Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2004
By: Amy Sullivan

Best Quote So Far....I needed a break from the pontificating panels of pundits, so I switched over to "The Daily Show" for a second just in time to catch Stephen Colbert's assessment of the Republican Convention: "Jon, to call this convention a little manipulative is like calling Marcel Marceau a little quiet."

Ahhh. That's more like it.

Amy Sullivan 11:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Even Conservatives Hated Them....The verdict from the Fox News crew on Jenna, Barbara, and Laura is not good.

Bill Kristol: "The last half hour did not help, as far as I can tell, Bush's campaign for reelection."

Mort Kondracke: "Those two girls were ditzes. I'm surprised they were allowed on the program."

Fred Barnes: "I think she [Laura] had no place up there or the daughters either....Their mother said they'll be pursuing their own careers. I would advise them to look in some field other than comedy."

Now I don't think that anyone--anyone--casts their vote based on the family of the candidate. And that goes for people who really don't like Teresa, too. But it's gotta be pretty bad when the message discipline breaks down like this at Fox News.

UPDATE: Hi there, it's Kevin, taking advantage of my administrator privileges to barge in on Amy's post.

I just wanted to say that even though I was absolutely cringing throughout the entire performance by the Bush daughters, I was planning to hold my tongue because I think it's kind of cheap to make fun of political children. I mean, they're not pros or anything, just loving daughters of a misguided father.

But hey, as long as everyone else is doing it, why not join in! So let me just say that I agree with Mort Kondracke. And Fred Barnes. And Bill Kristol too. What a disaster. What an absolute disaster.

Amy Sullivan 11:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RICHARD NIXON SPEAKS....Arnold: "Listening to Nixon speak was like a breath of fresh air."

Wow. That's not something you're likely to hear again anytime soon.

Kevin Drum 10:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MY VERSION OF CONVENTION COVERAGE....Overwhelmingly, liberal bloggers seem to feel that if they watch the Republican convention speakers any longer they will explode. So they aren't. Even the ones who are specifically in New York to cover the convention can't stand it and are mostly hanging out and just chatting with each other.

Pussies. I just watched Bill Frist for, um, must have been ten minutes at least. He uses his hands a lot when he talks, doesn't he? Must be that surgical training. I don't quite remember what he said, though, aside from him being a doctor and all. My wife, whose instincts are a bit more sympathetic to conservatives than mine, mumbled something about "snake oil salesman," and then suddenly switched gears and said that she sure lost a lot of respect for Rudy Giuliani last night.

I didn't catch Rudy's act last night because I was busy cleaning out the cat box, but I guess it must have been a humdinger, eh? But I'm afraid he lost at least one vote for his 2008 presidential bid.

Oh, hey, Arnold is on. Gotta go.

Kevin Drum 10:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Did I Mention I'm a Doctor?....Wow. Bill Frist completely bombed this evening. I know delegates get restless after the first night of excitement, but the level of noise during Frist's speech was kinda embarrassing. Not that they really needed to listen closely. Most of his speeches go something like this: Doctor...blah, blah...medical professional...blah, blah...saved a life...blah, blah...the Senate's only doctor...

At least Daschle did him the favor of not setting the bar terribly high for Convention performances by Senate leaders.

Amy Sullivan 9:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

One of These Things is Just Like the Others....Viewers tuning in to cable news coverage of the second night of the GOP Convention may be hard-pressed at times to find a panel that includes anyone who could fairly be described as left of center. On MSNBC right now, Chris Matthews' "Hardball" line-up consists of Andrea Mitchell, Jon Meacham, J.C. Watts, and Joe Scarborough. Journalist, journalist, conservative, conservative.

Over on CNN's "Larry King", former Sen. George Mitchell is outgunned by the dynamic Dole duo and Bob Woodward, who has been offering up pablum all night. And of course, on the Fox News Channel, most guests run the ideological gamut from Mary Matalin to Karen Hughes (although I should note that at the moment, Charlie Rangel is pretty much handing Sean Hannity his hat...)

Oh, wait, wait...now Larry has added Karen Hughes to his panel, as well, giving poor George Mitchell yet another conservative sparring partner.

Our friends at Media Matters have more, including a running tally of the amount of airtime Fox News is devoting to the Republican Convention versus what they alloted for the Democrats in Boston.

Viewers hungry for a little balance will have to point their remotes toward PBS, which is where I was parked until assigned to follow the cable news coverage. Mark Shields and David Brooks wrapped up a cordial, but vigorous, debate earlier this evening before Andy Kohut appeared for some nonpartisan polling analysis.

Amy Sullivan 9:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DENNY HASTERT UPDATE....Josh Marshall says he's talked to a bunch of reporters who have asked Dennis Hastert to clarify his remarks about George Soros' money coming from drug cartels. But instead of doing the non-insane thing and saying he didn't really mean it, apparently he's aggressively repeating the charge to anyone who will listen. Soros has now written him a letter demanding a retraction.

It's just another example of the thuggish nature of the Republican leadership these days. It's also an example of their bizarre detachment from reality (aka "making shit up"), since Soros' career as a money manager, currency speculator, and philanthropist is well known. It's no secret where Soros made his money. Just ask John Major.

Kevin Drum 6:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezra Klein

Right now, I'm typing from The Tank, which is acting as progressive HQ, with space for bloggers, a "progressive tourist bureau", and constant events of interest to liberals (tonight, for instance, Air America is broadcasting live). The mood is...mixed. With Al Hunt calling the convention "exquisitely directed" and reporting a potential Kerry campaign shake-up (classic sign of weakness), there's an almost palpable frustration that Rudy's straight talk and McCain's maverick status can obscure the actual character of this administration. Most simply cannot believe that this election can even be close, much less locked in a dead-heat. That's not so much a judgment on Republicans as Bush; it's just impossible to understand how anyone can empirically judge this guy's policies a success.

At least on close examination. But for those who aren't going over policy papers with their magnifying glass, it's more understandable. Last week, The New Yorker's critic-at-large engaged voter behavior; past studies have found that only 10% can be considered in possession of a coherent ideological framework while 22% use indicators with no "issue content" whatsoever. However, a theory called "heuristics" posits that this isn't a problem:

People use shortcuts...to reach judgments about political candidates, and, on the whole, these shortcuts are as good as the long and winding road of reading party platforms, listening to candidate debates, and all the other elements of civic duty. Voters use what Samuel Popkin, one of the proponents of this third theory, calls "low-information rationality" in other words, gut reasoning-to reach political decisions; and this intuitive form of judgment proves a good enough substitute for its high-information counterpart in reflecting what people want.

....On the theory of heuristics, it's roughly the same with candidates: voters don't have the time or the inclination to assess them in depth, so they rely on the advice of experts television commentators, political activists, Uncle Charlie-combined with their own hunches, to reach a decision. Usually (they feel), they're O.K. If they had spent the time needed for a top-to-toe vetting, they would probably not have chosen differently. Some voters might get it wrong in one direction, choosing the liberal candidate when they in fact preferred a conservative one, but their error is cancelled out by the voters who mistakenly choose the conservative. The will of the people may not be terribly articulate, but it comes out in the wash.

Hanging over the Tank is that which must not be spoken the possibility that Bush really does represent the American people better than the left and, if so, the country'll get what it deserves. But if you view the election and convention in terms of voter behavior, things begin to fall into place. The problem for bloggers, blog readers, and this top tenth of politically involved folk is that they look at Bush's policy actions and it blow their minds; the guy's been an absolute catastrophe. That anyone could possibly support this schmuck is simply impossible.

Only not. The Republican Party has become masterful at rigging these heuristic signposts into pointing in the opposite direction from the party. Bush's affability, apparent values and general normality signals good president despite the incoherence and incompetence defining his policies. As Matt Yglesias noted, the essential Republican speaker on national security is Rudy Giuliani, a mayor whose emotional connection to terrorism is undeniable, just like his lack of expertise on the topic. This guy has worked on crime, not foreign policy. Nonetheless, his personal reputation (tough on muggers) and clear conviction on terrorism push heuristic buttons, signaling a credibility that isn't actually there.

Further, the media works better on this level of storylines and examples (Dole's fall, Dean's scream, Bush's trouble with the grocery scanner) and is thus easy prey for the GOP's deception. Reporting the guts of issues is a tough business and rarely riveting television, networks that attempt to engage health care lose out to rivals proffering easy to understand character questions.

It's a dynamic that one party has figured out and the other party occasionally grasps (i.e, Kerry's convention turn as the God of War and Death, the prominent display of Kerry's middle-American shipmates), both to the detriment of the electorate. So long as politicians can consciously manipulate heuristics for their advancement and the media will report on that level, there's no chance that such glancing political involvement will lead voters to rational decision making. And that means the media must step up and drill through to the issues or Americans must step up and do the work themselves. Either one would be fine, both would be terrific, but neither would be disastrous.

Edited the ending.

Ezra Klein 6:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SECRECY....I don't really care about immigration policy all that much, but Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo does. So he tried to get his views adopted in the Republican party platform.

When that failed, he decided to see if he could gin up a floor fight at the convention. This was more political theater than anything else, but even so he ran into an unusual problem:

There are two ways to bring a matter to the floor: One is to convince six state delegations to support the motion for a floor debatea virtual impossibility, Tancredo realized; the other is to get 19 members of the platform committee to support bringing a matter to the floor. This latter route seemed doable to Tancredo, save for one problem: The congressman couldn't find out who, exactly, was on the platform committee. Running the platform process with all the discipline and secrecy that's come to be expected from the Bush White House, the RNC, citing security concerns, refused to divulge the identities of the handpicked delegates who served on the platform committeeeven, in some cases, to other members of the platform committee.

The names of the platform committee members are a secret? For "security reasons"? Has the party leadership gone completely insane? (That's a rhetorical question, of course. No need to answer.)

I have lately been having trouble finding the words to describe the current state of the leadership of the Republican party. This is one of those times. All I can do is shake my head and wonder when the rank and file of the Republican party many of whom I count as friends and most of whom are decent and honorable people are going to wake up and realize what the Texas ideologues are doing to their party.

At some point, they're going to have take the same hard look at George Bush that so many Democrats took at Jimmy Carter in 1980, and decide that enough's enough. But will they do it this year, when the damage is still repairable, or will they give Bush another four years, at which point the party will be in such ruins that they'll probably have to wait a couple of decades before they win another election? That's the decision facing an awful lot of adult Republicans this year.

POSTSCRIPT: And in case you're wondering, no, the membership of the Democratic platform committee was not a secret. Here it is, if you're interested.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AN ECHO, NOT A CHOICE....
I know a lot of people don't click through on every link, so I figured I'd just put up a screen shot of MSNBC's latest online poll.

Don't you think there ought to be a third choice here? Maybe somebody ought to make a few suggestions to MSNBC's crack online polling staff. Seems like they could use some help.

UPDATE: TalkLeft has a suggestion....

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Monday Night Wrap-Up....Some final thoughts on the first night of the GOP Convention, in no particular order:

In the midst of his half-hour ad lib of kicking back and telling stories, Giuliani talked about the fireman who used profane language when describing to Bush what should be done to al-Qaeda. "I can't repeat what he said," Giuliani told the audience. "This is a Republican Convention, after all." Oh, the laughs and chuckles that received. Please tell me that some television producer thought to cut to Dick "Go F*** Yourself" Cheney at that moment.

I'll admit it--I was one of those people who thought Democrats made the right decision by taking the high road at their Convention, that keeping the focus mainly on their agenda and not on slamming their opponents made them look like a responsible, ready-for-primetime-governing party. I didn't expect Republicans to do the same, particularly after they told the New York Times that their Convention would "feature Mr. Kerry as an object of humor and calculated derision". But, ouch.

What would happen if Democrats sent someone out to give Bush the kind of ass-kicking Giuliani delivered to Kerry last night? I'm not referring to the substance of his remarks--most of the former mayor's criticisms were ridiculous. But I'm betting the general "Hey, I'm just tellin' it like it is--the guy's a jerk" tone plays well with some as-yet-undecided voters. So what about it? Is it too late for Democrats? Do they have it in them to just start making stuff up, whether it's true or not? Or are there two different standards for the two parties?

McCain may have singled out Michael Moore for ridicule last night, but there was more than enough evidence on display to support Moore's theory that, when in doubt, Republicans will try to win by scaring the hell out of all of us. I tried to keep track of all of the times I heard "dangerous world", "terrorists", "evil", "attack", "bombing", etc. and I lost count. But I sure am frightened now.

Did you know that until George W. Bush came along, terrorists did "not face any consequences"? Giuliani might want to stop in for a chat with Ramzi Yousef and friends, who I believe were captured, tried, and convicted for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Finally, just when you thought the Christian Right's reputation couldn't get any worse, the Family Research Council has shown up at the Convention to distribute some delightful fortune cookies they had made, containing slogans such as: "Real Men Marry Women" (may I assume, then, that they're fans of Gov. McGreevey?), "Save the Constitution! Impeach an Activist Judge" (I'm guessing they don't mean conservative activist judges...), and my favorite, "#1 Reason to Ban Human Cloning: Hillary Clinton." Wow, that's some good Christian love right there, folks.

Amy Sullivan 10:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Mouthing The Words....John McCain is beloved among certain segments of independents and Democrats for his vaunted ability to cut through the political crap and give it to you straight. But it is exactly that skill that makes him ill-equipped to serve as a partisan shill. McCain sounded flat and uninspired this evening, with the exception of his passionate closing. Given the task of defending Bush's policy in Iraq, it was McCain's duty to preview the Administration's latest rationale: no longer "weapons of mass destruction" or even "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," apparently the latest justification for war is "whether or not [Saddam] had the weapons, he would have acquired them."

Well, then. If that's all it takes...

McCain's image took a bruising tonight, particularly because his performance suffered in comparison to the genial attack dog Rudy Giuliani, who at least projected the image of a straight talker while slapping John Kerry up one side and down the other. Neither man has a chance in hell of ever being nominated by the Republican Party, but you wouldn't know it by the way they're going gangbusters after the title of Most Popular Republican.

Amy Sullivan 1:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Was He Watching Tonight?....Just minutes after this evening's proceedings ended, after listening to two major speeches that--whatever you think of them--provided a lot to talk about, Tim Russert proceeded to use half of his time with guest Hillary Clinton badgering her about whether or not she plans to run in 2008. "But if John Kerry loses in November," he pressed, "doesn't that set up a run for you in 2008?" Oh, for goodness sake. It's long past time someone realized that the only people who talk about Hillary in '08 are conservatives and media types who spend too much time listening to conservatives. As the only New York politician who rivals Rudy Giuliani for star power, Clinton had some criticisms of the Convention worth hearing. But you would hardly have known it to listen to America's "top interviewer."

Update: It's highly possible that what I saw was a repeat of Russert's Sunday night interview with Senator Clinton. Come to think of it, the Garden did seem to have emptied out awfully quickly... Setting aside my temporary brain lapse, my general criticism of Russert still stands. He's becoming more a parody of himself than Darrell Hammond's impersonation of him.

Amy Sullivan 12:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 30, 2004
By: Amy Sullivan

Notes from the RNC....I'm going to try really hard to limit most of my comments to substantive aspects of the Republican Convention, really I am. But these roving announcer women are really freaking me out and I have to wonder if they remind anyone else of the spokesmodel contestants from "Star Search" (particularly that last woman in Wisconsin...) Also, I can't sit still while the Republicans appropriate my fight song for an incredibly lame "tribute" to Gerald Ford. Mr. Ford, I know you didn't even serve a full term, but I'd demand a do-over on that tribute--a thirty-second slide show set to the "Victors" is kind of embarrassing for a former president.

We now return to regularly scheduled substantive analysis and commentary.

Amy Sullivan 9:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SECRET MEMO EXPOSED....Making up stories is tricky business. On the plus side, you can pretty much say anything you want, which is a definite advantage. On the minus side, you have to be careful that your story sounds like it's true. "Verisimilitude" is what the pointy-headed intellectuals call it, and even the producers of Spiderman 2 have to keep it in mind.

Anyway, it turns out that John O'Neill had a few verisimilitude problems with the first draft of Unfit for Command. Investigative reporter Art Levine has the scoop, exclusively for the Washington Monthly.

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DOCUMENT IMAGING MAGIC....My professional specialty is in the mind-numbingly boring area of high-volume document imaging and document management. I've been waiting two years for some excuse to put that knowledge to work on this blog, and wouldn't you know it the opportunity comes up while I'm on vacation.

Still, this is kind of amusing: apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger's commission on improving the performance of California's government includes a recommendation that we adopt "integrated document management" more widely. The report suggests that this would cost $1.3 million and save $100 million, a 75:1 payoff. Where do these numbers come from? As Professor Tax notes, they come from a piece of sales literature that appears to claim a potential savings of 75% in filing costs, a 50% savings in shipping expenses, etc. etc., if you use the company's software.

That brought back memories! I used to write this stuff! Although, frankly, I never had the balls to write anything quite so obviously bogus. If I were in full-bore pushing the envelope mode I might have claimed a 5:1 payoff, and in more thoughtful moments I would have just told the truth and suggested that the payoff is more likely to be 2:1 or 3:1.

Which isn't bad, really. Document management really is good stuff in a lot of cases and has the potential to both save money and improve customer service.

But 75:1? Not in anybody's lifetime. If this is the level of due diligence being performed by Arnold's blue ribbon team, I'd recomend dividing all the rest of his alleged savings by about 25 in order to get closer to the actual truth. In other words, we might save a billion dollars over the next five years. Yippee.

UPDATE: Fairness compels me to note that the sales literature in question, from a company called Open Archive, doesn't actually make the 75:1 claim. In fact, they pretty carefully avoid making a specific ROI claim. Schwarzenegger's team, however, somehow took the numbers in their document and magically calculated that an IDM system would cost $750,000 an absurdly small amount and would allow them to get rid of 3,000 (!) state employees. They obviously just pulled these numbers out of their asses, so it's sort of unfair to blame Open Archive for any of this.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

"I'M SAYING WE DON'T KNOW"....Josh Marshall links today to the latest smear from House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Lloyd Grove reports:

"You know, I don't know where George Soros gets his money. I don't know where if it comes overseas or from drug groups or where it comes from," Hastert mused. An astonished Chris Wallace asked: "Excuse me?" The Speaker went on: "Well, that's what he's been for a number years George Soros has been for legalizing drugs in this country. So, I mean, he's got a lot of ancillary interests out there." Wallace: "You think he may be getting money from the drug cartel?" Hastert: "I'm saying I don't know where groups - could be people who support this type of thing. I'm saying we don't know."

And I think maybe George Bush got tossed out of the National Guard because he crashed a plane while he was high on coke and then spent the next five months in Alabama in a rehab center. I mean, we just don't know, do we?

For the record, I'd like to note that Hastert is not an overweight filmmaker or an anonymous blogger. He's the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third highest ranking Republican official in the country. This is what the leadership of the Republican party has become.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Hypocrisy Watch, Exhibit A....By popular request, here's the link to the Catholic League press release I referred to in last Friday's post about hypocritical conservatives. Take special note of the line at the end defending "Hudson's behavior with a drunk almost a decade ago." Ugh.

Amy Sullivan 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BACK TO WORK....I'm back. However, I notice that the Swift Boat hoodlums were not struck dead by lightning during my absence. My already weak faith in a just and righteous God has taken another hit.

Kevin Drum 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

"God's Official Party"?....That's what the good souls in the G.O.P. are apparently calling themselves these days, according to Mike Crowley's report from a morning meeting of the Iowa Republican delegation in New York. Ah, humility. Sounds like perhaps they need a reminder that God probably has better things to do than take sides in a partisan contest.

Amy Sullivan 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 29, 2004
By: Paul Glastris

Iran-Contra II?... Perhaps you've been following the case of the Defense Department analyst Larry Franklin, whom the FBI is investigating for passing classified documents to Israel. Perhaps you've read that Franklin works in the office of Undersecretary Douglas Feith. Perhaps you've noticed that this is the same shop that sponsored Ahmed Chalabi and pushed raw intel about an ultimately disproven partnership between Saddam and Osama. And perhaps you've wondered where this FBI investigation might be headed. If so, then read this. It's the first installment of an investigative project that Joshua Micah Marshall, Laura Rozen, and I have been working on. It's about yet another rogue intel operation involving these same folks and a couple names you might remember from the past: neocon operative Michael Ledeen and Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar of Iran-Contra fame.

Paul Glastris 1:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 27, 2004
By: Amy Sullivan

Hypocrisy Reigns....Shouldn't it matter that conservatives don't get exercised at all over pro-choice Republican Catholics in high-profile positions? Sure, from time to time they take on PCRCs (we'll use the shorthand for simplicity's sake) like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, but that's because they don't consider them "real" Republicans anyway. When push comes to partisan shove, however, most conservatives appear to be willing to set aside their single-minded campaign to promote the sanctity of life for the sake of some high-wattage pols.

Look at the line-up for next week's Republican Convention. On three out of the four evenings, the primetime programming stars a high-profile Republican Catholic who also happens to be pro-choice. Between Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Pataki, their states are responsible for 35 percent of the abortions performed in the U.S. And yet you'll hear nary a peep of protest about this from the conservative Catholic League, a supposedly "non-partisan" organization that has been frothing in continuous outrage over John Kerry's pro-choice leanings.

The dirty little secret about these groups is that they don't demand that Catholic politicians -- who, according to church teaching, should be held to a higher standard because of their visible status -- conform to all church positions on issues like the death penalty or war or immigration reform or combatting poverty. And they don't really care if PCRCs stray from church teaching on abortion (sounds like you need to read Evangelium Vitae a bit more carefully, guys...)

What they do care about is defeating Democrats. Some of them don't even try to gloss over that fact. Deal Hudson (the now-disgraced and resigned former head of Catholic outreach for the Bush/Cheney campaign) told the Washington Post last spring that "he believes the denial of Communion should begin, and end, with Kerry."

So they're hypocrites, you say. Thanks for the newsflash, brainiac. So what?

The so what is that, for whatever reason, journalists listen to these guys. Remember last spring, when John Kerry couldn't take a step without some reporter trying to examine his molars for evidence of unswallowed communion host? The issue of whether or not Kerry should, as a pro-choice Catholic, take communion was pressed by conservative Catholics with a partisan agenda and it was wholeheartedly accepted as a relevant story by most major news outlets.

How many reporters do you think are going to ask Rudy Giuliani or George Pataki or Arnold Schwarzenegger if they should refrain from taking communion? Or will call up the bishops of these men and ask whether these PCRCs should be denied communion? Shouldn't it be a story that Republicans get a pass for the sole reason that they are Republicans? And that certain conservative Catholic organizations only care about abortion when they can use the issue to knock around Democrats?

The silence coming out of the Catholic League regarding the prominence of a bunch of heretical babykillers at the GOP Convention is simply deafening. Perhaps they're still busy defending Hudson, who -- according to a press release issued by the group last week -- has been unfairly maligned when all he did was have sex with a "drunk" who was clearly asking for it. Nice.

Next time reporters are tempted to let these guys drive the story, they should think twice. And while they're at it, they might want to turn the tables and write about the partisan involvement of supposedly neutral religious figures. Until then, we'll keep our ears perked for a hypocrisy watch next week. I'm sure the protests by angry pro-life Catholics just haven't been announced yet...

Amy Sullivan 4:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Let The Kids Play....We interrupt this political blog to bring you a brief basketball update -- Argentina: 89, USA: 81. No gold, not even silver. And it's as it should be. The better team won.

Can we please re-think that selection process now?

Amy Sullivan 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Ezra Klein

Notes from the muck... For those who don't know me, I'm coeditor of Pandagon, which I write along with Jesse Taylor. I've spent the past Summer interning here at The Monthly, determined to to see if I like dead-tree media as much as its online variant. When Paul asked me to write something reflecting on my time here, I was stumped. No shocker, I've spent the last four days feeling that way. Politics, and blogging in particular, hasn't seemed the most appealing use of my energy. Every time I sat down to fire off yet another chapter of "Why John O'Neill is a disgraceful liar", I've had a voice running through my head saying "Screw it: I'll resign from the blog, bid the Monthly farewell, put down my pen, turn off the news and go for a run on the beach. I can go to law school or do graduate work, I can enter academia or join the working world. I can spend more time with my girlfriend and wake up later. It'll be great."

That's a new one for me. Usually, you'd be hard-pressed to find a 20-year old more politically involved than I am -- I breathe this stuff. So feeling like this is a 180-degree pivot from my normal outlook on life. Worse, it's not confined to my psyche. I'm hearing similar versions of it echoed throughout my network of young progressives.

Blame the SwiftVets. The tawdry, repulsive turns this election has taken. I started my blog to fight a war of ideas, but as the election has progressed, I've helplessly watched myself become just another body arrayed on our side of the dividing line, flinging myself forward to combat each smear, fact-check each lie, reframe each misdirection. And there's the uncomfortable sensation that, were I to zoom out on this picture, I'd see thousands of frames with tiny partisans doing the same thing, an endless repetition of wars waged on ground neither side cares about but a few consultants have forced the election onto. And even though nobody wants that scarred patch of ground -- who cares if Kerry was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve or a few days later? -- we're forced to fight over it if we hope to achieve our other goals.

