funeral-waiting-to-happen (his granddaughter is particularly one-dimensional in this regard — she reminded me of Hillary Swank’s redneck family in MDB), Walt is for all intent and purposes an island unto himself in his Michigan neighborhood, which is now mostly populated by Hmong emigrants. His only friends are the other (white) retirees down at the local, with whom he occasionally shares a drink or three, and his “dago” barber (John Carroll Lynch), with whom he occasionally engages in what passes for witty ethnic repartee.

But when the boy-next-door Tao (Bee Vang) is enticed by the local gang to steal Walt’s Gran Torino as part of his initiation, and the girl-next-door Sue (Ahney Her) gets pawed walking home from school by some local African-American youths (Walt would use another term), Kowalski becomes increasingly drawn into the life of the Hmong community all around him despite himself. And soon, in full defiance of his oft-professed contempt for “gooks” and “zipperheads,” Walt takes it upon himself to educate Tao in the ways of true American manhood (which apparently is comprised of being good with tools and ethnic banter — who knew?) Still, that aforementioned gang ain’t going anywhere, and — worse for Walt, Tao, and particularly these hapless gang members — they don’t seem to have ever watched Dirty Harry. Clearly, somebody in the neighborhood is going to have to stand up to this crew…but, at his advanced age, laying down the law with the barrel of a big gun just doesn’t make Walt’s day quite like it used to.

In the end, Torino actually reminded me less of the glory days of Harry Callahan than of another film I happened to catch last week (on Blu-Ray), Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor. Gran Torino and The Visitor play like the (aging) McCain and Obama voters’ guides to 21st Century Immigrants respectively. In both films, an older white guy in a rut has his heart opened and life transformed by America’s spunky newest arrivals, until he gets a first-hand taste of the downside of new-immigrant life. (In one case, ethnic gangs; in the other, the INS.) Both are commendable films anchored by impressive and even nomination-worthy lead performances (in The Visitor‘s case, by Richard Jenkins)…but both exude more than a whiff of Bagger Vance-ish sentiment in their storytelling. (See also Gbenga Akinnagbe’s character in the otherwise solid The Savages.) In other words, the immigrants in question often feel like static plot points to move the white fellow’s story arc forward rather than full-fledged characters themselves.

Now, there’s no one in Torino as galling in this regard as Haaz Sleiman’s ridiculously friendly Syrian drummer in The Visitor, but the feeling persists nonetheless, particularly in the way Walt’s Hmong neighbors continually just shrug off the voluminous stream of bile emanating from his mouth. Eastwood or no, it’s hard to shake the sense that Walt’s blustery bravado would’ve at the very least cut back on the respectful offerings he’s given and Asian barbeques to which he’s invited during the film, and more than likely quite justifiably would’ve gotten his teeth kicked in a few times before the events shown here. Of course, in the world according to Gran Torino, physical violence is ultimately never the answer. So what the hell are we supposed to use, man? Harsh language?

Midnight Agents, Superhuman Crews.

Among the bountiful harvest that is the Quantum of Solace trailer crop…

  • Trailer rights to use Philip Glass and Muse? Several thousand dollars. Lawyers to haggle out an armistice among warring studios? Millions. Finally getting a Watchmen film up and made? Priceless. Costumed heroes (the Voice-of-Mastercard among them) investigate the death of a Comedian in the story-heavy second trailer for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.

    I’m all over the place on this one. There are some real red flags here — all the Snydery slo-mo shots of Malin Ackerman’s hair, for example — and some of the dialogue feels as stiff and expository as the ponderous take-a-meeting scenes in 300. Then again, as with the first trailer, I’m still having trouble just wrapping my mind around the fact that they finally made a Watchmen movie. So I’m inclined to be charitable, and the little flourishes throughout (Rorschach’s mask moves!) appeal to my inner fanboy regardless. (Also, while Jackie Earle Hale’s Bale-Batman-growl may be a tad distracting, it’s hard to imagine Rorschach with any other kind of voice.) For now, I’ll call it a push.

  • Bad Boy Kirk! Angry Spock(?)! Alluring Uhura! Villain with Ridges on Face! J.J. Abrams introduces his new-and-improved Enterprise babies in the crowd-pleasing trailer for the Star Trek reboot. I can’t say I’m expecting all that much from this venture, and this clip, particularly in its 2 Fast 2 Furious opener, doesn’t shy away from bringing the summer movie dumb. Still, I’m forced to admit this looks more fun than I’d earlier envisioned, and I’m looking forward to more of Simon Pegg’s Scott and Karl Urban’s Bones. (And Bruce Greenwood (Pike) and Eric Bana (Big Bad) are generally a welcome touch of class in any event.)

    Also out of late:

  • A stiff, robotic alien promises to destroy life on Earth in order to save it…oh yeah, and he brought Gort along too. Keanu Reeves get threatening in the new action-centric trailer for next month’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, also with Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm.

