Tuesday, January 7, 2020


American elections often seem to go on for years.  Political types have been watching for over a year now, getting to know the foibles and qualities of the many Democrats seeking to take on and replace Donald Trump.

The reality is that many voters are only starting to make their decisions now, as Iowa and New Hampshire enter the last month before their nominating votes.  That’s because many voters, having lives that don’t focus on the travails of Kamala Harris, only start tuning in now and really focusing on who they think has the makings of a President.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the history of late shifts that alter the race.  In 2004, John Kerry was loaning his campaign money to stay afloat while the media went ga-ga over insurgent frontrunner Howard Dean.  In 2008, John McCain had fallen to sixth in some polls and was left for dead.  In 2012, Rick Santorum wasn’t on pace to win Iowa – he was a polling asterisk who’d lost his Senate seat by 18 points.  And, of course, in 2008 and 2016, Hillary Clinton had 30-point national leads that quickly evaporated into dogfights with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, respectively.  Meanwhile, her husband Bill enjoyed nothing like that in 1992 – he was running fourth and assumed to be buried under an avalanche of negative stories about his personal life.

Guys who didn't have a hope, one month out.

So, we really don’t know what will happen as these candidates meet the voters’ full, critical gaze for the first time.  What we do have is some winnowing done by the media, the money, and the insiders, as some candidates have found there just is not enough water in the pool to dive in head first.  Some of those – hi, Bill DeBlasio – were never credible.  Some, like Julian Castro and Steve Bullock – were serious candidates who just couldn’t meet the moment.  Some, like Kamala Harris, decided early to spare themselves the effort to keep campaigning if they were unlikely to win.  Some, like Cory Booker, keep plugging ahead in the hopes that there’s a lottery ticket still to be scratched.

At this point, there are four candidates with the money and polling to have a plausible shot at winning.  Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg all have led at least some state polls and have the resources to hang around.  There are three more names you may yet want to file away because they have at least some of the virtues of past late bloomers – Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and (for slightly different reasons) Michael Bloomberg.  The rest is just noise.

Here’s how the path to victory would look for the big four, and what conditions might open the door to a dark horse joining that club.

Joe Biden

Resume: Joined the Senate at 30 and stayed there until tapped as Vice President in 2008 by Obama

Strengths: Widely-known and liked, tends to perform best against Trump in polling

Weaknesses: His age, doubts about whether he has lost his fastball, unrepentantly not woke

Uncle Joe, looking avuncular.

For all the sneering at Biden from the media, woke Twitter and comedy shows, he’s still roughly where he was when he entered – numbers good enough to win, not good enough to win easily.  Yet for all the odd stories and daffy uncle moments, Joe is holding on.  And, if anything, he’s more likely to win now than he was three months ago.

Biden’s bid can be likened to Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign for the GOP nomination.  Romney then, like Biden now, entered as a presumptive frontrunner based upon his past efforts and name recognition.  Like Biden, he was seen as an electable moderate who would have to convince a party that had become increasingly ideological.  Like Biden, he had some personal qualities that could strike voters as a little odd but was widely seen as decent.  Like Biden, he was seen as the most electable option against an incumbent president who his party’s base despised, and who they had underestimated four years ago as too outside the mainstream to beat them.

The Republican Party that ultimately nominated Romney acted like it didn’t really want to.  Romney held roughly 25-30% of voters throughout who were just fine with him. But he was surpassed by several more “conservative” options and had to wait patiently while voters kicked the tires on a bunch of other models before coming back to the steady, electable choice.  Before getting to Iowa, Michele Bachmann held a national lead before crashing under the weight of her extreme social views and general weirdness.  Some guy named Trump briefly took the lead based on his quest for Obama’s birth certificate, but he backed out.  Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both returned from the dead to win early states before Romney buried them under negative ads.  Even after that, a bunch of folks like Rick Perry, Chris Christie and even Herman Cain (!) took polling leads before backing out or being exposed as lightweights on policy.  (More ominously for where the party was going, Perry’s crash was blamed on his “oops” moment of failing to recall the three government departments which he would eliminate, but at the same team Romney had attacked him for allowing some social services in Texas to illegal immigrants, which may have actually been the cause of the collapse).

Ultimately, Romney prevailed by convincing a sceptical party that he could be trusted to beat Obama, and the others posed an electability risk no matter how much their ideology and ideas were attractive to the party base.  Joe Biden seems to be winning that argument as well.

Biden’s message is simple.  He does not seek to launch a counterrevolution to Trump, or to use the chaos to bring about structural change.  He believes that the country and its institutions are fundamentally good and that what is needed is to beat Trump as soundly as possible so that the nation may return to “normal”.  “Normal”, in Biden’s world, means incrementally more generous social programs and a foreign policy that aligns with traditional western democratic allies.

In fact, unlike Romney in 2012, Biden has stuck largely to his guns even under ideological attack.  Romney was forced to lurch right to convince Republicans he was a “severely conservative” candidate, and took stands on immigration, health care, gay rights and taxes that were far to the right of his moderate time as Governor of Massachusetts.  The man who once ran to Ted Kennedy’s left on gay rights now embraced the Christian right’s positions.  It may have saved his nomination, but he got savaged in the general by the Obama team, who used gay marriage and the DREAM Act to wedge Romney on social issues and pounded him with ads depicting him as a heartless, job-exporting capitalist.

Biden has resisted the radical makeover.  Upbraided for past votes that don’t hold up well in today’s more liberal Democratic Party, he has often chosen explanation over apology, and has refused to join the bidding war of social spending to appear more liberal than Sanders and Warren.  And while he’s had odd moments of mangling syntax and metaphors, he’s still the nominal front runner.

Like Romney, he’s watched two rivals have surges.  Kamala Harris roughed him up in the debates on his past busing votes, but then struggled on that and other issues to explain what exactly she believed.  Elizabeth Warren took the lead by promising a plan for everything, but seems to have been pinned back by the inevitable questions about the plan to pay for everything.  Pete Buttigieg is having a moment but seems to have subsided a bit with new attacks on his fundraising and experience.

As the national debate turns to impeachment and foreign policy, that likely helps Biden, whose campaign and experience give him an edge in defending institutions, the rule of law, and traditional foreign policy.

Biden’s advantage is that he has two paths to victory.  The first is that he could win Iowa and New Hampshire and the momentum kicks in – other moderate options leave the race and Biden begins to get the deference stronger frontrunners have gotten.  The second is that he limps through respectable but not first place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, but those wins either go to different candidates or to Sanders.  In both cases, Biden still likely wins South Carolina and establishes himself as the candidate you have to rally around to block chaos (or Sanders, which to many Democrats is chaos with a single-payer health care plan.