So here I am, talking not about ideas and policies and the high-minded stuff supposedly supplying the political sphere's component parts, but about a war fought -- and ended -- 15 years before my birth. Here I am defending a war hero whose real contribution was to help end the violent venture in which he earned his medals, and who's now being tarred with charges of exaggeration (like the Gulf of Tonkin and Iraqi WMD's?) and opportunism (like coming forth 35 years later to derail a campaign?) from bitter bottom-feeders who want to reelect an Administration that never learnt the mistakes of Johnson's. And I know that if I recede because I'm tired of the messy fight, that'll be one less voice shouting to empower the progressive forces in our electorate, and that small subtraction will make the conservative clamor that much louder. But still, diving deeper and deeper into the muck of this election has left me aching to hear someone, anyone, articulate the Gary Hart level of thinking that dragged me here in the first place. But even that hope is rife with cynicism; we all know where Gary ended up, and thus the lesson is underlined -- you can never stop swinging.

You must, however, greedily grab the reminders of why you fight. One of the comforts keeping me going are the articles that cross my desk: pieces on energy innovation and teacher reform and media monopolies and securities scandals and the trade implications of international soccer, to name but a few recent favorites. The nature of the blog is to be caught in the moment, to unleash your most stunning broadsides in response to stories broken mere instants before. The nature of the magazine -- particularly this magazine -- is to transcend the moment, to enter the world of ideas and put the lie to those who prefer to cast the election as a battle over trivialities like old war stories and cheesesteak orders, to remind us it's still a contest whose ultimate result will be policies and a presidency, and the ideas the coming Administration implements remain of the most urgent importance.

Next months cover story took on the likely shape of a second Bush term, soliciting contributions from people like Todd Gitlin, Grover Norquist, E. J Dionne, and some Kevin Drum guy, among others. This morning I reread it. It did its job, reminding me that this administration isn't pretty and their actions are by no means trivial. Sometimes I need that refresher, the assurance that the dispiriting battles are fought in service of a more historic purpose. The truth is I'm not always proud of my involvement in the former, but being at the Monthly has kept me firmly aware of the importance of the latter.


Ezra Klein 2:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Tortured Writing... In a previous post, I tried to figure out from the first day's coverage of the new Schlesinger panel report on Abu Ghraib and a quick scan of the thing myself what the report actually says about the degree to which Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was responsible for the prisoner abuses. The question I couldnt quite answer was whether or to what degree the panel thought Rumsfeld and other top administration officials screwed up by issuing policy directives that loosened the definition of acceptable interrogation techniques to include practices such as stripping prisoners nude and threatening them with dogs.

Believe me, the whole idea of such practices gives me the willies. But, call me callous, I can imagine that if I were a national security decision-maker I might find myself allowing them in certain very tightly-controlled circumstances. The danger of that attitude, of course, is that it is hard to keep such procedures under tight control. Once you allow them, enterprising subordinates are likely to apply them to circumstances you didnt intend or in ways that go beyond what you intended. And mistakes like that can lose you a war. So if youre going to even consider opening up this particular Pandoras box, youd better be listening to all points of view, and if you go forward, youd better be concerned and attentive to the point of paranoia about how the policy is being implemented.

Well, lets just say that this is not a characterization that applies to Secretary Rumsfeld. And it sure doesnt apply to his boss, President Bush, who ultimately signed off on the change in policy. The Washington Posts Jackson Diehl has waded through the whole report, finds it confusing on this point, but ultimately arguesconvincingly I thinkthat from the reports own findings that responsibility for the abuses runs directly to Rumsfeld and Bush.

Paul Glastris 10:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Shock and Awe... I know it shouldn't matter. After three and a half years, were all well aware of the presidents peculiar style of leadership--his aggressive ignorance, the cocky way he asserts obvious falsehoods, his seeming indifference to the negative consequences of his policies. Weve long incorporated these qualities into our estimation of the man. Either we think theyre intolerable and want him out of office, or we think theyre forgivable, acceptable, even charming, and want him to stay. Either way, they shouldnt come anymore as a shock.

And yet they do.

Paul Glastris 12:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 26, 2004
By: Paul Glastris

A Slot for Ralph... Since the GOP is giving Ralph Nader so much help getting on ballots, maybe they should just go ahead and let him speak at the convention. If you agree, you can sign the petition.

Paul Glastris 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Poll Vault... I dont know quite what to make of the new LA Times poll that seems to show a perceptible move towards Bush since last month on an array of fronts. Alas Ruy Teixeira is on the road, so we may have to wait for his always-interesting analysis. But a couple quick thoughts.

First, the swift boat vet attacks do seem to have done some damage:

In the July Times poll, 53% of voters said Kerry had demonstrated in his Vietnam combat missions the "qualities America needs in a president," while 32% said that by "protesting the war in Vietnam, John Kerry demonstrated a judgment and belief that is inappropriate in a president."

In the August survey, that balance nudged away from Kerry, with 48% saying he had demonstrated the right qualities and 37% saying he had exhibited poor judgment.

Likewise, the share of voters saying they lacked confidence in Kerry as a potential commander in chief edged up from 39% in July to 43% now; the percentage that said they were confident in him slipped from 57% to 55%. Both changes were within the poll's margin of error, yet both tracked with the poll's general pattern of slight Kerry slippage.

Second, running rather contrary to these findings, is how respondents (registered voters) answered the question of whether Kerry misrepresented his war record and does not deserve his war medals, or that he fought honorably and does deserve his war medals (the poll was taken over the last few days). Overwhelmingly, the respondents sided with Kerry10 to 1 in the case of Democrats (no surprise), 50-50 among Republicans (interesting) and 5 to 1 among independents (wow!).

From this I draw the conclusion that the longer the medals issue stays out there, and the more the focus remains on the swift boat veterans numerous lies and the Bush administrations connections to them, the better for Kerrywhich is why the Kerry camp is smart to keep that part of the story alive and hammer away on it without mercy.

But if the overall mildly positive results for Bush in this poll are real--and it must be said they run counter to many other polls--then clearly the Kerry campaign has screwed up.

What was the biggest screw-up? Personally, I dont think it was their decision not to fight back harder and earlier on the swift boat attacks. Yes, the campaign seems to have been foolishly unprepared. But waiting for the mainstream press to acknowledge the story and begin shooting it down was not necessarily a bad strategy, given the circumstances. And as noted in a previous post, I can also appreciate (even if not ultimately agree with) their reasons for not having Kerry be more assertive about why he protested the war.

Instead, I think the biggest mistake so far has been that Kerry gave a convention speech with virtually no policy specifics. I know, I know, people say thats boring; you dont want a speech to go on and on, laundry-list-like; the most important thing was to introduce himself and his larger themes, etc. But the fact is that you came away from that speech with little concrete idea of what Kerry will do if he is elected president. The policies are there, and a number of themin healthcare and education, for instance--are quite bold and promising. And Kerry does talk about them on the stump. But in the one moment this entire summer when he had the American publics attention, he and his staff chose not to give over even five minutes to a discussion of his specific agenda.

The consequence of that decision can be seen in LA Times poll:

The poll spotlighted another challenge for Kerry. After a Democratic convention that focused much more on Kerry's biography than his agenda, 58% said they knew even a fair amount about the policies he would pursue as president; nearly 4 in 10 said they knew not much or nothing at all.

By comparison, although Bush has put forward few specifics about his second-term priorities, 70% said they had a good idea of the policies he would pursue.

Now were headed into a GOP convention during which the president is set to give a speech chock full of new policy proposals. Maybe its too late for him. Maybe the voters think Bush has no credibility on this stuff anymore because most of his other policies have produced nothing but disaster. Maybe its savvy of the Kerry campaign to wait until the debates to have a real policy discussion. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But it just seems to me that it's almost always better to frame the discussion than to have your opponent frame it, and at a time when the country could be debating John Kerrys agenda for the future, were going to be debating George W. Bushs.

Paul Glastris 10:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 25, 2004
By: Amy Sullivan

Fun With Data....Some highlights from the Pew survey I noted below:

52 percent of Americans think it is more important to conduct research than protect embryos in stem-cell research, and that includes nearly 40 percent of those who are certain they are voting for Bush. This is a slight change from two years ago, when 43 percent of respondents thought that new research was most important, while 38 percent prioritized the protection of embryos. (For in-depth analysis of recent polling on stem-cell attitudes, see our friend and colleague Chris Mooneys writing.)

While the GOP is seen as the more "religion-friendly" party, Americans don't necessarily believe that today's Democratic party is unfriendly to religion. (In fact, 10% think Republicans are faith-unfriendly and 13% consider Democrats the same). 74 percent think Democrats are either friendly or neutral toward religion. When the breakdown is between conservatives and liberals, on the other hand, liberals have a bad reputation: Only 21 percent think that liberals are friendly toward religion.

For my money, the most interesting results come when voters are asked whether they think it's appropriate for political parties to ask church members to send in membership directories to help build campaign databases. A full 70 percent of Americans thought this kind of campaign strategy was inappropriate, including two-thirds of conservative Republicans. Evangelicals are more likely to think it's okay than Americans from other faith backgrounds, but even in that community, only one-third thought that this was a proper action for political parties.

And when it comes to maintaining a clear, bright line of separation between church and state, younger Americans are less concerned than older ones. While 33 percent of those under 30 think it's acceptable to ask church members to help out campaigns, only 20 percent of those over 65 agree. In part, that's because public debate about church and state has been so imprecise and muddy over the past few decades that many people have forgotten the original intent was to protect religious institutions from the interference of the state as much as it was to protect the state from any religious influence.

Oh, and nobody thinks Catholic leaders should be able to deny communion to pro-choice politicians. Well, okay, 22 percent of voters do, but that number is driven up by Protestants who shouldn't count anyway because what do we care if a Catholic takes communion or not? We use Wonder bread and grape juice, for goodness sake.

Amy Sullivan 5:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

God the Running Mate....There's a new Pew poll out on Americans' religious and political views. I'm working on a few other things right now and still running some of the numbers, but I'll be back shortly with some of the highlights. In the meantime, check out this animation video sponsored by a coalition of religious groups that is out to remind everyone that God and Religion aren't wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Republican Party--or the Democratic, for that matter.

The groups are also getting ready to run a full-page ad with the same message in the New York Times, just to remind all of those good Christians in town for the GOP Convention. It's about time someone outside the Religious Right got some media savvy and gumption. Good for them.

Amy Sullivan 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Command in Chains... The big unanswered question about Abu Ghraib prison scandal has been: to what degree, if any, do Bush administration policymakers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particular, bear responsibility? Obviously, nobody at the top ordered this kind of sick (and militarily counterproductive) abuse, or wanted it to happen. But did their decisions to some extent set the conditions for it?

The most high-profile investigative effort to find an answer has been conducted by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, which released its final report yesterday. If front pages are verdicts, then the Bush administration cant be too happy. A Trail Leads to Rumsfeld, reads the headline of the analysis piece in The New York Times. Rumsfelds War Plan Shares the Blame reads the equivalent piece in The Washington Post. Still, in reading the coverage, Im a bit confused.

From what I can tell, Rumsfelds leadership contributed to the problem in three ways. First was his best-case-scenario planning, or lack of planning, for what might happen after Saddams regime fell. The Pentagon leadership, noted Schlesinger, did look at history books. Unfortunately, it was the wrong history.

Second, and most disastrously, was Rumsfelds decision to put too few troops in Iraq, and to shut down anyone who questioned that decision. The Times notes that the report sidestepped the broader question of overall troop numbers, instead focusing on the short staffing of MPs. As the Post puts it:

At one point, the report noted, there were 495 detention personnel in Iraq, compared with an authorized level of 1,400. The ratio of military police to detainees at Abu Ghraib was as high as 1 to about 75, the report said, compared with a ratio of 1 to 1 at Guantanamo Bay.

The Post elsewhere explains:

The pervasive lack of troops, especially those with specialized skills, had a cascading effect that helped lead to the abuse, the report said. As the insurgency took off, frontline Army units, lacking interpreters, took to rounding up "any and all suspicious-looking persons -- all too often including women and children," it said. This indiscriminate approach resulted in a "flood" of detainees at Abu Ghraib that inundated demoralized and fatigued interrogators, it continued."

Third was Rumsfelds efforts to parse or otherwise get around legal constrains on how prisoners at Guantanamo could be interrogated, and his decision to apply some of those looser standards to Iraq. Reads the report:

It is important to note that techniques effective under carefully controlled conditions at Guantanamo became far more problematic when they migrated and were not adequately safeguarded.

This third issue is the one Im most curious about. On the one hand, it seems just like the Bush administration to thumb its nose at international constraints that have served us well for years, like the Geneva Convention, and expect that doing so wont have major negative repercussions. On the other hand, Im sure that anyone in Runsfelds shoes, faced with terrorists who dont play by the normal rules of war, and an insurgency in Iraq where commanders needed lots of intelligence fast, might have had good reason to rethink old policies. It is for questions like these that God invented Phil Carter.

Update: It should be noted that the panel did not believe that Rumsfeld should resign or be fired for what happened at Abu Ghraib, that you can't judge a leader by just one disaster on his watch. I agree. He should resign or be fired for screwing up the entire war.

Paul Glastris 11:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Is That The Same Ben Ginsberg?....Hmm. The front-page story everywhere today is that a top lawyer for the Bush/Cheney campaign has, at the same time, been advising the infamous 527 Swift Boat Vets group. The lawyer at the center of the story, Ben Ginsberg, says that everything he's done is technically legal. And that may be true -- I'm not enough of an election law expert to judge.

But what's also true is that Ginsberg himself has attacked what he characterizes as the impropriety of individuals holding dual roles with campaigns and 527s.

An article that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer just two weeks ago included this bit about Ginsberg: "Ben Ginsberg, a legal adviser to the Bush campaign, specifically condemned the dual roles played by Democrats Harold Ickes and Bill Richardson, who had official roles at the convention and also within prominent friendly 527s. 'They're over the coordination line,' Ginsberg said of Ickes and Richardson. 'The whole notion of cutting off links between public officeholders and soft-money groups just got exploded.'"

To make things even better, Ginsberg doesn't just advise the Swift Boat Guys -- a role he will no doubt seriously downplay over the next few days. He serves as the official chief counsel to Progress for America, another 527 that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, exists to "form 'issue truth squads' that respond to Democratic attacks on President Bush."

I know these guys are shameless, but still.

Update: Ginsberg resigns.

Amy Sullivan 8:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 24, 2004
By: Paul Glastris

Next Draft... Paul Rieckhoff, the ex-Army lieutenant who served as an infantry platoon leader with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq and gave the Democrat's rebuttle to one of President Bush's radio addresses, has co-founded an organization called Operation Truth. From its web site , the group looks fairly non-partisan. Among other things, the site warns that the current overstretching of the military is going to lead to a draft. But it doesn't actually say that a draft would be a bad thing. For what it's worth, I happen to think it'd be a good thing. (I've talked to a quite a few ex-military folks who agree with me, by the way.)

Paul Glastris 11:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Calling RE/MAX... Earlier this year, Ben Wallace-Wells argued in The Washington Monthly that the fragile economic recovery could be brought down by a collapse of home prices. As evidence that there is indeed a housing bubble, he noted economic studies showing that in the nations twenty or so most overheated housing markets (where about half of all housing wealth is located), the rise in home prices has far outstripped increases in rents and personal incomesclassic signs of inflated housing values. Alan Greenspan long denied the existence of a housing bubble and indeed helped engineer it with his low interest rate policy. Today, however, he issued a warning:

In response to a question about soaring house prices, Greenspan conceded that in some areas prices have outstripped growth in incomes and rents. This observation raises thew possibility that real estate prices, at least in some markets, could be out of alignment with the fundamentals.

Paul Glastris 10:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Methinks They Doth Protest Too Much....When I saw the rather large banner, "What Did the 9-11 Commission Say About Saudi Arabia?" across the top of my Washingtonpost.com screen, I said to myself, well, that's gotta be an ad by the Saudis. And, sure enough, if you click on the ad, you jump to a page where our helpful friends at the Saudi Embassy (you know, the one protected by Secret Service agents...) tell us that there is no evidence that the Saudi government funds al-Qaeda, that the Saudis have, in fact, been hunting down that rascal Osama bin Laden for quite some time now, and other interesting tidbits about how great the Saudis are. I don't know about you, but that sets my mind at ease.

Amy Sullivan 6:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Two Can Play That Game....Before the Democratic Convention, you may recall, Republicans played a little game they like to call "Inflating Expectations for Other People," telling any reporter who would listen that they fully expected John Kerry to come out of Boston with a 15-point poll bounce. What's been clear over the past six months to anyone who reads polls is that the country is not only firmly divided, but a good 90 percent or more of voters seem to have already made up their minds.

So the whole idea of a phantom 15-point increase in Kerry's favor was ridiculous from the start. This campaign is going to move in increments of two or three points, with a final push at the end from those infamous swing voters who don't start paying attention until they're holding a butterfly ballot up to their face, and maybe not even then. (For a great take on swing voters, read this Alan Wolfe op-ed that appeared in the New York Times in 2000. As Wolfe puts it, "There is something wrong with a system that listens the most to those who care about the nation the least.")

The Kerry campaign has now decided to join the same game, sending out a mass email from pollster Mark Mellman, who notes that, "Following their conventions, the average elected incumbent has held a 16-point lead, while winning incumbents have led by an average of 27 points." Ooof.

Experience tells us that Republicans will prepare for the Convention (not to mention the debates) by implying that their guy will be lucky if he can walk to the podium without tripping over his untied shoelaces. It worked in 2000. But, to point out the obvious, Bush wasn't president then. He now has to simultaneously project command of the office and a lack of confidence in his ability to match up against this John Kerry fella. Maybe they can still pull it off this time. But Democrats should keep the pressure on to raise the bar high.

Amy Sullivan 3:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

You Can Take Off the "Free Matt" T-Shirts Now ....Well, that's a relief. Time magazine White House correspondent (and Washington Monthly contributing editor) Matt Cooper is no longer being held in contempt in the investigation into who leaked former CIA operative Valerie Plame's name. Cooper, who had faced 18 months in prison, gave a deposition to prosecutors yesterday after Cheney chief-of-staff Scooter Libby released him from a promise of confidentiality.

That's good, because risking imprisonment for a principle is one thing. But going to jail for Scooter Libby? That's just not right.

Amy Sullivan 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Nader Raided... A friend of mine with wide experience in politics and national security was telling me, apropos of the GOP's attacks on Kerry's medals, that this whole race will ride on whether the Kerry camp is willing and able to practice what my friend calls the political "black arts." I hope hes wrong, and not because Im so squeamish. I lived for 13 years in Chicago, where I thoroughly enjoyed watching, covering, and on occasion playing Chicago-style politics. Its just that the stakes in this race are so huge and the presidents record in office so obvious, I would expect (hope?) that most voters would make their decisions on the merits. Also, outside places like Chicago, whose politics are a vestige of a previous era, todays Democratic supporters and operatives simply arent comfortable with ruthless political tactics the way their GOP counterparts are.

That said, I as not disheartened to read in today's Washington Post this anecdote about the difficulties Ralph Nader is facing getting on state ballots:

In Oregon last month, Nader attempted to round up 1,000 supporters in a day to sign a petition -- one way to get on the ballot in that state. But Democratic activists packed the hall and then declined to sign on, leaving his petition a few hundred names short. His campaign must collect 15,300 signatures by today, and it has accused local Democrats and union officials of threatening petition gatherers with jail time if they turn in names that prove fraudulent.

Could it be that at least some Democrats are getting back at least some of their political toughness mojo? Id be interested to know of any other examples.

Paul Glastris 10:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 23, 2004
By: Paul Glastris

Group grope... To connect some of the dots of the discussion by Matt Yglesias, Atrios, and my colleague Amy (see below) about the president's curious sudden dislike of 527s. The group his campaign set up to cover the legal and political expenses of contesting the 2000 Florida recount was, yes, a 527. I don't know if that group, the Bush-Cheney 2000, Inc-Recount Fund, ever ran adds. But it did come close to running afoul of a law designed to force 527s to disclose their donors. And, tellingly, the disclosure law it almost broke was put in place just before the 2000 general election as a direct response to the mysterious appearance during the GOP primaries of yet another 527, Republicans for Clean Air. That group ran ads bashing John McCain's environmental voting record and praising then-Gov. Bush's. Not only were the facts in the ads a stretch, but because there was at the time no disclosure requirement, no one knew who was paying for them. The mystery was solved by the New York Times, which eventually revealed the donor to be Dallas billionaire and Bush-backer Sam Wyly. The final irony, Public Citizen's Craig Holman tells me, is that those same disclosure requirements are what made it possible for the New York Times last week to pretty quickly figure out the web of Bush cronies who supported the anti-Kerry swift boaters.

Paul Glastris 7:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

I Hate You and I Hate Your $24 Million....Matt Yglesias makes a good point: Why does Bush keep trying to pretend that 527s are all evil liberal fronts for the Kerry campaign? He and his wife support any number of conservative 527s, including the National Federation for Republican Women, whose magazine cover they currently grace. And Lord knows they benefit from them.

The National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee -- two 527s that are, um, Republican -- raised a whopping $24 million in July at the "President's Dinner," one of the largest fundraising events of the year that stars the big man himself. $24 million. I guess those 527s can come in handy sometimes after all.

Amy Sullivan 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

What Was That About Trial Lawyers?....Remember the good ol' days, when Bush tossed off blatant applause lines in his State of the Union address, skewering trial lawyers while the networks immediately cut away to a shot of John Edwards sitting patiently? When the GOP came out swinging, calling Edwards "a disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers" just minutes after his selection as Kerry's running mate was announced?

You may have noticed, however, a curious silence on the subject in Republican circles lately. Wasn't this supposed to be a slam-dunk issue the Bush/Cheney camp could use to tar Edwards as a fake populist? Apparently not. According to an article in today's Washington Times -- "GOP Reluctant to Criticize Edwards Over Tort Reform" -- Republican strategists are worried that continued attacks on Edwards' trial background could backfire. Because it's not as if Edwards had no clients. And their stories are pretty darn compelling. Pretty darn television-worthy, in fact.

Who would have thought? Well, the The Washington Monthly's own Josh Green, for one. Back in 2001, Green predicted that Edwards' background as a trial lawyer would not be the liability that salivating Republicans hoped it would. In a Monthly essay, Green wrote:


Edwards is uniquely situated to refute Bush's attacks on trial lawyers and tort reform because he's the living embodiment of how a trial lawyer can serve a regulatory function in the face of misbehaving corporations, cities, and professionals. Indeed, attacking him is one of the surest ways for Bush to inadvertently highlight his own greatest vulnerability: the perception among voters that he's a shill for corporate America. As Carlton Carl, the trial lawyers association spokesman, is quick to point out, "People hate insurance companies more than they hate lawyers." By reprising the '98 Senate race at the national level, Republicans play to Edwards' greatest strength.

So go ahead -- bring it on.

Amy Sullivan 3:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

Beware Of DINOS?....I'm usually of the opinion that Democrats should take all the help they can get on their way to reclaiming majority party status in the U.S. Senate. That means supporting anyone to the left of Zell Miller. Sure, sometimes you get self-financed millionaires who have never rubbed together two policy thoughts. And sometimes you get a vaguely corrupt hack or two. But on balance, it's better than a world in which Bill Frist runs the Senate, all the while doing the bidding of Karl Rove.

Still, it can be tough to sit idly by and watch while Democratic hopefuls tack hard to the right in an attempt to win seats in conservative states. My Oklahoma informants tell me that the Democratic Senate candidate there, Congressman Brad Carson, is currently running television commercials that highlight his support of the partial-birth abortion ban and his opposition to gay marriage. I don't expect him to be out in front defending abortion and gay marriage -- that could be political suicide in a state like Oklahoma. But it's one thing to hold pragmatic conservative beliefs, it's quite another to aggressively run on them.

There's no question that Carson would be a more liberal addition to the Senate than rabidly conservative Tom Coburn, the Republican contender who has mused about the virtues of using the death penalty on doctors who perform abortions. And I'm not advocating a purge of Democrats-In-Name-Only as Republicans have done. Still, if Democrats want a caucus that eventually looks a little less like John Breaux, they need to figure out how to play offense on cultural issues.

Amy Sullivan 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Offense vs defense... So where are we in this swift boat controversy, whats likely to happen next, and what ought to happen next?

The answer to the first question is pretty obvious: The Kerry camp, though damaged by the allegations, has all but won on the merits. In the last couple of days, several mainstream press investigationssee here, here, and herehave (despite a certain conventional even-handedness) undermined most of the key charges made by the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans For Truth that John Kerry didnt deserve his medals. The SBVFT argument has been further damaged by new testimony from previously silent eyewitnesses who back up Kerrys version of the events that led to his first Purple Heart and his Silver Star. A series of suspicious-if-not-quite direct connections, and one spot-on one, have been established between SBVFT and the Bush campaign. And Kerry seems finally to be hitting back.

