“Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America.”

In 2008, Focus on the Family wrote this letter from the future, warning their members about life in 2012 if Barack Obama were elected president. It’s hilarious. Comedy gold. Everybody’s gay, children watch porn, electricity is all but illegal, prayer isn’t allowed…it’s a hoot. If it wasn’t for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I don’t think there’d be any media outlet that would later revisit and evaluate these sorts of claims. I wonder what Focus on the Family is claiming Obama will do with his next four years? And who would believe them? 

The politics of beer or the beer of politics.

National Media has provided a bubble chart of beers, graphed by partisanship and likelihood of turning out to vote. Republicans drink Coors Light, Miller Light, and Sam Adams. Democrats drink Heineken and Corona. People who show up to the polls drink Amstel Light, Sam Adams Light, and Molson. People who don’t bother to vote drink Budweiser Select, Natural Light, and Busch Light. Fosters, Miller High Life, Busch, and Bud Light are equally popular among Democrats and Republicans. 

Don’t average voters deserve a little representation?

Here’s the thing about Rep. Robert Hurt: he’s a perfectly average congressman.

It’s tough to campaign against average. There’s a reason why just a shade less than 100% of Congressmen seeking reelection are successful: they keep their mouths shut and try not to do anything, while their staff dutifully arranges tours of the Capitol, mails out American flags, and expedites agency responses to constituents’ requests.

Hurt is one of these congressman. In his first two years in office, he has passed no legislation, and introduced just four bills. He’s cast no brave votes. He’s taken no principled stands. He’s a standard nobody freshman, and as long as he remains in congress, he will continue to be a nobody in congress. He’s not a major figure in the district, certainly not nearly as visible as past congressmen. I’ll wager that there’s a solid majority of congress who could not pick him out of a two-man lineup.

(Keep in mind, being a nobody in congress still makes you a congressman. There are a few hundred nobodies in congress. It’s perfectly ordinary.)

The other day I got a slick, two-page mailer from Hurt—paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia—and nowhere on it does he mention that he’s a Republican. An informed voter would probably figure out that he’s a Republican, based on some of his positions, but a lot of people would have no idea. That’s the point.

Hurt stands in sharp contrast to our last two congressmen: Virgil H. Goode (D/I/R/C) and Tom Perriello (D). Like ‘em or not, nobody could doubt where these guys stood.

Goode was firmly against NAFTA, Muslims, the United Nations, and Mexican restaurants displaying the Mexican flag. He made national headlines on a few occasions, none for reasons that made the district look particularly good, but most of which I’ll wager he was proud of. Goode routinely took unpopular positions, and his legislative priorities were either bold or Quixotesque, depending on one’s perspective.

Perriello distinguished himself by being quantifiably the hardest-working member of Congress, holding more town hall meetings with constituents than any other member. He met with thousands of constituents to discuss healthcare reform, ultimately becoming a notably important vote in favor of the Obama administration’s overhaul. Perriello suspected that his vote would cost him his seat, and he was right—he was one of a handful of freshman Democrats across the U.S. who were unseated in 2010, losses that were attributed widely to backlash over healthcare reform. Casting that vote, knowing that it would cost him his seat, is the very definition of taking a principled stand, regardless of what one thinks of healthcare reform. Perriello introduced 23 bills in the same amount of time in which Hurt introduced four, with seven passing the House (three resolutions, four bills) and one (the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act) passing into law.

Hurt has distinguished himself among this trio by doing absolutely nothing to distinguish himself.

You’ve got to feel for…Douglass? Is that name of the Democratic nominee? I truly cannot remember the name of the nominee. (I looked it up—yup, it’s John Douglass.) He’s got no purchase on Hurt. Sure, he can run against Hurt as a generic Republican, and that’s what he appears to be doing. This is effective in a wave election, or a demographic-shifting redistricting. but there’s no sign of the former and the latter does not describe last year’s redistricting, which did turn the Fifth District into a sociogeographically bizarre district, but it became only more conservative. Hurt was nominated two years ago by virtue of being the sole non-Tea-Party-aligned candidate, so he can’t even be tied to that fringe group’s fading fortunes.

President Obama has been rising in the polls in Virginia and nationally, and it’s certainly not impossible that he’ll win by the same landslide electoral college margin that he won in 2008. If that’s the case, it’s likewise not impossible that he’d bring Douglass along with him, if only because independents turned off by Mitt Romney’s incompetent campaign decide to toss in for some other Democrats as long as they’re in the booth.