How would it look if Biden were in trouble?  If Iowa’s winner also gets the momentum to win New Hampshire and then gives him a serious run in South Carolina, AND if that person is Buttigieg or a dark horse, Biden is in serious trouble.  (Warren may also be acceptable enough to put this thing away with an Iowa-New Hampshire twofer, as she invites less resistance than Sanders among establishment moderates).  He may also falter if the first four primaries produce a mishmash of results and his gaffes and fumbles continue as more voters tune in – that could open the door to a rally around Buttigieg or Bloomberg to replace Biden as the “safe” choice to take on Trump.

In short, Biden has durable support among moderates and African-Americans (who, other than Obama in 2008 and Jackson in 1984, have tended to support the centrist establishment candidate in primaries), and he remains popular enough to win.  His weakness at times in debates may be offset by the comfort that in past high-stakes debates as a vice-presidential candidate, he has been highly effective.  He defused Sarah Palin in a way that avoided looking mean or condescending, and he demolished Paul Ryan after Obama lost the first debate and re-energized the campaign. 

Bernie Sanders

Resume: Started as Mayor of Burlington and built an independent political machine that got him elected to Congress and the Senate as an Independent Socialist from Vermont, caucuses with Democrats.

Strengths: Has a devoted following that gives him volunteers and money to compete as long as he wants, has authenticity that comes from having pushed his message for years when it wasn’t as popular

Weaknesses: Seen by some as strident and risky, promises of economic restructuring may make Trump seem safer in a good economy, has some odd and extreme past statements that can and will be used

We need your vacuum pennies!!

Sanders has managed an incredible feat – in his seventies, he’s become the party’s best source of energy and youthful volunteers.  After 2016, when his propensity to analyze all issues through an economic lens limited his appeal to African-Americans, he has listened and improved his ability to appeal to Democrats across the spectrum.

The fervency of Sanders’ supporters mean that he will have the resources to fight to the end.  With that floor comes a ceiling, though.  Many Democrats see him as building his movement at the expense of the Party, and some even blame his supporters and his tepid endorsement for Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss.  Paired with any one opponent, he may struggle to get to 50% support unless he can raise serious doubts about that opponent. (It’s worth noting that Warren voters do not universally go to Bernie when asked for second choices).  He is still seen as a risky general election bet, although it must be noted that he generally leads Trump in hypothetical matchups by only a bit less than Biden does.

The most likely outcome at this point is that Sanders stays in the mix but gradually falls back to where he was in 2016 – a strong minority voice in the party but losing as the party chooses one alternative.  What does a Bernie win look like?  He wins Iowa and New Hampshire on vote splits while Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar all remain viable.  They then make the same mistake centrist Republicans made against Trump – they attack each other assuming that Bernie will self-destruct and lose to the last moderate standing.  They keep shooting each other while Bernie wins more states with 35-40% of the vote until his lead becomes such that the pressure to rally around him becomes too much.

Elizabeth Warren

Resume: Second term senator for Massachusetts

Strengths: Policy breadth and detail, a strong campaigner and smart debater

Weaknesses: Policy details often get her in trouble; like Sanders, may allow Trump to run against risk of radical change in a strong economy

I've got a plan for that!

 Warren is a gifted campaigner and she can draw blood in debate with the best of them.  Her relentless energy, boundless optimism and endless selfies draw admirers.  Yet she wins election in liberal Massachusetts with less of a margin than the state’s presidential lean, and that raises concerns.

Trump has not done much to create a strong economy; after all, the indicators were moving up when he inherited the economy from Obama.  Trump polls well behind where an incumbent should be in a strong economy, even as voters give him good marks for the economy and jobs.  That suggests that voters are either (a) sharing credit for the economy between Trump and Biden (as an Obama stand-in) and/or some swing voters believe that a good economy doesn’t excuse Trump’s erratic, cruel and authoritarian behaviour as president.  When a candidate's platform suggests minimal disruption to the economy, as Biden's does, voters may take the good economy as a given and focus on Trump’s scandals. 

If so, t
he risk with Warren and Sanders is not necessarily that they are too “left”, but that they explicitly promise to disrupt an economy that most voters think is going well.  This allows Trump to run on the economy, arguing (as he often has) that to keep the economic results you have to put up with the chaos and scandal around him.

Warren’s performance endears her to the party’s base.  If you think the Hillary Clinton campaign erred by pushing values over policy specifics, Warren is a great antidote to that particular failing.  She sometimes campaigns in a way that alienates swing voters, as with her recent comments that voters who oppose same sex marriage probably can't find people willing to date them.  The base loved the pluck, but some saw it as a needless provocation.  When she’s been pushed, on her taxation plans and her past claim of First Nations heritage to get into Harvard, she hasn't shown a great instinctual feel for a response.  She’s at risk of being seen as an alluring risk, but too big a risk given the stakes of the election.

Can she turn it around?  If she wins Iowa, she can get a boost in New Hampshire.  If she wins both, she’s in business – Sanders’ soft support may come to her and she may start to pull away.  But that window looks narrower than it did two months ago, and if she doesn’t do well in Iowa she may be fighting Buttigieg for the bronze very quickly.  Which brings us to....

Pete Buttigieg

Resume: Mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  Rhodes Scholar and veteran.  Lost races for state Comptroller and for DNC National Chair.

Strengths: Articulate, likable, new.  Probably smarter than you are.  His husband Chasten is a social media delight.

Weaknesses: Same amount of governing experience as Sarah Palin in 2008, not attracting diverse support.

Warning: if you're over 40, this may cause you to ask what you've done with YOUR life.

Mayor Pete is an interesting option.  You can dismiss him, arguing that the stakes are too high to turn to a thirtysomething who’s mayor of a town about the size of Saint John.  Yet, here he is, raising more money than the senators and vice president in the race, outpolling more experienced politicians, and charming folks wherever he goes.  And inexperienced or not, he has been one of the best at hitting high points with his answers – grace notes on civil rights, substance on foreign policy.  Like Obama in 2008, he is a high-risk, high-reward proposition.  And with leads in some Iowa and New Hampshire polls and a $25million quarter in fundraising, clearly some folks see the reward.