If that were the end of it, one could argue that this whole controversy might ultimately rebound to Kerrys benefit. It could become, in the minds of voters, yet another example of the president aligning himself with a pack of politically convenient untruths. And if that happens, Kerry ought to be able to turn the tablesfor instance, by asking all decorated war veterans in America what theyd feel like if someone started publicly asserting that they didnt deserve their medals. (In fact, the Boston Globe makes this point in its Sunday editorial.)

But of course thats not the end of it. Starting this week, SBVFT begins airing commercials attacking Kerrys 1971 Senate testimonya line presaged on the Sunday shows by former Sen. Bob Dole. It has long been understood that Kerrys greatest potential Vietnam-related vulnerability is his leadership of an anti-war veterans group. In Karl Roves playbook, the attack on Kerrys medals was just a softening-up exercise prior to the real assault. As Maureen Down puts it: The White House must tear down [Kerrys] heroism before it can tear down his patriotism.

What I find infuriating about all this is that Kerrys willingness to protest the war is an essential part of what, to my mind, makes him one of the great heroesindeed, perhaps the greatest hero--of that era. Heres a guy who, as a college student, understood and expressed publicly serious and well-founded doubts about the wisdom of Americas Vietnam strategy. Then, unlike many others of his generation, he put his doubts aside and his life on the line in order to do what he could to make his countrys policy a success. Then, having seen first hand that his initial suspicions were correct, and that the line coming out of Washingtonthat victory was just around the corner, that the Vietnamization strategy was workingwas a lie, he stood up and told the public the unvarnished truth. In my book, thats three morally courageous acts in a row. And thats not counting the thankless but vital roles he played in investigating and ending the POW/MIA controversy, opening relations with Vietnam, and improving federal services for veterans. Name me one person in public life today who negotiated the moral minefield of Vietnam with greater courage and sure-footedness.

And yet, a couple weeks ago, when I asked with a friend working on the Kerry campaign why they werent framing Kerrys protests in this way, my friend said that the polling suggested that Americans just werent prepared to hear that argument; that too many voters still think that protesting the war was a dubious act; and therefore the less said about Kerrys role in those protests the better.

I could sympathize with this line of reasoning, even if I didnt like it. But it seemed to me questionable then, given the predictable trajectory of GOP attacks. And now its clearly a dead letter. The campaign has a simple choice: on the issue of Kerrys role as a Vietnam War protest leader, they can play defense or offense. The choice is as obvious as the argument the Kerry camp should be making. We are currently involved in a war in Iraq that is failing because policymakers in Washington have miscalculated and liedto themselves and to the American people. In November, do we choose a president who has approved these miscalculations and trafficked in these lies, or one who, throughout most of his career, has calculated correctly and spoken the truth?

Paul Glastris 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 22, 2004
By: Paul Glastris

Homer Bound... In filling in for Kevin this week, I had to promise not to reveal where he's spending his vacation. All I'll say is that I'm sure he's enjoying the baklava.

Just kidding. I don't actually know where Kevin is. But I do know that if I were on vacation this week, I'd be in Greece watching the Games.

Well, to be honest, I'd probably be in my hotel room in Athens, flipping TV channels trying to figure out how the swift boat controversy was playing on the Sunday shows. As much as I adore Greece and the Olympics, right now I find the battle to win athletic medals less gripping--and far less consequential--than the effort to question John Kerry's medals. This is an Homeric story. It's about war, blood, death, comradship, envy, history, memory, politics, philosophy, and courage both moral and physical. It's got a (to me) cowardly but powerful villain; a hero who is clever, serious, valliant, and flawed; and a fascinating set of supporting characters. It involves lies and honesty in a tragic, ill-prosecuted war--themes directly relevant to today. And the stakes--control over the mightiest country on earth at a time of genuine crisis--couldn't be higher. On Face the Nation this morning, host Bob Schieffer gave one of his hurrumphy-but-journalistically-safe pax-on-both-your-houses closing monologues about how the American people want to hear about the issues, not about who did what in a war 35 years ago. This is one American who disagrees.

Paul Glastris 2:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

VACATION....That's it for me, gang. I'm on vacation. For the next week I won't be anywhere near a computer, and if my luck holds, my hotels won't even put a copy of USA Today outside my door.

Believe me, it couldn't come at a better time. I definitely need a few days to recharge if I'm going to be ready for the torrent of slime coming our way in the final two months of the campaign.

Your substitute bloggers for the week will be Paul Glastris, former Bill Clinton speechwriter and now editor-in-chief of the Washington Monthly; Amy Sullivan, editor of the Monthly; and whoever else happens to be in the office and has something to say next week. Treat them nicely!

Kevin Drum 7:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THEN AND NOW....I've mentioned before that one of the reasons you shouldn't trust the SwiftVets group is that until recently a lot of them said nice things about John Kerry and then suddenly refreshed their memories early this year. Some of those nice things were said to reporters during the past few years, some were said in official reports 36 years ago, while in other cases official documents directly contradict what they're saying today.

This probably isn't a complete list, but here's a quick recap of why nobody with a brain should trust a word they say:

Roy Hoffman, today: "John Kerry has not been honest."
Roy Hoffman, 2003: "I am not going to say anything negative about him he's a good man."

Adrian Lonsdale, today: "He lacks the capacity to lead."
Adrian Lonsdale, 1996: "He was among the finest of those Swift boat drivers."

George Elliot, today: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam."
George Elliot, 1996: "The fact that he chased an armed enemy down is something not to be looked down upon, but it was an act of courage."

Larry Thurlow, today: "...there was no hostile enemy fire directed at my boat or at any of the five boats operating on the river that day."
Larry Thurlow's Bronze Star citation, 1969: "...all units began receiving enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks."

Dr. Louis Letson, today: "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury."
Medical records, 1968: "Dr. Letson's name does not appear on any of the medical records for Mr. Kerry. Under 'person administering treatment' for the injury, the form is signed by a medic, J. C. Carreon, who died several years ago."

Grant Hibbard, today: "He betrayed all his shipmates. He lied before the Senate."
Hibbard's evaluation of Kerry, 1968: "Mr. Hibbard gave Mr. Kerry the highest rating of 'one of the top few' in three categoriesinitiative, cooperation and personal behavior. He gave Mr. Kerry the second-best rating, 'above the majority,' in military bearing."

They were either lying then or they're lying now. Take your pick. But either way, since there's no documentary evidence to back up their stories, the only thing going for them is their own personal credibility.

And that seems pretty thin, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 21, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

AT LONG LAST....The interesting thing about this bit of conservative psychoanalysis....

Reading some of the anti-Kerry attacks over the last several weeks, you might conclude that this is the new conservative position: A veteran who volunteered for combat duty, spent four months under fire in Vietnam, and then exaggerated a bit so he could go home early is the inferior, morally and otherwise, of a man who had his father pull strings so he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam in the first place.

Needless to say, the proposition will be a hard sell in those dim and tiny reaches of the electorate where voters have yet to make up their minds. Indeed, it's far more likely that moderates and fence-sitters will be disgusted by the lengths to which partisans will go to discredit a rival. But this anti-Kerry campaign is not designed to win undecided votes. It's designed to reassure uneasy minds.

...is that it's from the latest issue of the Weekly Standard. Apparently there are at least one or two conservatives left in America who are trying to hang onto their last remaining shreds of decency.

POSTSCRIPT: Kerry's latest ad is here. It's good. Go watch.

Kevin Drum 9:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A WEE FABLE....Several years ago I was called for jury duty and ended up sitting on a drunk driving case. It was pretty open and shut: the guy admitted on cross examination that he had had five or six drinks before driving home; a patrol car had pulled him over for erratic driving; and he failed a breath test.

The defense mostly consisted of a professional expert witness who claimed, with a lot of pseudoscientific handwaving, that breath tests weren't reliable. In addition, the defendent took the stand on his own behalf and argued that all his drinks had been early in the evening and he was perfectly sober by the time he drove home.

Off to the jury room we went, where, to my surprise, my fellow jurors were far from convinced that the defendent was guilty. We talked for several hours until I finally figured out what was going on: several of the jurors simply accepted all of the testimony as equally credible. They knew the expert witness made his living solely by testifying for the defense in cases like this, and they also knew that the defendent had every incentive to make himself look as guiltless as possible. But despite that, they basically took their testimony at face value.

We eventually convicted the guy, once the lightbulbs went off and everyone conceded that some testimony is relatively disinterested and some isn't. In fact, with the right motivation, some people are even willing to lie on the stand, and the jury's job isn't just to compare what each witness says, it's also to figure out who's lying and who's not.

The moral of this story is left as an exercise for the media reader.

Kevin Drum 6:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY'S FIRST PURPLE HEART....This is a few days old, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer has tracked down one of the guys who was on John Kerry's skimmer when he won his first Purple Heart:

"We were on about a 14-foot boat with an outboard motor. We started out, taking a guess, around 10 p.m. We were supposed to sneak up and check sampans," said Pat Runyon, a 58-year-old grandfather from Eaton, a small southwestern Ohio town near the Indiana border.

...."Lt. Kerry said, 'I'm going to pop a flare, and when I do, I want that engine started,'" Runyon said. But the outboard would not crank. Meanwhile, the sampan's crew steered it to the riverbank, and people started running on the shore. Runyon said shooting broke out.

Somehow, Kerry's weapon stopped firing. Runyon thinks he ran out of ammunition. He said Kerry bent down to pick up another gun and got hit in the arm.

Runyon says it wasn't a serious wound, but then, no one has ever claimed it was. It was, however, a real wound from a real bullet.

Kevin Drum 4:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY'S BRONZE STAR....Michael Dobbs has a long story in the Washington Post today about the events surrounding John Kerry's Bronze star. This was the incident in which Kerry pulled Green Beret Jim Rassmann out of the water after his boat was hit by an explosion.

Laura Rozen has the right take on this: it's just absurd for Dobbs to treat both sides as equally credible in his story. But I was interested in something else. Although it takes Dobbs nearly two thousand words to get to it, when he finally tells the story of what happened on the Bay Hap River that day there are practically no facts that are contested. In fact, when you strip his story down to its essentials, here's all that's left:

  • Five boats were traveling downriver when one of them, PCF-3, was hit by a mine. At about the same time, Kerry's boat was hit by an explosion of some kind and Rassmann was knocked overboard. Nobody noticed immediately that he was missing.

  • Next: Kerry apparently moved toward the riverbank to put his troops ashore. The SwiftVets' John O'Neill doesn't disagree, but claims this indicates that Kerry "fled the scene." Needless to say, this is just a lawyer's debating trick. There's no factual disagreement here.

  • Kerry turned around to help PCF-3, but at the same time someone noticed Rassmann bobbing in the water. Kerry went to help Rassmann and pulled him out of the water. Again, no disagreement.

  • Finally, we come to the sole point of disagreement: were the boats under fire? Kerry and his crewmates say yes, O'Neill and the SwiftVets say no. However, the only evidence available supports Kerry: an after-action report mentions "heavy a/w [automatic weapons] and s/a [small arms] from both banks" and "three 30 cal bullet holes" in Larry Thurlow's boat, and the Bronze Star citations for Kerry and Thurlow both mention enemy fire.

    The only contrary evidence the SwiftVets have produced is an odd theory that the after-action report mentioning enemy fire is meaningless because it was written by Kerry himself and initialed KJW. But as Dobbs notes, Kerry's initials are JFK and there are other reports at the Naval Historical Center initialed KJW that obviously aren't Kerry's. What's more, the official witness for Thurlow's Bronze Star wasn't Kerry, it was a member of Thurlow's own crew.

In a four-thousand word article, that's it. The question of enemy fire is the only point of factual disagreement, and every single piece of available evidence backs up Kerry and Rassmann's claim that they were under fire. There is literally not a single piece of contrary evidence except for the suddenly restored memories of the SwiftVets group.

Why does Dobbs hide this simple fact in a huge mass of detail? Hard to say. On the other hand, at least the story includes a nice graphic of the whole incident, so it's not a complete waste.

UPDATE: More evidence to support Kerry is buried in this AP story:

Kerry also picked up support from Wayne D. Langhofer, who told The Washington Post he was manning a machine gun in a boat behind Kerry's and saw firing from both banks of a river as Kerry dived in to rescue Special Forces soldier James Rassmann, the basis for Kerry's Bronze Star.

I can't find the Washington Post story this refers to, but I'll link to it as soon as it's up.

Kevin Drum 3:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SWIFT BOAT UPDATE....So are the Swift Vet guys liars, or are they seekers after truth trying to set the record straight? The evidence is steadily mounting in favor of "liars."

In 1969 John Kerry won a Silver Star for his command of a 3-boat unit that employed aggressive and unconventional tactics to rout a Viet Cong ambush. Swift Vets for Truth has alleged, instead, that Kerry shot a lone, fleeing, wounded, unarmed teenager in the back and didn't deserve his medal.

Of the other two Swift Boat commanders who participated in the attack, one, Donald Droz, is dead, but the other, it turns out, is William Rood, a metro desk editor with the Chicago Tribune. In Sunday's paper he tells the story of what happened the day Kerry won his medal, explaining that Viet Cong ambushes were a "virtual certainty" on river operations but that Kerry had come up with a new idea about how to handle them:

Kerry, who had tactical command of that particular operation, had talked to Droz and me beforehand about not responding the way the boats usually did to an ambush.

We agreed that if we were not crippled by the initial volley and had a clear fix on the location of the ambush, we would turn directly into it, focusing the boats' twin .50-caliber machine guns on the attackers and beaching the boats. We told our crews about the plan.

....It happened again, another ambush. And again, Kerry ordered the turn maneuver, and again it worked. As we headed for the riverbank, I remember seeing a loaded B-40 launcher pointed at the boats. It wasn't fired as two men jumped up from their spider holes.

We called Droz's boat up to assist us, and Kerry, followed by one member of his crew, jumped ashore and chased a VC behind a hoocha thatched hutmaybe 15 yards inland from the ambush site....Not long after that, Kerry returned, reporting that he had killed the man he chased behind the hooch. He also had picked up a loaded B-40 rocket launcher, which we took back to our base in An Thoi after the operation.

John O'Neill, author of a highly critical account of Kerry's Vietnam service, describes the man Kerry chased as a "teenager" in a "loincloth." I have no idea how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was, but both [Jerry] Leeds and I recall that he was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore.

The man Kerry chased was not the "lone" attacker at that site, as O'Neill suggests. There were others who fled. There was also firing from the tree line well behind the spider holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well. It was not the work of just one attacker.

How many more of these stories will it take? It gets plainer every day that SBVT is nothing more than a bunch of embittered vets who hate Kerry for his anti-war activities in the 70s and decided last year to get together and make up as many lies as they could to get back at him. It's disgusting, and as Rood says, "While they mean to hurt Kerry, what they're saying impugns others who are not in the public eye."

I wonder how much lower they'll be able to sink?

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 20, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

STRADDLING....Over at Obsidian Wings, von complains that

...he's been stuck in lawyerly locutions on the subject for nearly a week; even I, a lawyer, am getting tired of hearing them.

Funny thing, though: it's not John Kerry that he's talking about. It's our famously straight-talking commander-in-chief.

Kevin Drum 3:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FREE SPEECH....Atrios has been banging on this for a couple of days, and today both Eugene Volokh and Ted Barlow take up the question too: does George Bush really think that all independent political speech should be banned?

Apparently he does. On Larry King the other day he opined that "they ought to get rid of all those 527s, independent expenditures that have flooded the airwaves." And his subsequent clarification indicated that he really meant it.

I'm a little wishy washy on campaign finance reform myself. There are serious First Amendment issues involved, but at the same time trying to regulate the flood of money in the electoral process is a legitimate concern. But Bush's statement is completely out of left field. Just ban all political advertising? Does he even understand that the First Amendment has something to say about that?

Probably not. Like I said before, he's like a guy in bar. We should just ban all the advertising, that's what I say! And his understanding of the issue never goes any further.

Do Bush's supporters really feel comfortable with a man whose instincts lead him to say stuff like this whenever he doesn't have a script in front of him? Sure, it'll never happen because there are plenty of people in Washington DC who do understand the issues, but still. This is just frighteningly ignorant stuff.

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WOULDA COULDA SHOULDA....Here's the latest brainstorm from the politically independent and free-of-pressure Central Intelligence Agency:

Having failed to find banned weapons in Iraq, the CIA is preparing a final report on its search that will speculate on what the deposed regime's capabilities might have looked like years from now if left unchecked, according to congressional and intelligence officials.

The CIA plans for the report, due next month, to project as far as 2008 what Iraq might have achieved in its illegal weapons programs if the United States had not invaded the country last year, the officials said.

Due next month, eh? I guess that leaves October open for a new CIA report speculating on how the missile defense system being rushed into operation in time for the election might hypothetically avert nuclear devastation in a hypothetical war with Iran and North Korea in 2008 hypothetically assuming the missile defense shield actually worked. Not that they're trying to make a political point or anything.

I just want to shoot myself sometimes.

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE SWIFT BOAT SLIME....The conservative blogosphere is finally getting what they asked for: mainstream media attention to the charges from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The results, though, aren't pretty.

The New York Times has a long piece today that has a couple of new stories to tell. First, there's an account from one of Kerry's former crewmates about SBVT's "neutral" investigation:

Patrick Runyon, who served on a mission with Mr. Kerry, said he initially thought the caller was from a pro-Kerry group, and happily gave a statement about the night Mr. Kerry won his first Purple Heart. The investigator said he would send it to him by e-mail for his signature. Mr. Runyon said the edited version was stripped of all references to enemy combat, making it look like just another night in the Mekong Delta.

"It made it sound like I didn't believe we got any returned fire," he said. "He made it sound like it was a normal operation. It was the scariest night of my life."

And then there's the story of Kerry's first Purple Heart:

The group also offers the account of William L. Schachte Jr., a retired rear admiral who says in the book that he had been on the small skimmer on which Mr. Kerry was injured that night in December 1968. He contends that Mr. Kerry wounded himself while firing a grenade.

But the two other men who acknowledged that they had been with Mr. Kerry, Bill Zaladonis and Mr. Runyon, say they cannot recall a third crew member. "Me and Bill aren't the smartest, but we can count to three," Mr. Runyon said in an interview. And even Dr. Letson said he had not recalled Mr. Schachte until he had a conversation with another veteran earlier this year and received a subsequent phone call from Mr. Schachte himself.

In addition, there's all the usual stuff about Roy Hoffman, George Elliott, and Adrian Lonsdale, who used to say nice things about Kerry and have suddenly changed their minds; Dr. Louis Letson's trick memory about who he treated and who he didn't; Larry Thurlow's amnesia about his own Bronze Star citation; Jerome Corsi's bigoted outbursts on right wing websites; and the creepy conservative network funding the whole operation. (Too much about that, in fact.)

Something tells me that before long George Bush is going to be sorry he didn't step up to the plate and disown this group from the start. Their story, tattered from the start, looks worse and worse every time somebody shines a light into another of its dank corners.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 19, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MORALITY....Jeanne d'Arc has a question:

Does Karl Rove know so few Catholics he couldn't find one who doesn't have a history of getting teenage girls drunk and then having sex with them?

That's an attention getter, Jeanne!

The Catholic in question is Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine, which trades in articles like....oh, "The Death of Morality" from the current issue, which informs us portentiously that "In seeking to remove the divinely ordained natural sexual distinction, we have moved beyond perversion to cosmological rebellion."

Anyhoo, turns out that Hudson was forced to leave Fordham University ten years ago after getting a freshman co-ed drunk and then, um, performing some divinely ordained natural sexual acts with her. If you get my meaning.

Yesterday, realizing that this was all about to be exposed, Hudson wrote in National Review that "No one regrets my past mistakes more than I do" though without actually acknowledging what those mistakes were and then promptly started complaining that his past was being dug up for base political reasons. Still, he doesn't want this to become a problem for George Bush, so he's resigned as an advisor to the Bush campaign effective immediately.

The funny thing, though, is that I don't care about that. My guess is that there are a lot of campaign advisors with skeletons in their closets.

No, what I really want to know is whether the folks at Crisis knew all this when they originally hired Hudson as their editor and publisher. After all, a magazine whose very mission is passionate condemnations of the breakdown of morality in modern society ought to expect moral behavior from its top execs, right?

Then again, William "Bookie of Virtue" Bennett is still on their advisory board, so perhaps not. But at least we know just how seriously to take their moral fulminating in the future, don't we?

UPDATE: The reporter who broke this story, Joe Feuerherd of the National Catholic Reporter, has some more background here. It sure sounds like an awful lot of people have known about Hudson's background for a long time.

Kevin Drum 9:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NO-FLY....Apparently there are some wee problems with Homeland Security's no-fly list:

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard this morning from one of its own about some of the problems with airline "no fly" watch lists. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., says he had a close encounter with the lists when trying to take the U.S. Airways shuttle out of Washington to Boston. The ticket agent wouldn't let him on the plane. His name was on the list in error.

After a flurry of phone calls, Kennedy was able to fly home, but then the same thing happened coming back to Washington.

Kennedy says it took three calls to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to get his name stricken from the list. The process took several weeks, in all.

You know, most of us can't just pick up the phone and call Tom Ridge when we have a problem like this. Surely secret databases that prevent U.S. citizens from flying around their own country are more suited to the Stalin-era Soviet Union than they are to the 21st century United States?

On a personal note, I can verify that this is a pretty frustrating problem. I was never prevented from boarding a plane, but in 2002 I was flying weekly from Orange Country to San Jose for a consulting job, and Southwest Airlines pulled me aside for a special search on every single flight I took with them. Nothing I did convinced them to fix whatever flag they had in their database that singled me out. After two straight months (that is, 16 consecutive special searches), I finally gave up and started flying American.

Kevin Drum 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POLL WATCHING....There are a few new poll results out today, which provides an opportunity to put my handy dandy poll watcher's chart into practice:

  • In Pennsylvania, a Keystone Poll shows Kerry ahead 48%-42% with an MOE of 4%. That means there's a 94% chance that Kerry is truly ahead. (Conversely, there's a 6% chance that Kerry's lead is due to sampling error and it's actually Bush who's ahead.)

  • In Ohio, Gallup finds Kerry ahead among likely voters 48%-46% with an MOE of 4%. That means there's a 69% chance that Kerry is ahead. (Kerry's lead is down from Gallup's July poll. The Swift Vets smear seems to be working.)

  • In Missouri, SurveyUSA says Bush is ahead 48%-47% with an MOE of 4%. That means there's a 60% chance that Bush is currently ahead.

The Ohio and Missouri results are obviously pretty weak, but they're still results. You can decide for yourself whether the probabilities are high enough to take seriously.

UPDATE: Oops, got the Bush/Kerry results reversed in Missouri. Freudian slip. All fixed now. Thanks to Al in comments for pointing this out. (And that's probably the last time I'm ever going to say that....)

Kevin Drum 2:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ANDREW TOBIAS....From Andrew Tobias today:

In October of 2000, voters were asked whether they were unusually excited about the upcoming election. And now, in 2004, they've been asked again: Are they unusually excited about THIS upcoming election?

Among Republicans, the number is up 51% are unusually excited versus 48% last time.

Among Democrats, the number is up from 36% to 68%.

That is not a typo.

I should link to Tobias more often. Hell, I should read Tobias more often. I've been a fan of his for quite a while, and his daily column is a pretty interesting read. It's not 100% about politics, but lately it's been about 90% politics, and since he doesn't hang around the usual blog circles that I do he picks up on some things I don't see elsewhere.

You can find his site at http://www.andrewtobias.com/.

UPDATE: Several people are wondering what Tobias' source for this is. Unfortunately he doesn't say. But I bet that if you email him he'll explain.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY FIGHTS BACK....I've been getting anguished emails and comments for over a week from people who want to know when John Kerry is going quit lying down and start fighting back against the Swift Boat smear. I have mixed feelings about whether it's a good idea to dignify this stuff with an answer, but I suppose at this point he doesn't have much choice. The mud is too deep to ignore.

Anyway, today is the day:

Kerry said the ads, aired by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, are funded by a Republican contributor from Texas

"They're a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the president won't denounce them tells you everything you need to know -- he wants them to do his dirty work," he told a cheering crowd at a meeting of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Boston.

"Of course, the president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on!" Kerry challenged.

New Kerry ads are here.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MARGIN OF ERROR....Who's ahead in the presidential race? Here's a typical report from early August:

An opinion poll released yesterday found Mr. Kerry had the support of 49 per cent of voters, compared with 47 per cent for Mr. Bush, a statistical tie....

The Globe and Mail reported this as a "statistical tie" because Kerry's 2% lead is within the poll's margin of error (MOE) of 3%. This in turn is based on the theory that (a) statistical results are credible only if they are at least 95% certain to be accurate, and (b) any lead less than the MOE is less than 95% certain.