Short of such an event, it’s tough to see how Hurt loses his seat any time soon. He’s got a district that was tailored to him and he’s unlikely to ever do anything interesting. Inertia is a powerful thing.

“TV News Search & Borrow.”

The good folks at the Internet Archive have put together a brilliant, hugely valuable service—a searchable video archive of 350,000 news programs from the past three years from national broadcasts, using closed captioning transcripts as the search data. These sort of indices exist (it’s how The Daily Show does such great research), but access to them is via expensive commercial services. Making the same data available for free is going to let people do some really interesting work atop it. My cousin (well, ninth cousin twice removed…seriously) Tracy Jaquith did a lot of the work to make this happen, and I can see that it’s come a long way since I saw it under development almost a year ago. 

Sweet land of liberty.

I just discovered NPR’s “Americandy: Sweet Land of Liberty,” a series of stories about regional candies from around the U.S. Some obvious ones make the cut—GooGoo Clusters, Valomilk, Idaho Spud, Cherry Mash, Nut Goodie, Rocky Road—but I’m excited to learn about a bunch of others that I’d never heard of. Chukar Cherries, Chewie Pecan Praline, Melty Bar, Chocolate Charlies, Red Coconut Balls, Needhams, Modjeskas, sponge candy…these are all news to me. Every time I travel someplace new, I scour corner stores for regional candies. Now I’ve got a bunch of new candies to be on the lookout for. 

Bush White House actively ignored September 11 warnings.

In an op-ed in the New York Times a couple of days ago, Kurt Eichenwald claims to have seen excerpts from presidential daily briefs from throughout 2001, and says that the lone declassified one (“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”) is nothing compared to those in the months beforehand. He says that the White House actively discredited strong, specific CIA warnings that Al Qaeda was planning a big attack in the U.S. for some time in the summer. On July 9, hen it became clear that Bush was going to completely ignore their warnings, the CIA counterterrorism group even talked about all leaving en masse so that they wouldn’t have to take the fall for the attack. Note that this is an op-ed—presumably it hasn’t been subjected to the Times’ rigorous fact-checking. 

OpenCourt Wins Legal Battle Over Streaming Proceedings

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing OpenCourt to expand their streaming video feeds of court proceedings beyond Quincy District Court. The WBUR project has been running since last year, allowing anybody to watch what’s going on in the courtroom. It’s been a success by any measure, but when they tried to expand to broadcasting jury trials, the county DA sued to stop them. The court ruled that there’s simply no legal basis to stop them—they have the same right as any other media outlet to film in the courtroom. This is a great project, doing the important work of opening up courtrooms. This is the second such legal challenge that they’ve faced, the second time it’s gone to the state’s highest court, and the second time that they’ve won. 

Request for Awesome.

I was lucky enough to spend last week at the Aspen Institute, attending the annual Forum on Communications and Society. Thirty-odd of us spent four days talking about how to make government more open and more innovative. The guest list will leave reasonable people wondering how I got invited—Madeline Albright, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (the President of Estonia), Esther Dyson, Reed Hundt (FCC Chairman under President Clinton), and Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google) were just some of the most famous attendees.

Aspen View

We broke into groups, and were assigned general topics on which to devise a proposal for how to make governance more open and innovative. I wound up in a group with Esther Dyson, Tim Hwang, Max Ogden, Christine Outram, David Robinson, and Christina Xu. We came up with some pretty great proposals, at least one of which I intend to pursue personally, but ultimately we settled on the need to overhaul the government RFP process, and to create a policy vehicle to bid out lightweight, low-dollar technical projects, and to attract bids from startups and other small, nimble tech organizations. The idea isn’t to replace the existing RFP process, but to create a parallel one that will enable government to be more nimble.

We call our proposal Request for Awesome, and it has been received enthusiastically. Two days after we announced our proposal, a half dozen cities had committed to implementing it, and no doubt more have rolled in in the week since. Max and Tim are particularly involved in pushing this forward, and I don’t doubt that they’ll spread this farther.

I was very impressed by the Aspen Institute and by the Forum on Communications and Society. I’ve probably been to a dozen conferences so far this year, and this one was head and shoulders above the rest, perhaps the best I’ve ever been to. The Aspen Institute enjoys a strong reputation, and now I see why. Here’s hoping I get invited back some day.