His numbers are backsliding just a bit from their peak, and so scrutiny will continue.  I think he’s the easiest to handicap.  If he can win Iowa and New Hampshire, and Biden comes third or worse in both – it’s his to lose.  He then has to survive scrutiny enough to hold off the Warren/Sanders challenge from his left and to keep Bloomberg on the sidelines.  I suspect this will end as an audacious audition for 2024.  But there is a winning scenario on the board.

Everyone else

As I said earlier, there are only three names worth mentioning.  In order of plausibility, it’s Klobuchar, Bloomberg and Booker.

The basic question is this – is there enough oxygen for someone who is more moderate than Warren or Sanders, but doesn’t have Biden’s baggage or adventures in syntax?  Right now, that oxygen appears to be dominated by Mayor Pete.  However, there are three others making a bid for that space.

Amy Klobuchar has won big majorities in a swing state, and has a midwestern common sense and centrist politics that some see as just the ticket against Trump.  She is a bit negative in her debate persona, which plays into the early cautionary tales of her temper dealing with staff.  But she’s smart, experienced and on the move in Iowa.  If there’s a late-breaking candidate, right now, it’s her.

Cory Booker is a mystery to me.  Democrats keep asking for a candidate who’s economically centrist, socially progressive, younger and more vibrant than Biden, better able to reach minority voters than Klobuchar or Sanders, and has a deeper resume than Mayor Pete.  And this must be driving Booker a bit crazy, because it sounds like him and he’s right here!  His PAC even launched an ad pointing out that he's ALSO a Rhodes Scholar and mayor.  Maybe his tendency to overdo it a bit on the drama, or his early efforts to scramble to the left, have hurt him.  But he actually has more congressional endorsements than anyone but Biden, and he’s a plausible nominee, so I’m going to leave him in play for the same model as Klobuchar – like Jimmy Carter and John Kerry, they’ll have to get a big boost from Iowa, win New Hampshire or come close, and then somehow monetize that in time to not get buried on Super Tuesday.

Speaking of monetizing, there’s one guy left who doesn’t have that worry.

Michael Bloomberg is up above 5% in some national polls, and he’s hired staff and bought ads at a frenetic pace because, well, he can drop $50million the way you or I can book a vacation – it’s real money, but not enough to make a dent.  Bloomberg isn’t even on the ballot in Iowa and New Hampshire, so what’s his play?  Bloomberg surely knows that if someone comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire with momentum, he won’t matter.  I suspect he entered because he’s genuinely concerned that no one will come out of the early states looking like a winner. 

If Sanders is winning on vote splits, Biden is looking frail, Buttigieg callow, and no one else does well enough to carry on, some Democrats will panic.  And Bloomberg’s pitch is likely simple.  “You may not love the idea of a billionaire technocrat buying this thing.  But here’s the deal – I’ve succeeded at everything I’ve tried.  I’m sane, competent, and reasonable.  I’m rich enough to run a campaign that can respond to Trump’s attacks and Putin’s propaganda.  I hire smart people and win.  Basically, I’m a real business success, and Trump is a huckster.  But he's a good huckster, and right now, his B.S. will take down every option you've got but me.  You want me to get rid of this clown, or not?”

That doesn’t excite anyone.  But you can see a scenario where it might start looking good.  The downside for Bloomberg is that it depends on others trying and failing.  But it’s not bad to have a $50million insurance policy, paid for by Mike.  He can afford it.

My prediction: I think the Biden scenario – he does enough in Iowa and New Hampshire, wins South Carolina and Nevada, and after Super Tuesday it’s a binary choice between him and Bernie and he wins – things are breaking the right way for that scenario.  But that prediction is worth what they all are a month out, and the only thing I know for sure is I don’t trust anyone who’s too sure.  But today, if I had to bet the mortgage, I’d bet the chalk and bet on Joe to do enough when the stakes are high.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What I'll Be Watching In PEI's Election

The Green Party surge in PEI has caused a lot of non-Islanders to pay inordinate attention to tonight's election.  I'm one of them.  Islanders are no doubt a tad frustrated at come-from-aways now breathlessly proclaiming that PEI may have a Green government, a minority government, or both.  After all, Peter Bevan-Baker's popularity has been a constant in polls for just over a year, so the 3-way battle is not new.

If you're like me and watching tonight with interest, here's a few things I will be looking for that may tell us how this historic election will play out.  Having followed the polls for a year, read the platforms, watched the leaders' debate and spoken with folks on a pre-election visit to PEI, I am going to try to write about Island politics without embarrassing myself.  Islanders likely know everything here, but this is my guide for the rest of us who will be watching tonight.

The Polls Are Close

We've had 3 major polls in the last week, which shows unusual interest in a potentially-unusual election.  All three agree on the order of the parties -- Greens out front, the PCs in second with some upward movement, and the incumbent Liberals third, but respectfully so.  (The NDP has nearly vanished beneath the Green surge despite having a bright and likable leader in Joe Byrne).

Mainstreet and Narrative (o.k.a. CRA) have almost similar results 35-32-29 for Narrative and 35-31-29 in Mainstreet.  MQO showed a stonger Green result, pegging the race at 40-29-26.

As the pros say, polling averages and trends can tell you more than any one poll.  One can safely conclude from this that the Greens' pre-election numbers are holding and for real, that the PCs under Dennis King seem to be reclaiming at least their traditional vote and are moving up, and that Premier MacLauchlan's numbers seem to be stalled at a number that feels like floor and ceiling at once.

Just today, Forum Research dropped a poll that was in the field until yesterday, and it shows the PC momentum continuing and allowing them to nip the Greens 35-34, with the Liberals falling to 26.  It can be seen as an outlier, but it's consistent with the modest momentum that the PCs showed in the other polls.

Small Margins Matter in PEI

For a while, PC had a series of lopsided majority governments, both PC and Liberal.  In part, that's a function of our First-Past-The-Post system and PEI demographics.  In larger, more diverse provinces, the province-wide numbers can mask huge regional swings that allow for pockets of strength for each party.  In Ontario, even a wide PC lead will still allow for Liberal and NDP strength in Toronto and other cities.  Even New Brunswick can have big regional swings as in 2018, where close provincial numbers masked the fact that there would be huge Liberal wins in the North even as the party collapsed in rural Anglophone ridings.

PEI has a relatively homogenous population.  Demographics are pretty similar.  The urban-rural divide is far less than other provinces, not only because Charlottetown and Summerside are small cities, but he Island is a commuter province where many people with urban jobs live in rural communities.  The result of this is that the provincial number often is replicated in many ridings.  Thus in the past, say, a 50-40 PC lead produced a lot of 50-40 riding wins and a huge majority, unlike the Ontario and NB examples, where a 10 point PC lead would not bother Liberal incumbents in Toronto or Caraquet.

