Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 31, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HALLOWEEN SCARINESS.... A reader sends in his Halloween creation for 2005: a "Cheneykin." Put on a pair of eyeglasses and it's a spitting image!

Speaking of which, I guess I better hop out to the store and get some candy for the five or six trick or treaters who show up each year. (Apparently the neighborhood across the street has a reputation for better pickings.)

In the meantime, have a Happy Halloween. Try not to get too many cavities this year.

Kevin Drum 6:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE FROM LA REPUBBLICA....I don't really know what to make of this, but this week La Repubblica is running yet another 3-part series about the origins of the Iraq war. Via Nur al-Cubicle, here's an excerpt from Part 1. Note that SISMI is Italian intelligence, and Pollari is Nicol Pollari, the head of SISMI:

The story of Italian military intervention in Iraq begins [in late 2001] when the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Ledeen, sponsored by Defense Minister Antonio Martin, debarks in Rome with Pentagon men in tow to meet a handful of Iranian exiles. The meeting is organized by SISMI in an agency safe house near Piazza di Spagna (however other sources told us it was a reserved room in the Parco dei Principi Hotel).

Twenty men are gathered around a large table, covered by maps of Iraq, Iran and Syria. Those who count are Lawrence Franklin and Harold Rhode of the Office of Special Plans, Michael Ledeen of the AIE, a SISMI station chief accompanied by his assistant (the first is a balding man between 46 and 48 years of age; the second is younger, around 38, with braces on his teeth), and some mysterious Iranians.

Pollari confirms the meeting to La Repubblica: "When [Antonio Martin] asked me to organize the meeting, I became curious. But it was my job and I wasnt born yesterday. Its true my men were also present at the meeting. I wanted to know what was boiling in the pot. It's also true that there were maps of Iraq and Iran on the table. I can tell you those Iranians were not exactly 'exiles'. The went and came from Tehran with their passports with no difficulty whatsoever as if they were transparent to the Pasdaran [the Iranian Revolutionary Guard]."

....The bogus Italian dossier on the Niger uranium turns up [at the meeting] also and we dont know exactly why because Chalabi is in possession of it.

The gist of the article is that Iran was an active supporter of the war because the Shiite mullahs in Tehran thought that a Shiite-controlled Iraq would make a better neighbor than Saddam Hussein's Sunni-controlled secular dictatorship. That's no big surprise, since Iran and Iraq were not exactly good buddies, but the implication of the Repubblica article is that not only was the Iranian regime cheering from the sidelines, but the U.S. and the Italians were actively seeking their help.

I don't know how seriously to take this. It's obviously plausible, but that doesn't mean it's true. Take it with a grain of salt until we get better confirmation of what was really going on.

Kevin Drum 6:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTH SAVINGS ACCOUNTS....The current healthcare panacea on offer from our friends in the conservative movement is something called a Health Savings Account. The idea is fairly simple: instead of a standard insurance plan, you get one with a high deductible, say $2,000. This plan costs (roughly) $2,000 less than a standard plan, so you take that dough and put it into an HSA. Then you use the HSA to pay your medical bills until you reach your deductible. If there's money left in your HSA at the end of the year, you can keep it.

In theory, HSAs motivate people to spend money on healthcare more carefully, and in the long run this helps reduce overall healthcare spending. In reality, the evidence on this score is pretty thin. What's more, it turns out that the vast bulk of healthcare dollars are spent on people who are extremely sick and quickly blow past even a large deductible anyway. Since HSAs don't affect that spending at all, it means that, at best, their effect on the total cost of healthcare is probably pretty negligible.

Still, for some people HSAs are pretty alluring. After all, if you're relatively healthy, there's a good chance there will be money left in your HSA at the end of the year. Jonathan Cohn explains in a good article about the history and use of HSAs in The New Republic this week:

In their defense, HSA enthusiasts point out that people with serious medical problems are free to stick with traditional insurance. But, by luring healthy people and their premiums away from traditional insurance, HSAs would still drain money from the existing system, leaving the unhealthy to make up the cost. And, sure enough, it's healthy people who seem to be rushing into HSAs the fastest. When Humana Inc. began offering HSAs to its workforce in 2001, the employees who chose it were "significantly healthier on every dimension measured," according to a study published last year in the journal Health Services Research. And the anecdotal evidence certainly backs that up. Articles quoting enthusiastic HSA enrollees, which seem to appear in some local newspaper almost every day now, inevitably feature people like the 20-year-old worker at a Seattle drive-in restaurant who recently told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "If you're a pretty healthy individual, and you don't need to go to the doctor or expect that something might happen, it's a good plan."

Adverse selection is a bitch, isn't it? There's nothing wrong with trying to get people to take their own healthcare more seriously (though Cohn points out that this is easier said than done), but any healthcare proposal that's designed to appeal more to healthy people than to sick people is fundamentally flawed. After all, the whole point of healthcare is to take care of sick people.

The bottom line is that if HSAs are a better deal for healthy people, then inevitably they're a worse deal for sick people. And if you take healthcare seriously, it's sick people you should be concerned about. In the end, HSAs are a feeble effort to paper over problems with our current dysfunctional healthcare system, and not a very good one at that.

Kevin Drum 5:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FIGHTING ALITO....Marshall Wittman has the clearest statement I've seen yet about the motivations behind the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court:

The Alito nomination is evidence that Mr. Rove is once again riding high in the saddle. The Rovian solution to all of the Administration woes is to give a hot-button treat to the base and attempt to trick the Democrats into alienating swing traditionalist values voters. Meanwhile, folks will ask, "Scooter who?".

The politics of polarization has been the governing philosophy of the Bushies. It got them re-elected and it is the only way they know to govern. With this understanding, the Alito nomination makes complete sense.

That seems right to me. But does this mean that liberals should choose a smarter, lower key strategy to opposing Alito than the usual nuclear war model? Maybe. Any ideas?

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW HILTZIK BLOG....LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who guest blogged here a couple of months ago, now has his own blog up and running at the LA Times site. The blog, called Golden State, is outside the subscription wall, so you don't have to register to read it, and it has an unmoderated comment section to give it that genuine blog look and feel. Here's the URL:

http://www.latimes.com/goldenstateblog

Michael's columns, which tend to be California-centric business pieces, will be posted on the blog every Monday and Thursday, and the rest of the time he'll fill in the blog with anything else that comes to mind.

Michael's guest blogging here was top notch, so I'm looking forward to what he'll do with a blog of his own. As he says, "its a test of whether I can balance a schedule of twice-weekly columns with the daily demands of a blog and the rest of my normal life without melting down." Good luck!

Kevin Drum 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ALITO NOMINATED TO SUPREME COURT....Oh goody. George Bush has nominated Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. Since Alito ruled against abortion rights in one of the most famous cases of all time, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he ought to be practically a god to the social conservative right. No stealth candidate this time.

The movement conservatives wanted a war, and this time they've probably gotten one. I guess Bush was itching for revenge after Scooter Libby got indicted.

Kevin Drum 11:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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ROVE STILL IN DANGER?....For what it's worth, Dana Milbank and Carol Leonnig report that Karl Rove may still be in significant jeopardy:

Two legal sources intimately familiar with Fitzgerald's tactics in this inquiry said they believe Rove remains in significant danger. They described Fitzgerald as being relentlessly thorough but also conservative throughout this prosecution and his willingness to consider Rove's eleventh-hour pleading of a memory lapse is merely a sign of Fitzgerald's caution.

....Another warning sign for Rove was in the phrasing of Friday's indictment of Libby. Fitzgerald referred to Rove in those charging papers as a senior White House official and dubbed him "Official A." In prosecutorial parlance, this kind of awkward pseudonym is often used for individuals who have not been indicted in a case but still face a significant chance of being charged.

I don't know if this strikes me as especially convincing, but I thought I'd pass it along.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 30, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

INDICTMENT KEY....For future reference, here are the names to go along with the titles used in Patrick Fitzgerald's indictment of Scooter Libby:

If anyone has any corrections or additions, leave them in comments.

Kevin Drum 11:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CRIMINALIZING POLITICS....Is the indictment of Scooter Libby an example of "criminalizing politics"? Who invented that phrase, anyway?

I was curious, so I did a Nexis search. Oddly enough, the earliest references turn out to be not from the United States, but from India in the early 1980s in a context that's exactly the opposite of how American conservatives use it today. Back then, the Calcutta Telegraph was complaining not about politicians being turned into criminals via partisan prosecutions, but about thugs and killers taking over politics during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi:

Criminals of the most heinous disposition smugglers, murderers and black-marketeers have been contesting elections and what is truly tragic, winning. The criminalization of politics has assumed a frightening shape.

But how about the origin of the phrase in its current context as used by American conservatives? Here it gets a little hazier.

The original expression was "criminalization of policy differences," a reference to the prosecutions of the Iran-Contra plotters. But who coined it? Who made it famous? Here's a rundown:

  • The first reference I can find is in an op-ed by Paul Craig Roberts that ran in various newspapers on July 6, 1988.

  • Later that year, Peter Brimelow credited the phrase to Oliver North, but didn't provide a source or a date.

  • It was subsequently popularized by Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal, who spoke about it at an AEI seminar and later wrote a paper on the subject for the Heritage Foundation.

  • Shortly before he left office, George Bush used the phrase in his pardon of several of the Iran-Contra plotters, saying that he found it to be a "profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country."

But when did the phrase morph into the "criminalization of politics"? Crovitz appears to have been the first to use it that way, in a paper called, appropriately, "The Criminalization of Politics," collected in 1989 in The Imperial Congress: Crisis in the Separation of Powers. Pat Buchanan and a few others picked it up after that, but then, unsurprisingly, conservatives mostly dropped it during the Clinton years aside from the occasional embarrassed claim that Clinton had it coming because, after all, Democrats started the whole thing back in the Reagan administration.

In the past couple of months, of course, it's come back with a vengeance, as Fox News anchors have settled on it as the sound bite du jour to describe the current travails of Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Scooter Libby, and the rest of the conservative establishment. Then, in the Weekly Standard last week, editor Bill Kristol memorably transformed it into "Criminalizing Conservatives," a breathtakingly calculated act of political hypocrisy from a magazine that, from the moment of its birth in 1995, was practically slavering in its pursuit of Bill Clinton.

At any rate, it's a phrase with a fine conservative pedigree, so I think we can expect to hear a lot more of it. What's more, since it was the stated reason for George Bush Sr. to pardon his pals in the Iran-Contra affair, who knows? Maybe George Bush Jr. will follow family tradition and use it as an excuse to pardon his pals in the Valerie Plame affair, whoever they might turn out to be. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 8:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PENSION CRISIS....Roger Lowenstein's piece in today's New York Times Magazine, "The End of Pensions," is pretty good. The short message is: we're all screwed. For the longer explanation, read the article.

Kevin Drum 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SUPER DAYLIGHT SAVINGS TIME....Jim Lindgren likes the idea of daylight lasting long into the evening, and thus favors "Double Daylight Saving time in the summer and single Daylight Saving time in the winter."

Piker. I propose that we change our clocks every two months in order to keep sundown around 8 or 9 pm all year around. I call this "Kevin Daylight Savings Time." I know that many of you have a knee jerk dislike of sunrise being postponed until noon during the winter, and my friend with the watch collection would sure find it annoying, but I think it would be great. Mornings are a grim time anyway, and daylight is wasted on them.

Alternatively, after I win the lottery, I suppose I could simply move north and south every couple of months, always living in a spot where the sun goes down late at night. I could have mansions in Stockholm, Newport Beach, Fiji, and Melbourne.

Now I just need to win the lottery.

Kevin Drum 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SUPER STARE DECISIS....Jeffrey Rosen writes in the New York Times today about "super stare decisis," the notion that some Supreme Court decisions have been reaffirmed so strongly over such a long period of time that they shouldn't be overturned regardless of how you feel about them on constitutional grounds. He notes, in particular, that conservative darling Michael Luttig seems to have embraced this doctrine with regard to the Supreme Court's affirmation of Roe v. Wade in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Ann Althouse isn't so sure:

Quite clearly, Luttig is not saying that there is a such thing as super-stare decisis. He's a Court of Appeals judge bound by Supreme Court precedent and subject to Supreme Court review. He's paying attention to what that Supreme Court has written about abortion rights, and he's reading the Court to have intended Casey to serve as an especially strong precedent.

In making up a new term, Luttig may have even been subtly mocking the Casey Court.... Saying it's super powerful doesn't make it so.

Maybe so. It seems to me though, that the focus on Roe is misguided in any case. If my understanding of Roe is correct, it's based on a generalized right of privacy as decided in Griswold v. Connecticut, which in turn was based on our current understanding of the doctrine of substantive due process. I suspect you can't overturn Roe without also substantially overturning Griswold and significantly weakening the modern application of substantive due process at the same time. Rosen mentions this, and it seems like it's really the key issue: not whether Roe is a superprecedent, but whether Griswold's interpretation of substantive due process is a superprecedent.

The funny thing is that overturning Roe might turn out to have only a modest impact on abortion rights in the real world. Blue states like California and New York would keep their liberal abortion laws, while most deep red states have put so many roadblocks in the way of getting an abortion that it's all but illegal in some of those places already. It's hard to say for sure. However, if overturning Roe required overturning Griswold, as many conservatives think it does, it would not only return us to the grisly days of back-alley abortions in red states that decided to make abortion completely illegal, but it would also have a devastating impact on an enormous variety of rights and precedents that go far beyond abortion. Clarence Thomas may be enough of a true believer not to care about that, but in the real world the rest of us do.

UPDATE: Have red states really put up so many roadblocks to getting an abortion that it's "all but illegal in some of those places already"? Maybe not. Matt Yglesias presents some evidence to suggest that abortion is still pretty readily available almost everywhere.

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LA SPORTS BLOGGING....If Dodger owner Frank McCourt wants to fire general manager Paul DePodesta, that's fine. But this is ridiculous:

[McCourt] said he was pushed to the breaking point by the team's inability to put together back-to-back successful seasons.

A lot of people don't like "the kid" and "the kid's computer," but one bad season is a lousy excuse for firing someone. McCourt should have both the grace and the guts to explain why he's cleaning house, not just pretend that a single bad season is reason enough. Try telling that to Cubs fans.

In other Los Angeles sports news, I hope all you Texas fans enjoyed your week at #1 in the BCS rankings. Texas owes it's #1 ranking not to the fact that the BCS computers ranked USC behind Texas last week, but because the computers ranked USC way behind Texas last week. This travesty of cyborg justice happened only because two of the computers inexplicably ranked USC #4 and #5 respectively, behind not just Texas, but also behind Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia Tech. However, Georgia's loss this week combined with the mileage amassed by USC on the field ought to take care of that. The computers will probably still rank Texas #1, but not by enough to outweigh the obviously more considered rankings of the human judges, who understand quality when they see it.

See you in the Rose Bowl.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 29, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LIBBY'S DEFENSE....Scooter Libby's lawyer has outlined Libby's probable defense against Patrick Fitzgerald's perjury charges: he forgot.

As lawyers, we recognize that a person's recollection and memory of events will not always match those of other people, particularly when they are asked to testify months after the events occurred.

I sure hope Libby has a backup plan. Granted, pleas of faulty memory are pretty common in court cases, but Libby has a high bar to overcome:

  • His first interview with the FBI was only a few months after the events in question. This isn't a matter of being hazy on a few details years after the fact.

  • It's been pretty well documented that Libby was obsessed with Joe Wilson. This wasn't just a sideshow for him, it was something he spent a lot of time on.

  • Libby testified that his knowledge of Valerie Plame's CIA employment came from reporters. This was false, but it isn't just a matter of Libby's testimony not matching that of the reporters who supposedly told him about Plame. Fitzgerald also has a bunch of evidence showing that Libby actively pursued information about Wilson and discussed his wife's status with numerous people within the White House. That's a lot to forget.

  • Libby repeated his false story on four separate occasions. He didn't just alter a few details here and there, he made up a detailed cover story and stuck to it rigorously in front of both investigators and the grand jury.

I sure wouldn't want to try to put lipstick on that pig in front of a jury. If that's all Libby's got, he'd better get on the phone with Fitzgerald pronto and start trying to cut a deal.

Kevin Drum 8:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WAS EXPOSING VALERIE PLAME A CRIME?....PART 2....Here's a bit of legal blogging on the subject of outing Valerie Plame. To start us off, Publius at Legal Fiction reminds us that judges interpret the law based on the most reasonable reading of a statute, not on a merely plausible reading. On that basis, he argues that Scooter Libby probably didn't violate a reasonable reading of the Espionage Act:

The real problem is element #4 reason to believe [the information] could be used to damage the United States or aid a foreign nation.....When you read the entire statute, you get the clear sense that this statute was meant to criminalize the act of disclosing information to people potentially hostile to America or to those who wanted to harm or damage our national security....Im not a big Judy Miller fan, but I doubt she wanted to damage the United States with this information.

This fits fairly well with Patrick Fitzgerald's statement yesterday about the Espionage Act: "That is a difficult statute to interpret....there are a lot of interests that could be implicated in making sure that you picked the right case to charge that statute."

So how about the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, the law that specifically criminalizes the outing of a covert agent? Contrary to conventional wisdom, Publius suggests that a conviction would be more likely under IIPA than under the Espionage Act. There are six elements to IIPA, including the requirement that the outed agent be covert, and:

Reading the indictment, Libby comes pretty damn close to meeting all six. My guess is that its the covert that kept Fitzgerald from bringing an indictment under the IIPA....Libbys outing of Plame is precisely the kind of conduct that the IIPA was intended to deter and punish. Libbys conduct is thus within the statutory essence of the IIPA. And based on what I read today, its pretty amazing Fitzgerald didnt ding him on it.

However, as Steve at Begging to Differ reminds us, "covert" is a very specifically defined term for the purposes of IIPA:

A present or retired officer or employee of an intelligence agency...whose identity as such an officer, employee, or member is classified information, and who is serving outside the United States or has within the last five years served outside the United States.

Here's what Fitzgerald said about that yesterday:

I am not speaking to whether or not Valerie Wilson was covert....I will confirm that her association with the CIA was classified at that time through July 2003. And all I'll say is that, look, we have not made any allegation that Mr. Libby knowingly, intentionally outed a covert agent.

So her identity was classified, but had she served outside the United States during the five years prior to her outing in 2003? She was based in Brussels in early 1997, but as Vanity Fair reported last year:

In 1997, Plame moved back to the Washington area, partly because...the C.I.A. suspected that her name may have been on a list given to the Russians by the double agent Aldrich Ames in 1994.

So for the six years previous to 2003, Plame was based in the U.S., not overseas. And legally, as far as IIPA is concerned, that means she wasn't covert.

And that's the most likely reason that Fitzgerald didn't indict anyone for the actual act of leaking Valerie Plame's name. As reckless as it was and Fitzgerald made it crystal clear that he did think it was reckless he probably decided on technical grounds that he wouldn't have been able to successfully win a conviction under either of the applicable statutes.

Kevin Drum 7:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FOOTBALL TRIVIA....Is it just my imagination, or are helmets flying a lot more this year than in the past? Or is this just a USC thing? It seems like a player loses his helmet at least once or twice in every game, and I sure don't remember that happening in previous years. What's the deal?

UPDATE: In comments, MDS provides a definitive answer:

Some good guesses above, but the answer, believe it or not, is a conscious effort at making players safer. Helmets are now coming with "breakaway" chinstraps. The old chinstraps were so tight that a player running at full speed could have his neck broken when someone grabbed his facemask. The new chinstraps give, so when a player grabs another player's facemask, the chinstraps will unbuckle. The side effect, as you noticed, is that helmets fly off more easily now. But the NCAA has responded to that with the new rule that when the ball-carrier's helmet comes off, the play is immediately blown dead.

Kevin Drum 5:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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A McMARTIN APOLOGY....The McMartin Preschool case is, in some sense, old news. By now, it's common knowledge that the charges of child abuse and satanic rituals at McMartin were untrue, whipped up by hysteria, local newscasters, and bad child psychology into one of the most monumental miscarriages of justice in recent memory.

Still, the individual stories are compelling. Today, in the LA Times Magazine, one of the victims, Kyle Zirpolo, tells the story of what really happened to him at McMartin and why he made up the sensational stories he did back when he was nine years old. It's a cautionary tale, but it was this passage that really caught my eye:

One particular night stands out in my mind. I was maybe 10 years old and I tried to tell my mom that nothing had happened. I lay on the bed crying hystericallyI wanted to get it off my chest, to tell her the truth. My mother kept asking me to please tell her what was the matter. I said she would never believe me. She persisted: "I promise I'll believe you! I love you so much! Tell me what's bothering you!" This went on for a long time: I told her she wouldn't believe me, and she kept assuring me she would. I remember finally telling her, "Nothing happened! Nothing ever happened to me at that school."

She didn't believe me.

We had a highly dysfunctional family. We argued and fought all the time. My mother has always blamed anything negative on the idea that we went to that preschool and were molested. To this day, she believes these things went on. Because if they didn't, how can she explain all the family's problems?

That has the ring of profound truth to me. We often embrace bad news far more easily than good, I think, because it so convincingly provides both an explanatory and an exculpatory power that good news lacks. Explanatory because it's easy to believe that bad outcomes are the result of a single bad event while good outcomes are usually more complex, and exculpatory because it provides a explanation for bad outcomes that relieves us of our own responsibility for them. Once we've internalized that, the bad news can be rejected only at the cost of giving up the comfort that comes with it. And so the bad news becomes a psychic totem, clung to with increasing intensity until, eventually, it becomes part of the fabric of our worldview, never to be released regardless of where the truth actually lies.

And therein lies the power of our modern, siege mentality political environment: explanations based on the evil of others are simply more compelling and comforting than explanations based on good. At least in the short term. Not so much in the long term, I think, but what good politician ever thinks in the long term anymore?

Kevin Drum 2:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 28, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OFFICIAL A AND MR. X....Just a quick reminder in case anyone has forgotten the sequence of events that led to Robert Novak's original column outing Valerie Plame.

Novak had two sources for his column. The first one, who he described as "no partisan gunslinger," provided him with Plame's name. This is the person I referred to as "Mr. X" in the previous post. We don't know who Mr. X is, and so far he hasn't been indicted for anything, but the best guesses about his identity seem to be either Fred Fleitz, David Wurmser, or John Hannah.

Novak's second source confirmed Plame's identity, reportedly saying, "Oh, you know about it." This source was Karl Rove, who is referred to in the Libby indictment as "Official A."

That is all. This was just a public service announcement.

Kevin Drum 10:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PLATONIC SHILLDOM....In a New York Times op-ed today, Hugh Hewitt takes on conservatives who opposed the Harriet Miers nomination:

The right's embrace in the Miers nomination of tactics previously exclusive to the left exaggeration, invective, anonymous sources, an unbroken stream of new charges, television advertisements paid for by secret sources will make it immeasurably harder to denounce and deflect such assaults when the Democrats make them the next time around.

I guess that's it, then. There's literally nothing that Hugh is embarrassed to say in the service of his cause. He has reached Platonic shilldom.

Kevin Drum 8:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WAS EXPOSING VALERIE PLAME A CRIME?....Was Scooter Libby guilty of any underlying crime in the Valerie Plame case? Or could he have completely avoided indictment just by telling Patrick Fitzgerald's investigators the truth when he first talked to them?

Although Fitzgerald himself was careful not to speculate about this during his press conference, you can make a plausible argument that Fitzgerald did have the goods on Libby but just decided not to bother trying to prove it in court. After all, as he said, the public interest in punishing the leak is served regardless of what charges are brought, so why waste time trying to prove a complex and precarious case of espionage or mishandling classified data when there's a nice easy perjury case to be made instead? Either way, the bad guy does the time.

Unfortunately, I don't think this holds water. Here's the thing: we know that it wasn't Libby who gave Valerie Plame's name to Robert Novak. It was someone else. What's more, both common sense and multiple news reports suggest that Fitzgerald knows exactly who this person is. So why not bring charges against Mr. X? It's pretty clear that he leaked Plame's name, and if Fitzgerald thought the leak itself was criminal then Mr. X sure ought to be guilty of something. And since no other charges were filed against Mr. X, you can't say that Fitzgerald just decided to go for the easy case and let the other stuff slide.

That leaves only one conclusion: Fitzgerald didn't think he could win conviction for any charges related to the actual leak of Plame's name. And if he didn't think he could win a case against Mr. X, he probably didn't think he could win a case against Libby either.

(Unless, of course, he brings further charges against Mr. X at a later date, or announces a plea deal of some kind. Based on his press conference, though, my guess is that he doesn't plan to. He seemed pretty eager to lower expectations on that score.)

Anyway, that's my guess. Obviously we don't know everything yet, and we might not ever know everything. It depends on how leak free Fitzgerald's office stays. And it says nothing about how insanely malicious and reckless it was to expose Valerie Plame's identity in real world terms. Legally, though, if Fitzgerald thought he could bring charges against anyone for the actual act of exposing Valerie Plame's identity, I think he would have done it today.

UPDATE: Since I've gotten several emails about this, I'd better clear up something here. I'm not saying there won't be any further indictments. Obviously Rove is still under investigation, and there are a few others who might be in trouble too. What I'm saying is that I don't think there will be any indictments for the actual act of exposing Valerie Plame's identity.

This is all speculation, of course, and I'm certainly happy to entertain competing theories. But to be plausible, your theory has to explain why there's been no indictment of Mr. X even though it seems likely that Fitzgerald has bulletproof evidence that he did in fact disclose Plame's identity to Robert Novak.

UPDATE 2: One of Andrew Sullivan's readers argues that Fitzgerald is "one inch from prosecuting the leak itself." He makes a pretty good case and, needless to say, I hope he's right and I'm wrong.

Mark Kleiman also makes the case that I'm wrong. Neither one of these arguments addresses the Mr. X issue, but check 'em out anyway.