There are two problems with this: first, 95% is not some kind of magic cutoff point, and second, the idea that the MOE represents 95% certainty is wrong anyway. A poll's MOE does represent a 95% confidence interval for each individual's percentage, but it doesn't represent a 95% confidence for the difference between the two, and that's what we're really interested in.

In fact, what we're really interested in is the probability that the difference is greater than zero in other words, that one candidate is genuinely ahead of the other. But this probability isn't a cutoff, it's a continuum: the bigger the lead, the more likely that someone is ahead and that the result isn't just a polling fluke. So instead of lazily reporting any result within the MOE as a "tie," which is statistically wrong anyway, it would be more informative to just go ahead and tell us how probable it is that a candidate is really ahead. As a service to humanity, here's a table that tells you:

So in the poll quoted above, how probable is it that Kerry is really ahead? The MOE of the poll is 3%, so go to the top row. Kerry's lead is 2%, which means there's a 75% probability that he's genuinely ahead of Bush (i.e., that his lead in the poll isn't just due to sampling error).

Generally speaking, national polls use sample sizes of about 1,100, which translates to an MOE of 3%. State polls often use a sample of 600, which produces an MOE of 4%. Subsets of polls sometimes have MOEs of 5% or higher.

Now, there are plenty of reasons other than sampling error to take polls with a grain of salt: they're just snapshots in time, the results are often sensitive to question wording or question ordering, it's increasingly hard to get representative samples these days, etc. etc. But from a pure statistical standpoint, a lead is a lead and it's always better to be ahead than behind.

So: how about if the media gets itself out of the mythical "statistical tie" business and just reports the actual probabilities instead? The table above does all the heavy lifting, and all it takes is a 5-line Excel spreadsheet if you want more precision. Simple.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Thanks to Nancy Carter and Neil Schwertman, Professors of Mathematics and Statistics at California State University, Chico, for providing me with the formulas used to generate the table and the spreadsheet.

Kevin Drum 1:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 18, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

PUPPET WHAT?....Up at Drudge right now:

FLASH: The current version of the PARAMOUNT film TEAM AMERICA is a guaranteed NC-17, with surprisingly graphic scenes of puppet sex...

See, he does make himself useful occasionally....

Kevin Drum 11:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY IN CAMBODIA....Virginia Postrel writes, and Instapundit approvingly links to, a post telling political reporters they aren't properly informing the public about the "John Kerry in Cambodia" story:

Come on, folks. If you can't find out any independent sources on Kerry's own story, at least report the "he says-he says" allegations. And help out your audience with some context: Dig up some more-or-less unbiased (or at least nonpartisan) sources to provide some historical context for the bizarre Cambodia story. Never mind John Kerry specifically, what were U.S. operations during that period? Are any of his various accounts plausible and, if so, which ones? Or give readers some background on the procedures for awarding medals during Vietnam. There was a lot of medal inflation and, presumably, some politics in how medals were awarded. What, if anything, does the broader context tell us about Kerry and his critics?

I have to admit that this sounds like a more subtle critique than the usual media bashing from the right ("They don't want us to know the truth!"), but it amounts to the same thing: Virginia is insisting that the media should figure out some way to report a smear story even though they know it's a smear story and there's no actual evidence to back it up.

Let's review:

  • Kerry has said several times that his Swift Boat crossed into Cambodia on Christmas Eve of 1968. The most recent time he told this story was over a decade ago.

  • The story is wrong. Kerry crossed into Cambodia at least once, but it was in January, not December.

  • I agree that Kerry deserves a slap on the wrist over this. He seems to have embellished this particular war story because Christmas sounded better than Tet (or something). But that's about it.

In other words, there's just not much there, and I gather that the Kerry campaign has already admitted that the Christmas embellishment was untrue.

The second part of the story, questioning whether Kerry earned his medals, is even more repellent. A bunch of guys who hate Kerry's guts because of his anti-war activities 30 years ago have now gotten together and announced that Kerry never deserved the medals the Navy awarded him. But not only are their stories contradictory, they're also completely unverifiable and they know it. They can say anything they want and it's impossible to prove that they're lying.

So since there's no actual news hook on which to justify coverage of this smear campaign, we're supposed to believe that the mainstream media should desperately look for some reason, any reason, to make sure everyone knows about this. Just report the he-says-she-says story! Write a story about medal inflation! Write a thumbsucker about whether we ever sent people into Cambodia! Write anything, as long as it provides an excuse to put the smear story against Kerry on the front page.

The story about George Bush's National Guard record managed to get a couple of weeks of attention from the mainstream media, but only because there was documentary evidence to back it up. It was initially kicked off by a mysteriously torn retirement record and then finished off by payroll records released by the White House. Without those, the story would have gone nowhere.

Conversely, the Swift Boat smear has no documentary evidence at all. It's just a bunch of guys making things up and knowing they can't be called on it. Why should the mainstream press get suckered into giving them a platform?

UPDATE: William Saletan and Jacob Weisberg debate the Swift Vets smear ad here. It's quite a contest: Saletan argues that all 15 of the charges in the ad are specious while Weisberg maintains that the ad is "beyond vile." Saletan's careful fact checking is appreciated, but Weisberg wins on points for including the phrase "extra-chromosome conservatives at Regnery" in his piece.

UPDATE 2: Finally, some documentary evidence! Unfortunately for the Swifties, it's evidence that one of them is lying.

Kevin Drum 8:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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REDUCTIO....Via Matt Yglesias, I see that libertarian economics professor Alex Tabarrok doesn't believe that landlords should be required to makes their habitats habitable:

If tenants benefit from a law that says apartments must have hot water then surely a law that says tenants must have hot water and a dishwasher benefits them even more, right? What about a law that says tenants must have hot water, a dishwasher and cable tv? By now the students have cottoned on to the idea that the rent will increase.

No kidding. And increasing the size of the military by one division must be bad because, you know, increasing it by a thousand divisions would definitely be bad. So one division must be bad too. I sure wish I could get paid for standing in front of a blackboard and cranking out insights like this.

Reductio ad absurdum is a childish game. The fact that a minimum wage of $100/hour is ridiculous doesn't mean that a minimum wage of $7/hour is ridiculous. This is why God gave us brains: to make judgments about how far to take things and how to balance competing interests against each other. Insisting on a minimum level of habitability is partly an economic decision which explains why color TVs aren't mandated but partly a matter of both convenience and simple human decency which explains why hot water and lack of cockroaches are.

I'm really tired of reductio arguments.

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HOLY CITIES....Juan Cole answers a burning question:

Readers sometimes complain to me that Muslims seem to have lots of holy cities and lots of mosques, so is Najaf really all that special? O.K., here are the holy cities in order of holiness: Mecca, Medinah, Jerusalem, Najaf, Karbala. Najaf and Karbala are especially holy to Shiites. There are other holy sites and cities, of course, but they are mostly sacred because of association with later saints. The five I just mentioned are sacred because of their direct association with the Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law and vicar, Ali, and his grandson, Husain.

The Shrine of Ali is a tomb, and although it has a mosque attached to it, it is not just a mosque. It is a Shrine. Like the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad in Medinah or the shrine of Imam Husain in Karbala, it is a sacred resting place of holy remains. A lot of mosques could be damaged with impunity. These shrines cannot.

Actually, I've been sort of curious about that, so I'm glad he cleared that up.

As it happens, this was an aside in a post about how the current fighting in Najaf appears to have started accidentally. The New York Times reports that Marine officers turned a small firefight into a pitched battle without authorization from headquarters:

Eventually, fresh Army units arrived from Baghdad and took over Marine positions near the mosque, but by then the politics of war had taken over and the American force had lost the opportunity to storm Mr. Sadr's fighters around the mosque.

....As a reconstruction of the battle in Najaf shows, the sequence of events was strikingly reminiscent of the battle of Falluja in April. In both cases, newly arrived Marine units immediately confronted guerrillas in firefights that quickly escalated. And in both cases, the American military failed to achieve its strategic goals, pulling back after the political costs of the confrontation rose. Falluja is now essentially off-limits to American ground troops and has become a haven for Sunni Muslim insurgents and terrorists menacing Baghdad, American commanders say.

The Najaf battle has also raised fresh questions about an age-old rivalry within the American military between the no-holds-barred, press-ahead culture of the Marines and the slower, more reserved and often more politically cautious approach of the Army. Army-Marine tensions also have surfaced previously, notably when the Marines opened the Falluja offensive.

Needless to say, Prof. Cole is not very happy that "ignoramus Marines in Najaf" are making these decisions. On the other hand, if Paul Bremer hadn't shut down Sadr's newspaper back in March, maybe none of this would have happened in the first place.

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PARLOR GAMES....Betting with your friends about whether Bush or Kerry will win the election is so last month. I propose a new game instead: betting on who Dan Drezner will vote for. Right now you can get 3:2 odds against Bush!

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HUGO CHVEZ....My post about Hugo Chvez last night wasn't primarily directed at either Chvez himself or Venezuela in general, topics I'm only slightly familiar with. It was mostly just an excuse to examine the democracy-promoting credentials of neoconservatives.

Still, I made it pretty clear that I don't like Chvez much, and for the most part I stand by that. Chvez has tried to pack Venezuela's courts and gag its press, and his supporters have intimidated and murdered members of the opposition. And he did originally try to take power in a coup in 1992.

At the same time, though, it would be naive not to acknowledge the realities of Venezuelan politics that Chvez labors under. Although Chvez is a champion of Venezuela's poor, promoting agrarian reform and redistribution of oil revenue, he's militantly opposed by literally everyone else in the country: landowners, corporations, labor unions, the media in other words, just about anyone with any power or influence. And the opposition doesn't exactly play by Marquis of Queensbury rules either, attempting to oust Chvez in a military coup of their own in 2002 and more recently conducting a series of national strikes that have crippled the economy.

And throughout all this, the United States has been mostly concerned with a free flow of oil. So what else is new?

All of which is a windy lead-in to this: Chvez may not be mistaken for Thomas Jefferson anytime soon, but there's another side to the story too. If you're interested in reading about it, over at Cliopatria Hugo Schwyzer provides one counterpoint and then links to Greg Palast, who provides another. And for loads of other pro-Chvez commentary, ZNet's Venezuela Watch is a reliable cheerleader.

And of course, for fair and knowledgable blog coverage of Latin America in general, Randy Paul's Beautiful Horizons is always an excellent source.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 17, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

VACATION COMING UP....My two year blog anniversary comes this Sunday, and to celebrate I'm going to stop blogging.

For a week, anyway, as I take my annual genealogy field trip with my mother. This year we're trekking to the East Coast to look up Drums, Stuarts, and Chamberlains in Reading, PA; Danbury, CT; and Auburn, NY.

Not to worry, though, we'll have several fill-in bloggers, all of whom, I have it on good authority, detest our president at least as much as I do. Maybe more!

Details later.

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UNLEASHING THE SPOOKS....The CIA, for obvious reasons, is not allowed to operate within the borders of the United States. The Bill of Rights is not exactly part of their operating manual.

The estimable Porter Goss, former CIA agent, currently Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and George Bush's candidate to head the CIA in the future, introduced a bill in June that would keep this ban in place except as otherwise permitted by law or as directed by the president.

In other words, it would allow the CIA to operate within the United States whenever the president felt like it. Obsidian Wings has the details.

Maybe somebody should bring this up during Goss' confirmation hearings?

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KHAN OUTED BY PAKISTAN?....Laura Rozen links to a piece in Salon that says the disclosure of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan's name was first done by Pakistani officials, not Americans. It's awfully hard to know how much credence to put in this, since it's pretty obvious that there's an awful lot of inter-agency game playing going on, but it's a worthwhile data point.

Of course, Douglas Jehl or David Rohde of the New York Times, who were the first to report this, could just tell us and then we'd know. It's not clear to me how a simple acknowledgment of the nationality of their source would compromise the person who leaked this.

UPDATE: The Times fesses up today:

The release of Mr. Khan's name it was made public in The New York Times on Aug. 2, citing Pakistani intelligence sources....

Actually, the August 2 story was ambiguous, but it sounds like they're now confirming that their initial source was a Pakistani official. I'm still not sure why American officials would confirm this, but at least they weren't the prime leakers.

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SUVs KILL!....This is a public service announcement:

The gap in safety between sport utility vehicles and passenger cars last year was the widest yet recorded, according to new federal traffic data.

People driving or riding in a sport utility vehicle in 2003 were nearly 11 percent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars, the figures show. The government began keeping detailed statistics on the safety of vehicle categories in 1994.

In other words, not only do SUVs do a good job of killing other people, they also kill their own passengers more effectively than passenger cars.

Answer: buy a Porsche! Nice and small, and no risk of rollovers. Kinda weak on gas mileage and seating room, though....

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IGNORE IT AND IT WILL GO AWAY....Many conservatives see charter schools as a sort of "free-market" solution to the problems of public education. Recently, though, the federal government compared test scores of kids in charter schools to those in regular public schools and found that the charter schools did substantially worse in nearly all categories.

How did the Bush administration react?

The findings, buried in mountains of data the Education Department released without public announcement, dealt a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush administration.

....The results, based on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly known as the nation's report card, were unearthed from online data by researchers at the American Federation of Teachers, which provided them to The New York Times.

....Federal officials said they did not intend to hide the performance of charter schools, and denied any political motivation for failing to publicly disclose that the data were available. "I guess that was poor publicity on our part," said Robert Lerner, the federal commissioner for education statistics.

They don't even bother trying to make up good lies anymore, do they?

As it happens, I don't have any special axe to grind when it comes to charter schools I've vaguely felt for a while that they showed some promise and were worth experimenting with and I have mixed feelings as well about our current mania for high stakes testing. But George Bush has mixed feelings about neither of these things and has repeatedly insisted that both schools and educational programs in general should be judged on scientific evidence.

Except, apparently, when that evidence is unfavorable to his ideological worldview which is pretty much the story for this entire administration, isn't it? They know what they want, and facts on the ground just don't change their minds.

It's mind-bogglingly stupid, as if ignoring the evidence will make the problem go away. And what's worse, this attitude actually hurts the charter school cause, since it's only by paying attention to data like this that charter school problems can be addressed. Ignore it, and in a few years a new (and worse) report will come out and the whole charter school movement will be doomed.

George Bush, CEO president. Bad CEO president. The board of directors needs to take some action.

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MOVIE PREVIEW....I just got an email telling me that coming soon to a theater near you is Bush's Brain, which promises to "unmask Karl Rove, the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain...the man who has single-handedly masterminded George Bush's entire political career and is responsible for his rapid ascent to Presidential power."

In another email earlier today, I learned that Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (which, rather amusingly, is directed by George Butler, who also directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger biopic Pumping Iron) will be released on October 1. By my count, that makes three separate movies this campaign season that are either pro-Kerry or anti-Bush:

Plus two more that, while not specifically anti-Bush, are certainly unsympathetic to the conservative cause:

Have liberals finally figured out an effective way to fight back against talk radio?

UPDATE: And there's more!

I don't know for sure how overtly political every one of these movies is, but I think it's safe to say that none of them do George Bush any favors.

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AN OLYMPIC MOMENT....There's more Olympics tonight, but of course I already know how everything is going to turn out since I spent my day surfing the news online. Oh well.

But for a non-time zone specific take on the Olympics, here is Christina Larson in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, wondering why the Olympics are held in a different city every four years:

Professional golf tournaments return to the same courses year after year, allowing the staffs there to learn from their mistakes. Same with tennis: The groundskeepers at Wimbledon have had decades to practice pulling out the rain tarps and emptying out the parking lots. Yet the Olympics tries to reinvent the wheel every time, fielding a new team of planners, contractors, accountants, technicians, security personnel, and volunteers every four years, and expecting them to execute myriad complex logistical tasks perfectly the first time out. As Atlanta's Olympic finance chief Pat Glisson explained to CFO magazine, her job was to "create a Fortune 500 company from scratch, then take it apart at the end."

Good point. I can understand how national pride drives the decision to change cities and countries for each Olympics, but I'm a little surprised that the local organizing committees are given so much authority. Wouldn't the games go more smoothly if the IOC had a permanent professional staff that handled a greater share of the planning than it currently does?

Actually, golf might be a pretty good model. With the exception of the Masters, the major golf tournaments actually do move around from year to year, but I think the national golf organizations exercise pretty substantial control over most of the organization and planning. I wonder if a similar model would work for the Olympics?

Kevin Drum 12:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 16, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CHVEZ WINS....It appears that Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez has beaten back the attempt to recall him thus proving that he's a more effective politician than Gray Davis. The vote was 58%-42% and the Carter Center has validated it as fair.

I don't have much to say about this. Both Chvez and his opposition are corrupt enough that it's hard to pick sides on a substantive basis, but as a side note it's worth pointing out that Venezuela is a pretty good case study in the essential dilemma at the heart of neoconservatism: the tension between democracy promotion on the one hand and U.S. power and influence on the other.

Although neither Chvez nor his opponents will ever be poster boys for human rights and parliamentary procedure, Chvez has proven himself an unusually effective demagogue who's particularly hostile toward both the United States and our regional interests. At the same time, he was elected in both 1998 and 2000 and he did win yesterday's recall vote.

So when the Venezuelan public continually demonstrates its support for someone who despises the United States, which is more important? Democracy or American interests? Judging by their rhetoric during the 2002 coup attempt against Chvez, which ranged from awkward silence to outright approval, the neocons think U.S. interests are more important.

It's one thing to denounce Chvez's methods, which are indeed incendiary and worrisomely authoritarian, but it's quite another to approve of a military coup as a way of removing him from office, and this is one reason that I'm less than convinced that the neocon devotion to democracy promotion is genuine. Everybody says they're in favor of democracy, but it only means something if you support it even when the winner is someone you loathe. If neocons weren't willing to denounce a military coup in Venezuela two years ago, what are the odds that they'll continue sticking up for democracy in Iraq if the majority there turns out to be hostile to the U.S. as is likely to be the case? Pretty slim, I'd say.

UPDFATE: More here.

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BUSH HATERS....Jonah Goldberg, in the middle of a post about Clinton haters and the people who hate them, says this:

The Bush-haters who are just as extreme and nasty as the Clinton-haters were, and in many ways more so....

Tell you what, Jonah. As soon as the most popular liberal editorial page in the country accuses George Bush of murdering one of his aides, maybe I'll give your argument a hearing. And as soon as one of the most influential liberal interest groups in the country starts distributing hundreds of thousands of videos suggesting that George Bush ran a coke ring out of Austin, then I'll really perk up. And when Senate Democrats spend $70 million investigating the Valerie Plame affair compared to the current $0 and end up bringing impeachment charges against George Bush, then you'll have me. You'll really have me.

But until then, sell it somewhere else. Michael Moore calling Bush a liar and a moron just isn't in the same league as what your side did to Bill Clinton, and nobody who was sentient during the 90s can find the contrary suggestion anything but laughable.

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POLITICS?....Over at Kautilyan, Lerxst links to a Newsweek story suggesting that the recent terrorist warnings weren't politically motivated. But he notes that the story is accompanied by a picture with this caption:

Politics or prudence? Deputy National Security Advisor Fran Townsend and senior White House staff in the Roosevelt room.

The "senior White House staff" member most prominently on display at this nonpolitical meeting is....

Karl Rove.

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DECONSTRUCTING GEORGE BUSH....James Joyner thinks George Bush is a genuine man of the people:

The reason Bush can pull off the image of "he is a plain-spoken conservative who knows his mind and is resolute in crisis" is because that's who he is. He's not very comfortable with a teleprompter in front of him and isn't particularly good at news conferences. He is, however, quite comfortable just speaking his mind in front of ordinary folks.

But this isn't quite right, is it? Bush seems to be pretty good at chatting with handpicked groups of fervent supporters who have to sign loyalty oaths in order to see him, but it's not clear that he's otherwise all that great in front of small groups. In fact, he seems downright lousy at dealing with anyone who's hostile to him senators, reporters, foreign leaders, you name it and since this is an important part of being president it strikes me as a pretty serious deficiency.

Now, it is true that he's a "plain-spoken conservative who knows his mind," but you can find one of those at any neighborhood watering hole. And that pretty much describes George Bush: a man who picked up his opinions in a bar 30 years ago and has never gone much beyond that. After all, guys in bars also know their minds pretty well and want everyone else to know it, don't they?

Along these lines, Ron Brownstein makes a similar point today: by mocking John Kerry for not saying unequivocally that he would have invaded Iraq no matter what, Bush is acting like a guy in a bar who just wants to kick Saddam's ass and will lick any man in the house who says otherwise. After all, what kind of nitwit, knowing for a fact in advance that Iraq had no WMD, no serious ties to al-Qaeda, posed no regional threat, and would chew up thousands of American lives in a years-long guerrilla war, would invade anyway? A guy in a bar.

Alternatively, Matt Yglesias goes old school on us and suggests that it's simpler than that: Bush is just kind of dumb. I guess we all had him pegged correctly back in 2000 after all.

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HEADLINES....Jack O'Toole has a few headlines he'd like to share with you....

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VOTER INTIMIDATION IN ORLANDO?....Via (Mrs.) Atrios, Bob Herbert reports on a fishy investigation of voter fraud going on in Florida:

State police officers, armed and in plain clothes, have questioned dozens of voters in their homes. Some of those questioned have been volunteers in get-out-the-vote campaigns.

I asked [Department of Law Enforcement spokesman Geo] Morales in a telephone conversation to tell me what criminal activity had taken place.

"I can't talk about that," he said.

I asked if all the people interrogated were black.

"Well, mainly it was a black neighborhood we were looking at yes,'' he said.

He also said, "Most of them were elderly."

When I asked why, he said, "That's just the people we selected out of a random sample to interview."

Unlike Mrs. Atrios, I'm not sure this is such a bad thing. That is to say, of course this is a bad thing if it's part of an intimidation campaign in black neighborhoods, but in the end this kind of hamhanded stuff might motivate more voters than it intimidates. At least, if there's any justice it will.

Maybe John Kerry needs to swap his schedule around and make an impromptu visit to Orlando.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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AMERICAN SOLDIER....Phil Carter, former operational planner in the 4th Infantry Division, isn't very impressed with Tommy Franks. In his new book, American Soldier, Franks describes a prewar review meeting with the top brass in the Bush administration in which it's clear that there was little interest in hearing about plans for "Phase IV" post hostility operations:

You have to have sat through a few OPLAN briefings to understand why this is significant. Here, Gen. Franks briefed the President and the NSC principals that Phase IV entailed significant strategic and operational risk, and that there was no good solution yet for Phase IV. Yet, the discussion afterwards focused entirely on WMD, Scuds, issues with allies, and other issues focused on Phase III.

No one asked Gen. Franks about Phase IV; it seemed like an afterthought. That makes sense because the White House and Pentagon leaders saw Operation Iraqi Freedom as Desert Storm II in many ways where we dodged the post-war issue by limiting our objectives and pulling out rapidly. This passage implies that Gen. Franks was aware of the problem, but his bosses weren't and he didn't pop a starcluster to let them know of the problem.

Reading between the lines, Phil says it's pretty clear that there's plenty of blame to go around. There's not much question that the Bush administration displayed almost criminal negligence in simply assuming that everything would go smoothly once the fighting was over, but "a certain amount of blame also belongs to Gen. Franks, for not highlighting the strategic and operational risks of this plan and pushing for their resolution before execution."

There's more where that came from. Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 1:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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McGREEVEY....Is there a connection between the downfall of New Jersey Governor James McGreevey and disgraced former New Jersey Senator Bob Torricelli? I don't follow New Jersey politics enough to judge, but over at Cliopatria KC Johnson suggests there are clues that point in that direction. Check it out here.

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August 15, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON NAJAF....Knight Ridder reports that the assault on Najaf is running into a familiar problem:

"We received a report that a whole battalion (in Najaf) threw down their rifles," said one high-ranking defense ministry official, who didn't want his name published because he's not an official spokesman. "We expected this, and we expect it again and again."

...."I'm ready to fight for my country's independence and for my country's stability," one lieutenant colonel said. "But I won't fight my own people."

"No way," added another officer, who said his brother - a colonel - quit the same day he received orders to serve in the field. "These are my people. Why should I fight someone just because he has a difference in opinion about the future of the country?"

....when [1st Sgt. Khalid] Ali was asked about the number of guardsmen who have quit since al-Sadr's latest uprising, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Vernon Sparkmon cut him off.

"Certain things, you can't discuss," Sparkmon told Ali. "If somebody asks that question, that's, like, classified stuff."

I can certainly see why no one wants this kind of information to become public, but it doesn't really seem like something that can be kept under wraps for long. Iraqis just don't seem to be up for an American-backed civil war.

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TWO JOHNS ON THE MEKONG....Here's an interesting little factoid. Reader Michael M. sends along the following audio clip from a Daily Show interview in January between Jon Stewart and former Bush EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman:

Jon Stewart: Do you know [John Kerry]? Have you met him at all?

Christine Whitman: Oh yeah, oh yeah....

Stewart: Nice fellow?

Whitman: Actually, my husband went through school with him, college, and served in Vietnam with him.

Stewart: You're kidding me.

Whitman: No, no, they spent Christmas on a Swift boat going up the river.