IF the MQO numbers were right (40-29-26), a Green majority would be quite likely -- an 11-point lead would likely produce a lot of 5-15 point wins.  In a province with a more pronounced urban-rural divide, it could augur 30 point wins in Charlottetown and close losses elsewhere, but the Island's history and polling breakdowns I've seen don't show that.  Charlottetown is a bit friendlier to the Greens than the rural East, but the swing is more modest.

That said, the MQO poll has a couple of cross-tabs that raised my eyebrows.  Bevan-Baker is a popular guy, but his 53% leadership preference number is high in the partisan late days of an election.  If we see that one as a slight outlier, the Greens are hovering around 35% in the other three polls.  That seems like a reasonable prediction, and one which then will be first or second depending on how the traditional red-blue vote arranges itself.  If the Liberals slip and PCs gain in the last week, there could be a narrow PC win.

Is There A Green Machine?

When I ran as a Liberal for the first time, I was amazed by how many long-time volunteers simply showed up at election time and knew what to do to turn out the vote..  The phone banks and canvass procedures were second nature, and the data from head office helped.  Running for the NDP later, I felt the lack of that machine.  Now, the Greens have many strong organizers who have honed those skills in non-partisan, issue-advocacy campaigns.  They are bright and driven.  (No one who has run against David Coon, as I have, will underestimate the transferability of these skills).  But in the more rural areas where the Greens will have to win to get a majority, this may stretch their resources thin.  Organizing to win 20 seats is different than the old days, when the Greens threw everyone into the Leader's seat.  As well, Green support skews younger, making them reliant on voters with fewer ingrained voting habits, sometimes fewer transportation resources, and harder to find through landlines.  Even if the GOTV only matters 2-3 points, that could matter in some ridings.

The Liberals on Edge

Third parties have it tough in First-Past-the-Post, especially if they are running a campaign to appeal province-wide.  The Liberals, when they fall to third, are at risk of losing a lot of seats because their support is so broad -- 26% provincially for them can mean they are always just short in riding after riding.  Yet, even a small poll error and/or a good GOTV effort can put them over 30%.  For third parties of broad appeal, 25% could see them reduced to 2-4 seats and 30% could out Wade Maclachlan in position to meet the House as Premier.

Early Signs To Watch

Given the Forum poll's suggestion of a late PC surge, I'd watch some ridings where PC incumbents were seen to be in dogfights with Green newcomers riding the wave.  If ridings like Borden-Kinkora, Kensingston-Malpeque and Startford-Keppogh show PC incumbents cruising, then this augers well for Dennis King's team.  If these incumbents seem to be going down in a Green wave, then the Greens may well ride the urban polls to a strong majority.  I'd also watch Dennis King's riding in Brackley-Hunter River, where a strong showing may suggest that he's exited a tight battle and has real momentum.

Liberal fortunes will hang on the ridings around the cities.  If Premier Maclachlan struggles to hold off a Green challenge in Stanhope-Marshfield, and incumbents are down quickly in the Charlottetown central ridings, it could be a long Liberal night indeed.  If the Premier looks safe and Charlottetown is a split, there's a good chance a minority government will happen.

For the Greens, Summerside will tell the tale.  If they are going to break out of Charlottetown into the areas that can give them government, they will need to win in Summerside and in the two leaders' ridings.  If they are comfortable there early, a majority is in reach.  If those results are mixed, then they will likely be looking at a minority government.


The tragic death of Green candidate Josh Underhay, a bright rising star who would have been a great Minister, means that we will decide 26 ridings tonight with one to come later.  If two parties tie, or one stalls on 13 seats, that will be a show. And.....

My Prediction

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.  I predict tonight will return 12 Greens, 11 PCs, 3 Liberals and there will be a high-stakes race for the 27th seat.  On the upside -- this has been an uplifting campaign.  The platforms are all moderate and even the Greens and PCs have common ground they could use to make a divided House work.  The harshest moment came when Bevan-Baker said that the Premier "had not done a terribly good job" on the immigration file.  That was seen as an attack, but that's pattycake most places.  Maclachlan Liberals have run on the red-hot economy, and that's a fair, positive argument.  If it doesn't work, it will largely be because voters chose something they liked more in a positive way rather than the lesser of three evils.  In this age, that's not unimportant, at all.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Urgency Of Defeating Gallant (From A Progressive Perspective)

Brian Gallant is showing every sign that he wants this election to be decided upon ideology, not competence.  Pretty much every Liberal ad, tweet, and scripted utterance has been built around a simple theorem:

We spent money on X

Blaine Higgs might spend less on X

Re-elect Premier Gallant, because otherwise less money will be spent on things you care about.

Now, the “X” is usually something pretty good – the talented tap-dance team of health care and education usually lead the list – so as a clash of political theory it might well work for the Liberals.  It is a common play for the Liberal playbook across Canada, because it not only defines the choice with the Conservatives in a way Liberals like, but it also forms the basis for an appeal to NDP/Green voters.  For voters on the left, the Liberal appeal is usually that the blue menace is so great that one must accept the Liberals, with all their flaws.

The central question is, then, considering how Brian Gallant has governed for four years, has he earned re-election on his proposition – that he will protect and further progressive goals.

Here, I am defining “progressive goals” broadly and from this perspective.  I believe that government has a role to play in society, in particular, in programmes that provide equal opportunity and/or a minimum safety net that allows people to remain connected to the economy and society.  I believe it is legitimate to ask those who do well to pay a little more for those programmes.  That does not mean that tax rates can be confiscatory, or ignore realities of competition.  It does not excuse waste, or government expansion into areas where the market does fine.  But there is a role for government.

That’s a broad definition, and I accept that.  Likely moderate Dippers, Red Tories, and many small-l liberals could nod along.  But that is the vision Gallant says he is defending and the mainstream that he says Higgs is outside.  And by that vision – progressive taxes that support a safety net and social programmes – how has Gallant done?

I actually believe that Brian Gallant, and his enablers, have put our social safety net at greater risk than any government in years.  I further believe that their defeat is necessary to protect the social safety net.  I am willing to explain that.