Kevin Drum 6:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE BOTTOM LINE....There are lots of interesting tidbits in the indictment. Who is the "Under Secretary of State" who helped Libby track down information about Joe Wilson's Niger trip? [UPDATE: It's Marc Grossman.] Who is "Official A"? What was Dick Cheney's role? I'm sure all of that is going to get hashed over in detail in the coming days.

But for now, here's the bottom line: Fitzgerald didn't charge Scooter Libby with mistakenly making a few unimportant false statements to the grand jury. He charged him with deliberately constructing a false story about how he learned about Valerie Plame, and then repeatedly telling this story to both FBI agents and the grand jury. That story was a lie, and it was a premeditated lie designed to cover up the fact that he had engaged in a long and persistent effort to uncover information about Joe Wilson's wife and disseminate it to reporters.

Libby could have told the truth, but then he would have had to admit his role in outing a CIA agent in order to score political points against a critic of the administration. He didn't want that campaign to become public, so he invented a cover story, repeated it under oath, and stuck to it on multiple occasions.

It's serious stuff, and that's what this is all about.

Kevin Drum 3:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PATRICK FITZGERALD PRESS CONFERENCE....Fitzgerald is speaking now. Rough and ready liveblogging follows.

NOTE: Complete transcript here.

Fitzgerald: "I'd like to put the investigation into a little context." Wilson's CIA status was classified and was "not well known" outside the Agency.

The first reporter who was told about Plame was Judith Miller, in a conversation with Libby in June.

"Libby gave the FBI a compelling story." Libby's story: Tim Russert told him that Wilson's wife worked at the FBI. He passed this along to Matt Cooper and Judith Miller. He had passed on the information not even knowing if it was true. It was just something all the reporters were saying. Just passing along gossip.

"It would be compelling if only it were true. It was not true." Libby didn't learn about Plame from Russert. He learned it at least three times from government officials.

In early June, Libby learned about Plame from a CIA officer, a State Department official, and then from Dick Cheney. Later learned it from another official. So he learned it from at least four different officials.

Also discussed with other officials. He had at least seven discussions before he talked to Russert. What's more, Wilson's wife never came up in his conversation with Russert.

"Mr. Libby's story that he was at the end of a chain of phone calls was not true. It was false. He was at the beginning of a chain of phone calls" that disclosed Plame's identity. He lied repeatedly about this under oath.

Question: Will there be any more charges? Fitzgerald: "Substantial bulk of the work is completed." This is followed by an extended baseball analogy that amounts to: Why did Libby do what he did? We needed to find out.

Question: Any evidence that Dick Cheney encouraged Libby? Fitzgerald: There are no allegations against anyone else, so we have no comment about that. That's standard practice.

Question: So who leaked Plame's name to Robert Novak? Fitzgerald: Sorry, we're not going to tell you. That's just the way it goes. If we don't bring charges, we don't say anything.

Question: What about Karl Rove? Fitzgerald: "We either charge someone or we don't talk about them." Sorry.

Question: Was it worth it to put Judith Miller in jail for 85 days? Fitzgerald: We didn't want a fight with the New York Times. But we showed our evidence to a judge, and the judge agreed that the subpoena was legitimate. An appellate court agreed too. You can't charge someone with perjury regarding a conversation without finding out from the witnesses involved whether the alleged conversation actually took place. If you don't talk to the eyewitnesses, that's "reckless." Miller and Cooper could have exonerated Libby, after all.

Question: Did Libby know that Plame was covert? Fitzgerald: He's not saying whether Plame was covert. Only saying that her association with the CIA was classified. He's not saying anything about whether Libby leaked the name of a covert agent.

Question: Will there be a final report? Fitzgerald: No. You're either charged or you're not. If you aren't we don't talk about it further. Special counsels write final reports, but he's not a special counsel.

Question: There's no charge directly related to the leak. Does that mean the charges you brought are fairly trivial? Fitzgerald: It was a national security case. If Libby "fabricated a story about how he learned the information, how he passed it along," it's very serious.

Question: Why wasn't it enough to know that Libby passed along classified information to someone not authorized to receive it? Isn't that a crime? Fitzgerald: You have to show that he knew it was classified. That goes to state of mind. Hard to prove.

Question: Why not charge Libby with passing along classified information? Fitzgerald: Espionage Act charges are hard to prove. You need to be careful with it.

Question: Will you empanel another grand jury? Will there be more charges? Fitzgerald: "We're not quite done, but I don't want to add to a feverish pitch."

Question: What's the penalty for the charges you brought? Fitzgerald: Obstruction = maximum 10 years. Perjury and false statement = maximum 5 years. However, there are also sentencing guidelines. It would be a judge's decision.

Question: What does "not quite done" mean? Fitzgerald: You're reading tea leaves. Don't. We're just letting the public know that we're continuing to do our job.

Question: Was there any political interference with your investigation? Fitzgerald: No. Absolutely none.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

INDICTMENT PRIMER....The two false statement charges are these:

  • Libby told the FBI that Tim Russert told him about Valerie Plame on July 10 or 11. He also told the FBI that he was surprised to hear this from Russert. This was a lie: Russert never told him this, and Libby knew about Plame's status long before that in any case.

  • Libby told the FBI that he told Matt Cooper on July 12 that reporters had told him about Plame, but Libby didn't know if it was true. This was a lie: Libby actually confirmed "without qualification" to Cooper that Plame worked for the CIA.

The two perjury charges revolve around the fact that Libby made the same misstatements to the grand jury. The obstruction of justice charge is based on the false statement and perjury charges. Taken together, they amount to obstruction of justice.

Basically, the charges are that Libby consistently tried to mislead both the FBI and the grand jury about how he had learned of Plame's status. On multiple occasions he told investigators that he had learned about it from reporters in July, but the truth was quite different. In reality, Libby actively sought out information about Joe Wilson's trip to Niger starting in late May; learned from both State Department and CIA sources in early June that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA; and received the same information from Dick Cheney shortly after that. Libby subsequently discussed Plame with quite a few people within the White House, at one point admitting to his deputy that "there would be complications at the CIA in disclosing that information publicly," an indication that he knew perfectly well that the CIA didn't want Plame's status disclosed. He later told Ari Fleischer that the fact that Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA was "not widely known."

These are serious charges. Apparently Libby figured he'd never be caught out because the reporters would stay mum and go to jail on his behalf. He lost that bet.

UPDATE: Russert's story is here.

Kevin Drum 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBBY GONE....CNN reports that Scooter Libby submitted his resignation this morning. It was accepted.

The text of the indictment is here.

Fox says that Fitzgerald was planning to indict Karl Rove, but Rove's lawyer produced last-minute evidence that made him back off and decide to continue investigating.

Chris Wallace says, after reading the entire indictment, that Fitzgerald has a "very strong case." Seems that way to me too. Libby appears to have constructed an extensive and premeditated set of lies designed to conceal from the grand jury what really happened. Dumb.

Will it go to trial? A trial would almost certainly require testimony from Cheney, Rove, Miller, Russert, Ari Fleischer, etc. Will Libby agree to a plea in order to prevent this from happening?

The Wall Street Journal has a continuously updated timeline of today's events here.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OFFICIAL PLAME NEWS....Libby indicted. Charges are obstruction of justice, perjury, and making false statements....

David Ensor on CNN: The indictment is for lying about how and when in 2003 Libby learned classified information about the employment of Valerie Wilson by the Central Intelligence Agency. Total of five counts in the indictment:

  • False statements on October 14 and November 26, 2003

  • Perjury on March 5, March 24, 2004.

  • Obstruction of justice in Spring 2004.

Wolf Blitzer, reading from the indictment: In May 2003, Libby began acquiring information about Joe Wilson's trip to Niger. Learned about Valerie Plame from Dick Cheney, who had learned about her from the CIA. Libby later lied about his conversations with Tim Russert, Matt Cooper, and Judith Miller. Endangered national security by discussing this with reporters.

Kevin: May 2003, eh? Nick Kristof's column was printed on May 6, 2003, so apparently it was Kristof's column that touched off the whole thing.

David Ensor, reading from the indictment: Libby told the FBI that Tim Russert and Matt Cooper had told him about Plame's identity. He knew when he said this that it wasn't true, and he concealed the fact that he had actually learned about Plame earlier from Dick Cheney. The perjury charges are apparently related to the same underlying facts.

Bob Franken, reading from the indictment: On or about July 10, 2003, Libby spoke to Official A, who advised Libby about a conversation with Robert Novak. Libby was informed that Novak would be writing about Plame.

Kevin: Hmmm. Shouldn't that be Official K?

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....I'm sorry, but if either of our cats ever do this, they're just going to have to learn French.

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NON-PLAME UPDATE....Peace in the Middle East! The Aardvark has the news.

In other, more serious rumor mongering, the Aardvark also passes on the following:

An al-Arabiya documentary claims to confirm long-standing rumours that Saddam Hussein was ready to leave Iraq shortly before the war, and take up residence in the UAE with his family. Supposedly, it was overseen by the late President Shaykh Zayd and confirmed by Crown Prince Shaykh Mohamed bin Zayd. The latter claims that the initiative had been received positively by an American representative. But it fell apart at the last minute, and they don't know whether it was only a tactical maneuver on Saddam's part, or whether he doubted American intentions or that the UAE would be able to guarantee his or his family's safety.

Yes, it's true: I'm just killing time until we get more news on the indictments. Documents are due in three minutes! A press conference in a couple of hours! Stay tuned!

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE PLAME....Apparently Patrick Fitzgerald has a press conference scheduled for 2 pm Eastern, giving him a comfortable margin of 180 minutes before the grand jury expires. That's time management!

This morning's news is that everyone is reporting that Libby is toast and that Rove will remain unindicted but still under investigation. I remain cautious. Remember all that bogus intel during the runup to the war? The stuff where everyone agreed about something, but it turned out that everyone was getting their G2 from a single Chalabi shill routed through various layers of misdirection? That's what this feels like.

However, that said, the Washington Post does provide one little tidbit to back up the conventional wisdom:

Rove provided new information to Fitzgerald during 11th hour negotiations that "gave Fitzgerald pause" about charging Bush's senior strategist, said a source close to Rove. "The prosecutor has to resolve those issues before he decides what to do."

Really, that's just fascinating, isn't it? What could Rove possibly have told him? Unfortunately, I'll bet we won't find out at 2 pm.

Kevin Drum 11:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NO HARM, NO FOUL?....When Robert Novak outed Valerie Plame in his column two years ago, did it actually do any damage? Or is it a case of "no harm, no foul"? Larry Johnson was on Wolf Blitzer's show today, and Crooks and Liars has the video here. Here's a transcript:

BLITZER: I think what everyone wants to know is, was there serious damage done to U.S. national security? And I've been trying to find out if the CIA actually did a post mortem, a damage assessment. You've been looking into that as well.

JOHNSON: Yeah, CIA did a post mortem, there's no way that they could not have. They have not delivered any written report to Congress, to the House or Senate Intelligence Committees. But what they've done with this report, they had to do it internally, because....

BLITZER: Is there a piece of paper there that's written?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there's a written document within CIA, there has to be, because every time that someone like this is outed, it's not just the person. In this case it's the front company, it's other NOCs who may have been exposed non-official cover officers also other intelligence officers who were exposed to that company, as well as intelligence assets overseas who were working with Brewster-Jennings who didn't know that it was a CIA front, and some who may have been witting assets.

BLITZER: Do you know whether or not they concluded that serious damage did occur?

JOHNSON: I have heard that serious damage did occur.

BLITZER: In terms of lives lost, agents, foreign agents, U.S. allies...

JOHNSON: To that extent I don't know, but what I do know for certain is we're not just talking about Valerie Plame. We're talking about an intelligence resource, a United States national security resource, that was destroyed by these White House officials that went out and started talking to the press about this. Reckless. And they've harmed the security of this country.

Johnson doesn't give any hint of how he's heard that serious damage occurred, or what the damage was, so take this for what it's worth. But who knows? Perhaps this was part of the "voluminous classified filings" that were referred to (and redacted from) last year's appellate court ruling that eventually sent Judith Miller to jail for refusing to answer Patrick Fitzgerald's questions.

UPDATE: In comments, cld says that Bob Woodward told Larry King on Thursday night that there was indeed a CIA report but that the report showed no significant damage. I don't know who's right, but I'd take it all with a big shaker of salt for the time being.

Kevin Drum 2:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 27, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....At this point, it hardly seems worthwhile to say yet again that Patrick Fitzgerald appears likely to indict Scooter Libby, but that's what the New York Times says today:

Associates of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, expected an indictment on Friday charging him with making false statements to the grand jury in the C.I.A. leak inquiry, lawyers in the case said Thursday.

Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, will not be charged on Friday, but will remain under investigation, people briefed officially about the case said. As a result, they said, the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, was likely to extend the term of the federal grand jury beyond its scheduled expiration on Friday.

....Among the many unresolved mysteries is whether anyone in addition to Mr. Libby and Mr. Rove might be charged and in particular whether Mr. Fitzgerald would name the source who first provided the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer to Robert D. Novak, the syndicated columnist.

Hmmm. I hope this isn't turning into a Ken Starr-style fishing expedition. As much as I'd like to see Karl Rove frog marched out of the West Wing, I have to say that if Fitzgerald hasn't been able to make a case against him in two years, it might be time to call it a day. This investigation shouldn't last forever.

Then again, maybe the Times is wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.

Kevin Drum 10:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TRADEMARK MADNESS....The BBC reports that a French company has failed to win trademark protection for the smell of fresh strawberries. But then there's this:

According to the Associated Press news agency, the only scent to win EU trademark protection so far is the smell of freshly cut grass. The smell was registered by a Dutch perfume company that uses it to give tennis balls their aroma.

What's next? Trademarking flourescent yellow? Trademarking the sphere? Trademarking fuzz?

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MIERS REACTION....I fear that Mark Levin's reaction to the Harriet Miers withdrawal might be unnervingly on the money:

It's time for our liberals friends to worry. If the president picks a solid nominee, the base meaning Republican Party loyalists and conservative activists will be united, reinvigorated, and ready for battle. At least that's the indication from my radio audience. And frankly, as an aside, there's another event that is uniting them, and that's their growing resentment toward Patrick Fitzgerald. Positive press profiles aside, they increasingly view him as a threat to the presidency, and are not much impressed with all the talk in the media about possible indictments for perjury or false statements over emails or memory lapses.

There's nothing that movement conservatives like more than redemption, and if Bush chooses a God-fearing, fire-breathing conservative to replace Miers, then not only will all be forgiven, but Bush's support from the base might well be redoubled. They'll be primed and ready to go after Patrick Fitzgerald and the hated liberal lynch mob who are gunning for their newly repentant savior.

On the other hand, Mark Schmitt makes a decent case that Arlen Specter might stand in the way of a base-pleasing nominee like either of the M&Ms:

A year ago, Specter was humbled and compliant....But now the politics are very different. What's the right going to do to him now?....And knowing a little bit about Specter, I'm guessing that he feels highly insulted by the fact of the Miers nomination and that he was expected to push it through. An angry, empowered Specter is not a pretty sight, and my guess will be that if they send up a hard-right movement conservative, especially on choice, Specter will no longer feel any obligation to do anything to move the nomination forward.

Great. So liberals are now dependent on a show of peevishness from Arlen Specter? Sigh.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LETTER FROM SYRIA....Matthew Longo reports from Damascus that support for the Syrian regime is considerably less enthusiastic than the Syrian regime claims it is:

Monday's rally...was designed to make the government look strong, popular and credible.... But things are not always as they seem. Syrian broadcast news announced that there were up to 1 million people in attendance. More credible accounts put the number of actual protesters at about 10,000. Of these, most were schoolchildren, whose participation was obligatory. The main speeches were slated for 2 p.m., but by 10:30 a.m. most of the crowds had left, preferring to take lunch or idle through the city. By noon, the square was almost empty....

But let's be clear: Dissatisfaction with the current regime does not translate into support for the West....Most Syrians feel stuck between two unappealing options. "Everybody is frustrated," said one student at the University of Damascus, "because we hate George Bush, but we also know that the regime is guilty."

Condoleezza Rice has done better as Secretary of State than I thought she would, but this is likely to be her toughest test to date. If she can manage to thread this needle in a way that produces a positive outcome or even a mediocre one she'll deserve some praise. If she lets Cheney order an airstrike, on the other hand, then not so much.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MIERS WITHDRAWS....I suppose the only interesting part of the Harriet Miers death watch was wondering which excuse the White House would pick for her eventual withdrawal. In the end, the winner turned out to be "concerns that senators wanted documents of privileged discussions between the president and his top lawyer," but I think Harry Reid sums up the real reason:

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who said he had recommended that Bush nominate Miers, blamed "the radical right wing of the Republican Party" for killing her nomination.

"Apparently, Ms. Miers did not satisfy those who want to pack the Supreme Court with rigid ideologues," the Nevada Democrat said.

I can hardly wait to see who Bush picks to replace her. It looks like the movement conservative wing of the Republican Party is finally going to get the knock-down-drag-out fight they've been itching for.

Kevin Drum 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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PLAME UPDATE....Steve Clemons reports that Plamegate prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald signed a lease earlier this week for expanded office space in Washington DC. That doesn't seem like the act of a man about to close up shop and go home, does it?

All that's left now is who, what, where, when, and why. Piece of cake.

UPDATE: Oops, apparently not. Steve's source has retracted.

UPDATE 2: This is probably less important than we think it is, but Byron York has an interesting tidbit about those interviews that investigators were doing with Joe Wilson's neighbors on Monday. Oddly enough, it turns out they weren't follow-up interviews. It was the first time Fitzgerald's investigators had talked to them.

Kevin Drum 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BENCHMARKS FOR WITHDRAWAL....John Kerry is calling for a withdrawal plan from Iraq based on concrete benchmarks:

"The insurgency will not be defeated unless our troop levels are drawn down," Kerry, D-Mass., said in a speech at Georgetown University.

"To undermine the insurgency," he said, "we must instead simultaneously pursue both a political settlement and the withdrawal of American combat forces linked to specific, responsible benchmarks. At the first benchmark, the completion of December elections, we can start the process by reducing our forces by 20,000 troops over the course of the holidays."

This sounds roughly correct to me. As I've mentioned before, I don't think there's a big difference between timetables and benchmarks in practice, since the adoption of benchmarks inevitably leads to at least tacit timetables. What's more, blogging about this subject has persuaded me that a benchmark-based plan retains most of the advantages of a timetable approach (reduces support for the insurgency, forces the Iraqi government to take security seriously, relieves strain on the American military) while avoiding some of the drawbacks (primarily that it gives the insurgents a withdrawal date to hold out for).

Now, will any other Democrats join Kerry? Hillary? Joe? Wes?

UPDATE: Extended excerpts from Kerry's speech are here.

Kevin Drum 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BASEBALL FINALE....So in the end, I guess winning 1 games from the White Sox was a pretty good showing for the Angels. Congratulations, Chicago!

(1 games? Howzzat? I'm still sore about game 2, so I'm counting it as a draw.)

Kevin Drum 12:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 26, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE LATEST FROM IRAN....Iran's recently elected president demonstrates just what "hardline" means in Iranian politics:

Iran's new president created a sense of outrage in the west yesterday by describing Israel as a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the face of the earth".

....He said: "Anybody who recognises Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury, [while] any [Islamic leader] who recognises the Zionist regime means he is acknowledging the surrender and defeat of the Islamic world." He was addressing a conference titled The World Without Zionism.

Lovely. That should do wonders to help build peaceful and constructive relations with Europe and the United States.

Kevin Drum 9:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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DAVIS-BACON RETURNS FROM THE DEAD....Under pressure from a suprisingly unanimous and steadfast coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans moderate Republicans! the White House crumbled today and agreed to reinstate the Davis-Bacon Act for construction projects along the Gulf Coast. In related news, Mickey Kaus's head exploded this afternoon. Film at 11.

Kevin Drum 9:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HOMEWORK....Brad Plumer argues on egalitarian grounds that homework in primary grades is "most likely evil":

Any educational system that relies on parents at home to help with the "learning process" will only end up perpetuating inequality, as long as some parents can help their kids and some cannot; as long as some parents can speak English and some cannot.

Is this true? As it happens, my parents didn't help me much with my homework when I was a kid, possibly on the "builds character" theory and possibly because it didn't occur to me to ask. In fact, I remember as do all California children having to build a model of a mission in fourth grade and receiving no help at all none! solely because I had left the job until the day before it was due. The result was predictable: a hodgepodge of margarine boxes wrapped in brown paper and set in a pattern vaguely resembling the grounds of Mission Santa Barbara. My brother, on the other hand, got help aplenty when he entered fourth grade, and as a result he turned in a magnificent styrofoam model of Mission Somethingorother, complete with miniature orange trees and a little blue reflecting pool. Not that I'm bitter or anything. Still, I like to remind my mother about this at convenient intervals, right alongside the Eiffel Tower fib she told us kids when we were in Paris in 1967. Maybe I'll tell you that story later.

Back on the homework front, however, Brad does have a point. Take my 11th grade American Literature class. At one point during the year we were all assigned a poem to analyze and report on, and I got assigned some monstrosity masterpiece by Charles Bukowski that made no sense to me at all. Luckily, mom has a master's degree in English and set me on the road to understanding in no time. A few days later I regaled the class with a world class explication of whatever poem that was, and Mrs. Randall commented that I sure was a smart kid. You betcha, Mrs. R.

Now, that wasn't exactly a make-or-break assignment or anything, but still, my classmates who didn't have a parent with a master's degree in English were certainly at a disadvantage. So Brad is right about that.

Still, that was high school, and the part that remains sort of hazy to me is how big an issue this is in the primary grades. My recollection is that I had no homework at all in grades K-3, and not really that much in grades 4-6 either. There was definitely some preparing for those dreaded morning talks, for one but not a lot.

Has that changed a lot since the halcyon 60s? Are K-3 kids in modern classrooms sent home groaning under the load of math sets and handwriting exercises? Are they barely able to squeeze in ballet and soccer practice in between their Gameboy time and five hours of TV? Or what? What's the deal in primary education these days? Inquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 9:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LA REPUBBLICA TRANSLATIONS....A blog about the Middle East called Nur al-Cubicle has posted complete translations of the La Repubblica series on the forged Niger documents. Here they are:

Kevin Drum 4:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NIGER FORGERIES UPDATE....George Bush's famous 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address, as we all know, were these:

The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

The slender reed that Bush apologists have leaned on ever since is that even if the uranium story was bogus, it's still true that the British believed it, and that's all Bush said. But did the British have good reason to believe it? Did they have any evidence aside from the notorious Italian forgeries suggesting that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Africa?

Henry Farrell has read part three of La Repubblica's expose on the Italian forgery scheme, and they say the answer is no. As the Butler report noted, the British did have a second piece of evidence aside from the fake Niger memos, but according to La Repubblica:

This evidence has never been brought forward....If it ever were brought forward, said a source in Forte Braschi to la Repubblica, with a smile, it would be discovered, with red faces, that it was Italian intelligence collected by SISMI at the end of the 1980s, and shared with our friend Hamilton McMillan.

In other words, nobody, not the British and not the Americans, had any serious evidence that Saddam had tried to buy uranium from Africa. The only evidence in the whole affair was disinformation cooked up by Italian intelligence and their partners. As for who those partners were, no one knows. But the people who attended this meeting a few weeks after 9/11 are a pretty good guess.

Henry also has a very short summary of the affair that seems accurate to me, as well as some useful warnings. Go read.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WAL-MART AND HEALTHCARE....Wal-Mart Watch has gotten its hands on an internal Wal-Mart memo that outlines the company's plans to cut its spiraling healthcare expenses. The full memo, reproduced here, lists "nine 'limited-risk' initiatives and five 'bold steps.' "

The memo, after noting that Wal-Mart workers "are getting sicker than the national population, particularly in obesity-related diseases," proposes that Wal-Mart should take steps to discourage unhealthy people from working for them. Here is "bold step" #3:

Redesign benefits and other aspects of the Associate experience, such as job design, to attract a healthier, more productive workforce.

....Design all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart gathering.)

....It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier workforce than it will be to change behavior in an existing one. These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart.

The New York Times is all over this today, but the funny thing is that I can't really blame Wal-Mart very much for this. Corporate healthcare costs are a big deal, and it's only natural that an HR executive would look for ways to reduce them. Attracting healthy workers and discouraging unhealthy ones is an obvious strategy.

And that's the problem. In fact, it's the whole point behind the discussion of perverse incentives in America's current disjointed healthcare system. In any system that doesn't cover the entire population of a country, each individual insurer has an incentive to cherry pick only the healthiest workers and leave the sick ones to someone else. This problem is rarely stated as baldly as it is in the Wal-Mart memo, but it's always there. Our entire system is built around an incentive to make sure that it's always someone else who's responsible when someone gets sick.

So sure, as Nathan Newman says, "Wal-Mart has hopefully bought itself a nice Americans with Disabilities Act class action lawsuit." But really, that's just a consolation prize that will accomplish little except to make sure that nobody is ever foolish enough to say anything like this in memo form again. The plain reality is that the only way to solve Wal-Mart's problem is for the United States to adopt some form of universal healthcare. It eliminates the perverse incentives inherent in our current healthcare system, it dramatically reduces paperwork costs, it provides greater heathcare choice for nearly everyone, and it's pretty much the only chance we have of seriously reining in the skyrocketing healthcare costs that are currently borne disproportionately by private sector corporations.

When will Wal-Mart and the rest of the business community figure this out?

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MAANA....CNN says no indictments today.

Kevin Drum 11:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MILLER LEAVING TIMES?....This will hardly come as a surprise after the events of the past few days, but the Wall Street Journal reports that "New York Times reporter Judith Miller has begun discussing her future employment options with the newspaper, including the possibility of a severance package." Maybe she'll start up a blog.