I'm not sure this would really tell us anything new, but it would be sort of interesting to hear what John Whitman has to say about Kerry's service in Vietnam.

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AYATOLLAH UPDATE....Are Iraq's Shiite ayatollahs turning decisively against the interim Iraqi regime and its American backers? Juan Cole gathers a few pieces of evidence that suggest such a shift is indeed underway. That would be very, very bad news if it's true.

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RELIGION....Sam Harris talks today about the religious roots of terrorism:

Anyone who thinks that terrestrial concerns are the principal source of Muslim violence must explain why there are no Palestinian Christian suicide bombers. They too suffer the daily indignity of the Israeli occupation. Where, for that matter, are the Tibetan Buddhist suicide bombers? The Tibetans have suffered an occupation far more brutal. Where are the throngs of Tibetans ready to perpetrate suicidal atrocities against the Chinese? They do not exist. What is the difference that makes the difference? The difference lies in the specific tenets of Islam versus those of Buddhism and Christianity.

That should warm the cockles of the war party. Death to Islamofascists!

But wait. Surrounding this paragraph there's more:

Religious faith is always, and everywhere, exonerated. It is now taboo in every corner of our culture to criticize a person's religious beliefs. Consequently, we are unable to even name, much less oppose, one of the most pervasive causes of human conflict. And the fact that there are very real and consequential differences between the major religious traditions is simply never discussed.

....There are now more people in our country who believe that the universe was created in six solar days than there were in Europe in the 14th century. In the eyes of most of the civilized world, the United States is now a rogue power imperialist, inarticulate and retrograde in its religiosity. Our erstwhile allies are right not to trust our judgment. We elect leaders who squander time and money on issues like gay marriage, Janet Jackson's anatomy, Howard Stern's obscenities, marijuana use and a dozen other trifles lying at the heart of the Christian social agenda, while potentially catastrophic problems like nuclear proliferation and climate change go unresolved.

That sounds like a conversation starter! So go find a religious/nonreligious friend, read the whole piece, and have at it. Bonus points if both of you can avoid mentioning Thomas Jefferson or Karl Marx.

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FREE TRADE....Today's headline in the Los Angeles Times:

Bush, Kerry Are Worlds Apart on Trade Issues

I guess that's right. On one side we've got a guy who talks a bit of campaign trail smack about "fair trade" but has a long history of supporting free trade when it counts. On the other we have a guy who claims to hate protectionism but heartily endorses it whenever he thinks it might win him a few votes.

Decisions, decisions....

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August 14, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

HOW BIG IS WADI-US-SALAAM CEMETERY?....As we all know, there's currently a lot of fighting going on in Najaf, home of the Imam Ali Mosque and one of the holiest cities of Shiite Islam. It's also home of the adjoining Wadi-us-Salaam (Valley of Peace) cemetery, a vast and ancient burial ground that's become the site of much of the fighting.

But just how vast is it? News accounts make the following suggestions, in order of alleged grandiosity:

"one of the biggest and most revered in the world by Shiite Muslims"

"the largest cemetery in the Middle East"

"the largest in the Arab world"

"Islam's biggest"

"one of the largest graveyards on the planet"

"the second largest in the entire world"

"the world's biggest cemetery"

This disagreement isn't surprising since there doesn't appear to even be a firm consensus about how big Wadi-us-Salaam is either physically or in number of burials. CNN claims it is approximately 3km by 5km or 3,500 acres but this satellite photo seems more authoritative and puts its size at 1,485 acres. The most common estimate of the number of people buried there seems to be about 5 million.

But how does that compare to other cemeteries? The Guiness Book of World Records claims that the world's biggest cemetery is the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg, Germany, but at 990 acres and 1.4 million burials, it doesn't seem to be in the same league. What's more, even in Europe the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna has more burials (2.5 million people) and Brookwood Cemetery ("London's Necropolis") is physically bigger at 2,000 acres (but only 232,000 burials).

By comparison, Arlington National Cemetery weighs in at a svelte 200 acres and 260,000 burials; Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, the famously kitschy final resting place of, among others, my grandparents, is only slightly bigger at 300 acres; and even Rose Hills Memorial Park, which claims to be the "largest single-operated cemetery in the world," is only 1,400 acres.

So what's the biggest cemetery in the world? Wadi-us-Salaam gets my vote so far. Does anyone have a serious contender for a larger one?

UPDATE: Edmund Sanders of the LA Times provides a good sense of what it's like for U.S. forces to fight a battle in the heart of the world's biggest cemetery. "It's a little creepy"....

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LESS MOORE....It looks like Fahrenheit 9/11 won't be shown at U.S. army bases. But this has nothing to do with its anti-war point of view:

Judd Anstey, public affairs specialist for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service which books movies for military base theatres, denied any suggestion the decision not to book the film had anything to do with its content and was solely based on business.

....The time between when "Fahrenheit 9/11" would be played in base theatres and when it would be sold on DVD was too short to allow it to make money, Anstey said. "This was based on business standards," he told Reuters.

I report, you decide.

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By: Kevin Drum

NUCLEAR TERRORISM....Nick Kristof follows up Wednesday's column with another one about nuclear proliferation. He's not happy with our current efforts to stop it:

The Nunn-Lugar program to safeguard [nuclear] material is one of the best schemes we have to protect ourselves, and it's bipartisan, championed above all by Senator Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican. Yet President Bush has, incredibly, at various times even proposed cutting funds for it. He seems bored by this security effort, perhaps because it doesn't involve blowing anything up.

This is the flip side of Bush's obsession with grand strategy: more prosaic things like this just aren't exciting enough to get his attention. Maybe an "iron butt for grunt work" wouldn't be such a bad trait in a president after all?

Kevin Drum 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY AND IRAQ....Bob Somerby, in his usual tolerant and long-suffering way, is a wee bit upset with press coverage of John Kerry's position on the Iraq war:

What is Kerrys stand on Iraq? Readers, get ready for some real brain-work! Here goes: Kerry says Bush should have had the authority to go to war, but then went to war prematurely. Wow! Have you finished scratching your heads about all the nuance involved in that statement?

In fairness, let's all admit that Kerry is not exactly a wizard at making his positions clear and unequivocal. He does bring some of this on himself.

Still, Bob is right: Kerry might not be the best speaker in the world, but his position on the war has been pretty consistent all along. Even William Saletan, the best known critic of Kerry's "caveats and curlicues," came to the same conclusion after examining a Republican video of Kerry's supposed flip-flops on Iraq: the RNC video carefully edits Kerry's quotes to make them look inconsistent, but in fact every one of them tells the same story. He summarized the RNC clips in a Slate article on Thursday:

Kerry wants pressure and inspections....doubts Iraq would comply with inspections, but he thinks we have to go through the process of trying....doesn't like the way Bush is pursuing the goal, particularly because it "alienated our allies."

....consistent with Kerry's previous statements calling for "heat," "inspections," "process," and cooperation with "allies."....No conflict here....voting to turn up the heat and get compliance with inspections....Bush betrayed two of Kerry's principles: process and allies....it isn't a change of position.

....This is the same position Kerry has stated all along: compliance, inspections, skepticism, process....There you have it. Edwards says if Kerry had been president, we would have found out Iraq had no WMD, and "we would never be in this place." Kerry emphatically agrees with this translation.

You can decide for yourself whether you like this position, but it's not hard to grasp. That's especially true for the press, since they know very well that there are lots and lots of liberal hawks and other former war supporters who have exactly the same position: pressuring Saddam was good, inspections were good, and eventually war might have been good too.

But Bush blew it: he failed to rally world opinion, he failed to get the Arab world on our side, he failed to let the inspections process run its course, and he failed to plan properly for the postwar occupation. The result is a loss of American power and prestige, a diminished chance of Iraq becoming a pluralistic democracy, and an al-Qaeda that's been given a second lease on life thanks to George Bush's Queeg-like obsession with Saddam Hussein.

Not so hard to understand at all.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

STRATEGY vs. EXECUTION....Dan Drezner asks:

Which is better: a foreign policy with a clearly articulated grand strategy but a f#$%ed-up policy process, or a foreign policy with no articulated grand strategy but a superior policy process?

In real life, it turns out that there are quite a few workable strategies, and any one of them has the potential to work out OK. Very few of them are brilliant, whether they are clearly articulated or not.

However, one aspect of minimally competent execution is that it takes into account facts on the ground: people who are obsessed with their strategy to the exclusion of all else are almost 100% likely to fail. These are the kind of people who end up haranguing crowds at Speakers Corner on Sunday mornings.

Bush and Kerry both have defensible foreign policy strategies. Bush, however, is so convinced of the righteousness of his strategy that he considers it a positive virtue not to judge it against reality. When the tide comes in despite his entreaties not to, he's then forced into panicky and ill-considered action.

It's unlikely that Kerry will be a brilliant foreign policy president. But since Bush's clearly articulated strategy is exactly that clearly articulated and nothing else it's hard to see how anyone would find it preferable.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 13, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

THE OLYMPICS....There's some world class complaining about the Olympics going on over at Crooked Timber. Join in!

I can't say that I really sympathize much with Brian Weatherson's inability to figure out when Australians will be on the air dammit, Brian, this is America! but I have to say that the galactically slick TV packaging of the Olympics we get these days has pretty much turned me off from watching it at all. There's really no sense of genuine sport anymore; it's like watching a highlight reel. What's worse, since they often only show heats in which Americans have done well, it's a highlight reel where you frequently have a pretty good idea how it's going to turn out.

Part of the essential ambience of watching a sporting event, I think, is seeing the whole thing, even the boring bits where nothing much is happening. When you edit a 4-hour event down to 30 minutes of pure action, it may be exciting but it just isn't sports anymore. It's a video game.

Alternatively, of course, you could be like Max Boot and decide the Olympics are no fun because it's not us vs. the commies anymore. Those neocons really miss the Cold War, don't they?

Kevin Drum 11:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OG-BLAY IZ-QUAY....What's the most popular blogging language? English, of course. But here's a mini quiz that tests your knowledge of other blogging languages:

  1. Scandinavian languages: Are there more Swedish blogs or Danish blogs?

  2. Dead languages: Are there more Esperanto blogs or Latin blogs?

  3. Romance languages: Are there more Spanish blogs or Portuguese blogs?

  4. Obscure micro-languages: Are there more Breton blogs or Catalan blogs?

  5. What's the #2 blog language?

  6. Why isn't Russian in the top 25?

Answers here. Or below the fold.

(Via Crooked Timber.)

Answers: 1. Danish. 2. Esperanto. 3. Portuguese. 4. Catalan. 5. French. 6. I don't know.

Kevin Drum 8:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE WEIRDNESS FROM GOOGLE....Are Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page idiots? It's hard to come to any other conclusion after reading today that they gave an interview to Playboy for their September issue hitting the stands just when the auction for Google's IPO gets underway.

There's nothing wrong with Playboy, mind you, but there is a firm rule against hyping a company's prospects during the "quiet period" prior to an IPO. This is not some obscure technicality, either: I went through an IPO in 1997 and the bankers who handled it hammered this into us. As VP of Marketing, there were times when I almost felt like I couldn't even do my job for fear that some routine activity would be construed as hype.

Brin and Page know this perfectly well, and they also knew it in April when they gave the interview, even if that was just before their official filing. Everyone in the tech business knows this. So why did they do it? Why did they open up themselves, their company, and their shareholders to enormous risk just to satisfy their own vanity?

Kevin Drum 5:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WORLD OF PORTER GOSS....Via Tapped, Michael Levi of the Brookings Institution says that George Bush isn't the only politician who gets into trouble when he speaks off the cuff. Apparently, future CIA director Porter Goss had a conference call with the press a couple of months in which he made a couple of rather odd pronouncements:

Rep. Goss began the call inauspiciously with the declaration that chemical and biological weapons are "more dangerous" than nuclear arms. In fact, nuclear arms are far more lethal than chemical arms, and in most if not all cases would be more lethal than biological arms as well.

....The congressman's more disturbing remarks in that half-hour June call with the press addressed North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Goss said, "Clearly not making the progress at Yongbyon and other places because we've called their bluff successfully."....But according to American intelligence, since 2002, North Korea has restarted every key facility at Yongbyon, and has produced enough plutonium for at least six additional nuclear weapons.

....A perplexed reporter followed up, asking Goss how he qualified six new North Korean weapons as American "progress." The congressman's response was startling: "What they've been doing behind the curtain for a long time may be far greater than what you knowthat you've just quoted to me now."

To suggest that the intelligence community knows about a massive parallel North Korean program that hasn't been publicly disclosed strongly strains credulity.

We already know that Goss is a partisan hack, but now it turns out that he is either misinformed (charitable interpretation) or delusional (more likely interpretation) about both the relative danger of nuclear proliferation and the state of North Korea's bomb making program.

From a guy who's been overseeing the CIA for nearly a decade, this is fairly disturbing stuff. Maybe Republicans ought to rethink this appointment. After all, loyalty isn't everything.

Kevin Drum 4:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY AND BUSH....Dick Cheney is mocking John Kerry for supposedly believing we need to be more sensitive in our war against terror. Perhaps he needs to take this up with his boss:

John Kerry

George Bush

I believe I can fight a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history.

We help fulfill that promise not by lecturing the world, but by leading it. Precisely because America is powerful, we must be sensitive about expressing our power and influence.

The Progress Report has more, including entertaining quotes about sensitivity from Don Rumsfeld, Richard Myers, Tommy Franks, John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, and others.

Needless to say, Kerry's full quote indicates plainly that he's not talking about a touchy-feely war, he's talking about conducting the war in a way that works better. But Dick Cheney, who still claims that Saddam had both WMD and deep connections to al-Qaeda, apparently intends to treat Kerry's speeches with the same cavalier disregard for facts on the ground that he does national intelligence. Why am I not surprised?

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

KERRY IN CAMBODIA....Instapundit links today to a piece in the Telegraph that quotes John Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley about the "Christmas in Cambodia" kerfuffle:

"On Christmas Eve he was near Cambodia; he was around 50 miles from the Cambodian border. There's no indictment of Kerry to be made, but he was mistaken about Christmas in Cambodia," said Douglas Brinkley, who has unique access to the candidate's wartime journals.

....He said: "Kerry went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. He had a run dropping off US Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys." The missions were not armed attacks on Cambodia, said Mr Brinkley, who did not include the clandestine missions in his wartime biography of Mr Kerry, Tour of Duty.

"He was a ferry master, a drop-off guy, but it was dangerous as hell. Kerry carries a hat he was given by one CIA operative. In a part of his journals which I didn't use he writes about discussions with CIA guys he was dropping off."

So let me get this straight. Kerry did go to Cambodia even though that was supposedly impossible, he did take CIA guys in even though that was supposedly absurd, and he did get a hat from one of them even though that was supposedly a sign of mental instability. The extent of Kerry's malfeasance is that instead of doing it in December, he actually did it in January and February.

Considering that he's mentioned this story only twice, most recently 18 years ago, and it turns out that his only crime is to have tarted it up with a bit of holiday pathos, I think I'll pass on following it any further down the Swift Vets rabbit hole. But thanks to everyone who displayed their deep unseriousness about this election by participating in this smear. It will be remembered.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH....Stop the presses!

Report Finds Tax Cuts Heavily Favor the Wealthy

Quite a shocker, eh? Still, snark aside, I guess it's nice to have the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office make it official.

UPDATE: Or there's the Washington Post's version: "Tax Burden Shifts to the Middle."

That stands to reason, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TERRORIST DRUGS FROM CANADA....George Bush's Medicare bill prohibits the importation of cheap drugs from Canada. This has proven to be an unpopular rule, and Bush spokesmen have struggled to come up with persuasive reasons for their stand.

Today they finally did:

"Cues from chatter" gathered around the world are raising concerns that terrorists might try to attack the domestic food and drug supply, particularly illegally imported prescription drugs, acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford says.

....Crawford said the possibility of such an attack was the most serious of his concerns about the increase in states and municipalities trying to import drugs from Canada to save money.

Are there any depths to which these guys won't sink? What's next? Alleged al-Qaeda infiltration of labor unions? Email from Osama to the NAACP?

Every time I think the Bush administration can't get any worse, they get worse. Every. Single. Time.

Kevin Drum 1:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 12, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

PLAME SUBPOENA UPDATE....Drudge is reporting that New York Times reporter Judith Miller has been subpoenaed by the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case. That means we now have a total of four known subpoenas of reporters:

  • Matthew Cooper (Time magazine)

  • Tim Russert (Meet the Press)

  • Walter Pincus (Washington Post)

  • Judith Miller (New York Times)

And two "interviews":

  • Glenn Kessler (Washington Post)

  • Knut Royce (Newsday) (although I don't have confirmation of this)

This is becoming very interesting.....

Kevin Drum 10:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PEAK OIL....Jane Bryant Quinn warns this week that we may be running out of oil:

Princeton geology professor emeritus Kenneth Deffeyes, who's writing a book due in 2005 called "Beyond Oil," waggishly names an Armageddon date: "World oil production will reach its ultimate peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005," he says. Then the long, slow decline begins.

Deffeyes is talking not about the amount of oil in the ground, but about the maximum daily pumping capacity of oil. The problem is that even as we continue to find new fields, old fields start to decline. When the decline becomes greater than new discoveries, total oil production starts to fall. This has already happened in the continental United States, which reached its peak capacity in 1970 and has been declining ever since, an event famously predicted in 1956 by geophysicist M. King Hubbert.

This is not a controversial point. What is controversial is the actual date of the global production peak. Deffeyes predicts the peak will come next year. Colin Campbell, perhaps the best known of the peak oil theorists, predicts a peak in 2008. The chart below shows Campbell's most recent calculations.

Unfortunately, Campbell has a problem: he's been making peak oil predictions for a long time, and his predictions are pretty much always the same: we will hit a peak in 3-4 years. So it's hard to know how seriously to take him.

My own guess, based on a fair amount of reading (but no independent expertise, of course) is that the world peak production rate of oil is about 100 million b/d (barrels per day). Our current consumption rate is around 80 million b/d, which means that if consumption increases at the rate it has in the past, we'll hit the world peak in about 10 years.

Except for one thing: that's a theoretical peak that assumes we're pumping everything we can. But in the real world, there are always problems. Today, for example, about 5 million b/d of potential production is unavailable because it's in Iraq. Political problems are inevitable in other places as well, and normal wear and tear also keeps a certain amount of production offline at any given time. The practical world peak is quite likely to be more in the neighborhood of 90 million b/d, a number we'll hit about five years from now.

In other words, Campbell may be right this time. And remember that this assumes that a fair amount of new production comes on line in the next few years from Iraq, Russia, Canada, and a few other places, and that recovery techniques improve as well. If this doesn't happen, Deffeyes might be closer to correct than Campbell.

But in a way, it doesn't matter: even five or ten years is a blink of an eye when you're talking about oil use. So while new drilling may be important to prevent the peak from arriving even sooner and declining even faster than it has to, the fact remains that we're going to hit a peak sometime soon regardless. And the only way to deal with that is to start using less oil.

That means conservation, it means more efficient cars and trucks, and it means new technologies. New transportation technologies, since that's where 70% of oil use goes. All of which takes time to develop. (There's an alternative, of course: an oil shock, like the one in 1979, which caused oil use to drop 15% in three years. That's a pretty painful remedy, though.)

Mideast oil independence is a mirage, at least for the forseeable future. Even with our noses to the grindstone, we'll be hard pressed to actually decrease world consumption of oil, and in any case Mideast oil will always be the cheapest oil around. But avoiding a painful peak and another oil shock isn't. The problem is that it would take serious policy leadership that treats oil use as a real problem, not a political football, and neither candidate this year has shown much willingness to do this. Call it the Jimmy Carter Syndrome: nobody is eager to meet the fate of the last president who got serious about energy conservation and alternative fuels.

In the meantime, expect plenty of bumps, since when you're close to a peak even small production hiccups can cause big problems. So buy a Prius. Or better yet, a motorcycle. It won't help you avoid the economic shock that's likely to occur when everyone is suddenly surprised to learn that oil production can't increase any more, but at least you'll still have cheap wheels. You might think about calling your congressman too.

UPDATE: In comments, Max reminds me to link to a pretty interesting article about new ethanol technologies in the latest issue of the Monthly. It's not supposed to be available online, though, so don't tell anybody I linked to it....

Kevin Drum 10:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH SPEAKS....HIS ADVISORS SQUIRM....President Bush on Tuesday, talking off the cuff about the idea of a national sales tax: "It's an interesting idea. You know, I'm not exactly sure how big the national sales tax is going to have to be, but it's the kind of interesting idea that we ought to explore seriously."

President Bush on Wednesday: "Two administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bush was not considering a national sales tax."

That was quick! But why did our doughty "administration officials" insist on being anonymous? What are they ashamed of?


Most likely, I guess, is that they're embarrassed that the President of the United States doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. Before long he'll be touting a return to the gold standard. Here are a few wee problems:

  • Bill Gale estimates that to replace the income tax (just the income tax, not all our other taxes) would require a sales tax of 26% on all goods and services including purchases of food and new housing. That would go over well, wouldn't it?

  • But that's low. Gale kindly estimates the "combined rate of avoidance, evasion, and legislative adjustment" at 20%, which he admits is conservative "relative to everything that is known about how actual tax systems operate." In other words, better make that sales tax 30% or even higher. Ka ching!

  • Seniors would sure be pissed off about this. And who can blame them? All their lives their income was reduced by the amount of income tax they paid, and now that they're retired this reduced amount of money is suddenly subject to a brand new sales tax. Talk about your double taxation!

    (Don't get it? Think of it this way. Suppose you make $100 today and it gets taxed at 20%. You have $80 left over and you put it in the bank. Tomorrow the income tax is abolished and a 30% sales tax is implemented, so you can only buy $60 worth of stuff with your $80. Your original $100 has essentially been taxed down to $60. For senior citizens, this applies to everything they've socked away over their entire lives.)

Being an advisor to George Bush must be sort of like sweeping up after the elephants at the circus. I guess I'd feel sorry for these guys if it weren't for the fact that they're enabling Bush's incompetent rule by their very presence. So I guess I don't. Feel sorry for them, that is.

Kevin Drum 5:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING.... The cover story of Business Week's current issue is about global warming:

When CEOs contemplate global warming, they see something they dread: uncertainty. There's uncertainty about what regulations they will have to meet and about how much the climate will change and uncertainty itself poses challenges. Insurance giant Swiss Re sees a threat to its entire industry. The reason: Insurers know how to write policies for every conceivable hazard based on exhaustive study of the past. If floods typically occur in a city every 20 years or so, then it's a good bet the trend will continue into the future. Global warming throws all that historical data out the window.

One of the predicted consequences of higher greenhouse-gas levels, for instance, is more variable weather. Even a heat wave like the one that gripped Britain in 1995 led to losses of 1.5 billion pounds, Swiss Re calculates. So an increase in droughts, floods, and other events "could be financially devastating," says Christopher Walker, a Swiss Re greenhouse-gas expert.

As it turns out, the story is fairly routine and I'm not even sure its anecdotal evidence really makes the case that corporate America has gotten the message about climate change. Still, it's worth reading primarily because it is the cover story of Business Week, and that by itself indicates something of a turning point.

Like national healthcare, I suspect that global warming will really get taken seriously only when the business community finally demands it. What Business Week documents is only the first whispers of those demands, but the endgame is already in sight.

Kevin Drum 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHALABI WATCH....Ahmed Chalabi has now filed a lawsuit in which he accuses the CIA of spreading the "knowingly false story" that Chalabi blew an American espionage program by spilling the beans to the Iranian government that the United States was monitoring their secret communications. (Details here.)

This just gets better and better, doesn't it? On the other hand, maybe Chalabi has a point. After all, the Bush administration itself doesn't seem to think that blowing undercover operations is all that big a deal, so why should they expect any better behavior from Chalabi?

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STEM CELLS....I mentioned Willam Saletan's stem cell article in Slate last night, but only to take a snarky shot at Saletan's two-faced criticism of John Kerry's public speaking habits. But the substance of the column was pretty shoddy too, and tonight I'd like to address his main complaint head on.

Saletan says he is concerned that embryonic stem cell enthusiasts sometimes oversell the benefits of stem cell therapy in their public pronouncements. Now, this would not exactly be the first time in history that an interest group has done this, and I'm sure we can all join in wishing that we lived in a world in which the public carefully and soberly weighed the details of scientific issues before passing judgment on them. But Saletan goes further than this:

The stem-cell movement has become ideological. One scientist who is organizing his colleagues for Kerry told the Post that stem-cell research has become an "icon" for broader complaints about Bush's policies. He added that his group has adopted "ideology trumps science" as its theme.

What Saletan doesn't get is that this is exactly right. Forget the details about whether stem cell therapy is good for Alzheimers, or whether embryonic stem cells are better or worse than adult stem cells. None of that is what really matters.

What really matters is that scientific details ought to be left up to scientists, not to administration ideologues. Let scientists decide what to investigate and when. If they go down a blind alley, funding will dry up and they'll go somewhere else. That's how science works.

