Memphis, History & Politics

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Late Night with Sam and Dave

That 1986 David Letterman interview with Sam Phillips is the starting off point for this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review of Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll,’ by Peter Guralnick. Because presumably, that interview is the only direct knowledge the public has of Sam Phillips, the man. If you have never seen the interview, stop right now and watch this little over 6 minutes that will leave you saying “what just happened?”  Funny you should ask, because Robert Gordon, who writes quite a lot about Memphis music and writes it well, wrote an article about this interview in 1997 that has since stuck in my head.  It was as good as it was odd as a concept: in a breakdown of the interview, word for word and gesture for gesture, Phillips won the contest in a shutout. He uses the interview to show that if you knew Phillips and what he has accomplished, you would understand that he was neither drunk or high or crazy, but Sam just being the same Sam he had always been: the one that found and nurtured Rock ‘n’ Roll.  I started googling the article to figure out where I had read it and see if I could post a link online.  It was in the 1997 Music Issue of the Oxford American.  It is not online because they still want you to buy the back issue. Google let me know a hard copy of the magazine was on a shelf less than 2 feet from my computer. So, I’m posting the article even if it may not be within someone’s idea of fair use because let’s be honest, at 763 pages, I’m not likely to read Guralnick’s book to make a recommendation. I will say that you should read Gordon’s 3000 word article because it explains Sam Phillips (and Letterman) fairly well and I’m putting a mobile friendly version here
And if the Oxford American is unhappy with post, then let me add that you should also buy this back issue.  It comes with a cd compilation of Southern music that is so good, I played it until it wore out. Sure did. If you believe that, you’ll believe a sober Sam Phillips got the best of David Letterman.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Preserving Overton Park, Part 1: A Bunch of “Little Old Ladies” Get the Supreme Court to Stop an Interstate Highway

In 1956, the juggernaut of progress that was Eisenhower’s interstate highway system was just getting a massive shot in the arm with federal funding to states at 90% of the cost.  The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) came up with a plan to use federal funds to put the new I-40 straight through the middle of Memphis including right through Overton Park. Using parks to build roads was popular with planners then because governments could save money using land they already owned or could take from cities. A group of mostly ladies organized to oppose the plan. They initially called themselves the Committee to Preserve Overton Park.  It ended up being a 15 year fight that involved political scraps at the city, state and national level, the largest environmental groups in the country and a legal fight that resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision affecting every subsequent case where someone sues to stop the federal government from changing their community and environment.

What’s Worth Preserving?

In 1901 the City of Memphis bought 342 acres of land on the extreme East side of town including 200 acres of virgin forest and created their first city park. As of today, 142 acres remains forest.  Even in 1901 virgin forest was rare, with virtually all of the forest in this area having been cut over at least once and often twice. The older trees in the Park are now 200 -300 years old. The very oldest are over 500. A shumard oak and a pawpaw are unofficially the largest examples of their type in the state.  Some 70 species of trees, 50 different types of birds and 247 native flowering plant species are found in the forest.  

The park was developed according to the design of George Kessler, one of the most prominent landscape architects of the time and he designed it as part of a system of parkways which connect Overton Park with Riverside Park.

George Kessler's original design for Overton Park
“In Overton Park you have saved the other chief characteristics of this region by preserving in the forest conditions of the virgin forest upon that property. Nowhere in the United States, except in the Pacific Northwest, will you find tree growth as luxuriant as in the Western Tennessee and Eastern Arkansas forests, and in the two hundred acres of virgin forest in Overton Park you have a property which, as a heritage to the public for the enjoyment of nature, equals in value the cost of the entire park system to the present time.” – George Kessler in 1911

From the first decade of the 1900's

By 1956, the City had grown around Overton Park.  It sits on Poplar Avenue, the main artery of the City and is bounded by equally large North and East Parkway. Fashionable, stable neighborhoods had developed on all four sides of the Park in the 20’s and 30’s. Within the Park, the City had built a golf course, a zoo, the City’s best art museum, a stunning new building for the Memphis Academy of Art, a formal garden, and an outdoor amphitheater that hosted everything from light opera to, most famously, Elvis concerts. It had become an urban park with open spaces for recreation that were the largest in the center of town.