The Fiscal Oxygen

There are limits on how much government can tax.  Eventually you run into one constraint or another – the competition of nearby provinces and states, the mobility of business, the black market, or just the political tolerance of citizens.  For a while sin taxes were the one thing government could raise without a huge outcry.  After all, who could oppose making it harder to afford cigarettes? Then black markets appeared, and government had to reluctantly roll back cigarette taxes (and enthusiastically enforce laws to keep beer shoppers from driving to Quebec).  A small province like ours can only be so far out of synch with neighbours before diminishing returns kick in.

At any time, there is a small list of “plausible tax hikes” government could try if they want to increase revenue.  Think of these as the “In Case of Fiscal Emergency, Break Glass” tax hikes.  The Gallant regime has seen broken glass everywhere.  Pretty much every bit of tax room has been used up to fund this premier’s four years.  Tax the wealthy?  Done.  Raise the HST? Sure.  Property tax hikes?  Yes, to the point of scandal and overreach.  Gas tax? Done.

Even after all those taxes, our credit rating has been issued a caution.  So the borrowing is also at the outer limits.  Brian Gallant has deemed his ideas, his vision for government, to be so vital that he has sucked up all the fiscal tax and borrow room any aspiring progressive could use.  This is either an investment in the greatest expansion of the social safety net in history, or an act of self-aggrandizement by a premier so the thralls of the self that Emperor Narcissus would blush.  If he spent all the money anyone could use, one would expect social programmes to be stronger.  So, what are the results?

Spending Without Results

Quick challenge – name one statistical indicator on the social side which has improved since 2014.  In education, literacy scores are down.  In health care, wait times for everything from surgery to physician rostering are up.  Enrollments in post-secondary education are down.  And this is in areas where the government has bothered to keep tabs on results at all.  In several cases now in education, testing simply got cancelled, as it did conveniently around the student scores that would have allowed for a comparison with immersion entry points. 

I’ve tried to generously think of a measurable social problem government has planned to improve and improved.  Health care access? PSE enrollment? Mental health professionals? Reading scores? Adult literacy? Poverty rates? Tuition fees? Population growth? Family court wait times?  I mean, anyone can spend more money.  Inflation and collective agreements force it on you even if you hide in your office.  But what social cause seems to animate the Liberals’ quest for power?  What are they passionate about fixing?

You can even think more generally – what would be one case where government identified a social ill, put forward a plan to fix it and provided a statistical indicator to say “here is how you will know if it is working”?  If you’re struggling to think of one, that is not some nagging academic concern.  That framework – identify the problem, plan a solution, measure results – is the most basic expectation of competent government.  Government plans are often hidden when the money gets spent, or so vague they amount to picture books that say "Things will get better."

That problem – a lack of basic competence – has been this government’s Achilles Heel.  Too often, they have lacked the pretense of having any core belief that lasts for more than 15 minutes.  Today, Premier Gallant brags of having committed to hiring 200 new teachers, but he fired 200 teachers in his first budget, and did so after pledging in Opposition not to fire teachers.  In Opposition, Mr. Gallant blasted the Conservatives for rolling back Liberal tax cuts, but today enthusiastically raises taxes and suggests that Blaine Higgs is a cruel Visigoth at the gates of decency for expressing doubts about it.  On post-secondary education, Minister Don Arsenault  cut the tuition rebate program and rolled back the timely completion programs that were launched in 2009 by…..Minister Don Arsenault. A programme review was much ballyhooed, then shelved.  In short, one never gets the sense that there has ever been any plan, principle, or policy that can survive the lure of tomorrow’s shiny object.  This isn’t the Gang Who Can’t Shoot Straight.  They are the Gang That Doesn’t Know What To Shoot At So They Shot Off Their Toe.

When social problems have found them, where due to inaction or incompetence a problem grows to the point where others ask, the cabinet has shown a curious lack of interest in the problem.  Steve Horsman, the Minister responsible for child protection, has repeatedly responded to questions about children in his charge showing up neglected or worse with the kind of glazed-over wonder one would expect from a man who was just sent here from an alternate universe, only to find he’s been made minister of something against his will.  Minister Landry, asked why the government made its tuition bursary programme less generous than the Ontario programme it copied, literally ran from the room.  The Education Minister rose in the Legislature to state that he wasn’t worried about declining student reading scores because he himself had performed poorly in school, and here he was, being a minister like a big boy.  This was done with a straight face.

It would be sad, if it weren’t so serious.  Even a right-wing government of Liberal nightmares might, while neglecting the social side, leave some taxing and spending room available for those who might come later.  In their rush to brag of having spent more, the Gallant government has done absolutely nothing on the social side and they’ve used up all the money that someone more passionate and useful could have used.  That isn’t just wasteful – it sets social progress back.

And, Actually, Not Much Spending

Part of the reason why the results have been lousy on the social side under the Gallant government is because, in truth, they haven’t really been investing in the social side of the ledger.  In many cases, the things they attack Blaine Higgs for wanting to cut are areas where they have a pretty lousy record.

On education spending, they delivered the largest cut to school districts in a quarter century in the 2014-15 budget, firing teachers and closing schools.  Their overall rate of spending on education has gone up far less than the Graham or Lord governments, and about the same as the Alward government.  For all the hype about the “free” Tuition Access Bursary, it was set to such a low qualifying point that 80% of those eligible were already getting federal bursaries equal to “free” tuition.  In fact, the programmes and tax credits cancelled at the same time took millions more away from students than TAB gave.  Health spending is lower under Gallant than under Graham.  The poverty reduction plan has seen every element cancelled, and the Department of Social Development received a real dollar cut under Gallant for the first time in 17 years.  The only anti-poverty announcement of any significance has been a grant of $10million over 5 years for Saint John policy groups to study poverty – cruelly, this money will not actually reach anyone living in poverty, so there will be a fair bit to study.  And on minimum wage, the Gallant government has been more miserly than any government in my lifetime in terms of percentage increases.

This is not to deny the fact that the government can claim to have spent more – much more – in the last four years.  They can claim to have spent aggressively.  They simply have not spent much of it on health and education and social programmes, much as those concepts have reappeared magically in Liberal campaign ads.

But if a Liberal vote is not a vote for social spending, what spending are they really defending?

What the government has spent on is clear from a review of the budget.  The largest growth areas have been infrastructure projects and grants to private business.  The Gallant government has managed the feat of becoming more statist without actually being more progressive.  Money is not taken from the well-off and provided to the less well-off.  Money is taken from everyone and given to the politically connected in the form of pavement and subsidies.  The timing of projects is often political, rising and falling with the political timetable, and sometimes seeing phantom announcements that don't align with any budget at all.