Kevin Drum 10:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

TIM KAINE'S TEST OF FAITH....Garance Franke-Ruta commented yesterday on the ads here in the D.C.-area for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine's campaign, noting that Kaine has responded to attacks on his anti-death penalty position by taking a page out of the GOP playbook and putting his faith--Catholic--front and center. "My faith teaches that life is sacred," Kaine says in one ad currently running. "That's why I personally oppose the death penalty."

I'm actually not thrilled to see Kaine take this ploy to its obvious extreme--hey, back off, man...if you attack my position, you're attacking my faith. That's a nasty Republican habit Democrats would do well to stay away from. But it is fascinating to see that Kaine has accomplished something few other Democrats have. His political opponents attack his political stands, and he's come under his share of scrutiny in the media, but no one questions that his faith is sincere.

That may seem like a simple thing. But the pervasive double standard in politics is that Republicans are assumed to be genuinely religious and Democrats who talk about religion or claim to be religious are just faking it. That puts Democrats in an automatic hole, because before they can even begin to talk about their faith, or explain how it shapes their views, they have to prove that they're for real. Republicans get to skip straight to step two.

So whether or not you like the fact that Tim Kaine has brought his faith into this Virginia race, it's remarkable to see a Democratic candidate avoid the "can you name the books of the Bible?" game and concentrate instead on explaining how his faith impacts his politics and why voters should care.

In our October issue, Mark Murray explains how Kaine accomplished this.

Amy Sullivan 10:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NIGER UPDATE....Henry Farrell has translated portions of Tuesday's La Repubblica article about the forged Nigerien documents, and this bit provides a surprising answer to the question of where the documents came from:

The game-plan was rather transparent. "Authentic" documents relating to an attempted acquisition in Niger (old Italian intelligence from the 1980s) were the dowry of the second-in-command of SISMIs Roman headquarters (Antonio Nucera). They were bundled together with another fabricated document...through a simulated burglary on the Nigerien embassy (from which they had gotten headed notepaper and seals).

Isn't that fascinating? If I'm reading this right, La Repubblica's story is that the document regarding the sale of uranium yellowcake was actually genuine except that it was from the 1980s. That certainly explains why the names and dates didn't check out. Then a second document was added to the first one that was forged on genuine Nigerien notepaper. The Italians got this notepaper from an asset inside the Nigerien embassy, but their story to the Americans was that both documents had been burglarized.

(I should add that this second document was a genuinely strange affair, and it's never been clear why the forgers wasted their time creating it. For what it's worth, Matt Yglesias has an entertaining theory here.)

Some of the other stuff in the La Repubblica story I didn't quite get, which might be because the article is unclear or because the translation is unclear. Or just because the whole thing is outlandishly baroque. One thing's for sure, though: a bunch of people have some explaining to do.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LAST MINUTE PLAME UPDATE....The Financial Times, along with pretty much every news outlet in the galaxy, says Wednesday is the day:

Indictments in the CIA leak investigation case are expected to be handed down by a grand jury on Wednesday....On Tuesday night, news reports, supported by a source close to the lawyers involved in the case, said that target letters to those facing indictment were being issued, with sealed indictments to be filed today and released by the end of the week.

There was also some more peculiar news. Various reports confirm that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was conducting last minute questioning on Tuesday, including an interview with a White House colleague of Karl Rove as well as interviews with some of Joe Wilson's neighbors, apparently to find out if any of them knew Valerie Plame worked for the CIA before Robert Novak wrote his column exposing her.

I don't know what to make of this. On the one hand, it seems odd that Fitzgerald would still be questioning witnesses at this late date. If he has a good case, shouldn't he have wrapped up this stuff long ago?

On the other hand, it might also mean that he's just being super meticulous. Or, perhaps, that he's considering which charges to indict on. As the LA Times puts it:

Some of the questioning indicates that Fitzgerald may still be considering indictments for theories in the case that some have viewed as too difficult to pursue, including a prosecution under a federal law that makes it a felony to reveal the name of a covert agent.

We'll see. Wednesday should be an exciting day, shouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 25, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

INDICTMENTS TOMORROW?....Last night the New York Times reported that it was CIA director George Tenet who originally told Dick Cheney that Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA. Cheney then passed this along to Scooter Libby, who passed it on to Judith Miller.

Today, Crooks and Liars says that MSNBC correspondent David Shuster has reported that Tenet denies this. Tenet says he didn't tell Cheney or anyone in Cheney's office about Wilson, nor was he asked about this by investigators two years ago.

For what it's worth, this sounds right to me. It just doesn't sound like the kind of thing Tenet would have told Cheney.

In other Plamegate news, Steve Clemons passes along a rumor that Patrick Fitzgerald will hand down 1-5 indictments tomorrow and that the targets of indictment have already received their letters. This is sourced to an "uber-insider source," whatever that means.

The bad news, though, is that Steve's source confirms my worst fears: Fitzgerald will be handing down sealed indictments. If that's true, it means we won't be any wiser tomorrow than we are today. All we'll have is some names and some charges, but no evidence.

Stay tuned for more.

Kevin Drum 5:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONSTITUTION PASSES....It's official. Iraq has a new constitution:

According to the vote tallies released by officials here, more than 78 percent of the voters nationwide approved the constitution.

....A majority of voters in three of Iraq's 18 provinces voted against the constitution, but one of them failed to reach the two-thirds threshold a veto provision designed to protect Iraq's minority communities. In Anbar province, 96 percent of those casting ballots voted against the referendum, and 81 percent rejected it in Salahaddin. But in the key swing province of Nineveh, 56 percent voted against the constitution about 10 percentage points short of what was necessary to kill the charter.

Complete results by province (via the BBC) are below the fold.

Kevin Drum 5:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NIGER FORGERY UPDATE....One of the million dollar questions at the heart of Plamegate is: where did those forged Niger documents come from, anyway? The short answer is that they came from Italian intelligence. And another question: why, in June 2003, was the White House seemingly so afraid of further publicity about those documents, which had been exposed as forgeries months before without doing them any real damage? Laura Rozen puts a few more puzzle pieces together over at the American Prospect today:

In an explosive series of articles appearing this week in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, investigative reporters Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d'Avanzo report that Nicolo Pollari, chief of Italy's military intelligence service, known as Sismi, brought the Niger yellowcake story directly to the White House after his insistent overtures had been rejected by the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001 and 2002.

....Today's exclusive report in La Repubblica reveals that Pollari met secretly in Washington on September 9, 2002, with thenDeputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Their secret meeting came at a critical moment in the White House campaign to convince Congress and the American public that war in Iraq was necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons. National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones confirmed the meeting to the Prospect on Tuesday.

La Repubblica's story suggests that the Italians pushed hard on the documents because they were eager to impress the Americans with their loyalty to the war cause. When the CIA and the State Department didn't bite, they went straight to the White House. Read Laura's entire piece for all the details.

There are plenty of questions still open, of course. Whose idea were the documents in the first place? Did Sismi know they were fake when they handed them over? Did Hadley? And why did everyone ignore the State Department's conclusion, rendered almost immediately after Sismi turned over the documents, that they were obvious forgeries?

So many questions. So few answers. I don't think Patrick Fitzgerald is going to answer them, but perhaps we're getting a bit closer to someone else figuring it out.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall answers one of my questions. He says that La Repubblica's story reports that Nicolo Pollari knew the documents were fake at the time he was peddling them to the CIA and the White House.

Kevin Drum 3:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IRAQ WAR MILESTONE....The Wall Street Journal reports that we've passed the halfway point: more than half of all Americans now think that invading Iraq was the wrong thing to do. The raw data is here. I've interpolated missing data on the chart to show a continuous trend.

In other news, 66% of U.S. adults now say President Bush is doing a "poor" or "only fair" job of handling Iraq; 61% say they aren't confident U.S. policies in Iraq will be successful; and 44% believe the situation for U.S. troops in Iraq is getting worse (compared to only 19% who think it's improving). I have a feeling that yet another series of "same 'ol, same 'ol" speeches from the president aren't going to turn this around.

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WILSON AND PINCUS....This is not the most important thing in the world, but since I happened to write about it just yesterday I suppose I should follow up on it. In a post about Joe Wilson's trip to Niger in 2002, I mentioned that both Nick Kristof and Walter Pincus later wrote stories based on anonymous conversations with Wilson that credited Wilson with debunking the forged Niger documents when he returned home. However, that wasn't true: at the time of his trip he had never seen the documents.

Did Wilson mislead Kristof and Pincus? Or did they just scramble what Wilson told them? As I mentioned yesterday, in an email to me last year, Wilson stated flatly:

I told Nick and later Walter Pincus about my trip and the fact that it was a report based on those documents that had led to my being asked to travel. I never claimed to have seen the documents or to have known anything about signatures or dates.

A couple of weeks later, he said that he had spoken to Kristof and "He confirmed that I had made clear to him that I had never seen the documents."

But what about Walter Pincus? Today Pincus wrote this:

Wilson has also armed his critics by misstating some aspects of the Niger affair. For example, Wilson told The Washington Post anonymously in June 2003 that he had concluded that the intelligence about the Niger uranium was based on forged documents because "the dates were wrong and the names were wrong." The Senate intelligence committee, which examined pre-Iraq war intelligence, reported that Wilson "had never seen the CIA reports and had no knowledge of what names and dates were in the reports." Wilson had to admit he had misspoken.

Unless I've missed it before, this is the first time Pincus has publicly said that Wilson misled him. Wilson addressed this issue in a letter to Pat Roberts after the Senate intelligence committee report was released last year, but never specifically addressed the question of what he told Pincus. In fact, he said of his investigation into Iraq's alleged attempt to purchase uranium, "My mission was to look into whether such a transaction took place or could take place. It had not and could not. By definition that makes the documents bogus."

And there it stands. I wonder why Pincus chose today to finally mention this? Odd timing, no?

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SLOGANEERING....The Hill reports on the latest Democratic Party strategerizing:

House Democratic leaders are holding a closed-door meeting with members of their caucus this afternoon to discuss a new slogan for the 2006 midterm elections: "Together, We Can Do Better" or "Together, America Can Do Better," according to Democratic sources.

...."America Can Do Better," which lacks the word "Together," has also been in frequent rotation this fall.

....Democrats plan to unveil their 2006 party platform in the coming weeks, much earlier than in previous cycles and way ahead of the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America," which came out six weeks before the election.

God knows I've been in charge of enough product naming and company slogan fiascos to have some sympathy for anyone else trying their hand at this, but it sure looks like these guys have managed to consider every combination of words for this tagline except for the obvious one: a quick, pithy, "We Can Do Better." It's punchier, it's less saccharine, it hits harder, and it still gets the point across. For a few minutes in the debates last fall, John Kerry ended every criticism of George Bush with "We can do better," and I thought it worked pretty well. He should have kept it up.

Whatever. I know how these things go. But on another subject, what's the deal with unveiling the party platform so soon? I assume it's gong to be same bland, gutless marshmallow that it usually is, so I suppose it doesn't really matter, but a lot of things can change in the next nine months. Nobody's paying any attention to this stuff right now anyway, so why not wait and ensure that the Dem platform addresses whatever the most important issues happen to be at the time of the actual election? Just asking.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CHENEY AND PLAME....Andrew Sullivan does some theorizing about Dick Cheney's role in Plamegate here and here. Bottom line: he was behind the whole thing.

Could be. Sullivan's theories are as good as anything else I've heard. If Fitzgerald hands down indictments this week, I sure hope they contain enough substance to actually answer a few of these nagging questions.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

POWELL AND THE WHITE HOUSE....Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, expands on his earlier criticism of the White House foreign policy "cabal" in the LA Times this morning:

The administration's performance during its first four years would have been even worse without Powell's damage control. At least once a week, it seemed, Powell trooped over to the Oval Office and cleaned all the dog poop off the carpet. He held a youthful, inexperienced president's hand. He told him everything would be all right because he, the secretary of State, would fix it. And he did everything from a serious crisis with China when a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was struck by a Chinese F-8 fighter jet in April 2001, to the secretary's constant reassurances to European leaders following the bitter breach in relations over the Iraq war. It wasn't enough, of course, but it helped.

This was an unfortunate paragraph for Wilkerson to add to his general critique of how the Cheney/Rumsfeld axis ramrodded reckless and poorly planned foreign policy proposals through a White House unprepared to understand the consequences. Regardless of what you think of his overall assessment, this paragraph makes it look like nothing more than the usual pissing contest between State and Defense, with Powell playing the part of far sighted but long suffering wise man who will eventually be vindicated by history.

The problem is that no one's going to buy that after Powell's four year history within the administration of doggedly loyal public support combined with a steady drip of self-serving private leaks designed to distance himself from anything that turned out badly. If Powell himself believes what Wilkerson is saying, then it's long past time for him to step forward and say it himself in no uncertain terms. If he doesn't, he should say that too. He can't have it both ways.

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PLAMEGATE AND NIGER....UPI's Martin Walker reports a strange twist in the Valerie Plame case today. He says that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has asked for, and obtained, the full version of an Italian parliamentary inquiry into the forgery of the pre-war documents that claimed Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger.

But why did he do that? Mark Kleiman argues persuasively that it's unlikely that Fitzgerald has widened the scope of his investigation to include Uraniumgate, so what's the point of getting his hands on the Italian report? I'm not sure myself, but here's a bit of thinking out loud on the subject.

For starters, the White House's motivation for smearing Joe Wilson has always been murkier than it might seem at first glance. After all, as Bob Somerby is fond of pointing out, Joe Wilson's famous July 2003 op-ed in the New York Times didn't actually contradict anything the White House had said. In his 2003 State of the Union address, George Bush said that Iraq had "sought...uranium from Africa," while Wilson said only that his trip to Niger convinced him that Iraq had not in fact succeeded in buying uranium. So why the desperate smear campaign against Wilson? Even Karl Rove must have known that leaking his wife's name was fantastically reckless and over the top. Why not just point out the lack of contradiction and leave it at that?

To figure that out, you have to go back in time to May and June of 2003. Before Wilson wrote his op-ed, he spoke anonymously about his trip to two reporters, Nick Kristof of the New York Times and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, both of whom wrote about an "envoy" (i.e., Wilson) who had gone to Niger the previous year and, when he returned, told the CIA that the Nigerien documents were phony. Since we know that the smear campaign against Wilson started in June (or earlier), it was those reports that got the White House up in arms, not the July op-ed.

Now, as it happens, Kristof and Pincus were wrong: Wilson had not actually seen the documents at the time he traveled to Niger and he hadn't debunked them. Did he tell Kristof and Pincus that he had? In an email to me last year, he stated flatly that "I never claimed to have seen the documents or to have known anything about signatures or dates." A couple of weeks later, he said that he had spoken to Kristof and "He confirmed that I had made clear to him that I had never seen the documents."

But regardless of where the truth lies, the fact is that Kristof and Pincus wrote what they wrote, and obviously their stories scared the daylights out of the White House. But again, why? After all, even though Wilson hadn't debunked the documents, in March of 2003 the IAEA did. At the time all this was happening, the entire world had known they were fake for months. So why the panic?

Well, there was something the White House knew at that point that the rest of us didn't. They knew that not only were the Nigerien documents fake, but that they had been proven fake the previous year though not by Wilson or the IAEA. At that time, everybody thought the timeline went like this: (1) Bush gives SOTU address in January 2003, (2) IAEA proves Nigerien documents are phony in March. That's bad, but not catastrophic. However, the real timeline, known to only a few, was this: (1) State Department determines Nigerien docs are phony in October 2002, (2) Bush mentions African uranium anyway in January SOTU address.

Connect the dots. Rightly or wrongly, Kristof and Pincus reported that Wilson had told the administration the Nigerien documents were fake long before Bush's 2003 SOTU address contrary to the storyline accepted at the time. What's more, Wilson was a former ambassador, which made the Kristof/Pincus reporting pretty plausible. The White House probably figured Wilson still had friends in the State Department who had told him the documents had been debunked long before the SOTU. And if Wilson knew that, maybe he knew about the source of the forged documents as well. Or was on the trail of it. Or something.

And that's what scared them: the possibility that someone was about to expose the story behind the forged documents. That would have blown the pre-war stories about "mushroom clouds" and nuclear programs sky high, and that's what caused them to wildly overreact to Wilson's otherwise innocuous criticisms.

And that's why Fitzgerald wanted to see the Italian report. He figures it might explain the original motivation for the whole affair, and knowing the motivation might help him make his case.

At least, that's my best guess. The irony, of course, is that Wilson didn't know the story behind the forged documents and neither did anyone else. And despite plenty of digging, to this day no one knows the story. But the aftershocks live on.

POSTSCRIPT: For easy reference, here's the basic Uraniumgate timeline:

  • February 2002: The CIA receives "verbatim text" from Italian intelligence of some documents claiming that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase uranium yellowcake from Niger. Joe Wilson goes to Niger to investigate this claim and reports back that it seems highly unlikely.

  • October 2002: State Department intelligence agency (INR) gets an actual copy of the Niger docs and immediately concludes that they're bogus. However, nobody outside the government knows this.

  • January 2003: George Bush gives SOTU address, claiming that Iraq has sought uranium from Africa.

  • March 2003: IAEA publicly announces the Niger docs are forgeries.

  • May/June 2003: Based on anonymous sourcing from Wilson, Kristof and Pincus report on the Niger story, mistakenly saying that "the envoy" had debunked the docs back in February 2002.

  • July 6, 2003: Wilson publishes his op-ed.

  • July 11, 2003: CIA director George Tenet admits that Bush shouldn't have included the uranium claim in the SOTU.

Kevin Drum 9:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBBY AND CHENEY....Here's today's bombshell in the Valerie Plame case:

I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheneys chief of staff, first learned about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the leak investigation in a conversation with Mr. Cheney weeks before her identity became public in 2003, lawyers involved in the case said Monday.

Notes of the previously undisclosed conversation between Mr. Libby and Mr. Cheney on June 12, 2003, appear to differ from Mr. Libbys testimony to a federal grand jury that he initially learned about the C.I.A. officer, Valerie Wilson, from journalists, the lawyers said.

....Mr. Libbys notes indicate that Mr. Cheney had gotten his information about Ms. Wilson from George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, in response to questions from the vice president about Mr. Wilson.

An anonymous source quoted later in the story disputes this, saying he "strongly doubted that the White House learned about Ms. Plame from Mr. Tenet."

Still, that doesn't get Libby off the hook. It's not nice to lie to a grand jury.

Kevin Drum 9:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BAD NEWS FROM IRAQ....Via Tapped, the Telegraph reports that a poll commissioned by the British military shows an appalling decline in support for the occupation among ordinary Iraqis:

The survey was conducted by an Iraqi university research team that, for security reasons, was not told the data it compiled would be used by coalition forces. It reveals:

  • Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;

  • 82 per cent are "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops;

  • less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security;

....The opinion poll, carried out in August...differ[s] markedly from a survey carried out by the BBC in March 2004 in which the overwhelming consensus among the 2,500 Iraqis questioned was that life was good.

Yes, it's only one poll, and there's no telling how reliable the methodology was. But if it's really true that 82% of the population is strongly opposed to the presence of coalition troops and 45% are fanatically, murderously opposed then there's simply no hope left. Karen Hughes can't do anything about poll numbers like that.

Kevin Drum 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SPRAWL....Robert Bruegmann wrote a fascinating (to me) op-ed in the LA Times yesterday. He says that Los Angeles isn't the icon of suburban sprawl that people think it is:

Although it is true that the Los Angeles region in its early years had widely scattered settlements, these settlements were not particularly low in density. Since World War II, moreover, the density of the Los Angeles region has climbed dramatically, while that of older cities in the North and East has plummeted. The result is that today the Los Angeles urbanized area, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, has just over 7,000 people per square mile by a fair margin the densest in the United States.

Oh come on. This must be some kind of statistical trick, right?

Many people think that this must be a statistical trick because no part of the L.A. region could possibly be as dense as Manhattan or central Chicago. But there is no trick. Los Angeles has always had relatively small lot sizes, very little abandonment and, because of the difficulty in obtaining water, almost none of the really low-density suburban and exurban development that extends for dozens of miles in all directions outside older cities in the northern and eastern United States.

Bruegmann argues that in addition to being denser than you think, Los Angeles is actually better planned than most older cities. What's more, LA's sprawl predates the automobile, so car culture isn't responsible for our physical landscape.

Is this right? I have to say that he makes a persuasive case. It's hard to blame cars for Southern California sprawl if our land use patterns were set in the early 20th century. And yet....somehow it still seems like there must be a statistical trick in there somewhere. But where?

Kevin Drum 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW BLOGS....The New Republic has a new blog authored by Franklin Foer, Michael Crowley, Jason Zengerle, and "TNR's staff." It's called The Plank.

In other news, I understand that former Washington Monthly guest blogger Michael Hiltzik will start writing a blog of his own for the Los Angeles Times next week. URL tk.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BERNANKE GETS FED NOD....Well, it's official. Ben Bernanke is George Bush's choice to replace Alan Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve. Other people will likely have learned commentary on this choice, but not me. I'm just passing on the news.

UPDATE: Reviews from around the blogosphere:

  • Tyler Cowen: "An excellent choice and a first-rate economist." Gives him an overall grade of A-/B+.

  • Max Sawicky: Not bad. Better than Martin Feldstein, anyway.

  • Larry Kudlow: "A good choice." Better than Donald Kohn, that's for sure.

  • Brad DeLong: "A very good choice."

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"WHAT MONEY?"....Via the Carpetbagger, here's an excerpt from a New York Times Magazine interview with former Senator Connie Mack, the guy who's in charge of the president's tax reform panel. Read and be amazed:

Well, the U.S. government has to get money from somewhere. As a two-term former Republican senator from Florida, where do you suggest we get money from?

What money?

The money to run this country.

We'll borrow it.

I never understand where all this money comes from. When the president says we need another $200 billion for Katrina repairs, does he just go and borrow it from the Saudis?

In a sense, we do. Maybe the Chinese.

Is that fair to our children? If we keep borrowing at this level, won't the Arabs or the Chinese eventually own this country?

I am not worried about that....

Tell me again how these guys ended up in charge of the country?

POSTSCRIPT: I have a feeling the typography got screwed up in this interview. The line that begins "When the president says" sounds like it was something the interviewer said, not Mack. Can someone who has a copy of the print magazine look this up and see?

POSCRIPT 2: A reader confirms my suspicion. I've corrected the text.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH'S BRAIN....Tom DeFrank is back with another peek inside the White House. Long story short, he says Bush has turned into Richard Nixon:

Bush usually reserves his celebrated temper for senior aides because he knows they can take it. Lately, however, some junior staffers have also faced the boss' wrath.

....Presidential advisers and friends say Bush is a mass of contradictions: cheerful and serene, peevish and melancholy, occasionally lapsing into what he once derided as the "blame game." They describe him as beset but unbowed, convinced that history will vindicate the major decisions of his presidency even if they damage him and his party in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Who the hell are DeFrank's sources for this stuff? And why are they leaking it?

In any case, it's worth noting that although Bush may be peevish and melancholy, his legendary poor judgment is still intact. According to DeFrank, "The vice president remains Bush's most trusted political confidant."

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CRONYISM UPDATE....The Wall Street Journal reports that if Patrick Fitzgerald hands down indictments in the Valerie Plame case this week, George Bush will probably be forced to shake up the White House Staff. But there's a fly in the ointment:

If Mr. Bush has to make such decisions, his choices could be complicated by the possibility that White House chief of staff Andrew Card might want a new post. Mr. Card has been chief of staff for Mr. Bush's entire first term and one year of his second an unusually long stint in a very stressful job. Mr. Card is thought to be interested in the Treasury secretary's job, when and if John Snow decides to step down.

Well, I'm interested in that job too. But aside from being a Democrat, there's also the minor problem that I have no relevant experience. Neither does Card.

I don't imagine that a PhD in economics is required to be Treasury Secretary, but shouldn't the nominee have at least a wee bit of experience in finance or business? The closest Card has come has been a stint as a lobbyist for the auto industry.

If Card wants a reward for long and faithful service, I'd be happy to see him appointed as ambassador to some pleasant and reasonably important country. But Treasury Secretary? Please.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 23, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SCOWCROFT SPEAKS....Steve Clemons has a long series of excerpts posted today from Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker article about Brent Scowcroft's unhappiness with the current Bush administration. Since Scowcroft is a close friend of George Bush Sr., it's a significant piece. Here's Scowcroft on Dick Cheney:

"The real anomaly in the Administration is Cheney," Scowcroft said. "I consider Cheney a good friend I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."

As for W himself, Goldberg reports that he has no time for guys like Scowcroft:

According to friends of the elder Bush, the estrangement of his son and his best friend has been an abiding source of unhappiness, not only for Bush but for Barbara Bush as well. George Bush, the forty-first President, has tried several times to arrange meetings between his son, "Forty-three," and his former national-security adviser to no avail, according to people with knowledge of these intertwined relationships.

And Scowcroft doesn't think much of W, either:

When I asked Scowcroft if the son was different from the father, he said, "I don't want to go there," but his dissatisfaction with the son's agenda could not have been clearer. When I asked him to name issues on which he agrees with the younger Bush, he said, "Afghanistan." He paused for twelve seconds. Finally, he said, "I think we're doing well on Europe," and left it at that.

Read the whole thing. If the New Yorker puts up a link to the full piece later, I'll let you know.

Kevin Drum 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HEADSET QUERY....I'd like to buy a headset for my telephone. Actually, let me rephrase that: I've already got a headset for my telephone, and I'd like to buy a really high quality replacement for it.

Any suggestions based on personal experience? My preference is for something that plugs in via a standard sub-mini jack (see picture at right) so that I can use it on a variety of corded and cordless phones, but I'm willing to consider more complex alternatives as well. Within reason, cost is not an issue. What I'm looking for is something with very high sound quality: no tinniness, no echo, no "you sound like you're talking from inside a barrel." Something that will make sound engineers happy when I'm chatting on radio shows.