The Push to Build America’s Interstate Network

Also in 1956, the Federal Highway Aid Act was passed with the intention of stepping-up the creation of a network of interstates within the US as both a transportation system and for civil defense. Previous efforts had offered federal funds to support states efforts to construct interstates, but the 1956 law offered 90% federal aid which saw projects begin to take off in earnest.  A plan for the Atlantic to Pacific route of Interstate 40 went through the length of Tennessee and the State government planned a route that went East-West straight through the middle of the City as well as a beltway that looped over the North and South sides.  The plan for the route through the middle of the City was published in the papers in 1956 with construction set to begin the next year. The articles showed the route going through Overton Park.  One source I’ve read said that 300 acres, or virtually all of the Park would have been taken by the project.  The Committee to Preserve Overton Park was formed in 1957 entirely as a grassroots effort.  They were residents of the neighborhoods, members of the Garden Club and other individuals concerned that the Park was too valuable to lose. The City Commission held a hearing in 1957 and the opposition was near unanimous. Over 300 citizens turned up to protest and the mayor (then basically the chair of the Commission) was opposed.  The Commission voted to instruct the City’s engineers to develop alternative plans.

A 1963 Esso map shows I-40 entering the Overton Park in the middle of the East side and taking a diagonal swing to the Northwest. This doesn't seem to be a guess on their part because later Esso maps show the compromise route change.

That may have seemed the end of interstate planners' designs on the Park at the time. Ultimately, though, the authority in the development was held by the state with the required approval at the federal Department of Transportation level.  In 1961 it was clear the State was still pushing this route when a local hearing was announced as required by federal law.  Over the next three years, a compromise route was proposed that shrunk the route to 26 acres, roughly following the bus lane which ran by the zoo. Though that lane was 40 feet wide and only allowed the City’s buses, the interstate’s proposed right of way was between 250 and 450 feet wide through the park.  This would cut off the Zoo and part of the forest from the rest of what would be left of the park. Support for this new proposal from downtown interests as well as the local papers resulted in approval  of this route by the City Commission in 1965 and property condemnation and construction on the route east and west of the Park began.  Neither the group now called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) nor any other citizen had any further legal rights to stop the construction.

The compromise route

Then in 1966, Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1966 and the Department of Transportation Act which restricted using public parks to build federal highways only when there was no “feasible or prudent alternative.” CPOP became more politically active with efforts in both the state legislature and the newly formed City Council to stop the slated construction through the Park.  In 1968, the Council voted to oppose the route through the Park. Within a month, Federal Highway Administration officials and engineers had met with the council and within a day of that, the Council reversed their decision. It was made clear that all local federal highway aid was at stake. The Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe, approved the route, but at no point was there an official statement that there were no feasible or prudent alternatives.  CPOP then took the decision to test out the new law and filed suit in the District Court of Washington, D.C.


The case was moved to the Western District of Tennessee Federal Court when TDOT was added as a defendant. The Sierra Club and the Audubon Society joined CPOP as plaintiffs. CPOP lost at the trial court level and they lost on appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. At this point it’s worth considering that the Supreme Court did not necessarily need to take this case. After all, hadn’t the City, the State and the federal government accepted public input? Hadn’t they considered or at least listened to all of the concerns of the citizens that the law required before they made their ultimate decision?  Why is this an issue for the Courts and not simply a political matter? The trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed with this argument by the state and federal government. The City Council had approved, the land along the route on either side of the park had been acquired and buildings were cleared. What was the alternative now and wasn’t that question ultimately up to the Secretary of Transportation and not for a court to second guess?

The majority of the Supreme Court decided that the wording of the law had to be followed, regardless of whether the decision was up to the Secretary. The decision had to consider prudent and feasible alternatives and they had to show how the Secretary arrived at the decision. The Secretary cannot make a decision that is “arbitrary and capricious” and that cannot be determined without an account of how he arrived at the decision. This impacted the discretionary authority of the Secretary of Transportation clearly because of the 1966 legislation and eventually impacted other federal agencys' decision especially where decision making impacted local communities and environmental resources. The case has been cited in over 5,400 subsequent case opinions.