As we saw in the last fiscal update, government is growing debt beyond the rate of annual deficits by expanding capital budgets.  We have seen a rush of government spending announcements, released in such a rush that they have come out before any infrastructure plan, and even before the Legislature has actually approved them.  In the recent case of nursing homes, there is no pretense that government has even budgeted enough to build everything they are announcing.

This isn’t just a concern about contempt for Parliament (although it is that).  It is a reminder that the spending the Liberals have favoured is the most political, least policy-driven spending in which government can engage.  Unlike education and health spending, which takes place within certain parameters and has to meet particular outcomes, infrastructure spending has often been driven by raw politics and Cabinet whims. 

If the infrastructure spending has been opaque and mysterious, the corporate welfare has been more galling.  In general, corporate welfare has gone to two types of companies – those who don’t need it (the TD Bank) and those who can’t compete in the free market (Sears).  Under Gallant, we have been treated to a culture of non-accountability for these grants, with Opportunities New Brunswick officials smugly telling MLAs they have no right to inquire of jobs promised at multimillion dollar ribbon cuttings have ever materialized.  These questions seem more relevant than ever when we have seen past grant recipients – IBM, BMM  – gobble up their grants and then cut or never create jobs.

In some cases, we are bidding only against ourselves.  We have seen the Gallant government lavish money on marijuana companies, even to the point of giving one company financial help to ensure a supply of recreational marijuana.  You might ask when it become a concern worthy of the public purse to ensure the supply of a recreational drug when the free market is available.  You might ask, but the answer is rarely forthcoming.  Yet, one of Canada’s largest marijuana companies, Tilray in Nanaimo, British Columbia, chose that location despite a refusal by government to offer subsidies.  As a report prepared for local government showed, Nanaimo won against places offering government funds by offering a better business environment – something which would favour all competitors equally but perhaps rob government of ribbon cuttings.  Yet the Gallant Liberals speed towards subsidized companies offering product through a statist pot monopoly that will lose money in the first year.  You might not recall any public debate on the merits of reducing the public funds available for schools so that access to recreational drugs could become part of the public weal.  That’s because there was no public debate, just a government communications plan where the mind and soul of a government should be.

Again, the lack of a plan is striking.  Premier Gallant used to call subsidies a "short term fix", and not a real solution.  Now, he hands out payroll rebates like his political life depends upon it.  Grants often seem driven by political timing or companies’ connections to the ruling party.  (One minister openly encouraged businesses to purchase tickets to a Liberal fundraiser to discuss their business projects.  While I am not so na├»ve to believe that the Gallant Liberals are the first to sell access, they are the first I’ve seen openly brag about doing it).  Too often, entrepreneurs are deciding projects based upon what will please the government rather than what will work in the market.

The orgiastic splurge has been driven by the worst kind of junk economic analysis.  From the 2014 campaign on, government has continued to offer studies showing that throwing millions of borrowed dollars at projects has “economic impact”, meaning that it gives dollars to people who will likely spend those dollars.  Smart readers will notice that this is a low bar – every project has some economic impact.  Throwing money off the back of a truck in the local parade, a la Eva Peron, would have economic impact.  One thing these studies never do, at least under the Liberals, is study the relative impact of one spending project versus other uses of the same money – a basic calculation before spending any finite resource.  Yet the Liberals continue to gorge as long as some policy analyst can show an economic analysis, which is the public policy equivalent of stating, at 1:55 a.m., that you will only go home from the bar with someone if they can be proven to have a pulse.  It’s an existentially low bar.

The bottom line is that since 2014, the number of public sector jobs has gone up by 10,000 and the number of private sector jobs has fallen by 5,600.  And now, more private sector employees are now on the public payroll.  It does not take a crystal ball to see the problem.  If there are more people being paid through taxes, and fewer private sector people paying taxes, AND government also starts paying private sector employees to do work for private companies…..who exactly pays for teachers and nurses and social workers and scientists and those who must do the public’s work?  A progressive government that follows the example of successful social pioneers would choose to fund social programmes through fair taxes upon a roaring private economy.  The Gallant government has chosen to underfund social programmes to fund a patronage-driven, statist economy in which teachers and nurses are squeezed out by a need to put private companies on the public payroll.  If you care about public services, there can be no greater urgency than the defeat of the Gallant government before the contradictions collapse upon themselves.

If you see government as a force for good, then you will care about the public trust and political functioning of government.  And it is on this question that the case is most urgent to defeat the Gallant Liberals.

Our Trumpian Premier

This heading is designed to be provocative, so let me start by noting that Brian Gallant has a number of public and personal qualities that deserve praise.  He is, as many of his generation are, comfortable with diversity and welcoming in his actions towards all.  I fear no truck with the alt-right from this premier, quite the opposite.  He is generally polite and proper where Trump is a norm-shattering disaster.  And, of course, while Premier Gallant has his political mentors, Dominic LeBlanc is a much more palatable handler than Vlad Putin.  I can also say that on some policy fronts – the recent changes to the Employment Standards Act and his recruitment of female candidates, the Premier deserves some praise.

Yet the damage Trump has done is by his wanton destruction of norms, institutions and ground rules.  Trump is truly sui generis in his attacks on a free press, judicial oversight, and the very idea of facts.

Yet Trump did not develop in a vacuum.  He feeds on the cynicism borne when people stop expecting any politician to play by any rules.  While I despise cynicism because it winds up rewarding the most brazen liars and sleaziest backroom officers, I do know that it grows when politicians are willing to bend the rules and disrespect institutions for short-term gain.

If Brian Gallant is re-elected, it will encourage more cynicism and move us closer to the “biggest liar wins” rule of Trump.  And Gallant has conducted himself in a way that is not politics as usual, because he has broken norms that Premiers McKenna, Lord, Graham and Alward did not.  Consider the following:

·         Within days of being sworn in, Team Gallant became the first government ever to unilaterally change the rules of the Legislature without an all-party consensus.  And the changes – giving New Brunswick the fewest sitting days of any provincial assembly – were done brazenly to weaken an institution for the benefit of the government.  This was new.  Even Premier Lord, faced with a 1-seat majority and a difficult Opposition, refused to move unilaterally to change the rules of the game.  Despite government’s Orwellian talking point that it was “modernizing” the Legislature, it showed a premier who saw decades of convention as meaningless compared to his immediate political needs.