Recommendations are welcome. And failing that, does anyone know why the sound quality on most headset sucks so badly? I mean, a mike is a mike. Why should the 20-cent microphone on a headset be any worse than the 20-cent microphone in a handset?

Kevin Drum 4:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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IN DEFENSE OF THE UNITED NATIONS....Suzanne Nossel suggests that UN bashers should take a look at its role in investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri:

Without a broadly mandated UN, how could the Hariri case have moved beyond finger pointing? The Lebanese government could never have been trusted to investigate. There's no way the US itself could have interfered. The Arab League could not have been objective. The EU would never have waded in. The International Criminal Court would not have had jurisdiction. Without the UN, its hard to envision how the investigation, particularly given its depth and breadth, could have been carried out.

She's right. The UN report has given a huge boost to calls for reform in both Lebanon and Syria, and it wouldn't have happened if the report had come from anywhere else. Are you listening, John Bolton?

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TABOR BLUES....Colorado's Republican governor, Bill Owens, is fighting to overturn his state's TABOR law, a spending cap that has devastated the state so badly that even the business community now wants to get rid of it. Here's what Owens says about the law:

"I don't think it was designed to cripple government," he said of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR, amendment his state's voters approved. "This is an unintended consequence."

Idiot. Of course it was intended to cripple government. That's why Grover Norquist and Dick Armey and the rest of the tax jihad army are still fighting to keep it around. To them, destruction of state services is a feature, not a bug. They won't be happy until Colorado and the entire rest of the country look like Mississippi.

Kevin Drum 1:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WHAT DEMOCRATS STAND FOR....David Adesnik recently sat in on a focus group of (Ivy League) Democratic activists and came away surprised. Conventional wisdom says that if you ask ten Democrats what the party stands for, you'll get 11 different answers:

Yet in our focus group, almost every answer was exactly the same. The purpose of the Democratic party is to help the poor and the disadvantaged.

....The organizer's response to this unexpected consensus was both sympathetic and devastating. On the one hand, this consensus suggested that there is a foundational commitment on which Democrats can build. On the other hand, if the purpose of the Democratic party is to help the disadvantaged, what can the party possibly offer to the overwhelming majority of Americans who see themeslves as middle class?

In terms of domestic politics, Mark Reutter points toward the right answer in this piece in the Washington Post today about the increasing number of large corporation filing for Chapter 11 protection:

As the prospect of other large enterprises taking a spin down Chapter 11 becomes more widely discussed in business circles ("maybes" on the list include such iconic names as General Motors and Ford), the tactics used in bankruptcy courts are shaking the very foundations of the American workplace.

Whether an assembly-line worker or middle manager, an employee can no longer assume that promises made earlier health benefits or fully funded pensions will be there when he or she retires. The loss of security arising from Chapter 11 reorganizations has introduced a new element of anxiety into the lives of baby boomers who are approaching 60, not to mention younger workers just starting out in their careers.

To a growing extent, the type of gnawing stress and uncertainty that has always afflicted the daily life of the poor is increasingly afflicting the working and middle classes as well: stagnant wages, booms and busts in income from year to year, disappearing pensions, predatory lending, unreliable healthcare, and the constant, everpresent background fear of being laid off and falling into a hole you can never dig yourself out of.

This growing instability affects a huge swath of workers in the United States, and it's something the Democratic Party should dedicate itself to addressing. For more, see Jacob Hacker's terrific New Republic article on the subject and Peter Gosselin's related take in the Los Angeles Times.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

IDLE CHATTER?....The New York Times reports today that in a memo to editor Bill Keller, Judith Miller said that when Scooter Libby told her Joe Wilson's wife worked at the CIA, it was nothing but casual conversation:

She wrote that...she had discussed Mr. Wilson and his wife with government officials, but "I was unaware that there was a deliberate, concerted disinformation campaign to discredit Wilson and that if there had been, I did not think I was a target of it."

Compare that to Robert Novak's self-defense from two years ago:

I would like to stress three points. First, I did not receive a planned leak....During a long conversation with a senior administration official, I asked why Wilson was assigned the mission to Niger. He said Wilson had been sent by the CIA's counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife. It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger.

The story from both of these extremely experienced reporters is that the disclosure to them of Plame's employment was nothing but idle chatter. Nothing planned about it. They want us to believe that the only way White House operatives plant rumors is to pick up the phone, dial it methodically, and then spit out the dirt along with a request to please try to see that this ends up on the front page.

They should stop insulting our intelligence. Intelligent adults don't operate this crudely and they both know it. They're either lying or else exceptionally gullible. Here's what we've known since September of 2003:

A senior administration official said two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and revealed the identity and occupation of Wilson's wife...."Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," the senior official said of the alleged leak.

I have no doubt that these officials did their best to make their disclosures sound casual. Miller and Novak either fell for it, or else were willing accomplices. Neither option speaks well for their ability to do their job.

UPDATE: In the original version of this post I said that Novak's initial source was now known to be Scooter Libby, but Libby's lawyer says Libby never spoke to Novak. My memory must have been playing tricks on me. The text has been corrected.

Kevin Drum 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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GOOGLE vs. THE WORLD....The Washington Post has a couple of op-eds today providing pro and con views of Google's project to scan the world's books and allow people to search them online. For copyrighted books, the search will return only a small extract of the book, something that Google argues is covered by the existing fair use doctrine. Conversely, Nick Taylor, president of the Authors Guild, opposes Google's project as an infringement of copyright, suggesting that when Google made a unilateral decision about what counts as fair use and what doesn't, it set itself up as "the arbiter of a legal concept it has no right to interpret." Dave Munger cries foul:

Google has done anything but usurp the role of government, because copyright law doesnt give government the role of determining whether a specific use of copyrighted material falls under the fair use guidelines. The only way for that to be achieved is by filing a lawsuit.

True enough. After all, there's no Office of Fair Use Resolution in the federal government. At the same time, that sort of makes Taylor's point, doesn't it? The only way to figure out what the law says is for someone to sue Google and get a judge to rule on it.

For many people, especially writers who benefit from copyright but would also benefit from Google's project, this case is excrutiatingly hard to form an opinion about. On the one hand, it's a truly stupendous undertaking, a boon to both popular and scholarly research that's hard to overestimate. What's more, Google's restriction of search results to small snippets demonstrates considerable sensitivity to the rights of the original authors. As a matter of public policy, it seems like a no-brainer that something like this should not only be legal, but positively encouraged.

On the other hand, it's true that this isn't a use that authors had in mind when they originally published their books. And as with other database-driven collections, there's a big difference between an author excerpting one book for the purpose of illustration or criticism and a huge corporation excerpting millions and making money off it.

If it were up to me, I'd vote with the public interest. I sometimes feel that if the increasingly expansive view of copyright asserted today had been around a couple of centuries ago, the Supreme Court would have ruled that lending libraries were illegal. But just as circulating libraries have a social value that far outweighs the minimal intrusion they produce in an author's ability to control the distribution of her work, the same is true of Google's project. The technology has changed, but the principle is the same.

At the same time, it's too bad this has to be decided by the courts. It's really a job for Congress, after all. Unfortunately, both Republicans and Democrats appear to be so thoroughly bought and paid for by the content industry that it's pretty much inconceivable they'd do the right thing if it were brought to a vote. So it's off to court we go, with the hope that existing law will be enough. I hope Google wins.

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MIERS ON THE CONSTITUTION....On her Senate questionnaire, Harriet Miers only took a stab at answering one question about her experience with constitutional law and she blew it:

At one point, Miers described her service on the Dallas City Council in 1989. When the city was sued for violating the Voting Rights Act, she said, the council "had to be sure to comply with the proportional representation requirement of the Equal Protection clause."

But the Supreme Court repeatedly has said that the Constitution's guarantee of the "equal protection of the laws" does not mean that city councils or state legislatures must have enough minority members to match the proportion of blacks, Hispanics and Asians in the voting population.

....Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan...said she was surprised the White House did not check Miers' questionnaire before sending it to the Senate.

"Are they trying to set her up? Any halfway competent junior lawyer could have checked the questionnaire and said it cannot go out like that. I find it shocking," she said.

So much for that famous attention to detail. This soap opera just gets worse with every passing day.

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SYRIA IN TROUBLE?....A UN report blaming Syria for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri has electrified the Middle East:

The publication of the report on the deaths of Hariri and 22 other people in a car bombing in Beirut on Feb. 14 unleashed a reaction seldom seen in the Middle East. The 54-page document was read in its entirety on al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network; other stations broadcast hours of coverage Friday on the report and its fallout. To many people here, its publication marked a turning point in Middle East politics, signaling a looming confrontation with an uncertain outcome.

"This is simply the beginning," said Farid El-Khazen, a Lebanese lawmaker and political scientist. "There is little room for maneuver left for the Syrians now. They have to cooperate fully to save themselves from more isolation or they opt for rejection of the report, claiming it is all political. Syria doesn't have a middle-ground option."

This article, written by the Washington Post's Anthony Shadid, is much more interesting than any of the others I read, which mostly just regurgitated predictable quotes from George Bush and Condoleezza Rice about the need for the UN to take some kind of "action."

But what really matters is how this is playing in the Middle East. Reading a 54-page report on the air doesn't sound like very compelling TV to me, but I assume al-Jazeera knows its audience. This must be big stuff.

POSTSCRIPT: On the other hand, Michael Totten, our man on the scene, says he talked to a few people in Beirut Friday morning and "none were particularly worried about what is going to happen." In fact, "Its a nice day, actually. The weather is glorious." We'll see who calls this one right.

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RAT, MEET SINKING SHIP....Now that Colin Powell's former chief of staff has spoken his mind about the folks running the White House these days, who's next? Steve Clemons says that the New Yorker will be running an article on Monday by Jeffrey Goldberg in which Powell's longtime mentor, Brent Scowcroft, levels a "powerful new attack" on the Bush administration.

That should be interesting. Scowcraft, an old school Bush Sr. wise man, opposed the Iraq war, but after last year's election said the decision was "behind us" and it was time to move on. By "move on," though, he meant that the Bush administration needed to revitalize the Middle East peace process and start engaging seriously with Iran, two things that pretty clearly haven't happened. Apparently he's now had enough.

Steve also says that Goldberg's article will contain some "incredibly juicy commentary from President George H.W. Bush on the performance of his son's national security team." We'll see. I suspect it will actually be fairly restrained.

For genuinely juicy commentary, though, there's always Chris Nelson, who makes the following observation about Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage:

There is no question from private remarks and public grimaces, some reaching back to early 2001, neither Powell nor Armitage had or has much trust or respect for Rice, and they share with other senior Republican wisemen the conviction that Rumsfeld is quite literally mad, and Cheney a dangerous, vindictive monomaniac.

It's too bad these guys couldn't have spoken up, say, last year, when it might have mattered, but better late than never, I guess. At any rate, I eagerly await the revelation of just what it was that caused Scowcroft to finally flip his lid. Maybe it will help Powell will grow some balls and speak out too. That would be fun.

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October 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MAGGIE ON MARRIAGE....At the risk of butting in on Kieran's territory, I decided to go read Maggie Gallagher's complete week of guest blogging over at the Volokh Conspiracy to see if I could figure out why she's so violently opposed to same-sex marriage. Clearly she thinks that SSM will have disastrous effects on the institution of marriage, but it turns out that she managed to write several thousand words over the course of five days without ever explaining why she thinks that. "Bad time management," she explains. Here's the closest she comes:

If the principle behind SSM is institutionalized in law...then people like me who think marriage is the union of husband and wife importantly related to the idea that children need moms and dads will be treated in society and at law like bigots.

I promise that this isn't mockery or an attempt to miss her point. Out of all the posts she wrote, this was the best she could do. She's afraid that if society comes to accept SSM, then people who dislike it will be marginalized.

Well, I suppose that's true. And it's especially true if they can't actually verbalize their reasons for opposing it in the first place. And I'm afraid this won't do either:

Imagine you stand in the middle of vast, hostile desert. A camel is your only means of transversing it, your lifeline to the future. The camel is burdened stumbling, loaded down, tired; enfeebled the conditions of the modern life are clearly not favorable to it. But still its your only hope, because to get across that desert you need a camel.

Now, chop off its legs and order it to carry you to safety.

Thats what SSM looks like, to me.

I dunno. That's what a camel snuff film looks like to me, but not much else. I think this argument needs some work.

Kevin Drum 11:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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NEWS OF THE WEB....Dan Froomkin reports that Valerie Plame prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has launched a brand new website:

Could it be that he's getting ready to release some new legal documents? Like, maybe, some indictments? It's certainly not the action of an office about to fold up its tents and go home.

You can see the site here, and it's pretty bare bones. It certainly, um, looks like it could use some additional content, if you know what I mean.

(Fitzgerald's flack says we shouldn't read too much into this. Sure, sure. I say, it's Friday, and I'll read whatever I want into it. And I think you know what that is.)

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"METHODICAL, DETAIL-ORIENTED, AND COMPREHENSIVE"....Did Scooter Libby pull a Nixon over Joe Wilson? In the LA Times this morning, Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger suggest he did:

"Scooter had a plan to counter Wilson and a passionate desire to do so," said a second person, a former White House official familiar with the internal deliberations.

....Libby's anger over Wilson's 2003 charges has been known. But new interviews and documents obtained by The Times provide a more detailed view of the depth and duration of Libby's interest in Wilson....After Wilson published a book criticizing the administration in April 2004, during the closely fought presidential campaign, Libby became consumed by passages that he believed were inaccurate or unfair to Cheney, former aides said. He ordered up a meticulous catalog of Wilson's claims and public statements going back to early 2003.

Will anyone defend Libby? Mary Matalin basically says, hey, that's just Scooter. He's a "methodical, detail-oriented and comprehensive worker."

Works for me. I guess if a smear is worth doing, it's worth doing right.

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LIFE WITHOUT KARL....The wonkish Bruce Reed contemplates life without Karl Rove and likes what he sees:

From Atwater to Ailes, Morris to Rove, American politics has become obsessed with the cult of the evil genius. This cult is especially popular in Washington, where young Mini-Me's come to cut their teeth, and the Art Formerly Known as Government is hopelessly pass.

This is the single biggest catastrophe of Rovism. Not the tax cuts, nor the Social Security fiasco, nor the lousy Medicare bill, but the simple fact that nobody really cared whether any of these policies worked in the first place. Remember what John DiIulio told Ron Suskind three years ago:

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues....the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking.

And what Suskind himself heard while he was waiting outside Karl Rove's door for an interview:

Inside, Rove was talking to an aide about some political stratagem in some state that had gone awry and a political operative who had displeased him. I paid it no mind and reviewed a jotted list of questions I hoped to ask. But after a moment, it was like ignoring a tornado flinging parked cars. "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!"

Will the White House be ruined if Karl Rove leaves? If it is, there was nothing there to be ruined in the first place.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CAR-OWNING, PILL-POPPING, BODY-PIERCING, CAREER-ORIENTED, DEGREE-GRANTED, SEXUALLY CONFIDENT, FREQUENT-FLYER, ATHEISTIC SLUTS....Kieran Healy takes on Leon Kass over at Crooked Timber. It's worth a read if you're in the mood for some high quality mockery.

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BLOGS AND SOCIAL SECURITY....I'm not generally much of a blog triumphalist, but Reed Hundt caught my eye today with this criticism of Jackie Calmes' Wall Street Journal article about why George Bush's Social Security reform failed:

First, she neglects huge role played by blogworld, which every moment eagle-eyed every distortion, misrepresentation, confusion, and unanswered question embedded in the White House campaign against defined benefits for retirees.

Hmmm. That actually sounds plausible. I wouldn't buy the maximal case that Blogs Won The Social Security War, mind you, but they probably did have a real effect, didn't they? They helped drive media coverage to some extent, and they probably also helped stiffen the spines of Democratic politicians who might otherwise have been tempted to compromise on the issue.

It's funny that I hadn't thought of this, but until now I hadn't. It still seems to be the case that blogs are better at stopping things than making things happen, but helping stop a major policy fiasco is certainly more impressive than getting someone fired. The blogosphere is growing up!

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MAKE WAR NO MORE?....In the American Prospect this month, Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias chastise liberal hawks who have defended their past support of the Iraq war by claiming that it failed only because George Bush has prosecuted it incompetently. Instead, they argue, liberal hawks should admit that it was just a bad idea, full stop. It's simply not possible to impose democracy by force, and it wouldn't have worked no matter who was in charge.

This criticism certainly applies to me. Sure, I switched from pro-war to anti-war before the war started, but so what? I did so because I thought that "Bush's implementation of the war is the very one that will prevent it from ultimately being successful," and this statement clearly implies that I thought it was possible for a different implementation to succeed. So let's take a look at that.

Sam and Matt make three practical not moral points, all of them technical in nature. First, they take apart the argument that the occupation would have worked better if only we'd used more troops. This may be true, they point out, but since we didn't have more troops, this is just wishful thinking. I've made this argument myself, so obviously I'm sympathetic to it.

Second, they claim that hawks are wrong to think that we might have succeeded if only we hadn't disbanded the Iraqi army shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Unfortunately, Sam and Matt gloss over this pretty quickly, suggesting only that this wasn't the result of incompetence, it was the result of insistent Shia and Kurdish demands that any president would have been forced to respond to. This is unconvincing, and it's something that deserves a deeper look since it's pretty clear that the disbanded army has been one of the primary recruiting grounds for the Sunni insurgency we've been fighting ever since.

Third and here I'm paraphrasing very loosely they argue that the American military is lousy at policing and counterinsurgency. In fact, I'd go further, and argue (for example, here, here, and here) that no Western power has ever demonstrated much success at counterinsurgency. As Major John Nagl, a scholar of guerrilla war, admits, "counterinsurgency requires an excruciatingly fine calibration of lethal force. Not enough of it means you will cede the offensive to your enemy, yet too much means you will alienate the noncombatants whose support you need." That knife edge may simply be impossible to balance.


These are all good arguments, but I think they obscure two more fundamental points that Sam and Matt don't address. Point #1 is the fact that democratization was probably never more than a small part of the original plan anyway, so maybe the whole "democracy at the point of a gun" argument isn't all that important. Here is Josh Marshall describing the neocon grand plan back in April 2003:

In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East.

....In short, the administration is trying to roll the table to use U.S. military force, or the threat of it, to reform or topple virtually every regime in the region, from foes like Syria to friends like Egypt, on the theory that it is the undemocratic nature of these regimes that ultimately breeds terrorism....Each crisis will draw U.S. forces further into the region and each countermove in turn will create problems that can only be fixed by still further American involvement, until democratic governments or, failing that, U.S. troops rule the entire Middle East.

In other words, democracy is nice eventually but the bigger issue is kicking over the status quo in the Middle East and forcing change. And the hawks would argue that this is happening. Slowly and fitfully, to be sure, but let's count up the successes so far: Iraq and Afghanistan are better off than before, Libya has given up its nuke program, Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is a sign of progress, Egypt has held a more open election than any before it, and the Syrian regime is under considerable pressure.

Did the invasion of Iraq precipitate these changes? I think the hawks considerably overstate their case, but at the same time they do have a case. Even if Iraq is a mess, it might all be worthwhile if it eventually produces progress toward a more open, more liberal Middle East. At the very least, it's an argument that needs to be engaged.

Point #2 is a little more abstract. Because Sam and Matt's arguments against democracy building are technical, they beg a question: what if we corrected the problems they allude to? After all, it's not impossible to have a bigger army, or to have an army that's better at policing and counterinsurgency, as Thomas P.M. Barnett argues we should.

So, should we? This question deserves a considered answer, because it gets to the heart of both liberal and conservative hawkishness. Is the threat posed by Middle Eastern terrorism great enough that we should take on the task of building a military that can fight and win wars of counterinsurgency and occupation in the future? Or should we just flatly rule it out?

As it happens, regular readers know that I mostly agree with Sam and Matt's probable views on all these questions. Kicking over anthills and hoping against hope that something good comes out of it is to put it mildly not a very convincing argument for war. The Iraq invasion has had some positive effects on the Middle East, but they've been modest and have been counterbalanced by some negative effects and those effects are likely to get ever more negative as time goes by. In general, military action is counterproductive in a long ideological struggle like the war on terrorism, just as hot wars Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Afghanistan were the most disastrous events of the Cold War for everyone involved. And while I think that taking counterinsurgency more seriously is a good idea, I also suspect that there are systemic reasons that will prevent Western powers from ever successfully fighting a large scale overseas guerrilla war.

Still, these are assertions, not arguments, and if you're going to flatly suggest on practical rather than moral grounds that war "can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life," you need to engage these broad arguments, not merely demonstrate that Iraq would have been difficult verging on impossible no matter who was running the war. I think we need a sequel.

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MIERS SINKS SLOWLY IN THE WEST....Byron York reports that Harriet Miers's courtesy calls with senators aren't going very well. An anonymous source who's been participating in the twice-weekly conference calls designed to bolster Miers's nomination says this:

"The meetings with the senators are going terribly. On a scale of one to 100, they are in negative territory. The thought now is that they have to end....Obviously the smart thing to do would be to withdraw the nomination and have a do-over as soon as possible. But the White House is so irrational that who knows? As of this morning, there is a sort of pig-headed resolve to press forward, cancel the meetings with senators if necessary, and bone up for the hearings."

Goodness. A "pig-headed resolve to press forward"? From George Bush? Who would have guessed?

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WAR TORN....Sam Rosenfeld and Matt Yglesias have an article in the American Prospect this month called "The Incompetence Dodge." Nickel version: the problem with the Iraq war isn't just that the Bush administration carried it out incompetently. Rather, it was fundamentally impossible in the first place. It wouldn't have worked no matter who was in charge.

Sam and Matt would like you to read it. I already have, and have a few pointed comments, which I will share later since I have to go run some errands right now. In the meantime, do two things: first, read their argument, and second, take a trip back in time and read Josh Marshall's "Practice to Deceive" from April 2003.

I'll have my own comments later today.

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VALUE-ADDED SCHOOL TESTING....In light of recent reports that the No Child Left Behind Act seems to have had little effect on student test scores, it's worth taking at look at problems with NCLB that even its supporters agree need to be addressed. One of them is NCLB's reliance on a single "one size fits all" set of standards for all students, a problem that Tom Toch explains in the October Monthly:

Educators in impoverished neighborhoods argue that the law's criteria for school success don't sufficiently take into account of how immensely far behind many of their students are when they start school. Educators and parents in affluent communities, where students routinely score above state standards, have a different complaint: that the NCLB accountability system is leading to a dumbing down of their schools' curricula. Many testing experts, meanwhile, point out that NCLB creates a host of perverse incentives, including encouraging states to set their academic standards low to reduce the number of their schools labeled failing under the law the opposite of what NCLB's authors intended.

What's the answer? According to Sandy Kress, a Texas school reformer who was one of the original guiding lights behind NCLB, a better method is something called "value added," the system used in the Dallas School District:

Dallas, by contrast, measures individual student progress from a relative starting point. It compares a pupil's current test scores with the same pupil's scores a year earlier. A school in Dallas wins a high rating if its students on average score higher than would have been predicted based on those same students' prior level of achievement and if the school's performance overall is better than that of other schools with the same demographics. It earns a low rating if its students perform worse than would have been predicted.

....The value added school-rating metric provides a more accurate picture of which schools are actually educating their students well. It is also fairer to schools and teachers working with the most disadvantaged kids. It pressures them to perform without penalizing them for taking on the hardest assignments in education. Conversely, the system doesn't reward rich schools with privileged students merely for standing still. Passing the state test, an easy task for many of their students, is not good enough.

The technology to implement a value-added system is fairly complex, but Kress believes it's now at a point where it could be widely and accurately implemented across the nation. Combining value-added metrics with the current standards-based metrics, he believes, would produce a system that motivates the best possible teaching while also being fairer to students. Value-added metrics "ought to be one of the central improvements made to NCLB when it's reauthorized in two years," he says.

It's an intriguing article for those of us who don't keep up with the nitty gritty of school testing regimes. Worth reading.

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GROVER vs. THE BIGOTS....Grover Norquist is famous for the anti-tax pledge that he presents to every Republican running for national office: you either sign his statement pledging never to raise taxes, or else the hounds of hell will oppose your election, your reelection, and your every waking moment in office.

Guess what? It turns out that some Republicans have a pledge of their own, and they want Norquist to sign it. Say it with me: "I will never, ever, talk to gay people again. They're yucky."

Lovely, isn't it? With any luck, Grover and the homophobes will rip each other's bodies to shreds and leave them for the vultures to feed on. With any luck.

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MAKING CALIFORNIA SAFE FOR TAX CHEATS....Arnold Schwarzenegger has spent the past couple of years busily reprising the greatest hits of the national Republican party, from tax demagoguery to union busting to gay baiting. His latest pick from the songbook is his opposition to efforts to crack down on tax cheating:

The governor has vetoed several bills that would allow agents to go after more businesses and individuals who cost the state millions by cheating on their returns, or not filing at all.

....The governor blocked efforts to increase penalties on retailers who filch the sales taxes they collect, and on companies that don't collect taxes when they should. A proposal to help authorities garnish wages of convicted tax evaders for as long as their debt is unpaid also was vetoed.

....Republicans and business groups make no apologies.

"We need to encourage businesses to come to California," said Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee Vice Chairwoman Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel). "If we start to penalize them for every little thing, we will push them out of the state."

This comes one day after a report that Mr. Tough On Crime is gathering signatures for a classic wedge initiative that would require sex offenders to be tracked for life with global-positioning devices. If you're against it, of course, that means you're soft on crime. It's perfect for his 2006 reelection campaign.

But cracking down on tax cheats? Hold on there, pardner! We can't go around just penalizing every little thing, can we?