The Supreme Court’s decision did not kill the interstate or even the route through the Park outright. The case returned to the trial court, there was a 25 day trial to determine if the Secretary had failed to consider alternatives (it was found he hadn't) and the DOT continued to fight the case for another two years. TDOT held on for another 15 years with various proposed ways to go through the park. There were tunnels, side by side and over and under and then there was the so-called cut and cover where giant vents would be placed over the interstate in the park. There is a lovely artist’s rendering of this concept hanging in the reception area of the Memphis Office of Planning and Development last time I was in there.  The Secretary of Transportation never approved another plan, though some plans they suggested were rejected by TDOT as too expensive, such as the tunnels. By 1987 the State apparently gave up and deeded the right of way through the park back to the City. New houses were built over much of the neighborhoods that were demolished. I-40 was officially routed over the North loop. The partially built section of interstate was given to the City and named Sam Cooper Boulevard.

Saving the Park from the interstate may be the largest fight likely to occur, but it is not the last one and it continues to this day.  I will cover more recent threats to the assets of the Park in future installments.


Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Memphis Ikea Could be Killed off by County Assessor's Lost Cause

Our County property tax assessor, Cheyenne Johnson, is going to lose this appeal, risk losing Ikea's investment in this property and to add injury to insult, we the County taxpayers have to pay the legal fees.

The reason this appeal will lose is because Johnson tried the same thing just two years ago and lost at both the local and State Equalization Board levels. Commercial Appeal Sept. 17, 2015 The only thing that has changed in the last two years is that 6 acres of land within a floodplain that cannot be built on were deeded to a homeowner's association.   It was this change to the property that has provided the legal loophole that let Johnson try to change the assessment again. Otherwise, the assessment should have stayed where the state board put it, at 1.25 million and that is the value the City and Ikea counted on to work out their incentive package.  Changing the assessment will kill the incentive package which is a bigger problem that just raising the property value alone.

Back in 2013, Johnson wanted the value to be 3.4 million and the local and State boards said no, that 1.25 million was fair market value. Now Johnson says it's 5.1 million. She claims in the earlier CA article that the purchase price has nothing to do with the valuation, which it shouldn't. But If so, then how come her 3.4 million FMV just went up 50% in two years?   FMV is what the property would bring if Ikea walked away and the property went on the market today.  It's no surprise that the local board again voted unanimously to find FMV at 1.25 million and there's no reason to think the state board will do any differently than they did 2 years ago.  The only thing it will do is delay Ikea, maybe indefinitely. The earlier CA article says Johnson wants to talk settlement, but that means going back and renegotiating the whole deal with the City.

Not only could we lose revenue from sales tax and 175 new jobs, we have to pay the legal fees to make it happen.

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Memphis Monument to White Supremacy

Ever since I was a kid something has always seemed unexplained about the monuments to Confederate Generals such as the one of Nathan Bedford Forrest in a City Park in Memphis. Even back when I accepted these monuments at face value, as an honor to a hero, it never made complete sense that they were done as monuments to victors.  The over the top grand statues of Richmond’s Monument Avenue  , Stone Mountain’s Confederate version of Mt. Rushmore and Forrest’s statue all show the heroes sitting serenely and looking out to a place they help build.  The Confederates are not shown in defiance or mention a yet to be obtained liberty as is found with statues of William Wallace, for example.  The idea that the Civil War was now a “lost cause” came about almost immediately at the end of the Civil War, but no Confederate is shown with a hint of defeat as the famous End of the Trail statue in tribute to the “doomed fate” of Native Americans.   In fact these and other Confederate Monuments built around the turn of the Twentieth Century celebrate the victory not of the Civil War, but of segregation as the economic and social replacement for the loss of slavery, in short the Jim Crow Economy.