·         The Gallant government has been more willing than its predecessors to resist the independent oversight of legislative officers.  The unexplained defenestration of respected Medical Officer Eilish Cleary, with a severance package that screams wrongful dismissal, is the most egregious example, followed as it was by a revamp of public health that apparently no one wanted.  But the attempted changes to the Ombudsman role, the surly underfunding of the Auditor-General, and even the Premier’s haughty dismissal of a court order to stop a school closure as “advice” all point to a government which – from its head down – struggles to accept objective truth and independent analysis.  And this is without calculating the severance packages that seem to have a risen from firings that were simply partisan revenge, which have cost taxpayers millions.

·         The government visibly leans towards secrecy to a worrisome degree.  When there are clear failings of government – invented property tax assessments and contaminated beaches come to mind – the Premier has often seemed to run interference more than he has shown leadership.  The property tax imbroglio saw a judge hired and given a mandate carefully crafted to avoid any study of how the dishonest assessments occurred, only to see the judge leave when the Auditor-General offered to run a more fulsome review. And court time and lawyers’ fees have been used to hide basic details, from severance packages to health care contracts, from the public.

·         The ethical standards to which the Premier holds Cabinet have declined.  I once saw Shawn Graham red the riot act to his team about avoiding false statements and checking pronouncements with officials.  Premier Gallant watched CBC show a cabinet minister making 5 false statements in 55 seconds without doing anything but sending him out to obfuscate the next day. Government charts are fudged.  The discovery of obvious factual errors in ads just lead to the Premier doubling down.  Most ministers cannot explain at the most elementary level the reason for policy decisions, and this has led to continued public frustration of reporters who cannot get interviews, and the sad spectacle of apolitical public servants being sent out to defend policy decisions to a degree unforeseen in past governments.

·         Politics has never been pure of motive, but the triumph of politics over evidence has been notable under Gallant for just whom the government is willing to ignore to get its way.  Most notable have been decisions that affect children – the moving of mental health services to Campbellton over the objection of every professional and the disgust of former Advocate Bernard Richard, the cancellation of school tests and refusal to await results of Grade 3 immersion before changing the programme (which was then promptly shown to have raised test scores), and the closure of schools without economic savings being proven all stand out because, usually, even hardened pols hesitated to pursue petty politics when kids were involved.  That was a good norm.  Gallant broke it.


The ads will tell you that Premier Gallant is running as a champion of progressive government.  Yet the values government needs to survive – evidence-based policy, truth-based public debate, and a respect for basic principles of good government – have been under attack in a way that would have drawn bipartisan censor twenty years ago.  Further, by being loose with public money while redirecting it away from social programs and into pork, patronage and pavement, Premier Gallant has put social programmes at greater risk than even the stingiest right-winger could.  We have used up credit, tax room and a good global economy while improving neither economic growth or the social safety net. We are now very vulnerable to a downturn unless we change course..

Progressives must not rally to the Gallant government’s aid.  Those that do are, by innocent error or institutional interest, mistaking statism with social policy and spending with results.  Those who want to preserve the vital role of government in society should deny their vote to this wolf in liberal clothing.  What I make of the alternatives is for the next missive.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Best Of Everything -- Thanks, Tom Petty

He always got the first line right.  So acknowledging that, right there, is how I’ll use my first line.  

Tom Petty nailed more first lines than any songwriter I can name.  His vignettes, usually about romantics who were chasing a dream, screwing one up, or trying to keep one alive, never crept into focus.  They slammed right in to view, telling you right where you were.  You knew where you stood with a Tom Petty song.

The displaced Southerner of “Rebels”, who we meet already hollering “Honey, don’t walk out/I’m too drunk to follow”.  The boyfriend, whistling past trouble in “Listen To Her Heart”, who tells you the straight up deal is that “He thinks he’s gonna take her away with his money and his cocaine”.  The wistful loner who recalls “It was nearly summer, we sat on your roof.  We smoked cigarettes and stared at the moon” tells you immediately what kind of song “Even The Losers” will become.  And the women in Petty’s world come into the narrative fully formed, too, whether they are good girls who love their mama; they work in a night club ‘cause that’s what her mama did, or were an American girl raised on promises.

What we do when those promises come due, and how we deal when they are denied to us and become hard promises, is a whole big part of who we are.  Your teachers call that “character”.  In many ways, it’s life – figuring out what’s out there worth chasing, running it down, and dealing with the obstacles in our way.  Most of our life, on the quiet days, we are in the process of doing one of those things.  And that’s where we find Tom Petty’s music jangling along.  If he shows up on almost everyone’s “soundtrack of my life” list, it’s probably because that’s what he writes about.
That’s why he’s been my favourite artist since I was nine years old.  That’s why I’m coming too damn close to breaking my rule that it is stupid to cry over losing celebrities you didn’t really know.

My generation is at the age where our rock stars die.  Maybe it hits us so hard because the art form allows us to know them so well.  Singers who write their own songs develop a voice and a personality that gives us an intimacy with them.  When they express what we are feeling before we even know it ourselves, they become part of our lives.  They aren’t our parents.  But they are that cool older sibling we can talk to, the one who’s got enough years on us to get our respect but is still enough of a peer to get us.  Even if it’s a one way conversation, that voice can be as comforting as if they can hear us.  After all, they write like they already did.

So, no apologies.  I feel like my cool older brother Tom died, and I’m sad about it.  I’m going to tell you what he said to me over forty years, and why it stuck with me.

Tom Petty was classically stoic.  The ancient stoics believed that we never lost anything, because nothing was ever really ours.  If you lost your house, or your money, or even someone you loved, they were simply restored to wherever they were when you didn’t have them.  Petty, raised in a difficult home and a town where he was a perpetual outsider, always seemed to keep the same emotional distance.  His protagonists were a resilient bunch. They faced down all manner of heartache.  They screwed up what they had chasing something they couldn’t even know.  You could be kidnapped, tied up, taken away and held for ransom in “Refugee”.  Maybe your mother was in a clinic and your father had no job, like the “cute little dropout” we meet in “Zombie Zoo”.  You could be stuck in a One Story Town.  As Petty sang on a quirky little “Hard Promises” cut, you could put up with it for a little while, as long as you were working on something big.