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THE OVAL OFFICE CABAL....You may recall a GQ interview a last year with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's chief of staff, that made it pretty clear that Powell's office was not very happy with the direction of U.S. foreign policy. On Wednesday, Wilkerson decided to spill his guts, a decision that led to a "personal falling out" with Powell, who he has served for 16 years. Here's a long excerpt:

Decisions that send men and women to die, decisions that have the potential to send men and women to die, decisions that confront situations like natural disasters and cause needless death or cause people to suffer misery that they shouldnt have to suffer, domestic and international decisions, should not be made in a secret way.

Thats a very, very provocative statement, I think....But fundamental decisions about foreign policy should not be made in secret. Let me tell you the...practical reasons why its true.

....When you cut the bureaucracy out of your decisions and then foist your decisions on us out of the blue on that bureaucracy, you cant expect that bureaucracy to carry your decision out very well and, furthermore, if youre not prepared to stop the feuding elements in that bureaucracy, as they carry out your decision, youre courting disaster.

....What I saw was a cabal between the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.

....And, of course, there are other names in there, Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, whom most of you probably know Tommy Franks said was stupidest blankety blank man in the world. He was. Let me testify to that. He was. Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man.

And yet, after the Secretary of State agrees to a $400 billion department, rather than a $30 billion department, having control, at least in the immediate post-war period in Iraq, this man is put in charge. Not only is he put in charge, he is given carte blanche to tell the State Department to go screw itself in a closet somewhere.

....And so its not too difficult to make decisions in this, what I call Oval Office cabal, and decisions often that are the opposite of what you thought were made in the formal process. Now, lets get back to Dr. Rice again. For so long I said, yeah, Rich, youre right. Rich being Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage. It is a dysfunctional process. And to myself I said, okay, put on your academic hat. Whos causing this? Well, the national security advisor. Even if the framers didnt envision that position, even if its not subject to confirmation by the Senate, the national security advisor should be doing a better job. Now, Ive come to a different conclusion.

And what different conclusion would that be? Unfortunately, the transcript ends at that point, even though Wilkerson obviously had a lot more to say. The main Financial Times article includes these bullets:

  • Condoleezza Rice, the former national security adviser and now secretary of state, was part of the problem. Instead of ensuring that Mr Bush received the best possible advice, she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president.

  • The detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere was a concrete example of the decision-making problem, with the president and other top officials in effect giving the green light to soldiers to abuse detainees. You don't have this kind of pervasive attitude out there unless you've condoned it.

  • The military, particularly the army and marine corps, is overstretched and demoralised. Officers, Mr Wilkerson claimed, start voting with their feet, as they did in Vietnam....and all of a sudden your military begins to unravel.

There's more, so read the whole thing if you have a few spare minutes. As the Bush administration continues to unravel, I wouldn't be surprised to hear a few more people speaking out like this.

And at least we have confirmation that Doug Feith is, in fact, really, really stupid.

Via Henry Farrell.

UPDATE: You can watch a video of the speech here. Note that I've corrected the transcript based on the video.

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October 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DOG BITES MAN....I'd like to nominate this for this week's least surprising headline. Here's the official White House excuse:

White House spokesman Scott McClellan...said President Bush "believes that we should look at having a reasonable increase in the minimum wage....But we need to make sure that, as we do that, that it is not a step that hurts small business or prices people out of the job market."

Whoa, Nelly! Sure, it's been eight years since the last increase to the minimum wage, but even so an increase of $1.10 over an 18-month period might "price people out of the job market." Yeah, that's the ticket. It might price them out of the job market.

That must be a helluva job market President Bush has bequeathed us. It's a shame he's not part of it.

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THE NUKES....Laura Rozen writes about the bigger picture surrounding the smearing of Joe Wilson and the outing of Valerie Plame:

Rove and Libby weren't just telling reporters, 'Cheney doesn't know anything about Wilson's trip.' No. They created a fuller, alternative narrative: 'Cheney didn't know anything about Wilson's trip to Niger, because Wilson only got the trip as a boondoggle from his wife who works on unconventional weapons at the CIA.'

It may seem like an almost random side note that has cost them considerable trouble. But it wasn't random at all. As we know from recent reports surrounding the Fitzgerald investigation, the Vice President's office was leading an all-out propaganda war every bit as choreographed as the pre-war propaganda campaign by the same officials to blame the CIA for the fact that there weren't any WMD to be found in Iraq after all, and the chief stated reason for the war was collapsing. And it enlisted not just leaks to reporters about Valerie Plame to conduct that war against the CIA. It also enlisted key Republican officials in Congress....

The key-est of the key Republican officials, it turns out, is Pat Roberts, the obliging Cheney supporter who chairs the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. For more on all this, see:

Remember, it's all about the nukes....

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CARNIVAL....Just in time for my birthday, the Carnival of the Feminists #1 is up. Head on over for all your gender-neutral and misogynist-bashing needs.

Of course, I'd still like to see Cheney resign today. Who do I need to see about getting that done?

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STEM CELLS....This story in the LA Times this morning caught my eye:

The South Korean researcher who was the first to clone human embryos for the creation of stem cells plans to establish a worldwide stem cell bank to make the technology available to other scientists.

The World Stem Cell Foundation, to be unveiled today in Seoul, intends to produce about 100 new cell lines each year and make them available to scientists, particularly those in the U.S. who have been stymied in their research by federal funding restrictions.

...."I think U.S. scientists will be lining up to request them," said Dr. George Q. Daley, a professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.

I am just delighted that George Bush's pandering to the Christian Right has allowed South Korea to overtake us as a world leader in an area that's almost certain to be critical for future biotech development. But hey we can always buy our drugs from Asia, right? We'll pay for them with all that revenue we get from writing blogs and making movies.

I don't remember him promising to make the United States a scientific backwater when he ran for president in 2000, but I guess it must have been in the fine print. Good work, George.

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SCUTTLEBUTT....Last weekend Karl Rove canceled an appearance at a Virginia fundraiser. Just one of those things? Maybe, but since then he's also canceled two other appearances and has no plans for any in the future. The Carpetbagger rounds up the scuttlebutt.

In other news, Andrew Sullivan says he's still hearing buzz about Dick Cheney resigning over Plamegate. I don't believe this for a second, but I'd be delighted to be proven wrong.

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BLOG TELEPATHY....In what can only be described as a scary development, Matt Yglesias has now written two posts in two days that I was going to write myself but didn't. I mean, they're practically word for word what I intended to say. Does this mean that I'm secretly controlling Matt's brain?

Anyway, the first one is here, a comment on an LA Times story about shrinking worker compensation in America. I would only add my (usual) comment that executives who complain about the high cost of labor in the United States compared to, say, China, are surprisingly silent about the high cost of executive talent in the United States compared to, say, China.

The second one is here, and it concerns Jacob Weisberg's bizarre Slate thumbsucker in which he preemptively suggests there's no evidence of wrongdoing in the Plame case simply because Patrick Fitzgerald hasn't released any of his evidence yet.

I haven't decided what post I'll force Matt to unknowingly write tomorrow, but I'll give it some thought. It's a real labor saver.

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PRESIDENT UPSET OVER "CLUMSY" COVERUP....Being on West Coast time has its disadvantages sometimes. Apparently I've been missing out on the latest soap opera nugget in the Plame investigation, courtesy of the New York Daily News:

Bush whacked Rove on CIA leak

An angry President Bush rebuked chief political guru Karl Rove two years ago for his role in the Valerie Plame affair, sources told the Daily News.

"He made his displeasure known to Karl," a presidential counselor told The News. "He made his life miserable about this."

...."Karl is fighting for his life," the official added, "but anything he did was done to help George W. Bush. The President knows that and appreciates that."

....But the President felt Rove and other members of the White House damage-control team did a clumsy job in their campaign to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, the ex-diplomat who criticized Bush's claim that Saddam Hussen tried to buy weapons-grade uranium in Niger.

If this is true and it's credited to multiple sources then Rove knew exactly what he was doing, Bush knew what Rove was doing, and Rove flatly lied to the grand jury about it.

Josh Marshall has more about the bona fides of Tom DeFrank, the reporter who wrote the story, as well as Scott McClellan's subsequent bobbing and weaving at this morning's press gaggle.

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NCLB UPDATE....Has the No Child Left Behind legislation had an impact on student test scores? The latest NAEP results are out and it sure doesn't look like it:

"Let's put it this way," said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, "reading scores were flat and math scores on the rise before No Child Left Behind, and reading scores are flat and math scores are still up after No Child Left Behind. It's impossible to know whether NCLB had an impact either positively or negatively."

Fourth grade reading scores are here and math scores are here. The full report is here.

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October 18, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....The latest on the investigation from the New York Times:

The special counsel in the C.I.A. leak case has told associates he has no plans to issue a final report about the results of the investigation, heightening the expectation that he intends to bring indictments, lawyers in the case and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

....By signaling that he had no plans to issue the grand jury's findings in such detail, Mr. Fitzgerald appeared to narrow his options either to indictments or closing his investigation with no public disclosure of his findings, a choice that would set off a political firestorm.

That would be a helluva thing if he just closed up shop and went home without saying anything, wouldn't it?

But that probably won't happen. Chris Nelson reports that Dick Cheneys deputy chief of staff, John Hannah, has been sent a target letter and has cut a deal to testify against his boss, Scooter Libby. Raw Story claims that Hannah is the "cooperating witness" that I mentioned earlier today.

And when will all this happen? Contrary to earlier rumors, the Times says that Fitzgerald "is not expected to take any action in the case this week." And here I was hoping for some good news on my birthday....

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FUN WITH TAXES....The President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform released their recommendations today. Sort of. There was nothing on paper and no real details, mind you, but there was a three-hour discussion this morning where they presented a bunch of their ideas. I've collected all the recommendations I could find by combining lists from here and here.

So who benefits from the panel's recommendations? The poor? The middle class? The rich? Do you have to ask?

These are mostly guesses on my part, but for each proposal I've tried to figure out who benefits or gets hurt the most. Bottom line: the rich do mighty well under these recommendations, which include a lower top rate, lower taxes on investment income, and elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax. The rest of us? Not so well.

Recommendation

Who It Hurts/Who It Helps

The alternative minimum tax would be abolished.

This tax currently applies only to high income taxpayers. Eliminating it helps the rich and the well off.

The six tax brackets in the existing law would be replaced by four, with a low bracket of 15 percent and a top rate of 33 percent. The top rate now is 35 percent.

A lower top tax bracket benefits the wealthy.

There are two different recommendations for investment income. One would eliminate taxes on dividends paid by U.S. companies and exclude 75 percent of stock capital gains from taxation. The other would tax investment income at 15 percent.

Either plan would primarily benefit the wealthy, who have much greater investment income than the poor and middle class.

Eliminate and replace the home mortgage deduction with a 15 percent credit for mortgage interest paid during the year. The size of a mortgage eligible for the credit would be limited to the Federal Housing Administration loan limitation, which varies by geographical region but averages about $265,000.

Hurts the middle class and the well off, who can currently deduct interest on loans up to $1 million. Hurts residents of coastal states and cities with high housing values. Replacing a deduction with a credit is probably good for the working class, but not so good for the middle class, which can currently deduct at a higher rate than 15%.

Increase the capital gains exclusion for homes sales from $500,000 to $600,000 and escalate in future years to keep up with inflation.

Helps upper middle class and well off, who are the ones who own homes likely to increase in value by more than $500,000.

No deduction would be allowed for state and local income and property taxes.

Hurts anyone who deducts state taxes, but especially hurts residents of high-tax blue states like California and New York.

Eliminate the marriage penalty by making tax breaks for married couples worth twice that of individual taxpayers

Not sure.

Employer-paid health insurance premiums above $5,000 a year for an individual and $11,500 for a family policy would be treated as income to workers and taxed accordingly.

Primarily hurts the middle and upper middle class. High income taxpayers with executive healthcare would also be hurt, but not very much since healthcare is a small percentage of their income. The working poor would probably be largely unaffected since they are mostly either uninsured or already under the proposed limits.

Replace Earned Income Tax Credit with a work credit and give low-income taxpayers eligible for the credit the option of letting the Internal Revenue Service calculate its value.

Hard to say without more details.

All taxpayers could deduct charitable donations, but only to the extent they exceeded 1 percent of a taxpayer's income.

Most likely beneficiary is churches, who get a lot of their donations from taxpayers whose incomes are too low to qualify for itemized deductions.

Personal exemptions and deductions and credits for children would be eliminated and replaced by a credit of $1,600 for a single person, $3,200 for a couple, $1,500 for each child and $500 for each other dependent.

Hard to say. Depends on the details.

Replace multiple retirement savings accounts with two simpler accounts. One, Save at Work, would let employees save by setting aside untaxed wages, similar to 401(k) accounts. The other, Save for Retirement, would let individuals put up to $10,000 in a savings account that, like Roth IRAs, grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free after age 58.

Ditto.

Education, health and savings: Eliminates existing tax breaks and replaces them with a savings account, Save for Family, that lets individuals put $10,000 aside each year for medical, education and home-buying expenses. Individuals could withdraw no more than $1,000 a year for other needs. Low-income savers could qualify for a credit worth up to $500.

Ditto.


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COAL TO LIQUID....Can we solve our future oil shortage by mining coal and converting it to liquid hydrocarbons? Maybe. After all, the United States has plenty of coal and the conversion process seems feasible.

Over at the Oil Drum, Stuart Staniford sat in on a conference call about CTL technology with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, who wants to make use of Montana's enormous coal reserves for exactly this purpose. Stuart's conclusion: Schweitzer might be right, but we still have that nasty global warming problem. Plus we need lots of water. Details here.

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SOFT ON HITLER!....The Carpetbagger today:

As a rule, when one side accuses the other of being soft on Hitler, you know a campaign has reached a certain depth.

Yes, I think we can all agree on that. Details here.

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FOCUSING ON IDEOLOGY....There are several things I'd take issue with in Paul Waldman's latest column for the American Prospect, but I think he's exactly correct about this:

Liberals may write best-selling books about why George W. Bush is a terrible president, but conservatives write best-selling books about why liberalism is a pox on our nation (talk radio hate-monger Michael Savage, for instance, titled his latest book Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder).

Indeed, large portions of the conservative movement can be understood as an effort to crush liberalism in all its manifestations. Conservatives understand that their main enemy is not a law, government program, or social condition they don't like. Their main enemy is a competing ideology, and that is what they spend their time fighting.

In contrast, liberals spend very little time talking about conservatism. They talk about their opposition to President Bush or the policies proposed by the Republican Congress, but they don't offer a critique of conservatism itself. When was the last time you saw a book-length polemic against conservatism? Liberals have failed to understand that a sustained critique of the other side's ideology not only defines your opponents, it helps to define you by what you are against.

It's not just the term "liberal," either. Conservatives have also done a masterful job of demonizing, for example, "feminist," "environmentalist," "trial lawyer," and "labor union," despite the fact that sizable majorities of Americans support equal rights for women and stronger environmental rules, and equally sizable majorities are helped far more than harmed by trial lawyers and labor unions.

Conservatives succeed at this, of course, by focusing only on the most extreme positions of these groups: trial lawyers who sue McDonalds over hot coffee, the prison guard union that practically bought Gray Davis' soul in California, feminists who agitate for single-sex restrooms, and environmentalists who smash the windshields of SUVs. That's the populist, Bill O'Reilly version of liberalism, and it's the one that tens of millions of Americans hear about every day.

So how do we fight back? Presumably by focusing on extremist conservative ideology, something we don't do often enough. Paul has a book on this subject coming out in the spring called Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, and it sounds like it should be an interesting read. In the meantime, there's always the blogosphere....

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POPULIST vs. ELITIST....This is not everyone's cup of tea, but if you're interested in a political science-y analysis of why Harriet Miers has provoked such a thoroughgoing public split in the conservative movement, Steven Teles provides one today over at Mark Kleiman's place:

Today each party has two wings an electoral wing, which tends to be more populist and rests on a larger mobilized base, and a non-electoral wing, which tends to be elitist and defines itself more by intellectual principles. Each of these wings has substantial coordination within itself, and some degree of "coupling" to the other wing.

Thus back to Miers. What this conflict is really driven by is the temporary "decoupling" of the electoral and the non-electoral wings of the Republican party....

I still suspect that "temporary" is the right word to use here. I admit that the hostility toward the Miers nomination has already been deeper and longer lasting than I thought it would be, but at the same time it seems to have had only a minimal effect on the senators who will actually decide her future. Unless she blows it badly in her confirmation hearing which she might I think she'll be confirmed.

Still, regardless of her personal fate, the Miers nomination has also been a crystallizing event. Even if she ends up getting confirmed, the dam has now been broken on conservative complaints about George Bush that have been kept under tight wrap for four years. If Patrick Fitzgerald hands down serious indictments in the Valerie Plame case soon, the true believers will take it merely as confirmation that there's a vast conspiracy out to get them, but everyone else will start jumping ship. It won't be pretty.

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SECRET SNITCH....Via Josh, the New York Daily News reports that the reason Patrick Fitzgerald has made such good progress in the Valerie Plame case is that he's gotten help from a "secret snitch":

"They have got a senior cooperating witness someone who is giving them all of that," a source who has been questioned in the leak probe told the Daily News yesterday.

I think that's right. In fact, it might be the same "senior administration official" who originally told Mike Allen and Dana Priest the blockbuster news that the White House had tried to peddle the Plame story to six journalists. "Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge," their source told them, a pretty good indication that he was genuinely upset by this whole mess. The same source confirmed the story a couple of weeks later, and I've seen subsequent blind quotes that, to my ears, sound like they may have come from the same person.

So yes: I think there's someone in the White House who was genuinely shocked by what happened and has probably cooperated with both reporters and with Fitzgerald to break open this case. But who?

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REMINISCING ABOUT JUDY....Laura Rozen writes about her experience reporting on the anthrax investigation three years ago:

At one point in the winter/spring of 2002, it was becoming evident that the FBI was shifting its focus of investigation from foreign sources...to US domestic sources, in particular those with a connection to the US government biodefense program.

....But the NYT's Judith Miller...who had established close ties with several members of the US government bioweapons and biodefense community for research for her book, simply wouldn't report out what was really happening with the investigation....It was hard at the time to not wonder if her close relationship to her sources in the US government program hadn't steered her away from what the rest of us were finding and reporting.

Former New York Times UN bureau chief Barbara Crossette writes about Judith Miller's reporting on Kofi Annan and the oil-for-food scandal:

Obscured behind the large issues of weapons of mass destruction and Joseph Wilson's links with the CIA is another story. Over the last year or so, Judith Miller also wrote a series of damaging reports on the "oil for food" scandal at the United Nations...frequently based on half-truths or hearsay peddled on Capitol Hill by people determined to force Annan out of office.

....As a former NYT UN bureau chief [now retired] I have been asked repeatedly by diplomats, former US government officials, journalists still reporting from the organization and others why Times editors did not step in to question some of this reporting a lot of it proved wrong by the recent report by Paul Volcker or why the paper seemed to be on a vendetta against the UN. The Times answered that question Sunday in its page one report on the Miller affair.

I have a funny feeling we're going to be seeing a lot more personal recollections like this over the next few days.

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MAGAZINE ROUNDUP....The American Society of Magazine Editors announced today that it has chosen the top 40 magazine covers of the past 40 years. There are actually 41 of them, and you can see them all here. (UPDATE: Apparently ASME took down the cover pictures. The link now leads to a press release that describes each cover.)

Best decade: the 60s, with 11 favorites even though they only counted half the decade.

Worst decade: the 80s, with only three covers.

Most popular subject: 9/11 and the Vietnam War, each with three covers.

Most popular magazine: Time, Life, and Esquire, each with four covers.

Only person pictured on two covers: Andy Warhol. Honorable mention: George Bush, pictured 1 or 2 times, depending on how you count.

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CHENEY AND PLAME....Today's Washington Post story about Dick Cheney being a target of the Valerie Plame probe turns out to have no actual new information about Cheney being a target of the Valerie Plame probe. In fact, it quotes a former Cheney aide saying that "it is 'implausible' that Cheney himself was involved in the leaking of Plame's name because he rarely, if ever, involved himself in press strategy."

However, if you're still holding out hope that Cheney is a target, Stephen Bainbridge confirms that both Democrats and Republicans agree that a sitting vice president can be indicted on criminal charges. Only the president is immune to criminal indictments. And of course, both president and vice president are vulnerable to civil suits, as the Supreme Court helpfully reminded us in the case of Clinton v. Jones. Joe Wilson says he and his wife may be taking advantage of that once Patrick Fitzgerald wraps up the criminal stuff.

And when might that be? The Post article isn't very helpful on the Cheney front, but it does include this tidbit about timing:

In a move people involved in the case read as a sign that the end is near, Fitzgerald's spokesman yesterday told the Associated Press that the prosecutor planned to announce his conclusions in Washington, where the grand jury has been meeting, instead of Chicago, where the prosecutor is based. Some lawyers close to the case cited courthouse talk that Fitzgerald might announce his findings as early as tomorrow, though hard evidence about his intentions and timing remained elusive.

Since the story is dated Tuesday, "tomorrow" refers to Wednesday. Stay tuned.

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October 17, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

STEALING CHRISTMAS....A couple of months ago, a federal judge ruled that the Forest Service was improperly approving projects without public comment or appeals. Their response? Like a petulant teenager bedazzled by his own cleverness, Forest Service officials have since refused permission for hundreds of minor, noncontroversial projects, claiming they are merely obeying the rules forced on them by environmental groups. What kind of projects? Cutting down the Capitol Christmas tree is one of them.

Got that? The eco-nazis are stealing Christmas!

Sierra Club head Carl Pope has more here. As he says, "The real purpose of the cancellations, it's pretty clear, was to put the blame on those who want to protect the forests from logging." Karl Rove would be proud. It's his kind of hardball.

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TERM LIMITS....Ron Brownstein writes today that "an informal band of prominent legal thinkers from left and right" thinks we should do away with the current system of life tenure for Supreme Court justices because it produces long terms and infrequent vacancies:

Fewer vacancies mean more conflict over those that occur because neither side can be certain when it will receive another chance to change the court.

Longer tenure also raises the stakes in each confirmation by multiplying the effect of each nominee. The common assumption during the recent confirmation debate over new Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was that he would serve at least 30 years.

This sounds like yet another good idea that will never go anywhere, but it's worth tossing out anyway. After all, it doesn't help one party any more than the other and its benefits almost certainly outweigh its drawbacks. Why not give it some serious thought?

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HEALTHCARE....General Motors announced today that it has reached a deal with the UAW to slash healthcare costs:

Under the deal, GM's health-care costs for union members, retirees and their families will be reduced by about $1 billion a year, the world's largest automaker said....GM said that in addition, health-care liabilities on its balance sheet will be slashed by about $15 billion.

....GM has said since March that controlling health care costs was a key for its efforts to stem losses at the company.

Hmmm, I wonder if there are any other ways for multinational corporations to control their healthcare costs? Let's see what the New York Times reports:

The company has been losing market share to foreign rivals that operate at lower costs, partly because Japan, Germany and other governments provide universal health care for all their citizens.

That sounds like a good idea. Maybe big American corporations should start thinking about supporting policies that help the entire business community survive, instead of fighting each other like trained cocks for the tax scraps tossed their way each year by Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay. Just a thought.

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KARL VALJEAN....Ranting is a matter of taste, of course, but Marshall Wittmann has a nice one today warning Patrick Fitzgerald to watch his back if he decides to bring charges against anyone in the White House:

If he indicts, nothing else will matter to the GOP smear team than sullying the reputation of the special counsel. Hopefully, he has no unpaid parking tickets, has never jaywalked or removed a label from a mattress. If he has committed these misdeeds, we will see them advertised as a screaming headline on Drudge. They will do a "South Carolina" number on Fitzgerald.

....All of the pack that relentlessly pursued Clinton will kvetch about the "criminalization of politics." They will see no irony or hypocrisy in their complaint because this is a fight about preserving power not maintaining consistency. The conservative standard is clear - when a Democratic President is the target it is about the "rule of law" and when the "victim" is a Republican it is about the "criminalization of politics." It is particularly rich that Tom DeLay, the relentless pursuer of Clinton, is making this claim. One wonders whether he agonized over this injustice with Casino Jack Abramoff and Righteous Ralph Reed as they jetted over the Atlantic on the way to their golfing outing in Scotland.

I bet it felt good to get that off his chest.....

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DEFENDING THE INDEFENSIBLE....If you want some entertainment, be sure to read Benjamin Wallace-Wells' article in the October Monthly about Patrick McHenry, the latest in a long line of Stepford Republicans to be elected to Congress:

In the nine months since he came to Washington, McHenry has cultivated a role as a kind of fraternity pledge for the House leadership, willing to do the dirty work on behalf of crusades that the rest of his caucus will no longer touch. He was still pumping Social-Security privatization this summer, months after the GOP leadership had given up on the bill. He was still attacking Terri Schiavo's husband after other Republicans, with an eye toward opinion polls, clammed up. And in June, he was summoned by the cable networks to defend Karl Rove after it began to appear likely that the president's chief strategist had identified Valerie Plame as a CIA agent while talking to reporters.

McHenry is perhaps the most successful and precocious of the endless string of those guys, the youngish Republican representatives who show up on cable television to defend the indefensible....

You will be unsurprised to learn that McHenry got his start in the North Carolina chapter of the College Republicans.

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MIERS AND ROE....John Fund writes in the Wall Street Journal today that on a recent conference call among James Dobson and a likeminded group of religious conservatives, two close friends of Harriet Miers said categorically that she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade:

An unidentified voice asked the two men, "Based on your personal knowledge of her, if she had the opportunity, do you believe she would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade?" "Absolutely," said Judge Kinkeade. "I agree with that," said Justice Hecht. "I concur."