As for the moral arguments, let's insist on a full and complete discussion of those too without the usual shilly shallying and prevaricating. The idea that a 1-week old embryo is a human being has always struck me as depressing: a nihilistically mechanical view of humanity in which DNA + miscellaneous chemicals = human life. Still, it's a fact that some people feel this way. But if they do, then they have to accept the logical consequences of this view in their public speech too: a complete ban on all abortion, all fertility treatments that utilize multiple eggs, and all embryonic stem cell research. Not just a ban on federal funding, but a complete ban. Put that on the table and I think we'd find out pretty quickly how many people really believe that humanity begins at conception.

If Saletan thinks both sides should show all their cards, this one is the ace of spades. Let's play it face up and see who takes the trick.

Kevin Drum 1:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NAME CHANGE?....Toys 'R' Us is thinking of abandoning the toy business. If they did this, what would their new name be? 'R' Us?

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SOUTH AMERICA WATCH....Via Crooked Timber, Spain's El Mundo is claiming that the CIA has some pretty unconventional ideas about the upcoming referendum in Venezuela, which they expect to be won by incumbent strongman Hugo Chavez:

Madrid's El Mundo is reporting that the CIA has developed contingency plans to counteract Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez winning the Aug. 15 recall referendum....The CIA's undersecretary for southern hemispherical affairs, William Spencer, is in Santiago, Chile, to brainstorm the "Venezuelan situation" with CIA country directors from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru. Spencer is reportedly convinced that following his victory Chavez, intends to overthrow Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez and Bolivian President Carlos Mesa. According to Spencer's "domino theory," Chavez will then use corruption scandals to force Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo from office.

Wow. I guess the CIA is taking that "failure of imagination" criticism seriously.

Either that or El Mundo is full of shit. Hard to say which.

POSTSCRIPT: A more complete translation of El Mundo's story is here.

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MOVIE BLOGGING....Some miscellaneous movie blogging:

  • I saw Collateral this afternoon. I wasn't really expecting much, but even so it didn't deliver. Overall, I thought it was pretty lame and tedious.

  • Despite that, it occurred to me the other day that this has been a fairly good year for movies. I've been getting steadily more discouraged over the past few years as I've seen fewer and fewer movies that I like, but this year I've seen quite a few decent flicks. Nothing super outstanding, mind you, but that's OK since my beef has mainly been the lack of solid, meat-and-potatoes movies, not a lack of movies likely to end up on my personal top ten list. Time will tell if this is just a fluke, I suppose.

  • Stadium seating is a great invention. Thumbs up!

  • What's up with people chattering away in movies as if they're sitting in their own living room? Is this even considered rude anymore? Or is it like munching on popcorn: a widely accepted activity whether or not you personally approve?

  • And finally a question about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. This is only for people who have seen the movie, and it contains spoilers. Click the link to continue.

I've been emailing with Reihan Salam, Dan Drezner's guest blogger this week, and among other things we've been talking about Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Both of us liked it (although Reihan is a wee bit more enthusiastic than I am), but we've got a question: what actually happened? Here are three options:

  1. The whole thing was a hallucination. Harold and Kumar never actually left their apartment.

  2. The trip actually happened, but the individual incidents in the movie were drug-induced fantasies only marginally related to real events.

  3. The whole thing happened, but it happened in an alternate universe of some kind.

I won't tell you which theory belong to who, and I guess you're welcome to come up with alternate theories of your own. Voting is now open.

Kevin Drum 9:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ALEXANDER THE MEDIOCRE....A few days ago, Louisiana congressman Rodney Alexander switched parties from Democrat to Republican. He did this 30 minutes before the filing deadline in order to prevent another Democrat from filing in his district and running against him.

Pretty sleazy. Not only did Alexander screw both the Democratic party and his Democratic supporters, who had helped him get into office, but he also screwed the poor schmoe who was planning to run against him as a Republican and is now being pressured to drop out of the race.

But things have a way of working out. The day after Alexander defected, his entire office staff resigned en masse. His consultants resigned too. And now, according to The Stakeholder (the blog of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), a resident has filed a lawsuit to get Alexander tossed off the ballot completely. It turns out that he filed once as a Democrat and then a few days later as a Republican, but Louisisana law doesn't allow candidates to amend their ballot qualification once it's been filed. As a result, he might be forced off the ballot entirely.

That would certainly bring tears of laughter to my eyes. Could it possibly happen to a more deserving guy? MyDD has more.

Kevin Drum 7:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FEELING SECURE....Mark Schmitt writes that the real revolution in the economy over the past few decades isn't increasing income inequality per se. Rather,

the big thing that has changed, is not the number of jobs, the rate of growth, or income inequality. It's the shift in risk from the government and corporations onto individuals.

Mark is responding to an article by Jacob Hacker in The New Republic in which he describes research he's done not on income inequality, but on income instability:

When I started out, I expected to see a rise in the instability of family income. But nothing prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the increase. At its peak in the mid-'90s, income instability was almost five times as great as it was in the early '70s, and, although it dropped somewhat during the late '90s (my data end in 1999), it has never fallen below twice its starting level. By comparison, permanent income differences across families have risen by a more modest, if still troubling, 50 percent over the same period.

It's true that the rise in income inequality over the past 30 years has mostly been due to huge gains at the top end, not to declines at the bottom. The average worker may not be much better off than he was in 1973, but he's not (generally speaking) worse off either.

So why does the economy feel so much worse to so many people? Hacker believes that one of the big reasons is that life has become so much more risky. People are a lot closer to the edge, closer to a single catastrophe that can wipe them out, than they were three decades ago.

This has a chilling effect even if nothing ever happens to you. Almost everyone who's not already well off these days knows someone who's been ruined by a personal catastrophe, and this personal knowledge rubs off. You're worried that you could get laid off at any time and not be able to find a job for months or years. You're worred that a sudden healthcare crisis could devastate you. You're worried that your pension fund or your 401(k) might not be there when you retire because you made bad investment choices.

FDR dedicated the New Deal to "freedom from fear." He believed that government's role was not to provide handouts to the poor, but to provide a certain minimum level of security against the everyday catastrophes that ruin people's lives.

It is this minimum level of economic security that George Bush and modern movement conservatives want to abolish. In fact, it's the point of Bush's "ownership society": if everyone owns their own Social Security account, their own healthcare account, and their own college account, then the government no longer provides security against disaster. If you make a mistake, or if the market makes a mistake, you're screwed.

This is likely to be the eventual downfall of modern conservatism. Human beings have a deep desire for a certain minimum level of stability and security in their lives, and eventually they'll rebel against a party that refuses to acknowledge this. Life today is so much better than it was in the 30s that people have forgotten the basic New Deal ethos that made it that way. But if conservatives have their way, it won't be much longer before they start remembering.

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MEDICARE WOES....Here's an entry from the It-Couldn't-Happen-To-More-Deserving-Folks file:

Almost half of Medicare recipients dislike the new prescription drug law, and nearly 3 in 10 seniors and disabled persons say the issue will influence their vote for president, according to a national survey released Tuesday.

The survey suggests that there are "maybe a half-million seniors" who might swing their votes to Democratic candidate John F. Kerry and another "1 million to 2 million whose votes might be up for grabs on this issue," said Drew E. Altman, president and chief executive of the private, nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

....Only 3 in 10 of those on Medicare believe that the law's benefits partial coverage of prescription drug costs for those who choose to participate in that program, a voluntary prescription discount card available until the drug benefit takes effect in 2006, and new coverage for some preventive health services will help them personally.

Ths Bush administration could have passed a $200 billion bill that actually provided $200 billion worth of simple, straightforward benefits to seniors. Instead, they chose to pass a $500 billion bill that squanders the bulk of its benefits on sweetheart deals for corporate pension funds, pharmaceutical companies, HMOs, insurance companies, and unworkable privatization pilot schemes that congressmen (literally) fought to avoid being part of.

The Medicare bill is practically a model of the Bush administration at work: an initially reasonable idea made unrecognizable by deep frying it in a witch's brew of bloated spending, dishonest accounting, fealty to big corporate contributors, crackheaded movement conservative ideology, and just plain incompetence. If Bush ends up losing the election partly as a result of a revolt of seniors over this bill, it will be poetic justice.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SALETANISMS....Will Saletan complains today about John Kerry's stand on stem cell research:

Why does Kerry call it a "ban on stem-cell research" instead of a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell lines derived after Aug. 9, 2001? Because the shorter phrase, while scientifically inaccurate in four egregious ways, is more politically effective.

This is pretty rich coming from a guy who spent two full months of his life bemoaning the fact that Kerry spends too much time explaining himself in detail. Sheesh.

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August 10, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

ABU GHRAIB UPDATE....Apparently there are a few more bad apples:

NBC News has learned a military investigation into prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison now implicates military intelligence officers in addition to military police already charged.

....At a pre-trial hearing for Pfc. Lynndie England last week there was direct testimony by a military intelligence officer that three intelligence officers were present during the abuse of three prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The officer testified he was summoned to the cellblock to, "see something cool."

There's been a lot of circumstantial evidence indicating that knowledge of the Abu Ghraib abuse went pretty high, but so far (to my surprise) nothing direct. With the trials now underway, though, maybe we'll finally learn a little more about what really happened.

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KERRY IN CAMBODIA....I finally got interested in the "Christmas in Cambodia" story that the right wing blogosphere has been in such a tizzy about for the past few days. It was Michael Ledeen who did it:

...the "Cambodia" episode is all about Kerry today. It comes from his own contemporary mouth and is posted on his own website. And it's pure fantasy. So the reason that Instapundit and Rogerlsimon and Powerline and the rest of the precious and wonderful bloggers are so agitated...is that it strongly suggests that Kerry is nuts. Today. Because he is inventing his own past. And that business about carrying the little cap around in his briefcase. Wow.

Michael Ledeen calling John Kerry nuts! That sounds like a cage match I might pay to see. And anyway, what's this about a little cap and a briefcase?

So I did some trawling in darkest blogistan and here's the story. I hope I get it right. In 1979 Kerry wrote a letter to the Boston Herald in which he said, "I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas."

In 1986 Kerry gave a speech in the Senate in which he said he spent Christmas Day of 1968 "sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia."

In 1992, an AP story about missing POWs filled in further details: "One of the missions, which Kerry, at the time, was ordered not to discuss, involved taking CIA operatives into Cambodia to search for enemy enclaves."

In 2000, US News & World Report ran a brief piece that said Kerry "made his first forays into Cambodia during the Vietnam War as a Navy lieutenant on clandestine missions to deliver weapons to anticommunist forces."

In 2003, the Washington Post ran a story about Kerry in which he explained that he carries around an old hat in his briefcase:

"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."

Now, it's not immediately clear to me why any of this is "pure fantasy." Kerry certainly operated in the area of the Cambodian border in late 1968, Americans were definitely making border incursions at the time, and the CIA certainly had a lot of people in Vietnam in 1968. That doesn't mean Kerry's story is true, but it's certainly plausible.

The serious evidence against Kerry seems to consist of two things. First, the Swift Vets group claims that "All the living commanders in Kerrys chain of command . . . deny that Kerry was ever ordered to Cambodia." Second, both Douglas Brinkley's biography of Kerry and Kerry's war journal mention only that he was near the Cambodian border on Christmas Eve, not across it. (Although the journal entry ends with a sarcastic message to his superiors: "Merry Christmas from the most inland Market Time unit" at a minimum a reference to being right on top of the Cambodian border. Then: "You hope that they'll court marshal you or something because that would make sense" possibly a reference to crossing the border.)

Conclusions? Beats me. Kerry has mentioned this story several times, so it's not a slip of the tongue. And it's plausible on its surface. Contrariwise, the evidence against him is pretty thin: not much more than the fact that no one else has verified it and keep in mind that the Swift Vets guys are not exactly disinterested witnesses in this matter. What's more, since there is exactly zero in the way of documentary evidence one way or the other, it seems unlikely that this little teapot-sized tempest will ever be conclusively resolved. Which, I suppose, suits Kerry's detractors just fine.

But stay tuned. You never know when something will pop up.

Kevin Drum 8:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MOVING FORWARD....Over at Legal Fiction, Publius proposes a new drinking game: one drink every time White House flack Scott McClellan uses the phrase "moving forward."

Warning: Publius has an annotated version of Monday's press conference here. You will get very, very drunk if you play this game. On the other hand, it might make the daily briefings more entertaining....

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POSTWAR TROOP LEVELS....I don't have a copy of the book, so I'm trusting that Spencer Ackerman isn't taking this out of context. Here is General Tommy Franks describing to Donald Rumsfeld his testimony before Congress about a month before the war:

Then I turned to reveal the next chart: PHASE IV: POST-HOSTILITY OPERATIONS. "As stability operations proceed, force levels would continue to grow--perhaps to as many as two hundred and fifty thousand troops, or until we are sure we've met our endstate objectives."

So the Army Chief of Staff, Eric Shinseki, thought we'd need "several hundred thousand troops," and the CENTCOM commander on the ground estimated 250,000 troops.

But we went in with about 150,000. And as Spencer points out, Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz have insisted ever since that this number was exactly what the military commanders advised no more, no less. I know we're not allowed to say that anybody in the Bush administration lies, but Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz sure seem to have a creative way with numbers, don't they?

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SHORTER ALAN KEYES....I don't usually find myself in agreement with the fine crew of conservatives over at NRO, but credit where credit is due for this succinct description of Alan Keyes from The Corner's Rick Brookhiser:

Alan Keyes's opinion of himself and the universe's opinion of him have fatally parted company.

There are no links and I don't know what prompted this, but I'd say this is a pretty fair summary.

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FLYPAPER....As Matt Yglesias points out, this is really bad news. The Brookings Institution has published its latest "State of Iraq" index in the New York Times, and it shows that even as we've been killing them by the thousands, the estimated number of active insurgents in Iraq has skyrocketed.

There's some good news in the index too, but I think the basic dynamic in Iraq is the same as it was a year ago: it's going to be nearly impossible to make any real progress there until the security situation is resolved. Lack of seriousness about postwar security was the fundamental problem of Don Rumsfeld's initial invasion plan, and it's still the fundamental problem and apparently no closer to a solution than it was 15 months ago.

I'm not sure what the answer is. Increasing troop levels would be difficult at this point, though perhaps not completely impossible. Training more Iraqi troops is proceeding apace, but their effectiveness seems to be pretty minimal. Allowing Allawi to declare martial law and do whatever it takes to crush the insurgents might work, but we're supposed to be in favor of liberal democracy here.

So now what?

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STEM CELLS....President Bush demonstrates his famous plainspoken resolve on the issue of stem cell research:

The Bush administration, stung by evidence that many voters favored less restrictive policies, said the president's fundamental position had not changed. But it sought to recast Bush's image on the highly charged issue by portraying him as a champion of stem cell research, as well as of moral limits on scientific inquiry.

....Bush is trying to attract undecided voters who, polls show, are increasingly supportive of research that advocates say could offer cures for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other diseases.

Poll data suggest public support for stem cell research cuts across party lines.

A "champion of stem cell research"? Nope, there are no fine-tuned, poll-driven, carefully straddled positions in this White House, are there?

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CONTEMPT ROUNDUP....Which journalists have testified before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case? Hard to say. But here's the best summary I can come up with:

That's all I can find for now. But one thing stands out pretty clearly: we now know that at least five reporters have been either subpoenaed or questioned in some way by federal prosecutors. Given that, what are the odds that Novak, the central figure in all this, hasn't been? Add to that the fact that (a) he refuses to comment about the investigation and (b) he isn't being charged with contempt, and the most likely conclusion is that he squealed.

Or so it seems to me. It probably won't be much longer until we find out for sure.

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August 9, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

STRADDLING AND WAFFLING....Does John Kerry sometimes straddle difficult issues in an effort to please multiple constituencies? Sure. So do all politicians. Kerry's real problem, though, isn't that he straddles more than anyone else, but that he does it badly. When he explains his positions, he sounds like he's straddling.

George Bush is Kerry's exact opposite. He straddles issues with as much vigor as most politicians, but nonetheless manages to retain a reputation as a straight talking guy who says what he means and means what he says.

Today is an appropriate day to write about Bush's penchant for straddling issues because it's the third anniversary of the first great straddle of his presidency: the stem cell straddle. After weeks of well publicized agonizing three summers ago, he announced on August 9, 2001, that he would approve federal funding for embryonic stem cell lines already in existence but not for any new ones. This was an exquisitely calibrated position designed to keep his pro-life credibility intact with his conservative Christian base but still appear reasonable and non-scary to moderate suburbanites.

And that was just the start. He opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but when public pressure became too strong he changed his mind and supported it after all. He opposed accounting reform after the Enron scandal, but then signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill as if he had campaigned on the idea. He opposed the 9/11 Commission, but when its recommendations came out he suddenly announced that he would adopt all of them. Except that he didn't: he adopted the language of the commission but none of the substance.

These three straddles have a common feature: initially Bush took one side of the issue, but when it became clear that public opinion was against him he not only switched sides, he did it with gusto. By the time the dust cleared, you would have thought they were his ideas in the first place.

And this was hardly the first time. As governor of Texas, he opposed a Patients' Bill of Rights twice. It finally passed over his opposition and without his signature in 1997, but by 2000, when he was campaigning for the presidency, he was bragging about it. You'd hardly know he had ever been anything but a proud and enthusiastic supporter.

Other straddles follow a different pattern. Bush says he favors free trade, for example, but when his advisors told him he needed to shore up his support in key swing states he promptly proposed tariffs on steel, subsidies for farm goods, and quotas on Chinese bras.

Then there are straddles with more subtlety. After months of tiptoeing around the subject of gay marriage, for example, he finally caved in to his conservative Christian base and announced that he supported a constitutional amendment to ban it. But despite his strong words, he knew very well that it would never pass Congress and did almost nothing to build support for it. Result: street cred with the fundamentalist crowd, but no actual result that can be held against him during the fall campaign.

On other subjects his actions flatly contradict his words. He says he supports veterans and the military, but has consistently opposed efforts to raise their pay and benefits. He said he wouldn't negotiate with North Korea, but after a year of shilly-shallying he began quietly doing exactly that. He claims to favor small government, but has grown government in practically all areas faster than any president since LBJ.

So what explains Bush's reputation as a straight shooter? Two things. First, he has a pair of signature issues on which he's been as resolute as a bulldozer: Iraq and taxes. On these two issues, both of which have widespread support among both his conservative base and voters at large, Bush has been steadfast.

Second, and more important, his rhetoric is simple and uncompromising and most people are surprisingly willing to uncritically accept his speechwriters' words as a reflection of his real self. Even the press, which has seen Bush's clever waffling and straddling on a wide variety of subjects firsthand for nearly four years, has been mostly taken in by his rhetoric. On practically every major issue aside from taxes and Iraq, he's adopted carefully calculated, poll-tested positions, clothed them in unyielding language, and gotten away with it. His reputation for being plainspoken has remained intact.

But if you scratch below the surface, it's pretty plain that Kerry and Bush, like practically all politicians, straddle and waffle in nearly identical ways. If anything, Bush probably does it more than Kerry. The difference is that he does it better. Much, much better.

Kevin Drum 11:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PLAME SUBPOENAS....This is peculiar: a federal judge has held Tim Russert (of Meet the Press) and Matthew Cooper (of Time magazine) in contempt for refusing to testify before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame affair. (Update: apparently it was only Cooper who was cited for contempt. See below.)

Legal issues aside, what does this mean? There are lots of journalists connected with the Plame investigation, chief among them Bob Novak, who was the original recipient of the Plame leak. I also recall that Chris Matthews was mentioned in Joe Wilson's book and that Knut Royce of Newsday did some original reporting. There were others too, although I don't remember them off the top of my head.

So why were only Cooper and Russert held in contempt? Were the others ever called to testify? If not, why not?

There are no further clues in the story, so stay tuned for more. Something seems off kilter here.

UPDATE: The New York Times has more here. Apparently Russert agreed to testify and it's only Cooper who was cited for contempt. The Times says that the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler has also testified. Novak refuses to say whether he received a subpoena or whether he testified.

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53 STATES....Here's a weird one. California's attorney general is trying to shut down a school that charges immigrants $450 to $1,450 for a 10-week course that it says leads to a high school diploma. Apparently the curriculum consists of a short workbook "riddled with errors," including the following:

  • The United States has 53 states but the "flag has not yet been updated to reflect the addition of the last three states" -- Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.

  • World War II began in 1938 and ended in 1942.

  • There are two houses of Congress -- the Senate and the House, and "one is for Democrats and the other is for the Republicans, respectively."

The basic fraud involved here is easily understandable. Happens all the time. But why would anyone create a workbook claiming there are 53 states? This is not the kind of thing that anyone would just mistakenly get wrong, which means there's some kind of intellectual sadism involved here too. After all, what's the point of not just defrauding students, but deliberately teaching them myths when it's no harder to just teach them the truth?

The human mind is a real cesspool at times, isn't it?

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UNFAIR FAIRNESS....In the LA Times today, Ron Brownstein writes about the polarized political environment of contemporary America:

At this level of anxiety, democracy itself is difficult. From the right, there's a tendency to equate dissent with disloyalty. From the left, there's an instinct to see Bush's decisions as goose steps in a march toward authoritarianism.

Now, Brownstein is a sharp guy, and I generally applaud his moderate instincts. But as my commenters tell me ad nauseum those instincts can sometimes lead you astray. Here's a sentence from earlier in Brownstein's piece:

Americans are sending the same message with their wallets: President Bush, Sen. John F. Kerry and Democratic interest groups all have raised unprecedented sums, much of it from small donors.

Maybe this was just a slip of the keyboard, but if so it's a telling one: there are, apparently, no Republican interest groups raising money these days. No Chamber of Commerce, which declared death to Kerry when he picked trial lawyer John Edwards as his running mate. No NRA, pouring uncounted dollars into conservative races all over the country. No fundamentalist Christian groups, no anti-abortion groups, no insurance companies, and no oil companies. And certainly no 501(c)s like Americans for Job Security, raising money for conservative political advertising at a clip that would make George Soros envious.

But while this may be a nitpick in Brownstein's case, it's emblematic of a broader problem: an unstated assumption, even in opinion columns, that fairness dictates that both sides are equally at fault for today's supercharged atmosphere. But while there's no question that Democrats are mad as hell this year and you can even make a case that their anger is misplaced if you want to it's not as if this newfound militancy sprang out of nowhere.

Politics is always a tough business, but consider what's happened to American politics in the past 12 years. At the same time that Democrats were moving to the center by electing DLC centrist Bill Clinton as president, Republicans were getting steadily more radical: first with attacks on Clinton during his first two years that were unprecedented in their tinfoil ferocity, followed by the election of Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House, Clinton's impeachment, the election of the most conservative president since World War II, and capped by a steady stream of ruthlessness and faux patriotic dishonesty since 9/11 that's been breathtaking in its scope and venom.

Democrats may be responding in kind this year, but if you're going to talk about today's supercharged political atmosphere, basic honesty dictates that you explain where it came from in the first place: the radical conservative Republicans who took over their party a decade ago and control it to this day. Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris tells the whole story in "Perverse Polarity."

UPDATE: Filling in for Dan Drezner, Reihan Salam looks at this same problem from a center-right perspective. He thinks a moderate takeover of the Republican party is essential for its future, and I agree. Purging the Republican party of its Norquist/Bush/DeLay radical wing is as important today as it was for the Democratic party to purge its Henry Wallace wing in 1948.

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BLOWN COVER....According to Condoleezza Rice, U.S. officials released the name of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan to reporters on background last Sunday. On Monday, his name was printed in the New York Times and Khan's cover as a double agent was blown.

That's obviously bad enough, but there's a second question: did it matter? Or was Khan's usefulness already at an end anyway?

Today Juan Cole has the answer: Khan was in email contact with al-Qaeda agents in Britain on Monday and his exposure forced the premature arrest of an al-Qaeda cell in London:

The British MI5 was forced to have the London cell of 13 arrested immediately on Tuesday, fearing that they would flee now that they knew Khan had been arrested two weeks earlier. The British do not, however, appear to have finished gathering enough evidence to prosecute the 13 in the courts successfully.

It now turns out, according to Neville, that "Reports last week also claimed that five al Qaida militants were on the run in the UK after escaping capture in last Tuesdays raids." If this is true, it is likely that the 5 went underground on hearing that Khan was in custody. That is, the loose lips of the Bush administration enabled them to flee arrest.

This pretty much answers my questions from Saturday: it was a Bush administration official who blew Khan's cover, no one appears to have seriously asked journalists not to use his name, and yes, Khan was still providing useful information.

These facts don't even appear to be in dispute anymore, and yet the story is still getting only minor attention. Why? What does it take to get the mainstream press interested these days?

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August 8, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

CHALABI BEHIND BARS?....CNN is just a fount of information today. A few minutes ago they reported that arrest warrants have been issued in Iraq for both Ahmed and Salem Chalabi. The charge is counterfeiting.