Artist's model now in the Pink Palace Museum

Fear of a Free African American Population Lead the Ex-Confederates at First to Use Terror and then Segregation
Memphis immediately after the Civil War saw a rebuilding of government and business by African-Americans and whites. Public transportation, neighborhoods, the school board, even the police force were integrated. Racial hostility existed among poor whites. A three day riot broke out which began as a conflict between Irish policemen and African-American ex Union soldiers. African-American owned businesses were targeted and 46 African-Americans were killed. A few years later, Memphis suffered a loss of more than half its population because of the yellow-fever epidemics either through the disease itself or families fleeing the city never to return. By the time the epidemics were over in the 1880s the previous community leaders had been largely replaced with a population both white and African-American from the regional rural areas. Racial hostility, which had existed all along, was now institutionalized from the top down and segregation was imposed by law.
While slavery was opposed by many outside of the slave-holding states before the Civil war and barely tolerated by the majority, segregation was openly embraced by the North. The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson gave the federal government’s blessing to “separate but equal” and segregation laws. The decision wasn’t even close with only Justice John Harlan dissenting. Before the Civil War most southern whites never owned a slave.  Nevertheless, the use of slavery was central to the South’s primarily agricultural economy. The Reconstruction period which prevented former confederates from the right to vote created the fear of an interruption in very cheap African-American labor. That fear supported a KKK that continued to rise in numbers and stature, bolstered by the association with the heroic ideal of General Forrest.

Forrest as the Hero of White Supremacy

Forrest died in 1877, an association to create a monument was created in 1891 and was it was ultimately dedicated in 1905. This period of time saw both the economic success of the Jim Crow Economy and the rise in nostalgia for the KKK. Thomas Dixon published The Clansman in 1905.  The second in his highly popular KKK trilogy. A play based on the book and the subsequent movie led the revivial of the KKK. Segregation replaced slavery as the necessary institution to preserve the "Southern way of life." Consider the fact that once slavery was abolished, no subsequent efforts to either re-institute it or to secede occurred in the South. There was no need because the institution and economic need had been effectively replaced and the KKK was given credit as the forefather to the new economy. No figure at the time was associated more with the KKK than Forrest. And no person was more responsible for this association than General George Gordon. As a former Confederate General practicing law in Pulaski, Tennessee he was a founder of the KKK, and he wrote their precepts, or constitution. The most popular story, now and then, of how Forrest became a member and leader of the KKK involve Gordon visiting Forrest at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville and persuading him that he and the KKK shared the same cause.  By 1891 Gordon had moved to Memphis to become our City's school superintendent. Memphis was where Forrest had made his fortune in the slave trade before the war and where he returned after the war to try his hand at other businesses. Gordon was a founder of the Forrest Monument Association and it's chief fundraiser. His efforts were successful enough that the monument also came to be the new resting place of Forrest's and his wife's remains.

Contemporary Accounts Leave No Doubt the Monument Stood for White Supremacy

On April 30 , 1905, about 2 weeks before the dedication, the statue stood covered in white cloth. A local daily newspaper, the Memphis News-Scimitar, ran an illustration along with a creepy, chilling piece of prose as an ode comparing the statue now to the robed Klansmen Forrest once commanded.
Out of the past and back from the mysterious state which men call death, Forrest has come to his own again. Stalwart, strong and invincible, he sits erect on King Phillip, overlooking Forrest Park and turning his eagle eye toward the south just as he was wont to do forty years ago when the chaotic conditions of life required the organizing of the Ku Klux Klan for the protection of the honor and independence of Southern social conditions.
Clad in his old Ku Klux garb, a pall of white that covered horse and rider the great leader of this secret clan rides once more by night, in moonlight or starlight, calling his own to follow him again. It may be only a mirage of a war-loving brain that peoples the park again with special men in ghostly garb, but when the midnight hour rings clear across the stillness of the sleeping city the greensward becomes an arena where rank by rank, file by file, the old members of the clan come to follow their leader again crossing and recrossing from the shadow of the trees to the wider open spaces of light, quiet, irresistible, determined as of old. From the widely scattered graves they come, the green doors of the turf swinging noiselessly back, and horse and rider coming down the long lanes of the past to answer the call of that leader whose iron hand held the reins of safety over the South when Northern dominion apotheosized the negro and set misrule and devastation to humiliate a proud race.  From far and near they come, for who of his old men would not come if Forrest would but call?
One by one they come from the long green aisles that lead the way to the graves of the Confederate dead in Elmwood, and shod in silence they weave their way across the streets of the sleeping city to the open place in the park , where their leader waits. From Lonely graves down in the valey they come again, the long white garb fluttering in the night wind – did you think it only a cloud you saw?
Old men rise from their sleep in comfortable homes, from soldiers’ refuges and from hospital beds, and in their dreams ride out to meet him again. To watch the park would disappoint you, for the mortal eye may see the soldier-spirit that comes again to its own? You would see only mist-wreaths blowing hither and yon, from shadow to shadow where a file of ghostly men of the Ku Klux Klan performed again their intricate evolutions; you would hear only a sigh of the wind where the stern warriors repeated in concert the great binding oath of the order: you would hear only the scamper of tiny animal feet or the sleepy call of a night-bird where the men called together of deeds to be done or wrongs to be avenged; you would hear only the faint rumble of thunder where the great company of horses trampled with pad-softened hoofs across the time hardened turf and granolith walk.  A phantasy of the brain, you will say, for only to those who know will the spectral throng and its meaning be known. Only to those can the mysteries of the night be interpreted, for by day one sees only a stalwart figure in bronze and stone draped stil in its sculptor’s canvas waiting for the cord to be drawn that will reveal a fitting memorial to a man who served his country with honor and distinction and with his sword carved his name on the wall of the temple of fame in those days long ago “when knighthood was in flower.” A.B.