Later, speaking on the record, Dobson, Kinkeade, and Hecht all either declined comment or claimed that the two men had said only that Miers was personally pro-life. But Fund says that "several who participated in the call confirm that both stated Ms. Miers would overturn Roe":

Some participants in the conference call fear that they will be called to testify at the Miers hearings. "If the call is as you describe it, an effort will be made to subpoena everyone on it," a Judiciary Committee staffer told me. It is possible that a tape or notes of the call are already in the hands of committee staffers. "Some people were on speaker phones allowing other people to listen in, and others could have been on extensions," one participant told me.

Pass the popcorn.

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PROPOSITION 77....Like many liberal Californians, I've been debating how to vote next month on Proposition 77, an initiative that would take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and turn it over to a panel of retired judges. The argument in favor is that somebody has to do it first, so why not set a good example and hope that other states follow? The argument against asks why we should be the wide-eyed naifs who cheerfully set up a neutral system in a big blue state while Tom DeLay and his pals are busily gerrymandering big red states?

All of this dithering, however, turns on the notion that Prop 77 truly sets up a neutral system. If it doesn't, then it's a definite No vote.

Today, Brad Plumer, who has actually read the initiative, persuasively argues that Prop 77 is a Trojan horse deliberately designed to favor Republicans. I might be willing to do the right thing and vote for genuine redistricting reform, but I'm sure not going to do it in the service of a stealth effort to permanently gerrymander California in favor of the GOP. If anyone has a convincing argument that Brad is wrong, leave it in comments. Otherwise it's No on 77.

POSTSCRIPT: Brad may have the analysis right, but these guys make the argument against 77 much more colorfully than he does:

If you think Governor Schwarzenegger wants to redistrict California out of a nonpartisan sense of good public policy then stand right here while someone goes to buy your dope for you. While youre waiting for the man to come back with your grass, think about this simple arithmetic problem....

It's worth noting that the pro-reform League of Women Voters is also opposed to 77.

Kevin Drum 1:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FLEITZ TO BOLTON TO NOVAK?....I've always thought that the single most mysterious issue in the Valerie Plame case is...."Valerie Plame." Reporters never refer to a woman by her maiden name if she normally goes by her married name, yet for some reason Robert Novak's July 14 column specifically referred to Joe Wilson's wife as Valerie Plame, not Valerie Wilson. Why?

As I've mentioned before, Novak has vaguely implied that the name "Valerie Plame" was available in public records, and indeed it was. This doesn't explain why Novak would use her maiden name, but it's a possible explanation for where it came from.

Until now. Because it turns out that Judith Miller was also provided with Valerie Wilson's maiden name, but in her case she misspelled it as "Valerie Flame." Obviously Miller didn't get a misspelled name from Who's Who, nor did she get it from Joe Wilson's internet bio, despite John Podhoretz's heroic effort to suggest that "the type on that bio was incredibly small" and Miller might not have been able to make it out.

So if not Who's Who, how about that State Department memo that got passed around on Air Force One shortly before Novak wrote his column? No dice. Walter Pincus reports that it referred to her as Valerie Wilson (in a paragraph specifically marked "(S)" for secret, mind you).

What's more, the (admittedly sketchy) evidence so far indicates that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove both referred to her as "Wilson's wife," not as Valerie Plame. So where did "Valerie Plame" come from, and why did Novak and Miller think it was worth writing down?

One thing we know is that Valerie Wilson used her maiden name only inside the CIA. This suggests a CIA source, and Jeralyn Merritt reminds us that this was Novak's original story too, though he later backtracked on it.

But who in the CIA? Laura Rozen resurrects the name of Frederick Fleitz as the most likely suspect. Fleitz didn't just work at the CIA, he worked at WINPAC, a bureau within the CIA that analyzed WMD. And what did Scooter Libby tell Miller on July 8 about Joe Wilson? "Wife works at Winpac." That's pretty specific information.

So how did this information get from Fleitz to both Novak and Miller? As Arianna Huffington told us last month, Fleitz was actually working two jobs at the time all this was going on, and his second job was acting chief of staff for John Bolton. Yes, the same John Bolton who is, apparently, a pretty close friend of Judith Miller's. Novak seems to be pretty friendly toward Bolton as well, acting as practically a one-man cheering squad for him during his ill-fated confirmation hearings this year.

So: Fleitz to Bolton to Novak & Miller? Granted, this is free form speculation, but it answers the otherwise mysterious question of why Robert Novak and Judith Miller were interested in Valerie Wilson's maiden name. It was because their source specifically told them that was the name she used on Agency business, and Novak, at least, decided that was therefore the name he wanted to publicize. Stout fellow.

Kevin Drum 7:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MILLER AND FITZGERALD....Hold on a second. I've now read several blog posts speculating that Judith Miller managed to scam Patrick Fitzgerald when she negotiated her agreement to testify before the grand jury. As Mickey Kaus tells it, the basic storyline is that Miller's lawyer, Robert Bennett, cleverly convinced Fitzgerald to limit his questioning solely to her conversations with Scooter Libby:

But a key question is who told Miller the name "Valerie Plame," which she miswrote as "Valerie Flame" in her notebook. Miller says she's not sure it was Libby. Therefore it might have been someone else i.e. she might well have had another very "meaningful" source, contrary to Bennett's alleged representations to the prosecutor. Am I missing something, or does Fitzgerald have grounds for being extremely p-----d off?

This doesn't sound right to me. First of all, surely something like this can't happen in real life, can it? Bennett's representations to Fitzgerald would be considered binding, wouldn't they? If it turned out he misrepresented the evidence, Fitzgerald would no longer be bound by the original agreement. (Someone with experience in federal prosecutions should feel free to step in and tell me I'm wrong, but this sure doesn't sound like something a judge would spend more than a few seconds ruling on.)

Second, Miller didn't refuse to answer the question because it went beyond her original agreement with Fitzgerald. She said she didn't remember:

Mr. Fitzgerald wanted to know whether the entry was based on my conversations with Mr. Libby. I said I didn't think so. I said I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall.

This account is vague about exactly what Fitzgerald asked, but it seems like he felt free to ask the question in the first place, and would have followed up if Miller hadn't pleaded forgetfulness.

Right?

Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SPEAKING ARABIC....Why do we have so few diplomats fluent in Arabic? In the Washington Post today, Jennifer Bremer explains that the State Department classifies language ability on a scale from 1 to 5, and the key distinction for effective diplomacy is the transition from level 3 (OK at one-on-one conversation) to level 4 (fluent even in fast moving, hostile situations).

Currently, though, we have a grand total of 27 diplomats who are trained in Arabic at level 4 or 5. Bremer says the reason is primarily bureaucratic. Diplomats can't get training in Arabic until after they've been assigned to a "language-designated" position, and by that point the hiring embassy just wants to hire someone. They don't want to wait around while their preferred candidate goes to school:

This set-up creates a strong disincentive to designate positions as requiring language skills. No embassy wants to restrict its search to the comparatively few officers already qualified in Arabic or, even worse, effectively give up the position for the two years required to train an officer to a level 3 and carry them on its budget the whole time they sit in language classes.

So no posts are designated above level 3, which means, naturally, that the Foreign Service does not offer training beyond the 3, either. If 3's want additional language training to improve their skills to a 4, they have to do it on their own time and their own nickel.

In addition, there's not much incentive to spend a lot of time learning fluent Arabic, since it neither boosts your pay nor helps your career. In fact, Bremer says, taking a few years away from mainstream diplomatic posts to sit in language classes "could even be a career-stopper."

Your federal bureaucracy at work. For recommendations on what to do about this, read the article. Her proposals sound pretty sensible.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ CONSTITUTION APPEARS TO PASS....Early indications suggest that the Iraqi constitution has been approved barely:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that initial assessments indicate Iraqis had probably approved a controversial constitution, although the turnout alone showed the fragile new political process has taken hold despite a deadly insurgency.

....News services from Baghdad reported Sunday that early returns suggested large numbers of voters rejected the constitution in the Sunni strongholds of Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. But according to initial results, Sunni voters may not have been able to reach the two-thirds threshold in Diyala province east of Baghdad or in Nineveh province in the north, where Sunnis also have large representation.

The LA Times and New York Times are carrying the same report: the constitution seems likely to fail in two provinces, but not in three. And that means it will pass.

It's not clear to me that passage of the constitution is going to affect the basic security problem in Iraq all that strongly, but this is still good news. Going back to the drawing board would be unlikely to benefit anyone, least of all the Sunni minority.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MILLER'S MEMORY....For what it's worth, I just want to point out that Judith Miller's contention that she can't remember who originally provided her with the name "Valerie Flame" is completely ridiculous. She apparently wrote down the name in her notebook sometime around July 8, 2003, and obviously she knew where it came from at the time. Within a week, Robert Novak had written his infamous column in which he outed Valerie Plame, and Miller certainly hadn't forgotten who provided her the name that quickly. A couple of days later all hell broke loose, and that would have etched the name of her source in her mind permanently.

Miller's excuse for her forgetfulness is that "It is also difficult, more than two years later, to parse the meaning and context of phrases, of underlining and of parentheses." But it's not a matter of Miller not remembering a trivial detail two years after the fact. It's a question of whether she remembered it a week after the fact.

Answer: of course she did. And if she remembered it then, she certainly remembers it now. She just doesn't want to say so.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MILLER TALKS, PART 2....The main New York Times story about Judith Miller and the Valerie Plame case is only moderately interesting. There's some dissing of Miller and some description of internal dissension at the Times, but nothing we haven't heard before.

However, there's also a description of the initial meeting at the Times where they discussed whether Miller should testify before the grand jury. The Times' attorney is Floyd Abrams and Scooter Libby's attorney is Joseph Tate:

Mr. Abrams told Ms. Miller and the group that Mr. Tate said she was free to testify. Mr. Abrams said Mr. Tate also passed along some information about Mr. Libby's grand jury testimony: that he had not told Ms. Miller the name or undercover status of Mr. Wilson's wife.

That raised a potential conflict for Ms. Miller. Did the references in her notes to "Valerie Flame" and "Victoria Wilson" suggest that she would have to contradict Mr. Libby's account of their conversations? Ms. Miller said in an interview that she concluded that Mr. Tate was sending her a message that Mr. Libby did not want her to testify.

According to Ms. Miller, this was what Mr. Abrams told her about his conversation with Mr. Tate: "He was pressing about what you would say. When I wouldn't give him an assurance that you would exonerate Libby, if you were to cooperate, he then immediately gave me this, 'Don't go there, or, we don't want you there.' "

...."Judy believed Libby was afraid of her testimony," [Times editor Bill] Keller said, noting that he did not know the basis for the fear. "She thought Libby had reason to be afraid of her testimony."

Italics mine. Tate denies this interpretation, of course, but Miller's view is clear: Libby didn't want her to testify because he knew she would contradict his earlier testimony to the grand jury. Draw your own conclusions.

Kevin Drum 6:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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MILLER TALKS....Judith Miller writes today about her grand jury testimony in the Valerie Plame case. Here's the meat of her recollections about her meetings in 2003 with Scooter Libby:

On the afternoon of June 23, 2003, I arrived at the Old Executive Office Building to interview Mr. Libby....Soon afterward Mr. Libby raised the subject of Mr. Wilson's wife for the first time. I wrote in my notes, inside parentheses, "Wife works in bureau?" I told Mr. Fitzgerald that I believed this was the first time I had been told that Mr. Wilson's wife might work for the C.I.A.

....I interviewed Mr. Libby for a second time on July 8, two days after Mr. Wilson published his essay attacking the administration on the Op-Ed Page of The Times....At that breakfast meeting, our conversation also turned to Mr. Wilson's wife. My notes contain a phrase inside parentheses: "Wife works at Winpac." Mr. Fitzgerald asked what that meant. Winpac stood for Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control, the name of a unit within the C.I.A. that, among other things, analyzes the spread of unconventional weapons.

I said I couldn't be certain whether I had known Ms. Plame's identity before this meeting, and I had no clear memory of the context of our conversation that resulted in this notation. But I told the grand jury that I believed that this was the first time I had heard that Mr. Wilson's wife worked for Winpac. In fact, I told the grand jury that when Mr. Libby indicated that Ms. Plame worked for Winpac, I assumed that she worked as an analyst, not as an undercover operative.

....Mr. Fitzgerald asked me about another entry in my notebook, where I had written the words "Valerie Flame," clearly a reference to Ms. Plame. Mr. Fitzgerald wanted to know whether the entry was based on my conversations with Mr. Libby. I said I didn't think so. I said I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked if I could recall discussing the Wilson-Plame connection with other sources. I said I had, though I could not recall any by name or when those conversations occurred.

.... My third interview with Mr. Libby occurred on July 12, two days before Robert D. Novak's column identified Ms. Plame for the first time as a C.I.A. operative. I believe I spoke to Mr. Libby by telephone from my home in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

I told Mr. Fitzgerald I believed that before this call, I might have called others about Mr. Wilson's wife. In my notebook I had written the words "Victoria Wilson" with a box around it, another apparent reference to Ms. Plame, who is also known as Valerie Wilson.

Apparently Patrick Fitzgerald was also interested in Miller's reaction to Libby's letter to her suggesting that they had never discussed Valerie Plame. "I replied that this portion of the letter had surprised me because it might be perceived as an effort by Mr. Libby to suggest that I, too, would say we had not discussed Ms. Plame's identity. Yet my notes suggested that we had discussed her job."

Kevin Drum 6:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PIGSKIN UPDATE....Speaking of liberal elitism, I'm off to the living room to root against Notre Dame for a few hours. For my conservative readers, I hasten to add that there is no anti-Catholic animus at work here. It is merely that Notre Dame is evil and must be crushed.

Oh, and cheating by not mowing the grass will get them nowhere. Touchdown Jesus would not be proud of them for that. It's going to be USC by 20 points.

HALFTIME UPDATE: Hmmm. Touchdown Jesus seems to think that third down penalties are the key to keeping His team in contention. Gotta work on that in the second half. Keeping the ball in play for more than three downs at a time would help too.

FINAL UPDATE: Oh man oh man oh man oh man....

Am I the only one who almost had a heart attack? Probably not. What a finish.

Kevin Drum 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBERAL ELITES....Ramesh Ponnuru is bemoaning the apparent victory of elite liberal culture:

In 1997, Republicans lost a special election in the 22nd House district of California. I talked to a well-known Republican strategist afterward, and he blamed, in part, social-conservative activists who had run ads on abortion during the campaign. The strategist said that this was a stupid move "in a wine-and-brie coastal California district." It was a nice line at the time. But my impression is that the proportion of our population that consumes either wine or brie, or both together, has gone up since then.

....Hasn't the insult lost its bite? I thought of this when I read a crack against elites that mentioned bottled water. It sure seems as though drinking bottled water has ceased to be an elite activity. Back in 1997, conservatives could mock latte towns but you can find latte in any town you're in nowadays. Conclusion: We need some new put-downs.

Of course, Ponnuru gives the game away when he admits that he himself drinks bottled water but hastily adds that it's because of "the high lead content in D.C. water rather than a preference on my part." Sounds like a job for an elite liberal lead abatement program.

In any case, let's help him out. Other Cornerites suggest hybrid cars and disdain for NASCAR as reliable markers, but surely we can do better. What's the elite liberal marker of choice these days?

Kevin Drum 3:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGERS AND SHIELD LAWS....There aren't many subjects that unite the left and right wings of the blogosphere, but there's always one sure fire winner: slights real or perceived aimed at the blogosphere itself. The current favorite is the possible passage of a federal shield law, which would protect reporters from being forced to reveal confidential sources in court. The problem, of course, is the possibility that such a law might not apply to bloggers.

Here's Instapundit, from the right: "I think that such special privileges are a bad idea, as I've said here before. But to the extent that they apply only to Registered Official Journalists...rather than to the activity of reporting, I think that they're also deeply troubling."

And Atrios, from the left: "If a source tells me something newsworthy and I put it on the blog then I'm practicing journalism and I should get the same protections as anyone else practicing journalism. It isn't about creating a special class of people who are above the law, it's about understanding that certain types of activities deserve certain protections because it's in the public interest..."

Even some journalists are leery of a federal shield law, fearing that it amounts to a kind of tacit "licensing" of who's a journalist and who's not.

But this is all very strange. After all, nearly every state in the union has a shield law of some kind, and you never hear a peep of complaint about them, least of all from professional journalists themselves. But if a shield law is a good idea for state courts, why isn't it a good idea for federal courts too? What's the difference?

Now, despite the fact that reporters have badly abused their use of faux anonymous sources in recent years, I happen to think that protecting their access to real anonymous sources is important. Valerie Plame aside, the Bush administration has been unusually aggressive about investigating leaks of confidential information, and I simply don't trust them to show good judgment in this area. For that matter, I don't trust whoever we elect in 2008 either. We've seen longstanding norms of conduct deteriorate too much recently for me to take any comfort in the fact that reporters are seldom hauled in front of judges and tossed in jail. This is the "things have worked fine for 200 years" argument, and I'm not buying. With the crew we currently have in office, the fact that it hasn't happened before is no guarantee that it won't become SOP in the future.

At the same time, I agree with both Glenn and Atrios that it's the activity of journalism that should be protected, not any particular medium. There's an obvious objection to this, of course: if an activity as common as blogging provides protection against testifying in federal court, the Corleone family would just set up a blog and then sit back and happily thumb their noses at prosecutors forever.

This is unpersuasive. It's perfectly possible to define "journalism" in a reasonable way, and judges are quite capable of distinguishing between genuine journalism and obvious ploys. It's a matter of intent, and judges rule on stuff like that all the time. They won't do it perfectly, but even a modest check on executive branch zeal is worth having.

At an absolute minimum, I think we should pass a federal shield law simply to make sure everyone actually knows what the law is. Even if it explicitly provides no protection, we should codify that. But I think we should go further, providing a qualified reporter-source privilege for anyone actively and sincerely engaged in an effort to inform their readers about affairs of public interest. For my money, the work that journalists do in exposing government secrecy is every bit as important as the work that therapists and priests do, so why not grant them similar privileges?

I understand that this is not a good time to be making this argument. Judith Miller is hardly a poster child for a federal shield law (although it's possible that a well written shield law wouldn't have protected her, since it's not clear she was engaged in journalism, even if she is a journalist). But the broader principle is more important. If it's really true that reporters are seldom forced to testify about anonymous sources anyway, why not codify that now before someone decides we've been going too easy on them all these years? And if you think this notion hasn't already crossed a few people's minds, think again. After all, don't you know there's a war on?

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, OR MINERAL?....Quote of the day:

"It goes very nicely with red wine," said...44-year-old Kim Hwa Yeon, a stockbroker in a crisp navy blue suit and pearls, who said she was buying for clients.

What is "it"?

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FROG MARCH UPDATE....The Washington Post's account of today's grand jury testimony from Karl Rove includes the following from a "source familiar with Rove's account":

Rove's defense team asserts that President Bush's deputy chief of staff has not committed a crime but nevertheless anticipates that special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald could find a way to bring charges in the next two weeks, the source said.

So Rove's own defense team thinks that charges are likely? That's mighty interesting, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SELLING IT....Umpire Doug Eddings's blown call in the bottom of the ninth of Wednesday's Angels-White Sox game was indeed a blown call for the ages. On the bright side, though, I've learned something new: umpires are supposed to "sell" their calls. I had no idea. Here's what the ump himself said:

"The only thing I'm down on myself for is I should have sold it either way," Eddings said, which is umpire language for making a big deal out of whatever call he makes. "I should have said, 'No catch,' or if I did have a catch, that he was out. But I never said he was out."

Here's former Angels manager Buck Rodgers:

When it came time to sell the biggest call of his life, Eddings appeared to panic.

...."The kid caught the ball, the umpire rang him up, and it would have been fine if the umpire had just kept selling the call," Rodgers said. "The minute he stopped selling the call, all hell broke loose."

I suppose this is common knowledge among serious baseball fans, but it's news to me. I'll be watching tonight's game intently to see if the umpires redouble their on-field theatrics.

Kevin Drum 7:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

"THE SCANDALS FINALLY BREAK"....Abramoff. DeLay. Rove. Plame investigation. Katrina investigation. Armstrong Williams investigation. I know I'm missing others, but you get the idea.

Kevin's far too modest to point this out himself, but he predicted all of this (at least the general storyline) more than a year ago: "What do we have to look forward to if George W. Bush is elected to a second term? One word: scandal."

Amy Sullivan 7:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

Waiting for the Pendulum to Swing....We want to first thank Kevin for giving us access to this terrific forum. We emerge with some good new ideas, a great deal of helpful feedback, and a huge amount of new respect (and we already had a lot) for the efforts of serious bloggers.

The two objections Kevin raisedthe GOP never moved that far right, and anyway, things are swinging backare helpful challenges. We responded to the first yesterday (and got a lot of help from those who commented on Kevins post). Just to repeat one key point: Simply listing the labels of the GOPs big domestic initiatives hugely distorts the true content of their activities. Indeed, as we emphasize in the book, this distortion is a crucial component of the GOPs larger attempt to cloak immoderate policies in moderate garb.

Kevins second objection is of even greater interest at the moment. Arent the Republicans cracking up? Isnt the pendulum swinging back?

Its Friday afternoon, so well do this in bullet point style:

  • It is essential to recognize that Bushs fate and the GOPs are not identical. The heart of GOP power rests in Congress.

  • Polls this far ahead of an election tell us something, but confidence that the Republican Congressional majority is on the ropes is premature. As Chris Bowers noted yesterday at MYDD, generic Congress polls from the summer of 2004that is, far closer to the electionshowed Democrats about nine points ahead of Republicans. Anybody remember how many GOP incumbents lost?

  • Given the deplorable performance of this government, its extreme initiatives, and the supposed dangers of an off-year, second-term election for flagging presidents' parties, it speaks volumes that we even have to discuss whether Democrats can pick up just fifteen seats in 2006. As we have argued, that such a small shift by historical standards represents such a big mountain reflects the GOPs dramatic institutional and organizational advantages.

  • From our perspective, a critical thing to watch will be whether the Congressional GOP can restrain centrifugal tendencies that are currently on display. As observers, we need to distinguish between divisions that are largely staged for public consumption (to placate some audience) and those that truly undercut the GOPs impressive capacity to coordinate political action. Staged activity occurs all the time, as Matthew Yglesias recently documented in an American Prospect article on GOP moderates appropriately titled The Fraud Caucus. (One Democratic member of Congress complained that a moderate Republican is someone who throws a ten foot rope to a man drowning twenty feet off shore.") And, ironically, staged independence reinforces GOP control rather than undercutting it. Actual splintering would represent a truly important change in the political climate.

  • The focus of our book is on where the GOPs organizational and institutional advantages came from and how they are exploited to pursue extreme goals and protect incumbents. We dont focus on what agenda Democrats should present. In fact, we largely agree with Jon Chaits excellent piece this summer, The Case Against New Ideas," that the importance of the specific ideas, or even their tone, tends to be exaggerated. We should make clear that we do think ideas matter (thanks, "cmdicely," for the call for clarification), particularly for governance, and indeed one of us has been arguing for making economic security a key Democratic theme for a while. Still, the crucial challenge for the Democrats over the next year is to work in as unified a fashion as possible. It was the creation of that unity, after all, that was Gingrichs greatest contribution to the GOPs successin 1994 and since.

As we said, weve benefited enormously from this forum, and were grateful to Kevin for letting us reach out to and hear from an amazing group of serious political thinkers. We consider our book a journey of inquiry, not a blueprint for action. But we see the action brewing.

As we say at the books end, The next journeya journey of actionwill have to begin in living rooms and meeting halls across the nation. It will have to begin, as American democracy began, in the once-radical notion that 'We the People' are both the mapmakers and the navigators on the great voyage of discovery called democracy. This week has made us more confident that the next journey will have many able guides.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 3:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NEEDED: A DEMOCRAT WITH GOOD PHONATION CONTROL....I've long had the vague thought that the key to being a popular actor or even just being popular and charismatic in general is voice control. If you can expertly (or instinctively) control pitch, timbre, speed, volume, and so forth, the world is your oyster.

Maybe that's true and maybe it's not, but Matt Yglesias channels Franz de Waal today to say that voice control does predict the winner of presidential elections. Apparently the key characteristic is something called "phonation," and if you can manage to look your opponent in the eye and make him change his phonation during a debate, you win! If you're the one who changes your phonation, you lose. More details here.

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RIGHT ON RIGHT VIOLENCE....Byron York writes today that relations among the conservative groups focused on defending President Bush's judicial nominees has gotten a bit testy lately:

The groups hold a daily strategy conference call which, in the last ten days, has at times become contentious. "We've all had some fairly nasty exchanges," says one person familiar with the calls. In such an environment, name-calling is not terribly unusual. For example, one conservative said of Progress for America, "They are a bunch of political hacks and they do what the White House wants. You could nominate Humpty Dumpty for the Supreme Court, and they'd be out arguing for Humpty Dumpty." That's not the kind of thing one hears in a well organized, unified movement.

Jon Chait has more along these lines in the LA Times.

Oh, and did you know that Harriet Miers is in favor of higher taxes?

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ROVE IN THE DOCK....I love the way that AP characterizes Karl Rove's appearance before a grand jury this morning: "It is likely Rove's final chance to convince grand jurors he did nothing criminal in the leak case." Yeah, baby!

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THE ZAWAHIRI LETTER....Juan Cole is skeptical about the authenticity of a letter the CIA released recently that's allegedly from Osama's #2 to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. The letter seemed a little too pat to me, but Juan's objections are mostly stylistic: he says it seems like it was written by a Shiite, not a Sunni.

Obviously I don't know if he's right, but if he is it means the CIA is double plus incompetent. Has anyone else weighed in on this?

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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FORGETTING ABOUT KATRINA....Chris Kromm at Facing South challenges liberals to keep their attention focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina:

Katrina put issues of race and class on the national radar in a way that won't be repeated for a very long time. But the opportunity to discuss and act on these issues progressive issues is being largely squandered.