Ahmed Chalabi, on the phone from Tehran, says it's all bogus. He's done nothing wrong and (if I understood him correctly) implied that of course he'll return to Iraq and answer the charges.

The reaction from the White House appears to be "Ahmed who?"

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Ah, via Atrios, I see that the charge against Salem Chalabi is murder. It's only Uncle Ahmed who's accused of counterfeiting.

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WHO OUTED KHAN?....Juan Cole is listening to CNN and says Wolf Blitzer had a report a few minutes ago about the al-Qaeda double agent whose identity was revealed on Monday:

Blitzer then revealed that he had discussed the Khan case with US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on background. He reported that she had admitted that the Bush administration had in fact revealed Khan's name to the press. She said she did not know if Khan was a double agent working for the Pakistani government. (!!!)

I'm not sure why Blitzer ratted out Rice if she was speaking on background, but who cares? If Blitzer is right, it means that it was indeed the U.S. who blew Khan's cover, and if Rice is well informed, it means that it was done without even knowing that the Pakistanis were still using him.

I'm a little surprised that Rice would say something like this, so I think I'll wait for further confirmation on this story. But it sure looks pretty rank at the moment.

UPDATE: In comments, Baseballgirl clears up Blitzer's remarks about Rice:

She said it on screen. She said that Khan's name was given to the media 'on background' by the Administration. Wolf didn't "out her", she outed herself.

That's better. I'm still surprised Rice would admit this, though.

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REALITY CHECK....A quick note to all my Bush-hating homies out there: it's quite possible that (a) al-Qaeda really is planning an attack in the United States sometime soon and (b) that the Bush administration has cynically hyped this to the skies for the basest political reasons.

Both of these things might be true. My guess is that both are true.

So: feel free to beat up on the Bushies for their casual and unserious use of intelligence as little more than a partisan political club. I certainly do. On the other hand, don't assume that just because the Bushies are irresponsible there isn't any actual threat. There probably is. OK?

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HISTORY LESSON....Reader Jeff S. points out an interesting excerpt from George Bush's recent speech at the UNITY conference:

One of the biggest fears many Iraqi citizens have is that we're not a country of our word. People don't want to take risks. They understand that at this point in time, if a vacuum were created, anarchy would reign and there would be mayhem and bloodshed. And they're fearful that the United States will once again say something and not mean it.

I say "once again" because you might remember, at different times during Iraqi history, they believed they heard something, in terms of U.S. support, and it didn't happen, and then there was, you know, a lot of death as a result of unfulfilled expectations.

Bush is referring, of course, to his father's call for Iraqis to rebel against Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. But when they did, he declined to support them and they were brutally crushed by Saddam's forces. The death toll among those who heeded Bush Sr.'s call was about 100,000.

For some reason, the famously plain spoken Bush Jr. was a little vague on these details. But I guess we can at least be thankful that he didn't directly try to blame it on Clinton.

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NATIONAL PREPAREDNESS MONTH....Tom Ridge on Tuesday: "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security."

As a patriotic American, I believe him. That's why I think Bob Harris is being shamefully irresponsible over at This Modern World when he implies base political motives behind Homeland Security's declaration of September as National Preparedness Month. Here is Bob's cynical take on the official announcement date of September 9th:

Why September 9th? That's awfully late, if it's supposed to be the entire month. My guess, thinking like Karl Rove: this year's 9/11 anniversary falls on a Saturday, so an announcement on the date or even Friday would only get a burst of free media on a weekend. But by timing it for the 6 pm news on Thursday, it'll reach the Friday papers, and thus be fully-injected into all of the emotion-laden anniversary coverage, plus the Sunday morning talk shows.

The idea, obviously, is to throw a large amount of focus, possibly for weeks on end, on the only issue on which Bush outpolls Kerry.

Typical liberal blinkery. Let's set the record straight, Bob. The United States has had many preparedness months in the past. We've had Earthquake Preparedness Month, we've had Disaster Preparedness Month, and we've had Earthquake and Disaster Preparedness Month. We've also had Disaster Preparedness Month for Animals. And Severe Storm Preparedness Month.

So what's the big deal? It's just another Preparedness Month, OK? Sure, it's being rolled out in red-state friendly Parade magazine and at a red-state friendly NASCAR race. And, yes, the kids are being treated to duck-and-cover training, just like at the height of the Cold War.

And, um, it's true that we haven't done this in any of the previous 35 months after 9/11, and that this comes exactly two months before a very tight presidential election. But that's just a coincidence, Bob. Honest.

How do I know? Because Tom Ridge says, "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security." You'd do well to remember that.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NEW BOOK FROM REGNERY...."Alabama Mail Room Veterans for Bush." Over at Bubba.

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August 7, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM....Where did George W. Bush get the term "compassionate conservatism" from? You'll have to read down to the bottom of the post to find out, but if you do Charles Kuffner seems to have the answer.

Kind of eerie, really.

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CLASSIFYING THE LIES....What's all this talk about "technical lies" over at Yglesias' site? Matt wants credit for pointing out a few weeks ago that this has become a mainstay of the Bush administration, and now Paul Krugman apparently wants credit for writing a couple of throwaway sentences about it last year.

Gentlemen, please. There's no need to argue. It's clear that the primary credit for explicating this thesis belongs to....me.

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EDITORIAL JUDGMENT....The Washington Post ran this story today:

GOP Star to Skip Convention

The most popular Republican in the country will not be speaking at the Republican National Convention. The party's number one asset, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will not even be there -- and may not be in the United States, according to U.S. officials.

Sounds juicy! But three paragraphs down it turns out that this is routine. Cabinet officers never speak at party conventions.

Why then did the Post run this story?

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DARFUR....What should we do about the genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan? One of the reasons I haven't talked about it much is that every article I've read about the situation makes it clear that the roots of the violence are very, very deep and the political situation is murderously fragile. Despite this, most of the analysis I've read until now suggests little more than pushing for tighter economic sanctions or persuading the African Union to send in a small number of troops.

These proposals strike me as so inadequate that it's hard to take them seriously. On Friday, though, David Englin wrote a more sobering account for The New Republic that presents what I think is a more realistic picture. He says there would be three components to a successful intervention in Darfur:

  • A no-fly zone over affected areas in western Sudan: "...it would be a mistake to underestimate Sudan's ability to defend the sovereignty of its airspace....double the size of its air force since 2000....34 new fighter jets from China....MiG-24 Hind helicopter gunships....a dozen fourth-generation MiG-29 fighter jets....modern radar stations for command and control....French air bases west of Sudan in Chad and French and U.S. bases east of Sudan in Djibouti are well situated to support no-fly zone operations....but they should be prepared to fight a modern enemy if Sudan chooses to defend its airspace."

  • Safe havens on the ground: "This would require conventional ground forces to establish checkpoints, conduct patrols, and forcibly disarm militiamen....The ground arm of an international intervention force ought to immediately take over responsibility for camp security and include camp peripheries in established safe zones."

  • Securing routes for humanitarian aid: "...aid has not been forthcoming from wealthy donor nations....United Nations is struggling to come up with the $350 million....the U.N.'s World Food Program over the weekend began airlifting food and aid.

    "....All of which raises the question of just how many ground troops an intervention force might require?....The African Union announced plans Wednesday to send 2,000 troops to Darfur. Britain's top general has said he could muster 5,000 troops for Sudan and France has 1,000 troops already stationed in neighboring Chad....It is not clear, however, if military intervention on the ground in Sudan would look more like Rwanda or more like Somalia, where 26,000 American troops were sent into a hostile environment."

Those 26,000 troops in Somalia were for a country with a population of less than 10 million. Kosovo, with a population of about 2 million, required 50,000 peacekeeping troops after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. In Iraq, a country of 25 million, we're undermanned even with 150,000 troops.

Sudan has a population of over 30 million about 6 million in western Sudan alone and has been engaged in civil war for the past two decades. As Englin notes:

While an intervention force establishing no-fly zones in the air, safe zones on the ground, and secure transit routes for aid shipments might take care of the immediate problem, each of these alone constitutes a serious violation of Sudanese sovereignty, and together they amount to a full-on invasion of western Sudan. Hopefully, the government of Sudan, faced with this prospect, would act quickly itself to disarm and demobilize the Janjaweed, stop government forces from participating in any more violence, and let aid through. As things stand right now, however, Sudan's leaders have said that any attempt to use force to intervene will be met with force. Therefore, the international community needs to be fully prepared to engage and defeat the Sudanese military.

I think this is about right. It's possible that a minimal show of force will prompt Sudan's government to back down, but we can't count on it. If the world intervenes in Darfur, we need to be prepared for a potentially long and bloody stay.

That's not to say it shouldn't be done. But we should go in with our eyes open. Expecting anything less than a full-on war is likely to be wishful thinking.

Kevin Drum 1:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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UNDERCOVER QUESTIONS....I'm surprised that the story about the U.S. blowing an undercover operation against al-Qaeda isn't getting more play this morning, either in the blogosphere or the mainstream media, but maybe that's because it's a weekend. However, another reason might be that the story is still ambiguous. Here are the key open questions:

  1. Who provided Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan's name to the New York Times last Monday? Was it a "U.S. official" or someone else?

  2. Did anyone ask the Times not to print Khan's name? If not, why not?

  3. Was Khan's undercover operation still active on Monday? Or had it run its course and was over anyway?

Hopefully we'll find get some answers to these questions next week.

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August 6, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

UNDERCOVER OPERATION BLOWN....What kind of idiots are running our counterterrorism operations?

The al-Qaida suspect named by U.S. officials as the source of information that led to this weeks terrorist alerts was working undercover, Pakistani intelligence sources said Friday, putting an end to the sting operation and forcing Pakistan to hide the man in a secret location.

....After his capture [in July], he admitted being an al-Qaida member and agreed to send e-mails to his contacts, a Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters. He sent encoded e-mails and received encoded replies. Hes a great hacker, and even the U.S. agents said he was a computer whiz.

....In addition to ending the Pakistani sting, the premature disclosure of Khans identity may have affected a major British operation in which 12 suspects were arrested in raids this week, one of whom U.S. officials said was a senior al-Qaida figure. One of the men was released Friday.

What in God's green earth is going on here? I have a whole stew of reactions swirling around in my head about this. I'm beside myself that Bush administration officials are so spineless that they'd kill an undercover operation just to remove some political heat from themselves. But: I'm also angry that the reaction to Sunday's terror warning from Bush critics was so hysterical that the Bushies got panicked into doing this. And yet: I'm furious that Bush and his cronies have so corrupted our intelligence services that deep skepticism was hardly an unfair reaction. But: why did Tom Ridge insist on politicizing Sunday's news in the first place? On the other hand: why did the New York Times print this? Did they know they were blowing an operation?

Any or all of these reactions may turn out to be ill advised. Maybe the Pakistanis are blowing smoke. Who knows. For now, I'm just pissed, but check back tomorrow after I've had more time to think.

In the meantime, let me just say that I can't wait until Washington D.C. is being run by adults again. I really can't wait.

Kevin Drum 11:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LUNATICS?....A few misguided souls took issue with my cavalier dismissal of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as "certifiable lunatics" yesterday. If you're one of them, I have two words for you: click here.

It turns out I was being too kind....

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EMPLOYMENT.... The employment numbers for July were bad. Very, very bad. Over at Asymmetrical Information, Megan McArdle agrees that this news has pushed the George Bush Toast-o-Meter to "extra crispy," but then offers this odd, halfhearted defense of our president:

Not, mind you, that I think that the low jobs numbers are Bush's fault, and any people trying to tell you otherwise would, in my humble opinion, be tap-dancing equally credibly to explain why the exact same job numbers were no-way-no-how the fault of the incumbent, if he happened to be a Democrat. Oh, it's legitimate to say that you didn't like the structure of his stimulus package, but any stimulus package, Democrat or Republican, would long since have worked its way through the economy had it been passed in 2002 -- the lifespan of a stimulus package being ca. 18 months, 2 years at most. This new soft patch isn't anyone's fault. But I don't suppose that makes it feel any better to the poor bastards who are out of work now.

It isn't anyone's fault? Hmmm. As I recall ah, yes, here it is Bush signed his most recent "stimulus" package at the tail end of May 2003. It takes a couple of months for stuff like this to actually get implemented, which means that we ought to be right smack in the sweet spot of that stimulus right now. If those tax cuts had any effect at all, July 2004 is precisely when we should all be in clover.

But they didn't have much effect and it is legitimate to criticize them on those grounds. That 2003 legislation wasn't a stimulus package, it was a tax cut package that the Bush administration named a stimulus package. There's a big difference.

What's more, I think this is at the heart of a seeming paradox pointed out most recently by Michael Kinsley: on practically every economic measure you can think of, Democratic presidents do better than Republican ones. Economists, even liberal ones, don't think much of this argument, pointing out that the president has limited power over the economy, control of Congress is important too, and the statistics themselves are too coarse to be meaningful.

Maybe. And yet, measure them any way you want, over any period you want, and with any time lag you want, and the results hold up: Democratic presidents are better for the economy. Why?

I suspect the answer is simple: Democrats may fumble around as much as Republicans, but in the end we always end up focusing on the one thing that FDR taught us to focus on: employment. Republicans, conversely, have historically focused on a variety of conservative hobbyhorses: inflation, balanced budgets, low taxes, small government, and so forth. And while they have successfully convinced themselves that these other metrics eventually produce high employment think "supply side" economics or various "trickle down" theories it ain't necessarily so.

If you want a strong economy, the #1 thing to focus on is strong employment. And if you want strong employment, the #1 thing to focus on is....strong employment. Republicans either don't understand this or pretend not to it's hard to tell which and that's why Democrats are better for the economy.

A rational economic plan over the past four years would have produced considerably higher employment than we have now, and that in turn would have produced a stronger economy. Unfortunately, we didn't get a rational economic plan. We got George W. Bush instead.

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THERE'S HABEAS, AND THEN THERE'S HABEAS....A few weeks ago the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo were entitled (among other things) to habeas corpus proceedings. Today, via Phil Carter, we learn that the administration has no real intention of following the court's order. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog writes that the Justice Department is recommending that detainees have no right to counsel at these proceedings, no right to due process, and no right to challenge their detention under international treaties. Plus all the proceedings should be postponed indefinitely anyway until the Pentagon finishes a new round of hearings before Combatant Status Review Tribunals.

That's some habeas. The Founding Fathers would be mighty proud, wouldn't they?

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A TERRIBLE MISTAKE....Hmmm, yet another curiosity about the Swift Boat nutjobs. One of them, Lieutenant Commander George Elliott (Kerry's commanding officer in Vietnam), now says that it was a "terrible mistake" to claim that Kerry didn't deserve his Silver Star.

Let me get this straight: Elliot signed an affadavit and appeared in a TV commercial to accuse Kerry of lying. But now he says it was a mistake. He thinks Kerry was telling the truth after all and he does deserve his Silver Star.

WTF? This wasn't a casual phone interview where he got flustered and misspoke. He signed an affadavit. He allowed them to film him for a television commercial. And now he says it was just a mistake? How do you make a mistake like that? What's going on here?

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A TALE OF TWO OFFICERS....I'm curious about something. John O'Neill, the professional Kerry hater who has "reluctantly" formed a generously-funded 527 accusing John Kerry of being a liar, a coward under fire, and a medal chaser, says he took over Kerry's boat, PCF-94, after Kerry left Vietnam.

But doesn't that mean that the crew of PCF-94, many of whom were on stage with Kerry during his convention speech last month, also served under O'Neill? Has anyone asked them what they think of him?

Just curious.

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WE NEED TO SPEED UP MOORE'S LAW....I just finished watching Desk Set, a Hepburn/Tracy comedy from 1957, and it left me depressed. Here we are, nearly 50 years later, and computers still can't do the things that the fictional computer in the movie did. Clearly, we suffer from an inability of computer engineers to keep up with Hollywood screenwriters.

On the other hand, at least we're finally getting close. It's required a worldwide network of millions of computers to get there, rather than a single automobile-sized machine with a couple of tape drives, but still....

POSTSCRIPT: For those who haven't seen it, the computer in question replaced um, augmented a reference department. Ask it a question, and it gave you an answer. You can kinda sorta do that with natural language processors plus an internet search engine, but not really. Maybe in another 20 years.

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THREE QUESTIONS....Tim Dunlop notes that President Bush said the following at a campaign stop in Columbus on Thursday:

Committing troops into harm's way is the most difficult decision a president can make. That decision must always be last resort. That decision must be done when our vital interests are at stake, but after we've tried everything else. There must be a compelling national need to put our troops into harm's way. I felt that.

I have a serious question for the right-handed blogosphere: in what way does this differ from what John Kerry says? Do you believe that Bush means it? And how would you feel if Kerry had said it?

OK, OK, that's three questions. But they're nice short ones.

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August 5, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

WAS BUSH AWOL?....ANOTHER LOOK....Since the Swift Boat lunatics are insisting that we bring the early 70s back into the news, it's back to the 70s we shall go. But not quite to the same place as the Swifties.

Instead, let's take a look at some new evidence about George Bush's infamous five-month absence from the National Guard during 1972. As you may recall, both payroll records and retirement records from 1972 show that Bush appeared for his unit's monthly drills in April 1972, skipped five consecutive months without permission, and finally appeared again for a drill in October.

Needless to say, this is not allowed: members of the National Guard are required to attend drills ("Unit Training Assemblies," or UTAs) one weekend a month (plus two additional weeks of active duty each year) to fulfull their requirements. Bush claims that he made up for his missed drills, and in fact the records show that he attended a number of drills in late 1972 and the first half of 1973. So everything's kosher, right? Bush screwed up a bit, but later made amends.

As it turns out, not quite. Paul Lukasiak has been examining Bush's payroll records with a microscope and has discovered an interesting thing down in the fine print: a series of codes that show not just the dates of the drills Bush attended, but the dates they were credited toward. For example, a drill in January might be part of January's requirement, but it might also be either a makeup for a missed drill in the previous month or a makeup for a drill that he planned to miss the following month. Paul has all the gruesome detail at his site, but here's his summary breakdown of how to read the payroll codes:

So did Bush make up his missed drills? In a word, no. The table below is Paul's reconstruction of the payroll data and shows that none of the drills Bush attended after his five-month absence were performed to make up for his missed drills.

Training Dates

Month Credited

October 28-29

October 1972

November 11-12

November

November 13-14

December

January 4-5

January 1973

January 6-8

February

January 9-10

March

April 7-8

April

May 19-20

May

June 23-24

June

July 21-22

July

July 16-17

August

July 18-19

September

So what do we know? We know that Bush skipped five months of drills without permission, but we've known that since last March. In addition, though, we now know that despite what he says, Bush never made up any of the drills he missed.

By itself, this might or might not be a big deal. However, in addition to a disturbingly large number of still unanswered questions about his service, it's clear that in mid-1972 Lt. Bush decided to skip his required annual physical and quit flying and apparently nobody complained. He then missed five months of drills and was never required to make them up. Despite this, in 1973 he was transferred to the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver, no disciplinary was action taken, and in 1974 he was honorably discharged.

Who pulled the strings to make this happen? And why?

POSTSCRIPT: Paul's main site is here. I don't understand all of it (yet...) and can't vouch for everything he says, but of course you're welcome to read it and make up your own mind.

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BUSH AND THE PAKISTANIS....Last month, John Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari wrote a story in The New Republic saying that American officials were pressuring Pakistan to announce the capture of an important al-Qaeda figure during the Democratic convention. Sure enough, on the last day of the convention, Pakistan's interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayyat, announced the capture of the terrorist who is #22 on the FBI's most wanted list.

Was this evidence of manipulation, or just a coincidence? Judis, Ackerman and Ansari vote for "manipulation":

A proud Hayyat dubbed the arrest "another crowning success of Pakistan's security apparatus in the fight against terrorism." But it is doubtful Hayyat was really addressing his fellow Pakistanis: He made the announcement at midnight. More likely, his intended audience was half a world away--in the United States, where, in the middle of the afternoon, John Kerry was preparing to deliver his nomination speech to the Democratic National Convention.

....Though there is no policy governing how long to keep such arrests secret, standard intelligence practices dictate that the capture should not have been made public until investigators had finished with Ghailani (and the laptop and computer disks he had been captured with). Indeed, Ghailani may still talk, but some current and former American officials fear that, by broadcasting his name around the world, the Pakistanis have reduced the value of the intelligence that interrogators can extract from him.

"Now, anything that he was involved in is being shredded, burned, and thrown in a river," a senior counterterrorism official told the Los Angeles Times. "We have to assume anyone affiliated with this guy is on the run ... when, usually, we can get great stuff as long as we can keep it quiet." Adds former CIA operative Robert Baer: "It makes no sense to make the announcement then. Presumably, everything [Al Qaeda] does is compartmented. By announcing to everybody in the world that we have this guy, and he is talking, you have to assume that you shoot tactics. To keep these guys off-balance, a lot of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this. You always want to get these guys when they are on vacation, when they are not expecting you."

Of course, this isn't conclusive. It might still be a coincidence. Interior ministers give midnight press conferences all the time, right?

And First Ladies routinely visit buildings that were the focus of alarming terrorist threats just hours before, don't they? (Ken Layne, back from whatever the hell he's been doing for the past year, has a very nice screed about this.)

At worst, the Bush administration is deliberately manipulating intelligence to scare everyone into voting for him. At best, the intelligence is real but the Bushies are doing everything in their power to hype it for partisan purposes. In the end, though, it probably doesn't really matter which, since in either case it's obvious that Bush treats national intelligence and the wider war on terror as little more than cynical campaign tools. The country would be a lot better off with a president who takes this stuff seriously.

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SWIFT BOATS....I hope nobody minds if I ignore the whole Swift Boat veterans thing. These people are certifiable lunatics, and I just can't stand the thought of wasting neurons over them. I'm sure you can find plenty of coverage elsewhere from hardier souls if you're really in the mood to torture yourself.

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THE DISAPPEARING SECRETARY....A few days ago I got an email from a reader saying that it seemed as though we weren't hearing much from Don Rumsfeld these days. What was going on? Could I do a Nexis search or something and see if he really has dropped off the face of the earth?

So I did a quickie search and found nothing: Rumsfeld had about as many mentions in the New York Times in June and July as he did in January and February. I didn't feel like pursuing it further and moved on.

But it turns out my reader was smarter than me. Today in the Prospect, Harold Meyerson looks into this question and concludes that, indeed

Rummy had all but vanished in the past six weeks or so. All those Pentagon news conferences and Sunday morning shows were suddenly Rummy-less. Somebody was clamming him up, or jamming him -- or worse.

That's still a little vague, though. Has Rumsfeld really disappeared? It turns out the Los Angeles Times has the scoop:

The man who gave daily progress reports at the Pentagon in the heat of the war has appeared only twice at Pentagon briefings since May.

And the White House, which coordinates which administration officials appear on the networks' news-making Sunday talk shows, has not lined up a Rumsfeld interview for months, although a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied that the White House did not want Rumsfeld speaking out.

The wisecracking defense chief has not disappeared entirely he still draws throngs for speeches and handshakes from tourists when he appears on Capitol Hill. Since May, he has appeared 13 times before groups of reporters and twice before Congress, as well as giving other television and radio interviews, a Pentagon tally shows.

Among 19 television and radio interviews Rumsfeld has done since May, many have been with local media or with supportive satellite and cable networks, which often give more favorable coverage than other national media.

So Rumsfeld really has disappeared, and stuff like that doesn't happen by accident. My guess: the Bush campaign team has decided that Iraq is a liability and wants to keep it out of the news between now and November. The best way to do that is to keep people like Rumsfeld and Iraq "ambassador" John Negroponte out of the public eye as much as possible while Bush is busy transforming himself from a war president into a man of peace. We can probably expect the Rummy drought to continue until then.

Kevin Drum 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A MAN OF DESTINY....I've been wondering for a while who the Illinois Republican party would get to run against Barack Obama now that Jack Ryan has dropped out of the Senate race there. They tried Mike Ditka, and that was a no-go, and then Ted Nugent, which was a joke. And then Obama gave that killer speech at the Democratic convention and it became even more obvious that anyone who ran against him was going to be trounced. What kind of meathead would be up for a suicide run?

The answer, of course, was obvious, although it didn't occur to me: someone with a huge ego who cares only about getting his face on TV as often as possible and doesn't care much about actually winning. And since Ralph Nader was already busy running for president, that could only mean Alan Keyes.

Keyes, of course, is a famous loon, which makes him perfect for the job since no sane person would take it. And just think: the citizens of Illinois get three months of priceless entertainment, and the U.S. Senate gets Barack Obama. Everybody wins!

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August 4, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU TO BUY AN SUV....Over at Slate, Andy Bowers notices something odd: many California cities, including Pasadena and Beverly Hills, ban trucks over 6,000 pounds from all residential streets. Larger cities, like San Francisco and Los Angeles, ban them from some residential streets.

But what about SUVs? There are lots of SUVs out there that weigh more than 6,000 pounds and are classified as heavy trucks. Shouldn't they be banned as well? Heh heh.