At the dedication ceremony, Gen. Gordon was the featured speaker who recounted Forrest exploits, but leaving out any direct reference to either Forrest's slave trading or the KKK. Not so restrained was another featured speaker, Tennessee Senator A.B. Turley. His speech included this strident statement: "the principles of the cause for which Forrest fought are not dead, and they will live as long as there is a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood on the face of the earth." The Forrest monument shows they wholly believed white supremacy was the path started by Forrest and the KKK and their dedication with this monument showed that Memphis and the South were determined to stay on that path.

What to do with this Monument Now

In 2015, the Memphis City Council voted 11 to 1 to remove the statue and move Mr. and Mrs. Forrest's remains back to Elmwood Cemetery where they were first buried.  The City of Richmond which built similar monuments in the same time period to Confederate Army Commander Gen. Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis and others is presently going through the same debate. Here, however, Forrest's statue is unlikely to ever be moved and I'm not convinced that would even be the best thing to do. In order to move a grave, the heirs must agree, and indications are that Forrest's descendant's will not consent. More importantly, the historical meaning of Forrest's monument has been clouded, white-washed you might say, by present day admirers who idolize Forrest and have mythologized his story. They want to erase his slave trading business, his atrocities during the war, his leadership of the KKK and his support of Jim Crow laws. To remove the statue is to leave out one of the most influential aspects of our City's history. Knowing this history, you can't deny it's impact on the City today. The monument should not be moved, but added to so that the Memphis of 1905 can be seen for future generations for what it proudly and defiantly was meant to be. I would have the general view of the monument from below be blocked and made level with Forrest as the photo above. Take away the "monumental" effect and give an accurate view of history, literally and figuratively.

Memphis Commercial Appeal August 12, 2015. A volunteer tries to remove graffiti 


Tim Bounds: Remembering Nathan Bedford Forrest: White Supremacy and the Memphis Monument. This paper provided much of the original research which made me want to write this article. It is under a Creative Commons license. I cannot find it anywhere else available on the web, so I posted it on my server.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Government: You're Doing it Wrong.