....This is our moment. Endlessly speculating about DeLay's indictments or the Plame investigation may be fun. But the Gulf debacle is something progressives can do something about, now, that has the potential to permanently shift the debate about fundamental inequalities in our society.

Progressives need to step up to the plate, and 1) support the fight for a democratic, just and sustainable rebuilding in the Gulf, and 2) work tirelessly and with laser focus to return issues of poverty and inequality to the top of the national agenda.

E.J. Dionne agrees, and although he lays the blame for our sudden amnesia squarely where it belongs on congressional conservatives he also thinks liberals need to do more:

It has long been said that Americans have short attention spans, but this is ridiculous: Our bold, urgent, far-reaching, post-Katrina war on poverty lasted maybe a month.

Credit for our ability to reach rapid closure on the poverty issue goes first to a group of congressional conservatives who seized the post-Katrina initiative before advocates of poverty reduction could get their plans off the ground.

....I was naive enough to hope that after Katrina the left and the right might have useful things to say to each other about how to help the poorest among us. I guess we've moved on. You can lay a lot of the blame for this indifference on conservatives. But it will be a default on the part of liberals if the poor disappear again from public view without a fight.

Bloggers can help out here, but if we're going to get sustained attention on this topic it needs the help of some big guns. I know that John Edwards and Bill Clinton are involved, but they aren't in government anymore. Maybe I've missed it, but are there any congressional Democrats who are out front on this?

Kevin Drum 2:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CIVIL WAR....The underappreciated Tom Lasseter has a chilling story today about the makeup and motivation of the new Iraqi army. Even the best trained units, he says, are largely looking forward to this year's elections as a way of cementing Shiite power in preparation for a bloody civil war. You really need to read the whole thing, but here's a snippet:

The Bush administration's exit strategy for Iraq rests on two pillars: an inclusive, democratic political process that includes all major ethnic groups and a well-trained Iraqi national army. But a week spent eating, sleeping and going on patrol with a crack unit of the Iraqi army the 4,500-member 1st Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division suggests that the strategy is in serious trouble. Instead of rising above the ethnic tension that's tearing their nation apart, the mostly Shiite troops are preparing for, if not already fighting, a civil war against the minority Sunni population.

....American commanders often refer to the 1st Brigade as a template for the future of Iraq's military.... Increasingly, however, they look and operate less like an Iraqi national army unit and more like a Shiite militia.

....[Brig. Gen. Jaleel Khalif] Shwail, the 1st brigade's top officer, regularly reviews important decisions, including troop distribution, with a prominent local Shiite cleric who's closely aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious figure in Iraq.

.... When they roll through the Shiite neighborhood of Kadhemiya in pickup trucks, the Iraqi troops see men saluting them and yelling, "Heroes! Heroes!" Little children salute and smile.

But as soon as they cross into nearby Sunni neighborhoods, the troops lean out of the trucks with AK-47s and shoot above the cars in front of them to clear traffic.

.... Asked if he worried about possible fighting between his men and the Sunnis at Umm al Qura, the brigade's command sergeant major, Hassan Kadhum, smiled.

"Your country had to have a civil war," he said. "It will be the same here. Everything in this world has its price. In Iraq the price for peace will be blood."

Kadhum thought the matter over for a few more moments.

"There will be a day when we take that mosque and make it an army headquarters," Kadhum said.

Yes, it's only one story, and yes, empty chest thumping among soldiers is hardly unknown. Still, it's not good news. There doesn't seem to be much sign yet that either the Sunnis or the Shiites have any intention of letting elections decide their future.

Kevin Drum 8:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PHOTO-OP HELL....Was today's presidential videoconference with some soldiers in Iraq staged and scripted? Let's find out! Here's the White House version:

QUESTION: How were they selected, and are their comments to the president pre-screened, any questions or anything...

MCCLELLAN: No.

QUESTION: Not at all?

MCCLELLAN: This is a back-and-forth.

And here's the Associated Press version:

It was billed as a conversation with U.S. troops, but the questions President Bush asked on a teleconference call Thursday were choreographed to match his goals for the war in Iraq and Saturday's vote on a new Iraqi constitution.

"This is an important time," Allison Barber, deputy assistant defense secretary, said, coaching the soldiers before Bush arrived.

....A brief rehearsal ensued. "OK, so let's just walk through this," Barber said. "Captain Kennedy, you answer the first question and you hand the mike to whom?"

"Captain Smith," Kennedy said.

...."If the question comes up about partnering how often do we train with the Iraqi military who does he go to?" Barber asked.

"That's going to go to Captain Pratt," one of the soldiers said.

"And then if we're going to talk a little bit about the folks in Tikrit the hometown and how they're handling the political process, who are we going to give that to?" she asked.

More here about drilling the troops to make sure their answers were suitably soothing for His Bubbleness. As Atrios says, it's a sad day when the Bush administration can't even produce a photo-op competently. That's always been the one thing they were good at.

Kevin Drum 6:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

Is there a puzzle?....Kevin raises some important issues in his last, agreeably skeptical post. And, ironicallygiven that hes the political commentator and were the political scientistshe mounts a spirited and thoughtful defense of the traditional political science view: namely, that pushing politics and policy off center for any length of time inevitably creates gridlock and backlash, pulling politics, like a pendulum, back to the middle.

We were trained to be partial to this view, and we still find aspects of it appealing, even as we dispute its accuracy as an account of present politics. If nothing else, the center-always-rules position is valuable because it identifies the crucial mechanisms that are supposed to ensure accountabilitymechanisms that can be, and we think have been, thwarted. (Since there have been a lot of why dont you discuss this? comments, we should make clear that Off Center considers each of these mechanisms in depth. We analyze the constrained capacities of voters to enforce accountability, theto date, limitedrole of the media and opposition Democrats in keeping the ruling party looking over its shoulder, and the reasons why Republican moderates havent yet much pulled their party toward the center.)

Still, the conventional view can veer much too quickly from healthy skepticism into unhealthy complacency. It misses, as we argue in the book, (a) how far to the right of center Republicans have managed to remain over a fairly substantial length of time, (b) how effectively theyve been able to insulate themselves from retaliation (mainly through what we call backlash insurancea concept nicely described by Chris Hayes in his nice review of our book), and (c) how impressively theyve been able to pursue some of their key goals, despite slim margins and public concern about what theyre doing.

So, in the spirit of healthy skepticism, let us take up the initial half of Kevins skeptical question: Have Republicans achieved all that much on domestic policy? Kevin ably runs down the legislative scorecard. But in doing so, he misses four crucial aspects of Republican achievements that simply arent well captured by such tallies:

  • First, how profound some of these achievements are (the tax cuts fall into this category, representing in their aggregate costs, more than twice the expense of permanently fixing Social Security);

  • Second, how much thats truly unpopular and unsavory has been done under the cover of popular policy labels (the Medicare prescription drug legislation, with its giveaways to big medical interests and its concessions to conservative animus toward Medicare, fits the bill perfectly);

  • Third, how much has been achieved through executive and regulatory measurs that receive almost no public attention and, perhaps more important, through the blocking of popular courses of government action that would help millions (can you say expanding health coverage and raising the minimum wage, or thinking seriously about addressing global warming?);

  • Fourth, how actively Republicans have focused on locking in their policy and political achievements against future public backlashand, indeed, even against losing office.

There are two whole chapters on Republican policy successes in the book, but consider one very revealing example thats underway right now, even as the GOP is supposedly on its last legs. Over the next few months we are going to see a big GOP assault on government programs, ostensibly to fund the costs of Katrina. Some observers are likely to note, at least in passing, that the Republican budget this year will cut taxes on the wealthy by extending some sunsetting provisions of earlier tax cuts that would otherwise be curtailed. And, in the ensuing deliberation, GOP moderates may well succeed in somewhat limiting, although not fundamentally altering, a budget package that is wildly out of line with the priorities of middle-of-the-road opinion.

What's unlikely to get much attention, howevereven if Democrats scream about itis that come January two big new tax cuts (estimated to cost $150 billion over ten years if extended) will automatically go into effect, because they were already passed in 2001. And, according to research by the tax team at Brookings and the Urban Institute, 97 percent of the benefits will go to those making $200,000 a year or more, and more than half will go to those making $1 million a year or more. Confidence in the moderating tendencies of our system seems out of place when such policies can go into effect at a moment like this.

Of course, theres a second part to Kevins skepticism. He thinks the center may well reassert itselfpresumably for a while, or it wouldnt be too comfortingin the coming election. Weve already offered much of our take on that subject. But we'll say a bit more in our next post, and we'll try to provide a wrap-up regarding some of the many other perceptive questions weve received.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 4:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MOUSETRAP....Did Patrick Fitzgerald deliberately con Judith Miller into lying in front of the grand jury so that he could then leverage further testimony out of her? Mark Kleiman sums up the latest pros and cons of the "mousetrap" theory.

Kevin Drum 2:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE MIERS DIRT....Drudge digs up the latest dirt on Harriet Miers that's certain to drive the far right into conniptions:

The Drudge Report has obtained a copy of sworn testimony given by Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers in 1990 in which she said that she wouldnt belong to the Federalist Society a conservative and libertarian lawyers organization because it was politically charged.

.... Miers was also asked whether she considered the NAACP [to be] in the category of organizations that she considered to be politically charged.

Her answer: No, I dont.

The endless popcorn bowl that is the Miers nomination just keeps getting refilled. She's the gift that keeps on giving.

Kevin Drum 2:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COHEN AND FITZGERALD....Richard Cohen is getting a lot of abuse for a column today suggesting that Valerie Plame prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald should pack up his tent and go home. After all, he says, "it was not the intent of anyone to out a CIA agent and have her assassinated."

It's not clear how Cohen thinks he knows this. I'm sure he's correct on the assassination front, but my guess is that outing Plame might very well have been deliberate, a way of sending a very strong message that this administration was not to be fucked with. I don't know this for sure, of course, and neither does Cohen, because Fitzgerald has kept a very tight seal on his investigation so far. But that's exactly why Fitzgerald should finish his investigation and let us know his conclusions.

On the other hand, I do have some sympathy for this:

Now we are told by various journalistic sources that Fitzgerald might not indict anyone for the illegal act he was authorized to investigate, but some other one maybe one concerning the disclosure of secret material. Here again, though, this is a daily occurrence in Washington, where most secrets have the shelf life of sashimi. Then, too, other journalists say that Fitzgerald might bring conspiracy charges, an attempt (or so it seems) to bring charges of some sort.

....This is why I want Fitzgerald to leave now. Do not bring trivial charges nothing about conspiracies, please and nothing about official secrets, most of which are known to hairdressers, mistresses and dog walkers all over town.

I think Cohen is fundamentally wrong to treat the outing of a covert agent in the same way that he treats the nonstop revelation of minor secrets that practically defines official Washington. Outing an agent represents a far more serious kind of breach, and deliberate or not, it's exactly the kind of thing that anyone with a security clearance should treat as a flashing red line. It just isn't something you risk talking about, especially for so trivial and malicious a reason as the leakers apparently had.

That said, though, I'm on his side when it comes to charges. If Fitzgerald has evidence that White House officials leaked Plame's name as part of their PR counteroffensive against Joe Wilson, then he should bring relevant charges including perjury and conspiracy charges if those are applicable. But if he can't make the case either because he can't prove the leak or because he can't prove that Plame was truly covert then he should go home. Like Cohen, I really don't want to see him hand down indictments solely for tangential perjury or conspiracy charges or some other consolation prize. I'd enjoy seeing Karl Rove frog marched out of the White House as much as anyone, but not at that price.

UPDATE: Well, this is going to go down in history as one of my most unpopular posts ever. All I can say is: Let's wait and see what Fitzgerald comes up with. If he hands down serious charges, great. If they're fundamentally trivial, like the stuff that Ken Starr brought against Bill Clinton, not so great. But we won't know until he finishes up.

Kevin Drum 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CAGE MATCH....Conservative evangelical heavyweight James Dobson reconsiders his support of Harriet Miers:

"Lord, you know I don't have the wisdom to make this decision," Dobson said. "You know that what I feel now and what I think is right may be dead wrong."

He added that he worried that his position "could do something to hurt the cause of Christ, and I'd rather sacrifice my life than do that."

Conservative evangelical cruiserweight Pat Robertson is having none of it:

"These so-called movement conservatives don't have much of a following, the ones that I'm aware of. And you just marvel, these are the senators, some of them who voted to confirm the general counsel of the ACLU to the Supreme Court, and she was voted in almost unanimously. And you say, 'now they're going to turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative President and they're going to vote against her for confirmation?' Not on your sweet life, if they want to stay in office."

I suspect this is why Dobson is more influential than Robertson these days. He may still be on board, but at least he's smart enough to wonder if he's being taken to the cleaners.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

GALSTON AND KAMARCK, REVISITED....Last week, Kevin posted a tough critique of the Galston/Kamarck paper on polarization, and was, predictably, chastised for not being tough enough. In response, he wrote another item that defended the paper without actually saying so. You can read a more straight-forwardly positive take on Galston/Kamarck in David Broder's column this morning. And I'd like to offer a quick defense of my own to one of the most common complaints about their analysis.

When Galston and Kamarck are derided for allegedly trying to move the Democratic Party to the center (or even, some seem to charge, the far-right), what their critics are referring to is this particular Democratic delusion the two attack: "The myth of prescription drugs is shorthand for the theory that the Party can win national elections by avoiding cultural issues, downplaying national security, and changing the subject to domestic issues such as health care, education, and job security in the post-9/11 world."

It's important to note that they do not--nor do most Democratic critics--suggest that the party should forget about domestic issues, nor do they deny that Democratic positions on these issues closely match voter concerns. What they identify and acknowledge, however, is that that doesn't seem to be enough. That's not a guess; it's the result of election after election in which Democrats focus almost exclusively on health care, jobs, and the environment...and then lose.

The conclusion in many liberal circles seems to be: We just need to talk about those issues more. Voters don't seem to realize what our positions are. No, voters know damn well what you stand for. They simply aren't listening to you because you haven't satisfied their initial conditions: credibility on national security and on culture. It doesn't matter that you'd prefer to talk about domestic issues. If you can't pass the threshold of convincing them that you can be trusted on those other two fronts, they're not going to listen to a word you say about the other stuff.

This doesn't mean Democrats have to make their campaigns all about national security and culture. Far from it. But they do need to suck it up and accept something Republicans realized a long time ago: You can't tell Americans they must care about what you want to discuss; you must discuss what they care about. Now, within those broad areas (national security, culture, domestic policy), it's possible to direct voters toward the specific issues you want high on the agenda, and Republicans have done this brilliantly. But that only works if you have some credibility and have proven that you understand they're rattled about whether the country is safe and how the culture affects them. Satisfy conditions A and B and then you get to talk about issue C until the cows come home.

Amy Sullivan 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

The Road Back, Part II...We wrote Off Center to try and understand not just why the GOP has risen to power, but also why a very conservative elite has been able to advance its radical agenda while so effectively evading political accountability.

(Note that we say advance a radical agenda, not fulfill it. As we will explain in our next post, we think that Republicans have gotten considerably further than Kevin suggests below. But the puzzling fact isnt that Republicans have achieved every element of a movement conservative agenda. Its that they have gotten as far as they have, given the contours of public opinion and the slimness of their margins.)

We wont hide that our own politics are progressive. Yet our book is aimed at small d democrats rather than capital D Democrats. Wanting a government that, at least in broad terms, responds to the concerns and aspirations of the vast middle of the American electorate is simply not a partisan position.

But the book is partisan in one clear sense. We think the severe erosion of accountability in American politics is closely associated with Republican rule. An emphatic defeat for todays governing party is a prerequisite for healing American democracy.

(Rather than crowd the page with a long discussion, weve chosen to put the rest of this post below the fold. Please do read on.)

The dream of Democrats is to watch the GOP experience what happened to them in 1994. Two years of unified Democratic control, combined with some highly visible political failures, mobilized opponents, demoralized supporters, and swept the GOP into office. In a reversal that casts in stark relief todays leave-no-incumbent-behind elections, the Democrats lost 54 seats in the House, 8 in the Senateand control of both chambers.

Weve argued that the path for Democrats is more rocky noweven though the GOP has a highly vulnerable record and theres abundant evidence that their governing priorities have been out of step with public opinion. In addition to factors already mentioned, it must be remembered that 1994 was the year in which time finally caught up with many Democrats who found themselves in highly vulnerable seats as a result of the long, slow realignment of the South (see Kevin's good post on this). In 1994, there was a lot of low-hanging fruit. Leaving aside the Rick Santorums, the fruit isnt hanging as low for Democrats today.

But 1994 still provides an important lesson. A crucial factor in 1994 was that the elections became nationalized. Many Democrats had long survived by following Tip ONeils old dictum of keeping politics local. When the 1994 election became a referendum on the governing party, dozens of them lost. If voters are deciding how much they like their own representatives, incumbents remain heavily advantaged. If they are deciding how they feel about what the current GOP-dominated government is doing, Republican incumbents are in trouble. Democrats need to do everything possible to make sure people are asking the latter questionto nationalize the election, and to nationalize it on terms that replicate the uneven mobilization that occurred in 1994.

Much of this is genuinely beyond Democrats control, and again, the GOP retains a significantly greater capacity to set the agenda. But there are at least three things that Democrats can do.

First, stay together. Were well aware of the fissures within the Democratic Party, but to nationalize the election, Democrats have to put aside their differences in pursuit of a common goal. After all, even the lowest common denominator of their collective aims stands absolutely no chance of becoming reality unless Republicans lose power.

Second, stay on the offensive. Theres an old adage in political science that democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. Governing parties lose when voters become dissatisfied with the direction of governance and throw the bums out. This does not mean, however, that opposition parties cant help governing parties find their way to the exit. Indeed, particularly in our fragmented political structure, relentless, repetitive highlighting of the mistakes and misdeeds of governing parties is essential.

Which leads to the third and final point: stay on a (simple) message. Democrats are desperately searching for new ideas, and this is useful, indeed indispensable, if theyre to govern effectively. But policy blueprints arent the core of whats needed; the core is a straightforward line of attack.

The 1994 analogy may confuse more than it helps here. In Republican mythology, Gingrichs Contract with America was the key to the 1994 nationalization. It wasnt. Most voters had never heard of it, and theres scant evidence that the Contract played a major role in the 1994 outcome. The election swung because conservatives were aroused, while Democrats were divided, demoralized, and stayed home. What got Republicans into office was Democratic missteps, Republican unity, and a simple strategy of criticizing Democrats, blocking their policy agenda, and calling for a new course.

The Social Security fight suggests that Democrats can do the same. United and on the offensive, they should drive home a simple triumvirate of charges: corruption, incompetence, and unresponsiveness to the concerns of the great American middle.

Of course, this will ultimately mean some degree of agreement on a positive alternativeon a shared vision of what America is and what American government should be doing to make America better. Were not in a position to lay out the policy specifics of that vision here, and, as we have said, we dont think a policy blueprint is whats needed. But it seems clear to us that one part of this vision has to be an evocative argument on pocketbook issues. (One of us, Jacob, is working on developing such an argumentproviding economic security to expand economic opportunitybut well leave the policy discussion to other forums.)

Now, we'll get cracking on responding to Kevins thoughtful challenge.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 8:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIST RECORDS SUBPOENAED....The Washington Post reports that the SEC has subpoenaed records from Bill Frist regarding his lucrative recent sale of HCA stock. Are there any important Republicans left in Washington who aren't under investigation for one thing or another? Is Dennis Hastert the only one left to go?

Kevin Drum 2:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY....The basic thesis of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's Off Center is that the Republican party has been taken over by its ultraconservative activist base, and this in turn has pulled the party far away from the center of the American electorate. Normally this would spell doom for a political party, but a variety of institutional controls have converged that are likely to keep Republicans in power for a long time despite their increasing distance from the mainstream.

There's a bit of devil's advocate in what comes next, but I want to argue with this premise in two ways.

First, since domestic politics is the focus of the book, let's take a look at George Bush's major domestic accomplishments over the past five years (I've discussed this point before in more detail here). Here it is: No Child Left Behind, several big tax cuts, a waffle on stem cells, the Patriot Act, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the Department of Homeland Security, Medicare prescription coverage, the bankruptcy bill, a big highway bill, an energy bill, a tort reform bill, some conservative appellate judges, two conservative but non-wingnut Supreme Court nominees, and a record of spending increases unmatched since LBJ.

Now, there are a couple of big conservative items here, most notably the tax cuts and the appellate judges. And there are a couple of modest conservative items. And it's also true that many of the liberal items contain stealth features designed to advance conservative interests. And there have been some nasty executive orders that aren't on this list. Still, let's face it: overall, this is not the record of a party dedicated to ramming through a movement conservative agenda. If the party is really so off center, and if institutional controls make them invulnerable to voter backlash, why is their conservative record so spotty?

That's point one. For point two, I hand the microphone to David Ignatius:

Bush and the Republicans had a chance after 2004 to become the country's natural governing party....Bush squandered this opportunity by falling into the trap that has snared the modern GOP of playing to the base rather than to the nation. The Republicans behave as if the country agrees with them on issues, when that demonstrably isn't so. The country doesn't agree about Social Security, doesn't agree about the ethical issues that were dramatized by the torment of Terri Schiavo, doesn't agree about abortion.

....Principles are a fine thing, but a narrow, partisan definition of principle has led the Republicans to a dead end. Their inability to transcend their base and speak to the country as a whole is now painfully obvious. Like the Democrats in their years of decline, they are screaming at each other not realizing how far they have drifted from the mid-channel markers that have always led to open waters and defined success in American politics.

If you put Ignatius' point together with mine, what you get is this: it's true that the activist base of the Republican party is pretty far distant from the middle of American politics, and George Bush recognized this in his first term, mostly steering a center-right course. However, in his second term it's all falling apart, just the way conventional political science suggests it should. The more that Bush panders to the Republican base (Social Security, Terri Schiavo), the more he loses the support of Middle America. At the same time, the more he tries to tack to the center (Katrina, Harriet Miers), the angrier his base gets. Centripetal forces are tearing the Republican coalition apart, and suddenly Beltway buzz suggests that Republicans might actually lose Congress in 2006.

This suggests two possibilities to me. The first is that conventional political science still has it right. It took a few years, but the radicalism of the Republican base is finally putting a stake through the heart of the party, just as you'd expect. The second possibility is that we wouldn't even be talking about this if it weren't for 9/11: Bush would have long ago lost control of his coalition and would have gotten clobbered in 2004. What we're seeing today really is a special case, not a permanent realignment.

To Jacob and Paul, then, this question: what do you think of the events of the past few weeks? Do you think it's just a bit of ordinary second term-itis that will blow over? Or do you think the normal order of things is reasserting itself? And does any of this affect the thesis of your book in any way?

Kevin Drum 2:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HARD WORK....Fafblog interviews George Bush about Harriet Miers:

BUSH: First off let me tell you that Harriet Miers's position on abortion is a smart one a real smart one and that in no way do I know what it is. Also, she will not legislate from the bench.

FB: So will she not-legislate to uphold Roe v Wade or will she not-legislate to overturn Roe v Wade?

Hey, not-legislating is hard work....

Kevin Drum 9:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WAITING....Via Ezra, Kate explains the reality of waiting lists for healthcare in America. Long waiting lists. For someone with good coverage and access to lots of doctors.

Best healthcare in the world, baby, best in the world. Just keep telling yourself that.

Kevin Drum 5:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY HARRIET?....In re Bush v. The Base, the most perplexing question about the Harriet Miers nomination has been "Why?" It's such a breathtakingly dumb move that it's hard to figure out why even a guy like George Bush would undertake to nominate her.

Theories to explain this mystery largely look for similarities between Miers and John Roberts. Thus, perhaps it's the lack of a paper trail that appeals to Bush, something that both Miers and Roberts share. On the other hand, Roberts wasn't a Bush crony, so pure cronyism doesn't seem like a good explanation.

So what else do they have in common? One of the possibilities that's been quietly but persistently bruited about is that they both have lots of executive branch experience and are likely to rule in favor of broad executive branch power. Harold Meyerson gives that theory a boost today, reporting that White House chief of staff Andy Card told an audience last night that he found the most intriguing part of the constitution to be Article II, which established the presidency and the executive branch:

Miers, he continued, understood Article II as well, and would defend it "when challenged by those given the power to challenge it by Article I [i.e., the Congress] and Article III [i.e., the courts]."

....He could not have meant to imply that Miers would see her first duty on the bench as defending Bush against all enemies, legislative and judicial, but that's what he managed to convey. At minimum, he suggested that Miers would be the staunchest proponent of executive power over that of the other two branches that the Court had seen in a very long time.

Brad Plumer unpacks this a bit and notes that Republicans have long adhered to a very broad view of executive power:

Does it matter? Yes, and not just because such a view would prevent Congress from banning torture....In 1988 Congress required the Department of Health and Human Services to mail every household an educational pamphlet on AIDS. The Reagan administration didn't like the pamphlet and refused to mail it....In 1989 the first Bush administration tried to use the "exclusivity" view before the Court to strike down a law authorizing whistleblowers to bring lawsuits on behalf of the federal government against fraudulent contractors. And so on. A judge sympathetic to the "imperial presidency" view is a very bad thing, and seems to me like a much bigger deal than Miers' supposed lack of qualifications.

Given George Bush's apparent veneration of his own office ("I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the President"), perhaps this really is the hidden link. Bush's main interest isn't with conservative hot buttons like abortion or the "constitution in exile," it's with consolidation of his own power. On that score, both Roberts and Miers look like shrewd choices.

UPDATE: Steve Bainbridge liveblogs a conference call with RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman this morning:

11:43 Judicial activism is interfering with the GWOT by "micromanaging" decisions. Miers will be solid on executive prerogative.

Roger that.