Now, by itself, this would be sort of an amusing gotcha, but not much more. However, there's also this, which I didn't know:

It's no accident the automakers churn out so many SUVs that break the 6K barrier. By doing so, these "trucks" (and that's how they're classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation) qualify for a huge federal tax break. If you claim you use a 3-ton truck exclusively for work, you can write it off immediately. All of it. Up to $100,000 (in fact, Congress raised the limit from $25,000 just last year).

This exemption was passed in 2003 and it means what it says: if you're self-employed as a lawyer and you commute to your office in your BMW X5, you can write it off as a business expense as long as this accounts for more than 50% of the miles you drive. No need to depreciate it over five years or anything like that. You can write the whole thing off in a single year.

But as this site helpfully points out, you have to follow the rules: "First, Pick Out a Suitably Heavy Machine." Buy a Ford Taurus and you don't qualify.

Your tax dollars at work.

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, the real issue here is that SUVs are classified as trucks. Every problem that Bowers writes about would go away if they were classified as cars, as they should be. Of course, then they'd be subject to federal gas mileage rules, and we can't have that, can we?

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A HALLIBURTON FAIRY TALE....It appears that Manchurian Global um, I mean Halliburton, has paid a fine for secretly changing its accounting practices in a way that inflated its 1998 and 1999 profit figures:

Until the second quarter of 1998, Halliburton had dealt with cost overruns on projects by taking a loss for the amount of the overrun unless and until the company that it was working for agreed to pay part or all of the overrun. But confronted with a large overrun on a fixed-fee project to build a gas production plant in the Middle East - the commission did not say in which country - Halliburton changed its policy so that it would record the income it thought the customer would eventually agree to pay.

That change in policy was not disclosed until March 2000, when the company filed its 1999 annual report with the S.E.C. The commission said that pretax profit for all of 1998 was reported at $278.8 million, 46 percent more than the $190.9 million that would have been reported under the old accounting.

Halliburton's former CFO and controller have been the subject of an SEC investigation related to this, but Halliburton's former CEO who, you may recall, is currently the vice president of the United States is in the clear. Why? Because the SEC was unable to find any evidence that he knew what was going on.

All I can say about this is that it must be mind-numbingly frustrating to be an SEC investigator. Dick Cheney like most CEOs in cases like this is off the hook because there's no smoking gun. But anybody who's spent even a few minutes in the executive suite of a large corporation knows that of course Cheney knew about this. Not only did he know, but this over-budget project was almost certainly a subject of considerable interest to him, the cost overruns were probably a subject of numerous status reports, and its effect on Halliburton's earnings was surely a frequent source of conversation. There is nothing that a CEO pays more attention to than his company's quarterly and yearly earnings reports. Nothing.

So Cheney knew. But as long as his former CFO and controller are willing to fall on their swords for him, there will never be any proof. And we will all go on pretending that when FY98 earnings turned out to be 46% higher than expected, Dick Cheney just scratched his chin, said "I'll be damned, things turned out OK after all," and then went out and played a round of golf. When he got back, nobody on his financial team, nobody in sales, nobody on the board, none of the analysts who follow Halliburton, and nobody in operations ever mentioned the subject of surprisingly high corporate earnings in his presence again.

And they all lived happily ever after.

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PAKISTAN....Asia Times has a slightly different take on the story about Pakistan delivering al-Qaeda operatives to the U.S. in time for the election:

When US Central Command commander General John Abizaid visited Islamabad last week, his first priority was not Pakistan sending troops to Iraq, but the arrest of high-value al-Qaeda targets.

....Already, though, under intense pressure from the US, Pakistan has handed over as many as 350 suspected al-Qaeda operators into US custody. Most have been low-ranking, but some important names are, according to Asia Times Online contacts, being held in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) safe houses to be presented at the right moment.

The contacts say that Pakistan's strategic circles see the high-value al-Qaeda operators as "bargaining chips" to ensure continued US support for President General Pervez Musharraf's de facto military rule in Pakistan. Had Pakistan handed over top targets such as Osama bin Laden, his deputy Dr Aiman al-Zawahir, Tahir Yuldash (leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and others assuming it was in a position to do so the military rulers would have lost their usefulness to the US in its "war on terror".

This is Asia Times, which tends to be fairly breathless about this kind of thing, so take it with a grain of salt. But it suggests an interesting tug of war: Pakistan's leaders are under pressure from the U.S. and therefore need to demonstrate a certain level of cooperation, but at the same time they're afraid that if the U.S. ever "wins" the war against al-Qaeda elements in Pakistan we will promptly discard Pakistan as an ally. Which, in fairness, is pretty much what the United States does to most allies who outlive their usefulness (see Aghanistan, War Against Soviet Domination of).

Obviously there are internal tensions in Pakistan too, which has a very substantial pro-Taliban faction. But I thought this sounded like an interesting additional tidbit.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 3, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE....William Falk highlights a new report on medical care in America:

A new survey of data from 50 states concluded that medical errors are killing 195,000 people a year in American hospitals double the previous estimate. HealthGrades, a private company that rates hospitals for insurers and health plans, said that if hospital errors were included on the nation's list of the leading causes of death, they would show up as No. 6 ahead of diabetes, pneumonia and Alzheimer's.

Over at Aspasia, Jonathan, who is four weeks into his surgery clerkship, responds to this news:

This is curious, because just last night I was telling a friend how there's "no way" malpractice is as uncommon as popularly imagined. Four weeks of surgery and I've seen shit that's turned me white. Now if someone did a study looking at non-lethal complications, just imagine what that number would be.

So maybe ambulance chasing lawyers aren't the biggest cause of malpractice suits after all. Maybe malpractice is.

Just sayin.

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TERROR WARNINGS....I really don't know what to think about the New York terror alert this weekend that we now know was based on old information. This is from the Washington Post:

More than half a dozen government officials interviewed yesterday, who declined to be identified because classified information is involved, said that most, if not all, of the information about the buildings seized by authorities in a raid in Pakistan last week was about three years old, and possibly older.

"There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new," said one senior law enforcement official who was briefed on the alert. "Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."

But then there's this in the LA Times:

Several senior U.S. counterterrorism officials said that the surveillance, obtained in Pakistan and reviewed late last week by authorities in Washington, came amid a continuing stream of intelligence corroborating Al Qaeda's determination to launch strikes in the U.S.

....On Monday, [Homeland Security Secretary Tom] Ridge told NBC's "Today" show that on a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of the intelligence prompting the alert was "a 10".

....in a briefing, White House homeland security advisor Frances Townsend described the intelligence as coming not just from Khan but from "multiple reporting streams that came together in such a way to give us real grave concern."

After spending some time reading about the CIA's "multiple streams" of intelligence regarding uranium from Niger, I'm not as impressed by this as I might have been a year ago. Still, even though my trusting nature has taken a beating lately, for now it looks like this is probably the real deal, not just a politically motivated announcement designed to scare everyone into voting for George Bush (The Only Candidate Who's Tough on Terror).

But trust is in short supply these days and mine could disappear in a blink. This is definitely a story worth following.

UPDATE: I see that my loyal commenters want the other side of this story the tinfoil hat side. Glad to oblige. Here's part of what I originally wrote after reading only the Washington Post story quoted above:

I don't know which "government officials" Dan Eggen and Dana Priest interviewed for their story, but you have to figure they're the kind of people who are consulted before terror warnings are issued. So if these people are all scratching their heads about this, who was giving Tom Ridge advice to go public?

Here are the dots to wonder about: we already know that Karl Rove advised Republicans to keep war and terror front and center during the 2002 midterm elections and he probably hasn't changed his mind about this strategy since then. We know that the press practically snickers whenever John Ashcroft announces yet another "terror" arrest. We know that the administration has pressured Pakistan to round up al-Qaeda members before the election. We know that Bush is desperate to look like he's responding the the 9/11 Commission report but in reality wants no part of it. And now we know that highly public terror warnings are being issued based on information that makes even law enforcement officials wonder what's really going on.

After reading half a dozen other stories about the terror warning, I think the bulk of the evidence indicates that U.S. intelligence genuinely thinks something serious is being planned. However, I can't blame anyone for connecting these dots and concluding otherwise. For now, though, my own mind remains open on the subject.

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By: Kevin Drum

DEPOSIT BOTTLE SCOFFLAWS....Jane Galt thinks California's budget priorities are misplaced. She might have a point.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

9/11 SHAM....Yesterday I suggested that George Bush's proposal for a new intelligence director was a ruse: by refusing to make the director part of the White House staff, he was keeping the form of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations but weakening the new director's actual power to do anything.

Still, at least the new director would have cabinet rank, right? And budget authority. And the various deputy leaders of the national intelligence apparatus (CIA, Pentagon, counterterrorism, and FBI) would still report to him. So even if he's not part of the White House, he'd still have a fair amount of power. Right?

Wrong:

Bush's proposals differed from the commission's recommendations in two critical ways. First, the president said the intelligence czar should not be part of the White House. Second, Bush said the new director should have "input" in, but not control over, the budgets of the country's 15 intelligence agencies.

....But experts and administration critics said that without budgetary authority over the entire intelligence apparatus, the new director would hold little sway over the agencies that are part of the Department of Defense, especially the powerful Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Together the defense intelligence organizations account for more than 80% of the intelligence budget, while the Central Intelligence Agency spends less than 20%. Precise figures are classified.

"A national intelligence director who doesn't have Cabinet rank or budget authority or work in the executive office of the president risks irrelevance. It's hard to see what kind of power base such an official would have," said Daniel Benjamin of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Budgetary "input" doesn't mean a thing and Don Rumsfeld knows it. And although none of the news reports mention it, I'll bet that Bush doesn't intend for the undersecretary of defense for intelligence to report to the new director either, as the 9/11 Commission recommended.

Bottom line: the new director heads no agency, doesn't have cabinet rank, doesn't work in the White House, has no budget authority, and apparently has no reporting authority. In other words, he's just a figurehead.

This is a sham. If Bush doesn't like the 9/11 Commission's recommendations he should have the guts to say so. Instead, he and Rumsfeld have cooked up a transparent con: to the public at large it looks like he's acting decisively to take up the commission's recommendations, but anyone who knows how Washington works understands that he's really just giving them the finger.

This is a complete victory for the Pentagon. They'll be able to brush off this new director like a fly.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PAKISTAN GETS SERIOUS....Last month The New Republic reported that Pakistani officials were under pressure from the Bush administration to find some al-Qaeda bad guys before the election. What's more, a high-profile capture during the Democratic convention would be really great.

Sure enough, on the last day of the convention the Pakistanis announced they had captured an al-Qaeda terrorist who was one of the FBI's most wanted.

Then, on Monday, we learned that the heightened security alert in New York was due to information on a laptop computer that had been taken from a captured al-Qaeda terrorist after a 25-hour gun battle in mid-July in Pakistan.

The Pakistanis sure as busy. I wonder why they couldn't do this in the summer of 2002. And the summer of 2003. Why did we wait until the summer of 2004 to put the screws on them?

And how many more miraculous captures of al-Qaeda operatives by the Pakistanis can we look forward to between now and November 2? The question kind of answers itself, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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August 2, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

ANTICIPATORY WARRANTS....Over at Volokh, Orin Kerr learns something new and disturbing:

I have read a lot of Fourth Amendment cases over the last few years, but today I learned something new: several courts of appeals have allowed the government to obtain and execute "anticipatory" search warrants. According to these cases, the government can get a warrant even if their case for probable cause hinges on some future event. If the future event occurs, the warrant becomes operative and they can execute the search. If the future event does not occur, then the warrant is not yet operative and they cannot execute the search.

As Orin points out, the problem with this is that a "future event" isn't necessarily a simple, clear-cut incident. It might be something that's unmistakably black-and-white, but it also might be something based on the suspect's behavior that's a bit of a judgment call.

And that's disturbing. The whole point of a warrant is that it prevents police from making their own judgment calls and requires them to make their case to a neutral judge if they want to execute a search. I wonder how long this has been going on and how common it is?

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

SOUNDS LIKE A WINNER....Over the past few months, I've heard from a number of people inside and outside the Kerry campaign who have suggested phrases and/or entire speeches for the candidate and were told, "That just doesn't sound like Kerry." Which was, usually, the point. I personally don't have any problem with Kerry's rather long-winded manner of speaking. Maybe that comes from too much time in academia, but I like knowing that at least one candidate for the presidency is a serious, thoughtful kind of guy. His speeches don't normally make for great primetime viewing, however, which was one of the reasons Democrats were a bit uneasy as the last night of the Convention approached.

Things couldn't have gone better, however. After a warm-up (in every sense) act featuring the Kerry daughters, a compelling Kerry movie, and Max Cleland, Kerry hit all of the right notes in a speech that managed to not sound like Kerry (lots of good soundbites for the highlight reels) while also not sounding false. It's a tough line to walk, but the Senator and his team managed it with agility.

It won't come as a surprise to anyone that I was particularly impressed with Kerry's comments on religion. But I sincerely think that the way he spoke about religion should be a comfort to all Democrats -- regardless of what they think about the place of religion in public life -- because he demonstrated that George W. Bush's way is not the only way when it comes to mentioning faith.

Five minutes before Kerry delivered his speech, I got a call with the news that religion language had made it into the text at the last moment. After decades of either staying silent or actively backing away from the topic of religion, Democrats are beginning to understand that they can talk about religion in their own way, that the GOP way of doing things is not the only template for discussing religion in politics.

What Kerry made clear is that there is not only more than one kind of value system in American politics and more than one way of thinking about faith, but also more than one way of talking about all of this. He tapped perfectly into what people don't like about Bush's use of faith, understanding that you don't have to critize religion in general in order to criticize how others use it, that you don't have to stay silent about your own faith in order to speak out against how others turn theirs into political tools.

Kerry made the first explicit step any Democratic presidential candidate ever has to open the door of the party to people of faith. "No one who has something to contribute will be left on the sidelines," he said. "And let me say it plainly: in that cause, and in this campaign, we welcome people of faith. America is not us and them."

That's huge. That's a rebuke both to those on the right who would claim religion only for themselves and to those on the left who see evidence of faith as enough to disqualify individuals from participating in the political sphere.

Kerry followed this welcome with a simple, but powerful, profession: "I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve." Note the language -- I have faith, but I'm not like that other guy. I don't need to wave it in your face. That's exactly right and it's what Democrats can contribute to the discussion. By staying out of it, they have let Republicans get away with parading piety and acting as if that has anything to do with their qualifications for office. But by stepping into the fray and saying instead, you're not the only ones with faith and you're not the only ones who get to determine how we talk about it, Democrats get to redefine the debate.

Kerry also hit perfectly what so many Americans dislike about Bush and his appropriation of religion -- the arrogant assumption that he knows the mind of God. "I don't want to claim that God is on our side," said Kerry, borrowing instead Abe Lincoln's formulation: "I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."

I know there are those who believe that religion should never ever be acknowledged or discussed in politics. For most, that is a principled position and I respect it. But we're going to have to agree to disagree. Religion motivates individuals to enter politics as public servants, it motivates citizens when they cast their votes, and one party cannot afford to ignore that fact if the other actively embraces it.

As I've noted, however, there are more ways to talk about religion and people of faith than just the George W. Bush template. His way of doing things rightly turns off a whole swath of people, both religious and non-religious. The Kerry way -- asserting that, whatever our faith, "one belief binds us: The measure of our character is our willingness to give of ourselves for others and for our country" -- presents voters and politicians with another option. Both religion and politics are the better for it.

Amy Sullivan 5:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR....George Bush has decided to accept the 9/11 Commission's recommendation to improve coordination of U.S. intelligence efforts by creating a national intelligence director. But there's a surprise: this new director won't work out the White House, as the commission suggested. Dan Drezner is, um, surprised:

I'll admit to being gobsmacked not because Karl Rove might be reading my blog, but because the Bush administration had an opportunity to centralize policy authority and passed. Their proposed reform might be even better, because it provides one layer of bureaucratic protection from the overt political manipulation of intelligence. However, for a White House any White House to decline placing an important bureaucracy inside the Executive Office of the President is unusual.

It does seem odd, and lack of office space in the West Wing is probably not the answer. So what is?

Here's my guess: Bush felt pressured to accept the commission's recommendations, but Don Rumsfeld was not happy about the idea of his intelligence apparatus being under someone else's thumb. The answer they came up with was twofold: accept the idea of a national intelligence director, thus showing that they take the commission's recommendations seriously, but weaken its powers by housing it in its own building.

Why? Because it's a truism of DC power politics that anyone who works directly out of the White House has more influence than someone who doesn't. The Pentagon probably feels that it can handle another high-level bureaucrat, but isn't so sure it can handle one who actually works directly in the White House and talks to the president and his aides on a regular basis.

Needless to day, Bush is spinning this as a way of keeping the new intelligence director independent, but I think the real story is the Pentagon's desire to keep the director's oversight as weak as possible. Keeping him out of the White House is the best way to do that.

And here's an even more interesting question: does Bush even know this is what's happening? Or is he himself being spun by Don Rumsfeld?

Kevin Drum 3:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TRUST BUT VERIFY....I almost forgot, but Laura Rozen reminded me: "This administration is insane. I have no words."

That was pretty much my reaction too when I read that Bush has decided to continue supporting an international treaty to ban production of nuclear weapons materials but to oppose provisions for inspections and verification.

Their explanation for this change in stance makes no sense, and they have so far declined to explain anything further. It's really pretty bizarre.

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By: Kevin Drum

ABOLISH THE IRS!....I see that House Speaker Dennis Hastert has written a book boldly suggesting that we abolish the IRS and replace the income tax with "a national sales tax or a value added tax." Drudge claims with no particular evidence that this will be the "domestic centerpiece of the Bush/GOP agenda for a second Bush term."

Well, maybe. After all, this has been a conservative wet dream for decades, and maybe Bush has caught the fever. But before you get too excited about abolishing the IRS, here are a few factoids to chew on:

  • Forget the idea of a national sales tax. It's common knowledge among tax experts that sales tax levels much above 10% don't work because the incentives to cheat are simply too great. Many states already have sales taxes close to this level, and tacking on an extra 20-30% in federal sales tax is a complete nonstarter.

  • So how about a value added tax instead? Instead of one big tax tacked on to the final consumer sale, a VAT breaks things up into smaller pieces by taxing the amount of value added to goods and services at each stage of production and while it may sound more complicated than a sales tax, it turns out that it's actually easier to monitor and control. Tax experts tend to like VATs for a variety of reasons.

    But here's the problem: VATs don't raise nearly as much money as breathless newspaper op-eds would have you believe. Take Great Britain as an example: it has a basic VAT rate of 17.5% (excluding food and a few other items), and last year this raised (roughly) $100 billion. This is approximately 6% of Great Britain's GDP.

    In America, personal and corporate income taxes account for about 10% of GDP. This means that if we adopted a VAT similar to Great Britain's, and we wanted to use to it to abolish the IRS completely, our basic VAT rate would have to be around 30%. Ouch.

    Because of this, Great Britain, like other countries, does not rely solely on VAT. In fact, the Brits have all the same taxes we do: an income tax (22% is the basic rate), social security, capital gains, stamp duties, excise taxes, inheritance tax, corporation taxes, etc.

  • Sales taxes and VATs are examples of consumption taxes, which are designed to tax what you consume, not what you earn. So another way to implement a consumption tax is to keep our tax system the way it is but exclude taxes on any income that's plowed back into investments: stocks, bonds, savings acounts, etc. By definition, everything that's left over is money that's spent on consumption. The economic effect ends up being pretty similar to a VAT.

    Unfortunately, this wouldn't abolish the IRS, it would just eliminate taxes on a big chunk of investment income. Now, there are some economists who think this is a good idea, and there are lots of wealthy Republican contributors who think this is a great idea, but you'd better check your wallet before you decide you like it too. Investment income is still mostly an artifact of wealth, and if we allow wealthy taxpayers off the hook for paying taxes on their investments we have to make up this revenue somewhere else. That means surprise! higher rates on everyone else.

So aside from letting the rich pay lower taxes, how do conservatives defend the idea of abolishing the income tax? Bruce Bartlett, for example, suggests that consumption taxes are inherently more efficient than income taxes (true), so we could make up for their non-progressive nature by having a higher tax rate than we do now (with no loss in economic growth) and then spending the extra money on the poor.

I hardly need to point out the problems here, do I? First, far from proposing higher taxes, most consumption tax proposals are deeply dishonest about the rates needed just to replace the current income tax. They're mostly proposing lower rates, not higher. Second, the increased efficiency of consumption taxes is fairly modest, and their proponents routinely inflate them beyond recognition.

And third, increased spending on the poor? In whose universe? Certainly not Denny Hastert's or George Bush's.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PANIC IN THE SKIES, PART 2....Security guru Bruce Schneier writes today about yet another fateful encounter in the air:

Ninety minutes after taking off from Sydney Airport, a flight attendant on a United Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles found an airsickness bag presumably unused in a lavatory with the letters "BOB" written on it.

The flight attendant decided that the letters stood for __________ and immediately alerted the captain, who decided the risk was serious enough to turn the plane around and land back in Sydney.

Can you guess what BOB is alleged to mean? Or why Australian Transport Minister John Anderson said that whoever wrote this was "irresponsible at the least and horrendously selfish and stupid at the worst"?

If you give up, go ahead and click the link. The lesson, like that of a previous panic over Syrians with a "cold, defiant look," seems to be this: even the most ordinary activity can be interpreted as evidence of terrorism by frightened people. After all, how could anyone predict that writing "BOB" on an airsickness bag would cause a plane to turn around and make an emergency landing? That takes a pretty vivid imagination.

And as Bruce suggests in his article, the real problem isn't the temporary inconvenience these false alarms cause. The real problem is that if people continue to act this way, eventually flyers will laugh off every report of suspicious activity. In other words, panicked reactions like this just make the terrorists' jobs easier.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS?....Mark Kleiman thinks there are a few little seedlings of evidence that people are growing up and talking more honestly about race these days and John Kerry is one of them. I hope he's right.

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August 1, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SILVER SCREEN POLITICS....Other states have tackled their budget problems resolutely, cutting costs and raising taxes in order to get their budgets into balance. But not Arnold Schwarzenegger's California. Once again, we stand alone:

Corina Eckl, a state budget expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said no other state budget relied on as much borrowing as California's.

"When you look at the numbers, California stands alone. We are not seeing widespread pushing forward of budget problems," she said. "Most states are trying to resolve them in their entirety in fiscal 2005."

The $105.4-billion spending plan signed into law Saturday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger includes a budget shortfall now expected to total as much as $17 billion over the next two years.

This is not a secret. Everyone knows this is what Arnold and the Republicans in the legislature have brought us to, and everyone knows that pushing our deficits into the future just makes them worse. And keep in mind that this estimate already assumes pretty good economic growth. If the economy flattens out even a little, our deficit will climb even higher.

And Arnold's answer? Reorganize the California bureaucracy, thus saving billions and billions of dollars. This is on the same level as "waste, fraud, and mismanagement" as a longtime political wheeze something that sounds good on the stump but that everyone knows perfectly well is just hot air.

Californians elected Arnold because they wanted to live the fantasy. I guess we're getting our money's worth.

Kevin Drum 5:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

URANIUM FROM AFRICA ITALY....Yesterday I posted about those forged Niger documents that the CIA relied on for so long as the linchpin of its case that Iraq was trying to procure yellowcake uranium from Africa. Where did those documents come from?

From an Italian journalist. But where did she get them? From a shadowy "security consultant" in Rome who had a relationship with the Nigerien embassy. But where did he get them? Josh Marshall says they originally came from a SISMI officer Italian military intelligence who gave them to an employee of the Nigerien embassy and asked her to surreptitiously pass them along:

Youll remember that most of the papers in the bundle of Niger-uranium documents that arrived at the US Embassy in Rome were actually authentic. It was only a subset of the documents --- those specifically related to the alleged Niger-Iraq transactions and a couple others --- that were bogus.

In late 2001, the SISMI officer brought the Niger Embassy employee a packet of documents --- those later identified as forgeries --- and instructed her to slip them in with the other documents she was providing to the security consultant on an on-going basis.

She mixed those documents in with authentic documents which she had access to in the course of her work at the embassy. She then passed those documents --- again, a mix of authentic and forged ones --- to the security consultant.

In other words, SISMI forged the documents or at a minimum acted as a knowing conduit for someone else. And despite denials from various intelligence agencies at various times, those forged documents were the source of practically all the evidence that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Africa, as the CIA tacitly admitted in June 2003:

....since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad.

Josh promises more later, including a complete account in next month's issue of the Washington Monthly. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A KERRY ENDORSEMENT....John Kerry has won his first newspaper endorsement:

Kerry immeasurably improves our chances of defeating terrorism and making the world safer. In a bitter fight in a divided America, reassurance that Kerry has the support of the rest of the world could be a decisive factor in key swing states. We must offer that signal.

OK, it's from the Observer in Great Britain, but still. It's a start.

UPDATE: In comments, I see that Kerry's first endorsement was actually from the Philadelphia Daily News several weeks ago. And quite an endorsement it is....

Kevin Drum 1:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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