“Government is broken.” This may be the most commonly used phrase in the news about the Debt Ceiling Crisis, especially among the politicians involved in the battle over it. It may be one of the most used phrases for the past couple of decades. A Google search for the exact phrase returns 159,000 hits. That seems an awfully round number for a truly accurate count, but you get the idea. A poll taken in February 2010 shows that 86% of all Americans agree with this interpretation. Sorry to disagree with America, but "Government" isn't broken; the people we sent to run it just doesn’t know how to operate the thing. The Republic is just fine, if only the people who are supposed to run it would run it that way. While the Debt Ceiling Crisis is just the one small chapter in the big, broke government theme, it's as good of an example of as any why this is bad analysis.In a system structured to require compromise as part of operating the levers of government in the first place, conflict is built into our Republic. Consequently, the fact that extreme factions of either party will hold out to get what they want is not a symptom of a problem, it's not even a problem. It's a feature or it should be in the concept of our Republic. The problems arise from the creation of budgeting tricks that avoid the political fallout of otherwise popular spending. For example, the debt ceiling itself. The debt ceiling is a creation of Congress that creates an artificial limit on how much the government may borrow to pay for the expenditures Congress has already authorized. In other words, a vote on the debt ceiling today essential gives the current Congress the presumed authority to retract spending obligations that were both authorized and funded previously. Is the debt ceiling even constitutional? Most likely, yes. But the issue has never been pressed to a crisis. If the debt ceiling were not raised when the federal government was about to run out of money to pay it's debt, the federal government would be unable to comply with all of the laws, the expenditures versus the cap on borrowing and thus the crisis of what law to disregard and what creditor of the U.S. to stiff. The debt ceiling isn't even a hundred years old and it certainly wasn't part of the structure of the Republic as designed and not a part of the 14th Amendment that obligated the Country pay it's debt. Back then the only borrowing was done in war time.The part that Congress has been doing wrong, particularly since the 1980s, is changing taxes or revenue decreases with no regard for the increased debt those changes create. The massive tax cuts of the 80s were supposed to "pay for themselves" in increased revenue from the magic idea that lower taxes increased economic growth resulting in more revenue. Although the formula never proved true, the myth has been perpetuated. In fact it was massively perpetuated by tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. These were again passed with no regard for the debt everyone knew they would create. In spite of the fact that both the Reagan Tax Cuts and Bush Tax Cuts increased the deficit, the Bush Tax cuts were extended in 2010 by a deal worked out between Obama and Republican Senators who threatened to filibuster every single piece of legislation. Dealing with the debt was to be addressed the next year, or as Obama would later call it, "kicking the can down the road."Passing a law that says the next Congress and the next President cannot spend a certain amount or cannot tax a certain amount is not governing. It's just political cover for not dealing with the problems of right now and the debts built up in the past. Creating a crisis over the debt ceiling for debts already created by complaining about spending yet to take place, is saying you can somehow nullify the expenditures of the past. When you open up the door to that type of revisionist history and hamstringing the future budgets, you're not governing anymore, you're just trying to create a kind of autopilot for government. Add to that a majority of the House, almost all Republicans, have signed a private pledge not to raise taxes in any way.It's no wonder that when the government needed to address serious financial concerns, such as the mortgage crisis, they were helpless from a political standpoint. Spending on entitlements was locked in, government borrowing was locked in and tax rates were locked in. That's why we paid the bankers, the ones who caused the mess, all of the money to fix the problem. It was the only political option we had.The other problem is that it inevitably leads to deception of the public at large. The current "Debt Ceiling Crisis" is not a crisis at all except for the fact that it gave one faction of one party the ability to turn off the autopilot and crash the whole government if changes to spending were not made, changes to spending which had absolutely nothing to do with the debt ceiling at all. That is why they are doing it all wrong. We have built a system that allows the levers of government to be moved to crash the whole thing with no compromise, no checks and balances and no representation by anything like a majority of the electorate. The debt ceiling is a phony idea, passed by a Congress no longer in power to limits the amount of money the government can borrow to pay for things that have already been authorized by a Congress no longer in power and which are now (or were) held hostage by Members of Congress many of whom held no power back then. It is easy to pass tax cuts and it's easy to pass a "ceiling" on the amount of money the government can borrow, but neither of those things provides governance when the debts come due. Neither of those things provides governance when a minority of the House, or the Senate before them, or the House in 1994 were willing to bring the whole government to a halt, or worse. In those cases the Republic as it was designed requires agreement to govern, and agreement requires compromise of all of the parts. When take all the power, put it in a can and kick the can down the road you have no idea who you're kicking it to. You're doing it wrong.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Baby Daddy State lead by actual Baby Daddy

It should come as no surprise that a leader of the movement in Congress to default on our past obligations is a man who has a pattern of not paying for his obligations.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What the President Will Say Tomorrow