  • Speaking of threatening, Harrison Ford looks to uncork the finger of doom for the cause of immigration reform in the trailer for Wayne Kramer’s Crash-like Crossing Over. (I hope his wife and family are ok, at least.) Joining Indy on this border-crossing adventure: Summer Bishil, Alice Braga, Cliff Curtis, Alice Eve, Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, and Jim Sturgess.

  • Immigration, Schmimmigration. According to the teaser for Roland Emmerich’s next forgettable summer jaunt, 2012, we’ve only got four years left anyway…and it’s all Dubya’s fault. Strangely enough, John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Woody Harrelson are all along to surf this improbable Himalayan-swamping wave, but I wouldn’t expect much of a splash at the box office.

  • Finally, the revolution may not be televised, but it’ll soon be hitting at least a few screens here in America anyway: Witness the a international teaser for Steven Soderbergh’s Che (or, more to the point, Ches — I believe this project is still two films.) Word of mouth on this one has been highly variable, but I remain curious to see what Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro have come up with. Still, this strangely disjointed teaser — Ken Burns by way of Oliver Stone — doesn’t really get the job done.

  • The Man from Panama.

    “‘There are powerful arguments that Senator McCain or anyone else in this position is constitutionally qualified, but there is certainly no precedent,’ said Sarah H. Duggin, an associate professor of law at Catholic University who has studied the issue extensively. ‘It is not a slam-dunk situation.’” Well, that explains the love for TR’s Big Stick diplomacy. As it turns out, Sen. John McCain was born in the Panama Canal zone, potentially complicating his constitutional eligibility for president. “The conflict that could conceivably ensnare McCain goes more to the interpretation of the archaic phrase ‘natural born’ when weighed against intent and decades of immigration law…Quickly recognizing confusion over the evolving nature of citizenship, the First Congress in 1790 passed a naturalization law that did define children of citizens ‘born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States to be natural born.’ But that law is still seen as potentially unconstitutional and was overtaken by subsequent legislation, which omitted the natural-born phrase.

    Hmmm. Maybe next time the GOP try to ratchet up the virulent xenophobia, we should perhaps remind them that at least our putative standard-bearer is definitively a “natural-born citizen” of the republic. And I wonder, will “activist judges” on the Supreme Court really forego a strict reading of our constitution and let this foreign-born fellow, John Sidney McCain, run for president? Strict constructionists should blanch at the thought. Update: Sen. Obama co-sponsors a bill to help McCain out.

    In the City of Angels.

    Heya. Sorry this is going up so late…I spent the evening at the Generation Obama event in Midtown, so my usual prObama take on the debates got even more reinforcement than usual…

    First off, it was heartening to watch a surprisingly substantive debate. The Nevada roundtable was too sweet, and the Myrtle Beach slugfest was too sour, but tonight’s much-heralded showdown in Los Angeles actually seemed just right. [Transcript.] Both candidates were able to tease out and discuss notable differences in their policies, particularly on health care, immigration reform, and Iraq, while keeping a civil, friendly tone that didn’t seem as unnaturally forced as back in Vegas.

    With all that being said, and to no one’s surprise, I thought Barack Obama came out ahead this evening. (In fact, I agree with Andrew Sullivan — this might’ve been his best debate thus far.) He showed a clear and nuanced command of policy. He made a solid case for his strengths, most notably on the question of judgment (“Right on Day 1.”) He explained well how he’s more electable, particularly against John McCain. He was wry and personable. And — when it came to the Republicans — he was often devastating. (That Romney takedown was too rich.)

    Hillary Clinton was also good tonight, but she gave more than a few answers that were real groaners. On immigration reform, her attempt to be Obamaesque by invoking the Statue of Liberty was strange and flat. More problematically, her answer on drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants made no sense (She’s against licenses for illegals, to protect illegals?) And, worst of all, when given the chance to defuse a zero-sum understanding of the immigrant issue, she instead told a story about an African-American man who blamed Latinos for his job loss, and it was hard not to read an off-putting Bendixen subtext into it.

    Most notably, when it came to Iraq in the final third, Clinton was terrible. Rather than just admit she made a mistake in either [a] supporting the war or [b] believing Dubya, she seemed unwilling to concede any possibility of error, and got stuck in an increasingly tortured answer about her position on the AUMF vote. It was unseemly, to say the least, even Dubyaesque. And the more she spun her wheels, the better Obama looked. Update: Apparently, she also butchered the truth about the Levin Amendment.

    Still, my general impression is that CNN’s Jeff Toobin basically got the larger chess game right: As a TPM commenter well put it: Hillary Clinton is currently in the lead and is trying to run the four corners until the clock runs out. Barack Obama is surging massively right now and didn’t want to upset that o-mentum unduly. So neither candidate felt they needed to shake up the current paradigm all that much, which helped keep everything friendly.

    Instead, Obama wanted to show undecideds that he has presidential gravitas and can policy-wonk as needed. Clinton wanted to staunch her negatives and get the focus back on her rather than Wild Bill. (Which reminds me, no question about Kazakhstan?) In that sense, both candidates accomplished what they came to do.

    Now, it’s up to us.

    Omsbudsdog Emeritus

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