Playing it straight

I watched “State of Play” the other day on a road trip through the winding hills of northern Arkansas.  Sitting in the back seat, being pulled left and right around the turns, was nauseating enough without adding the stimulation of a movie, not to mention the conversation of the people in the front seat in the background.  But I could not turn it off- that’s how much fun I was having seeing this film.

Russell Crowe is Carl McAffrey, a seasoned investigative journalist at a newspaper in financial straits, as most are.  He is an old-school type of reporter, bringing the police detectives coffee at the murder scene to try to sweet-talk quotes out of them.  The last thing a veteran like McAffrey would want to do is work with a rookie political blogger, played by Rachel McAdams. But uh oh, would’nt you know it- that’s exactly what happens.

That somewhat cliche script device of teaming up these two “surely incompatible” characters can be forgiven because the acting is so well done and the story is so fast-paced.  There’s no time wasted on a “we-sure-do-hate-eachother” montage; guided by Carl’s experience and drawn close by the dangerous waters in which they are swimming, the two become a team.

Ben Affleck also chips in a fine performance as rising-star politician Stephen Collins who becomes the center of a major Washington scandal when one of his female staffers is killed and Collins admits to having had an affair with her.  He is convinced the private defense contractor he is investigating has murdered the girl to disrupt the investigation. As Collins’ old college roomie, Carl takes up his fight and sets out to clear Collins’ name.  The question is whether his motivation is the true loyalty of a friend, or just a chance to get a good scoop. The action amps up steadily as Carl and Della (McAdams) close in on the truth, and the story.

Although it’s a small part, Jason Bateman completely steals the movie as a bisexual PR guy with a taste for a particular lifestyle on the weekends.  Think eyeliner and lots of leather.

“State of Play” is a great look inside both the print news business and the dirty underside of the Beltway.  If, like me, you are interested in journalism, hate Blackwater, and distrust the government, this movie is right up your alley. But this movie is also for anyone who likes a smart, well-written and well-acted thriller with enough twists and turns to keep you entertained and/or guessing until the end.

The White Man For the Job

Bill White has his work cut out for him.  Between now and November he must find a way to become the first democratic governor of Texas in 20 years.  The odds certainly seem to be stacked against him.

For one thing, Rick Perry is an incumbent.  That alone makes for an uphill fight for White.  Perry’s maneuvering to align himself early with the Tea Party will probably help him steal Debra Medina supporters away from White.  And let’s face it: Texas is a thoroughly red state.

This election is going to be a referendum on President Obama and the federal government; that was made abundantly clear in the primaries.  All Perry had to do was cast Kay Bailey Hutchison as a “Washington creature” and watch the votes roll in.

Consider this chart from the Washington Post on the relation between presidential approval ratings and unemployment:

That was Reagan, now here’s Clinton:

Seeing a pattern?  Basically when people are out of work, they don’t like the job the president is doing; when they have a job, they do.

Unlucky for Bill White, he shares a party with the president.  Simply sharing a town with Obama was enough to do Hutchison in against Perry.  And to say President Obama is unpopular in Texas is an understatement.  According to a recent Public Policy Polling Survey, 2 out of 3 Texans are dissatisfied with the job Obama is doing, and only 19 percent of independents approve of his job performance.

What White will have to do is a) distance himself from Obama; b) go after Perry’s non-sequitur claim that he is responsible for Texas’ economy being in better shape than other states; c) convince Texas voters that he can improve the job market in the state.  As the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday, new health care legislation could result in $400 billion in economic activity coming to Texas.  That is precisely the kind of statistic Bill White will have to play up and spin unpopular Big Brother issues into positives for Texans’ wallets.

The ugly, secret undercurrent of every election-time issue is money: how is this issue going to affect the voter’s bankroll?  If it’s immigration, how are you going to keep someone else from doing my job for less, thereby causing me to lose business and therefore money? If it’s health care, how are you going to keep my costs down and save me money? If it’s government spending, how are you going to keep taxes down and let me keep my money? Like Deep Throat said, you have to follow the money.

Two weeks ago political analyst Charlie Cook changed his evaluation of the Texas governor race from favoring Perry to a “tossup” between him and White, citing among other factors White’s Hispanic lieutenant governor choice and his ability to fundraise.  Why Cook thinks that makes the race a tossup is beyond me.  Regardless, it’s too early to predict; too much is going to happen nationally between now and November.

Bill White is said to be a man with strong Christian faith. That’s good- he should start praying.

Indecision 2010

This year’s race for Texas governor was pegged by pundits and politicos across the country as a good one to watch. Bill White was said to represent the best chance for the Democrats regaining the governor’s mansion since Ann Richards lost to Dubya in 1994.  And while the Perry-Hutchinson showdown doesn’t seem to have panned out with Perry holding a double-digit lead over the senator heading into today’s primaries, the strength of Debra Medina’s campaign could take enough votes from Perry to force a run-off between him and Hutchison.

Texas elections always have about half the turnout of a federal election.  However, if early voting is any indication, this election will have one of the highest turnouts in recent memory.  Nearly three times as many Texans have voted early as they did in 2006.

It could be the drama that stands to give this election one of the best voter turnouts in years, but a better explanation for the increased voter interest is the extent to which national issues are in play, making the gubernatorial race feel like a presidential one.

Sen. Hutchison admitted the other day that Perry’s constant deriding of her as a Washington insider hurt her campaign. For her part, Hutchison said she was in Washington fighting President Obama’s cap-and-trade and health care bills.

Debra Medina made headlines for supposedly mishandling a question from Glenn Beck about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, something that happened far from the plains of the Lone Star State and which resulted in much new federal legislation but little state legislation.

Even some of the key issues making Texans concerned… do not concern (just)  Texans.  The problems of immigration, unemployment and health care are certainly troubles in Texas, but are generally regarded as national issues and ones that the governor of Texas can only do so much about. He can’t, for example, bail out state banks to try to stimulate the Texas economy.

In fact, some have even argued that the lieutenant governor in Texas is more powerful than the governor because he can control the legislation in the Senate. Still, after the 2010 census, redistricting stands to create four new Congressional seats which the governor would have veto power over.

It may be that a year into an unpopular presidency (at least according to Texas voters), Texans en masse are looking to sound off on national issues.  And the rest of the country is listening.