Chances are you're one of two kinds of people right now: either you're afraid that their won't be an agreement on extending the debt ceiling or you don't think the debt ceiling should be increased at all. I know there are also people who either don't care or don't know anything about what is happening with the debt ceiling negotiations, but they stopped reading at the subject line.
If you are afraid that a deal might not be reached and what might happen to the country's credit rating, good. If you're not afraid, you're not paying attention. However, you may also have missed the fact that this is shaping up to be a critical moment in U.S. politics. What started out to be a staring contest over spending cuts versus tax increases and Obama versus the Tea Party is actually a period of political volatility that could create the biggest changes in at least two of the most intractable aspects of the federal budget, taxes and entitlement spending.
First to set the stage, the elections of 2010 were notable not just for the change in who held a majority in the House, but how that was accomplished. Republicans picked up 63 districts previously represented by Democrats, but these were mostly from moderate and conservative Democrats. Moderate Republicans lost in primaries to Tea Party supported Republicans who either won the general elections or lost to more liberal Democrats. The result is a House that has far fewer moderates or centrists form either party than before, maybe than ever before. The Republican majority in the House was determined to force a showdown over federal spending to show they were cutting government. The first phase was the FY2011 budget which was a deal only agreed to with hours to spare to avoid shutting down the government. Bu this just "kicked the can down the raod" to the unresolved FY2012 budget and essentially agreed to agree to further cuts in spending. Meanwhile the Federal debt ceiling, a separate law which sets a limit on the total amount the government can borrow regardless of the budget obligations already passed, would be exceeded in May 2011. The Treasury can essentially meet its obligations to pay T-bills coming due until August 2. House Republicans decided to tie the vote on raising the debt ceiling to the FY2012 and beyond budget cuts they want. What they want are budget cuts equal to the amount the debt ceiling needs to be raised, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 trillion.
What has transpired appeared to be negotiations of terms between the Obama Administration and the House Republicans lead by House Speaker John Boehner. What really happened is that the Republicans have not actually negotiated anything from their original position. Obama has proposed as much as 2 trillion in budget cuts with the remaining amount offset by revenue increases, i.e. more taxes. Some of the tax increase is the elimination of loop holes and exemptions like the ones major oil companies use to avoid paying billions to the IRS. That alone is not enough revenue to cover the increased debt. Increases in the highest tax rate, those making over $250,000 are also in Obama's plan.
The political reality. Most Republicans in the House have said they will never raise taxes. Most of them have even signed a pledge to that effect. The Republican leaders, if they wish to remain the leaders will not consider tax increases in negotiations. However, the House can pass a measure with only a small number of Republicans, about 10% to join with the Democrats to reach a majority. Opinion polls show most Americans agree that tax increases should be a part of a deficit reduction. House Republicans have spent a lot of time getting to the point that they have nothing with which to negotiate. Obama, on the other hand has surprised, even disappointed many Democrats by offering cuts to Medicare and Social Security but only if tax increases are part of the deal. With their backs to the wall, Republicans are coming up with stop gap measures which make it appear they are voting against raising the ceiling, but giving the President the authority to raise the debt ceiling anyway. For his part, Obama is sticking to a position that this will be a long term change for both taxes and Medicare and Social Security policy.
I think what convinced me that this was not just another showdown, but rather the kind of policy change that happens once, maybe twice in any presidential administration was the reaction back in June from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It is true that divided government is the only government that can do transformational, difficult things… One thing I do tell my members is: whatever we do with this President is not going to be an issue in the next election. Because when you do it with divided government, no one can take advantage of whatever the difficult part of it was. You saw that on display with [Ronald] Reagan and Tip O’Neill on tax reform in ‘83, Bill Clinton and the Republicans on welfare reform in ‘96. And, you know, balancing the budget in the late 90’s was not easy; that was done by Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. So, I view this discussion surrounding the debt ceiling as actually an opportunity, an opportunity to do something important for the American people and to actually get a result. And those discussions are under way and I’m hoping that they can lead to something that I can recommend to my members and that at least most of them will conclude that it is an important accomplishment for the country… Most of my members believe that the debt crisis is actually here and this is the opportunity to deal with it. So I hope it’ll be a big moment for the country, but I can’t tell you for sure yet, that that’s the way it’s going to turn out.

Consider that McConnell would be Majority Leader today if it were not for the Tea Party losses in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado. You can just tell by the way he is offering alternatives behind the scenes right now how much he wishes he were part of making history and not just standing in the way of getting things done like his counterparts in the House.
I don't know exactly how the President is going to say it, but somehow he is going to appeal to the fact that both a majority of Americans want the version of deficit reduction he is proposing and a majority of members of the House likely do too. It's just a matter of getting the Republican leaders to let it happen. The thing is a majority of Americans want the federal government to do something about jobs more than they want something done about the deficit, but that another post.