For a while in my twenties, I was struck by how obstacles in Petty’s world appeared without explanation or analysis.  They were just….there, they appeared, and you dealt with them.  For a while, I used to think this made him a more simplistic songwriter than his fellow heartland rockers Springsteen and Mellencamp, whose work was more overtly political and explored causes.  Mellencamp knows what went wrong when the Farmers’ Bank foreclosed in “Rain On The Scarecrow”.  The Boss always told you who was closing down the textile mills in his hometown.  With age, I began to see that Petty’s lack of explanation for life’s obstacles were not the result of being incurious, but a world view that told you that hard times were part of the journey.  You didn’t spend time wondering why times were hard.  You just kept running down a dream, you learned to fly, you didn’t back down even if they stood you up at the gates of hell, because these obstacles were transient.   

As he tells us on a quietly powerful “Mojo” track, “There’s something good coming.  There has to be.”  And when you know that, what kind of explanation do you need?  In Petty’s world, the nobility comes from the struggle itself and even defiance when it’s called for.  That always made his work powerful for me.  In a world where we all read motivational books and need daily affirmations to know why we keep going, Petty tells us that perseverance is its own reward, and that life is about kicking back even when it’s hard.  Hell, drop the “about”.  Life IS kicking back when it’s hard.  Tom told me that.

In love, Petty’s work was equally accepting of hard times and hard promises.  He was not Don Henley, whose beautiful “Heart Of The Matter” finds acceptance by analyzing the breakup, chalking it up to “pride”, “self-assurance” and times that are so uncertain.  In Petty’s world, love doesn’t owe you an explanation.  One of his best album cuts is “Straight Into Darkness”, where he tells us “there was a moment when I really oved her, then one day the feeling just died”.  In “Letting You Go”, he opens with a similarly blunt “I used to think that when this was all over, you might feel different about me”.  At no point does he demand an explanation – the object of his affection just didn’t feel different after all.   It was as if he took to heart the counsel of the lover who left him one album earlier on the underrated hit “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)”.  After she laughed in his face and told him goodbye, she advised him “Don’t think about it, you could go crazy”.

Again, it is possible to take a critical view of this approach and attribute this to a kind of incuriosity, when so many spurned musical lovers take great pains to understand WHY love has been denied them.  But Petty’s take on love is not because he doubts its power.  When love smiles upon him, he can tell the whole wide world, shout “here comes my girl”.  Even just the potential of love animates “A Thing About You” with a dizzying crash of guitars that simulate the swell of a new crush.  And Petty knows what it means when love dies; one of his crowning achievements is the opener of his post-divorce album “Echo”.  On “Room At The Top”, Petty’s voice quavers like never before as the song builds to a quiet “I love you.  Would you please love me?” before the singer withdraws behind a wall of sound to find some equilibrium.  And arguably the best song he ever wrote is “Insider”, which has nursed many a Petty fan through a hard breakup.  When he describes his ex-partner’s personality and muses “I’m the one who oughtta know/I’m the one left in the dust”, he tells us a lot about the price you pay for letting someone close to you in an uncertain world.  With Petty, one should never mistake acceptance for detachment.

It struck me as meaningful that Petty closes “Into The Great Wide Open” with three tracks – “You And I Will Meet Again”, “Making Some Noise”, and “Built To Last” – that pay tribute to the constants of platonic friendships, rock and roll band mates, and romantic partners.  An album that opens with him starting out “for God knows where, guess I’ll know when I get there” ends with odes to the joys of loyalty to people in your life even as places and things change.  In Petty’s world, the redemptive power in love does not come from understanding it, it comes from giving it even through dark times.  Love is mysterious, but when it perseveres through hard times it is powerful and redemptive.  Like life itself, love gathers its power through resilience against the odds.  

And love is sweeter in Petty’s world because women are strong personalities who can make their own choices, not just objects for pursuit.  They can pay your tickets and leave you out in the thicket when you’re a screwup, like in “Rebels”.  And make no mistake, Petty may sing “Here Comes My Girl” with pride and joy, but it’s her who “looks me in the eye and says ‘we’re gonna last forever’”.

As I grew older, Petty’s work began to add an important element to its theme of determination and grit against long odds.  Petty’s later work addresses disappointment and preaches benevolence and acceptance as a way to deal with the times when the struggle falls short.  The benevolence you see creeping in on “Southern Accents” with its eulogy of an album closer “The Best Of Everything”, when he calls out to a lover past “Wherever you are tonight I wish you the best of everything in the world”. 

 In the criminally-underrated “Square One” he has reached a place of peace with the ups and downs of life.  Summarizing failures and successes, he simply stands at square one and invites a lover to “rest her head” on him.  As the chords keep a quiet constancy, Petty purrs “took a world of trouble, took a world of tears, took a long time to get back here”, but the tone does not hint at a triumph over adversaries as much as an acceptance of the sum of wins and losses, and a peace with wherever the end point of the journey was.  

By the time an older Petty puts out the second Mudcrutch album, he is able to counsel that “people are what people make ‘em, that ain’t gonna change” before asserting at the end “I forgive it all”, hinting that this Petty protagonist, at least, has found enduring love and the rest requires only benevolence toward the rest of the world.  Even if you did do him like that, or if you got lucky when he found you, anger at some point gave way to peace.

I hope that Petty, the restless romantic of my youth, found that same peace himself as he wound down his final tour and went home.  It would be foolish to think I know him because I know his art.  He surely had his demons – who doesn’t? – but the Petty who spoke to me deserves the peace he counselled me as I got older and youthful dreams became hard-won wisdom.  Whether the real Petty held that kind of benevolence and loyalty I do not know. 

 I do know that when I saw him live, I found it genuinely affecting when he thanked the audience for holding up lighters through a ballad. “I never get tired of that”, he told us, putting himself in our place as a fan even as he was also the star.  Certainly his life, whether withholding an album from his record company until they rolled back a price hike and speaking of his enjoyment of hearing how we experienced his music, seemed to show a genuine connection to his fans.  Indeed, “The Last DJ” is widely seen as his weakest album in part because he could not shake his pedantic anger at those who lose sight of the music for profit.  If the connection was only image, it was cultivated far better than any other part of his persona.

In the end, in the reality of his fans, an artist is his work.  And as the cool older brother I adopted through a child’s early fandom, Tom Petty taught me well.  We could do worse than to learn that there are promises out there for all of us, even the losers; that to chase those promises down is its own reward; that setbacks are inevitable but that perseverance is its own virtue; and that when the struggle ends we should strive towards peace with ourselves, loyalty to those that stuck by us, and acceptance of everyone else.  If that was the soundtrack to my life, I could have done a lot worse.

And, Tom, wherever you are tonight – thanks.  I wish you the best of everything in the world, and I hope you found whatever you were looking for.