Kevin Drum 4:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD AND THE WAR....Andrew Sullivan again berates Donald Rumsfeld for not committing enough troops to the invasion and occupation of Iraq:

What's important to understand is that this is a deliberate policy. Although we were morally responsible for security in a country we invaded, we chose not to provide it....What we are watching today are the consequences of the Rumsfeld decision. The question is whether a critical mass of Iraqis can rescue their own country from the chaos the occupation provoked and appears incapable of suppressing.

Why do people keep saying stuff like this? The fact is that we didn't, and don't, have any more troops. Rumsfeld's misjudgment wasn't that he decided to use fewer troops than he could have, his misjudgment was in thinking that the occupation could be pulled off successfully with the troops we had available.

Bottom line: if you argue that we needed more troops in order to invade and occupy Iraq properly, you're just arguing that we shouldn't have invaded and occupied Iraq at all. When will conservative supporters of the war own up to this?

POSTSCRIPT: Actually, Rumsfeld's primary misjudgment seems to have been his genuine belief that the occupation would be such a cakewalk that we'd need only a token presence in Iraq after the main fighting was over. But even if he had been more realistic about this, it wouldn't have mattered. He didn't have any more troops to commit.

People who subscribe to the notion that the war was a good idea but was just executed badly really ought to train their fire on Rumsfeld/Cheney/Bush's decision to kick out Jay Garner early on and then disband the Iraqi army. If you could pick any one thing that might have given us at least a small chance of success in Iraq, that's it.

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RETURN OF THE WHIGS....The Wall Street Journal story I mentioned last night, which suggests that Patrick Fitzgerald may have widened the Valerie Plame investigation to include "a broader conspiracy," goes on to mention that "at least part of the outcome likely hangs on the inner workings of what has been dubbed the White House Iraq Group." Josh Marshall is intrigued:

This WHIG thing is a whole 'nother level of hurt.

This group was the organizational team, the core group behind all the shameless crap that went down in the lead up to the Iraq war -- the lies about the cooked up Niger story, everything. If Fitzgerald has lassoed this operation into a criminal conspiracy, the veil of protective secrecy in which the whole operation is still shrouded will be pulled back. Depositions and sworn statements in on-going investigations have a way of doing that. Ask Bill Clinton. Every key person in the White House will be touched by it. And all sorts of ugly tales could spill out.

This might be significant, but keep in mind that Fitzgerald has been investigating the WHIG all along, ever since the first big batch of subpoenas were delivered to the White House last year. Here's the Washington Post in March 2004:

Aides to President Bush agreed to turn over a log of a week's worth of telephone calls from Air Force One and other records to satisfy subpoenas from a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity, White House officials said Friday.

....The subpoenas also seek documents from July 6 to July 30 relating to the White House Iraq Group, a group of communications, political, national security and legislative aides who met weekly in the Situation Room.

It's quite possible that Fitzgerald now plans to subpoena WHIG records from before July 6, and that might turn up all sort of interesting new things. Who knows? But Fitzgerald has been well aware of the importance of WHIG for a long time, which is the reason such a broad group of people have been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury already. As near as I can tell, pretty much every single person associated with WHIG has already either testified or given a deposition.

In other words, so far there's no indication that WHIG really represents a new direction for Fitzgerald. But stay tuned. If he issues a subpoena for WHIG records from June, that might cause some fireworks.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

The Road Back....The 2006 elections are shaping up as a potential watershed. We know, every election feels that way nowadays, but this time its truereally.

Since January, Republicans have staged a dismally instructive clinic on how not to govern (Social Security, Schiavo, Katrina). These missteps have coincided with the arrival of political payment overdue slips for longer-standing debacles (Iraq, increasing budgetary strain, corruption cases that seem to proliferate almost daily).

The combination has sent GOP approval levels sharply down and wrong path sentiments sharply up (though Democrats arent necessarily reaping the gains, a point well return to in later posts). And all this comes as Republicans prepare to face the six-year itchthe old adage that sixth years of presidencies are unlucky ones for ruling parties. (The adage isnt as ironclad as pundits believe, but sixth years have frequently been capped by severe electoral punishment for the majority.) In short: If the GOP is going to be dislodged, next year seems like the year, despite all the underlying barriers weve talked about.

Democrats are clearly starting to salivate. And yet tempers run hot when the topic turns to the best road to victory. Everyone seems to have a view of what Democrats are doing wrong: too moderate; too immoderate; too cowardly; too shrill; too much emphasis on economics; not enough emphasis on economics; bad candidates; bad framing. And the world is complicated enough that anyone committed to taking one of these positions can find some evidence to support their case.

Still, there is a common feature in almost all these views: If Democrats would just make different strategic or tactical choices, theyd win. We think this is one of the reasons for the recent infatuation with George Lakoffs arguments about framing. If frames are so powerful, then all Democrats have to do is improve their story and presto, no more GOP hegemony.

Were very skeptical. We dont deny that framing matters, but Democrats face a lot of structural hurdles to formulating a long-term strategy not just for winning office but for keeping itchallenges that are rooted in the institutions of contemporary American politics, the social bases of the two parties, and the changing meaning of being in the minority (even if by only narrow margins). We want to briefly describe some of these difficulties here, before turning in another post to the implications for political strategy.

First, Democrats have to overcome the big GOP advantages in the House and Senate that weve already described. In neither chamber is it enough to win 51 percent of the vote nationwide.

Second, Democrats have a far harder time achieving unity than Republicans do. Sixty-two percent of senators, after all, reside in states that went red in the 2004 presidential race, even though Bush got only 51 percent of the vote. That means Democrats have a bigger challenge when they try to bring together members of their coalition who face very different local electoral conditions. Moreover, this problem is exacerbated because GOP agenda control can and is used to create wedge issues for Democratic politicians. Without an ability to control the agenda, it is far more difficult for Democrats to return the favor.

Critics of the Democrats urge them to fight fire with fireto match Republican unity with Democratic unity. But these critics need to remember that just because the majority party has used the tools of government and an extensive network to create a parliamentary-style party, it doesnt logically follow that the minority party can do the same. On the contrary, a politician like Joseph Lieberman or John Breaux often gets (thoroughly undeserved) plaudits for defecting.

Third, there have been a big shift in organizational and financial resources that has disadvantaged and divided Democrats. The last few decades have witnessed a dramatic alteration in the balance of power between labor and business, a vast increase in economic inequality, and a tremendous expansion in the significance of political money. The profound imbalances created by these huge but gradual changes is often lost in the discussion of personalities and tactics that dominate reporting on politics. All of these trends have helped the GOP, while creating cross-cutting pressures on Democrats and sapping the partys strength.

Most of these features cant be changed in the short run. So, in the end, one is led back to a discussion of electoral and political strategy. But any discussion of strategy is bound to short-circuit if it doesnt acknowledge these deeper features of the political terrain, and in the longer-term, broader political reform is a must. There are lots of easy answers floating out there. There just arent any good easy answers.

Still, well offer the best answers that we can in an upcoming post.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 9:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....The Wall Street Journal story that supposedly points to Vice President Dick Cheney as a target of the Plame investigation is now up, and it doesn't mention Cheney anywhere. In fact, it doesn't say very much at all. Out of a thousand words or so, this is pretty much the only new speculation:

There are signs that prosecutors now are looking into contacts between administration officials and journalists that took place much earlier than previously thought. Earlier conversations are potentially significant, because that suggests the special prosecutor leading the investigation is exploring whether there was an effort within the administration at an early stage to develop and disseminate confidential information to the press that could undercut former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Central Intelligence Agency official Valerie Plame.

....Mr. Fitzgerald's pursuit now suggests he might be investigating not a narrow case on the leaking of the agent's name, but perhaps a broader conspiracy.

Unfortunately, this speculation appears to be based solely on the fact that Judith Miller recently turned over notes about a conversation she had with Scooter Libby on June 23, two weeks earlier than anything Fitzgerald has been investigating until now. Or so it seems. In any case, the authors don't explicitly source their speculation to anyone aside from themselves, saying only that "there are signs" that Fitzgerald is expanding the scope of his investigation.

Take it for what it's worth. It sure isn't good news for Rove, Libby & Co., but beyond that it's hard to say whether there's anything really new here.

Kevin Drum 2:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CONSTITUTIONAL COMPROMISE IN IRAQ....Apparently Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish "power brokers" have reached a compromise that seems likely to increase Sunni support for the new Iraqi constitution in Saturday's elections. It takes the Washington Post nine paragraphs before they get around to telling us what this compromise entails, but here it is:

The major concession from Tuesday's talks was agreement by the Shiites and Kurds that a committee be created early next year to consider amendments to the constitution....Any changes recommended by the committee would have to be ratified by a two-thirds vote of parliament and a national referendum.

That's it? A committee will "consider" amendments? And even if they recommend some, they still won't go anywhere unless they get broad Shiite and Kurdish support in parliament followed by majority support in a referendum?

Somebody really needs to explain what the Sunnis think they're getting here. It sounds like nothing more than a vague brush off to me. Just vote for the constitution now and we promise to seriously consider your objections at a later day. Honest.

I'm all in favor of anything that makes a peaceful transition in Iraq more likely, but I've read half a dozen stories about this agreement and every one of them makes it sound like at least some Sunnis are ecstatic over this deal. Conversely, none of them mention that it's essentially meaningless. What am I missing?

Kevin Drum 1:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WE MEET AT LAST, MR. BOND....Am I the only one who thinks the new James Bond looks a little too much like Vladimir Putin for comfort?

I know they're our friends now and all that, but enough's enough. After all, Sean Connery didn't look like Nikita Khrushchev, did he?

Kevin Drum 1:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

JAMES AND KARL....James Dobson revealed today that Harriet Miers made it to the top of the Supreme Court short list because several of the better qualified candidates weren't interested:

What Karl told me is that some of those individuals took themselves off that list and they would not allow their names to be considered, because the process has become so vicious and so vitriolic and so bitter, that they didn't want to subject themselves or the members of their families to it.

Shouldn't Dobson be upset that Karl Rove doesn't think highly enough of him to even make up a decent lie? Considering the virtual love fest that attended John Roberts's elevation to Chief Justice, does he seriously expect us to believe that there are highly qualified candidates, for whom a job on the Supreme Court is probably their life's ambition, who don't want to be nominated because they're afraid they'll have to withstand a few weeks of mildly nasty attacks? Please.

In any case, the next time he's chatting with Karl, he should ask him who these candidates were. I'm sure we'd all like to know.

UPDATE: In other news, The Hotline says the whole Miers thing was dreamed up by White House chief of staff Andy Card:

This makes Card look bad and White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove look, well, less bad. What that says about who is leaking this stuff... whether Rove and Card are at loggerheads... whether the White House bungled the nomination outreach... is TBD.

Let's see now. Rove is one of the folks about to be indicted and Card is one of the folks who isn't. Right? So I guess that all fits.

Kevin Drum 11:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WAR IN THE WHITE HOUSE....Via AmericaBlog, Howard Fineman apparently thinks there's a war taking place inside the White House. On one side are all the folks who are about to be indicted for one thing or another, and on the other side are the folks who aren't.

Sounds about evenly matched to me....

Kevin Drum 10:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE PLAME SPECULATION....I haven't written much in the past few days about the latest developments in the Valerie Plame case, mainly because most of the chatter seems to have morphed from speculative but still interesting conjecture to wild guesswork out of the pages of a John Grisham novel. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying the guesswork is wrong, only that there's no real way to judge its plausibility. Either you believe it or you don't. (On the plus side, it is entertaining.)

That said, here's the latest from Murray Waas:

In two appearances before the federal grand jury investigating the leak of a covert CIA operative's name, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, did not disclose a crucial conversation that he had with New York Times reporter Judith Miller in June 2003 about the operative, Valerie Plame, according to sources with firsthand knowledge of his sworn testimony.

....Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald apparently learned about the June 23 conversation for the first time just days ago, after attorneys for Miller and The New York Times informed prosecutors that Miller had discovered a set of notes on the conversation.

Let's assume this conversation is actually "crucial," as Waas says. After all, if it's just a random loose end or a bit of extra confirmation for something Fitzgerald already knows, then there's not much point in worrying about it. So let's stipulate that something meaningful is going on here.

If that's the case, it could mean one of two things. Option 1: it's crucial because the conversation in June is a smoking gun that provides Fitzgerald the evidence he needs to hand down indictments. Option 2: the content of the conversation itself isn't important. What's crucial is that no one mentioned it in their previous testimony, and that means Fitzgerald now has a potential perjury rap he can use as leverage to coerce additional testimony out of Libby (or possibly Miller).

Do you see the problem here? Both of these options imply that Fitzgerald doesn't yet have much of a case. Either he needs testimony about the June conversation which he only learned about "days ago" because after two years of investigation it's his best hope of proving that someone leaked Plame's name, or else he needs it in order to browbeat testimony about the leak from someone else. Or worse, it means he's given up on the leak and is trying to construct perjury or obstruction of justice charges that he thinks he can make stick instead.

This is pretty fact-free speculation, so don't take it too seriously. But I sure hope this stuff is just another nail in the coffin, not genuinely crucial testimony. I'd hate to think that after two years Fitzgerald is still struggling to make a case.

UPDATE: The Huffington Post says without attribution that "The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg are working on stories that point to Vice President Dick Cheney as the target of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name."

That would definitely count as "another nail in the coffin".....

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OPPOSING MIERS....Mark Kleiman argues that it's a no-brainer for liberals to oppose the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court:

Miers has two characteristics lack of intellectual distinction and subservience to the interests of the Bush clan that are undesirable from both conservative and liberal perspectives....So in the non-zero-sum game of running the country, it seems to me that both Republicans and Democrats should oppose Miers....And in the zero-sum game of politics, defeating Miers would be a win for the Democats and a loss for the Republicans.

That sounds right, but it might it be a good idea for liberals to keep a low profile on Miers anyway. Robert Scheer explains:

Know them by their enemies. The more I read of the vituperative right-wing attacks on Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, the more sympathetic I become. Anyone who has incurred the wrath of Trent Lott, Gary Bauer and George Will can't be all bad. If Robert Bork thinks she's a "disaster," maybe there is a positive side to this nominee that I have missed.

This dynamic works in the other direction too. If liberals start attacking Miers too aggressively, there's a good chance that conservatives will start to circle the wagons solely on the theory that if liberals hate her, she must not be so bad after all. So if we want to see her nomination defeated, the best strategy is probably to express our legitimate concerns about her lack of qualifications but to otherwise sit back and allow a genuine anti-Miers caucus to develop organically among conservatives. If and when a few Republican senators join this caucus, Democratic senators can join it too.

Timing is everything. Right now conservatives are busily eating their own young, and there's no good reason to give them an excuse to stop. Better to let them fight it out among themselves for the time being.

Kevin Drum 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD TIMES....A year ago Halliburton stock was trading at about $35. Today it's trading at about $60. If you're the vice president of the United States, this means your stock options have increased in value by about $8 million. Sweet!

Who says the economy isn't booming?

Kevin Drum 2:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

A Surprising Fact...As we were going back to the National Election Studies data to clarify the "mystery graph," we came across a simple table that cannot help but surprise those who have watched American politics shift steadily to the hard right.

The table on the National Election studies website (reprinted below) tracks the "liberal-conservative index" (NES variable VCF0801), which is simply a composite value that places the thermometer feeling of voters toward liberals and conservatives on a single 0-97 scale, with 0 being most favorable toward liberals, 50 being neutral/moderate, and 97 being most favorable toward conservatives (why 97? -- you'll have to ask an NES expert). So higher scores mean voters are more favorable toward conservatives. Here are the annual averages for the last forty or so years:

Index 1964-2002

64 66 68 70 72 74 76 78 80 82 84 86 88 90 92 94 96 98 00 02 Year
51 52 52 54 53 52 52 ** 54 52 51 51 54 51 51 54 53 51 51 52 Index

A pretty underwhelming stampede to the right among voters, one must say.

In the mystery graph, however, we show that activists on the right are running away from independent voters (on this measure) faster than Democratic activists are. Some of you were concerned that our use of a trendline might obscure the true relationship, so we have reprinted below a very nice figure from a paper by Morris Fiorina, "Whatever Happened to the Median Voter?" Fiorina just graphs the positions of voters and activists; he doesn't, as we did, show how far activists on each side of the partisan aisle are from independent voters. And his analysis ends in 1996. But the table makes clear that (even up to 1996) while both Republican and Democratic activists have polarized, Republicans are moving farther from the center.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REAL STORY....From Andrew Sullivan today:

Michael Barone finds some new polling momentum behind Arnold's important initiatives attempting to break the back of Democratic Party special interests and gerrymandering in California. I'm with Arnold on this, even if he has capitulated on equality for gay couples.

I'm glad we got that straight. It's not about good government, it's about destroying groups that support the Democratic party in California. Gay equality apparently takes a back seat to that.

At least we're out of the closet on this. Hugh Hewitt would be proud.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

Back to the Center?....Kevin asks:

How long do you think this can last before the center finally pulls back? Or has American politics changed so fundamentally that it will stay off center forever unless Democrats adopt tactics similar to Republicans'?

In other words, what's your best guess: do Democrats need to fight fire with fire? Or will the center eventually hold if Democrats figure out a more effective way of appealing to moderate voters?

There are actually two distinct, but obviously linked, questions here. (1) How much is it going to take to push things back towards the center? And (2) what strategies give Democrats the best chance of succeeding? Since these are both BIG questions, and since we want to spark conversation on both of them, we take up the first one in this post. We plan to tackle the second one tomorrow.

One of the central claims of Off Center is that we shouldnt expect any natural pendulum-like process to restore moderation in Washington. Indeed, though cracks in the GOP faade are obvious, these vulnerabilities shouldnt blind us to the Partys continuing formidable sources of strength.

To keep the discussion manageable, were going to concentrate on Congress. This is the place to focus anyway. Its Congress that next has to face the electorate. Its Congress that as we suggested in a previous post is at the heart of todays GOP dominance. And its Congress that is the grand prize in the next crucial battle in American electoral politics. Moreover, all this is true even if, as we believe, Bush is poised to continue his rapid descent into lame-duck status.

And our strong view is that, even with Republicans back on their heels, recapturing Congress will be an extremely tall mountain to climb. Understanding why takes us to the very heart of the transformations in contemporary politics that we stress in our book.

First, as regular readers of this site are aware, incumbents are unbelievably advantaged in the current electoral system. For House incumbents, the average margin of victory in 2004 was forty percent (i.e., 70-30). The last two elections have seen the fewest incumbent defeats in American electoral historyfour in 2002, and five in 2004 (with two of those a result of the DeLay-led Texas gerrymander). Most districts are very safe for one party or the other (in part because of gerrymandering, but primarily because many areas of the country lean heavily to one party). In addition, of course, incumbents have huge advantages in funding, name recognition, and the capacity to tailor an appealing (if often grossly distorted) public profile in their district. These advantages seem to have grown dramatically, and they help to explain why even in the small number of districts where one party doesn't have a huge natural advantage, only open seat races are typically in play. Once a candidate has won one or two elections, they are usually very safe.

Second, over and above these huge assets of incumbency (which disproportionately help the GOP, since theyre the majority), Republicans have a number of big structural advantages that make that electoral mountain higher still. They have been better positioned to gerrymander seats to give them a bigger edge, and more aggressive in doing so. (Between 2000 and 2004 alone, redistricting created roughly twelve additional Republican-leaning seats.) They have more money, and a more centralized apparatus to get that money where it is most needed in a close election. Probably most important but still not always appreciated, they have a huge built-in edge in the Senate because small states (which lean red) are so overrepresented. Democrats can win a lot more votes in Senate elections and still not gain control. In fact, they already have: Over the past three election cycles, the 44 Democrats in the Senate have received two-and-a-half million more votes than the 55 Republicans.

Finally, the high level of Republican unity and coordination that we have discussed helps the GOP protect these advantages. It helps them to control the agenda, which is absolutely crucial in politics. Ron Brownstein of the LA Times recently described contemporary Washington as akin to watching a basketball game where the same team always has the ball, or a baseball game where one team is always at bat. Unity allows Republicans to pursue a whole range of policy tricks and procedural moves that allow their members, especially the vulnerable ones, to appear moderate and independent without jeopardizing their conservative agenda at all.

By historical standards, the swing required to bring Democrats back to power in Congress is pretty small. It used to be common for elections to produce swings of 20-50 seats. Even a decade ago, close to 100 seats in Congress were won by 55% of the vote or less. But that was then and this is now. In 2004, fewer than 30 seats met even this minimal standard of competitiveness. Today, put simply, it takes a much bigger political push to produce a much smaller electoral shift.

Could such a push happen? Sure, but it is almost impossible to know so far ahead of an election. Thirteen months is a very long time in electoral politics. The main thing to recognize is how bighow profoundly far from automaticsuch a political correction needs to be. And this is the case even though the balance between the parties is so exceptionally closewhich, of course, simply underscores how distressing the current state of American politics truly is.

So what should Democrats do? Stay tuned.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

The Mystery Graph....We have put up a short post on TPMCafe explaining how we produced the figure on p. 27 of Off Center (the figure is reproduced by Kevin here) which shows that Republican activists -- always farther from independent voters on a liberal-conservative scale than Democratic activists -- have moved even farther away in recent years, while Democratic activists have moved back toward independent voters.

A few quick additional clarifications in response to queries we have received:

1. The graph is based on "thermometer" or feelings scores, which are imprecise, though commonly used. (The eminent political scientist Morris Fiorina did a similar analysis showing that party activists were moving farther apart a few years ago (see Figure 6), but without the crucial additional inquiry into whether they were moving away from the middle in equal degree. As we argue in the book, just talking about "polarization" misses the extent to which most of the movement has been on the right.)

2. Using independent voters as a proxy for the "center" was statistically convenient, but probably not ideal, so we have since re-run the analysis using the median liberal-conservative index of all voters as the reference point. The bottom line: Republican activists are slightly closer to the "center" overall but still farther away than Democratic activists, and the trend is basically identical.

3. As we say in our post on TPMCafe, the numbers do jump around from year to year. (For one thing, the number and character of activists differ between presidential election years and mid-term elections.) That is why we used a smoothed trendline. The overall trend, however, is quite clear.

If you managed to keep awake through that, stay tuned for our answer to Kevin's big question: Are the Republicans cracking up? Are we witnessing the re-assertion of the vital center?

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 9:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

TOM DELAY'S OBITUARY?....Michael Crowley writes in the New Republic today that even if Ronnie Earle's campaign finance indictment against Tom DeLay turns out to be weak, smart Republicans know that DeLay is finished anyway. It all turns on the golf trip to Scotland arranged by his good buddy Jack Abramoff:

Congressmen are only supposed to take such trips for business, not pleasure, and, in a March statement, the National Center avowed that the trip involved "significant policy meetings," including ones with [Margaret] Thatcher and some Scottish politicos....But, this week, Thatcher's office told the Mirror that "Lady Thatcher met Mr. DeLay as one politician meeting another. It was in no way a business meeting."

....These inquiries make clear that Justice Department investigators are keenly interested in DeLay's personal role in the Abramoff saga....This new emphasis...fits with passages from the affidavit filed last month against [David] Safavian: It cites a 2002 trip the former GSA official took with Abramoff and Ohio Representative Bob Ney clearly showing that Justice Department prosecutors are interested in the true purpose of Abramoff's junkets.

....DeLay could be vulnerable to prosecution under what is known as federal "gratuity law," which...might only require the government to show that Abramoff had some business interest in which DeLay was in a position to help. The feds would not need smoking-gun proof like, say, an e-mail from DeLay promising a House vote in exchange for a golf trip.

The Jack Abramoff scandal is so convoluted that even I have a hard time staying interested in it, let alone the average guy on the street. But it's a time bomb. As more people get drawn into the net and Abramoff's net is very wide indeed investigators are going to have a very wide scope for turning potential witnesses against Abramoff and his pals. It's only a matter of time until all this digging uncovers a piece of the scandal that (a) affects someone important, like DeLay or Karl Rove and (b) is pretty easy to understand. Then it all starts to unravel.

Abramoff's roots run very deep in the Republican corruption machine. Once people start paying attention, it's not going to be a pretty sight.

Kevin Drum 4:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TIMES vs. POST SMACKDOWN....Jeff Alworth suggests that the Washington Post has replaced the New York Times as the blogosphere's go-to newspaper:

While the Times has restricted its most read online content and restricted other internet-only content to its subscribers, the WaPo has gone the other direction. They've given print space to bloggers, covered bloggers in their media coverage, created their own blogs, and most alluring (to bloggers), they now have a little box on each page powered by Technorati that searches the net for blogs linking to the page.

I like the Post's interactive stuff a lot, but I have to confess that basically I just want the news. I end up linking to interesting stories regardless of where they're from, and I haven't noticed a change lately in which paper I link to most often. (I link to the LA Times more than most bloggers, but that's because it's the one I read in newsprint every morning.)

So here's an assignment for some aspiring PhD candidate: track the linking behavior of political blogs to the mainstream press over the past two or three years. Has it changed? Do we link less to the NYT than in the past? Has the advent of TimesSelect actually made a difference? We need facts and figures, baby, fact and figures!

Kevin Drum 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIERS....Writing about the Harriet Miers nomination, John Podhoretz tosses out this unsubtle warning today:

IT'S GETTING WORSE [John Podhoretz]
The White House needs to know this. Really. It's getting worse. Trust me.

Excellent.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

What about 9/11? Having read the comments thus far -- and let us say right away that this is a very, very sharp crowd -- we've decided that three issues require immediate elaboration: the role of 9/11, our definition of the center, and the prospects for a big reversal in the near future. In this post, we want to respond to David Bailey's useful reminder that "[w]hatever other tools the GOP have had on their side to push an extreme agenda in an evenly-divided government, let's not forget 9/11." Stay tuned on subjects #2 and #3.

First, it is certainly true that, as frankly0 nicely puts it, "Bush's Presidency was going nowhere before 9/11, stumbling out of a honeymoon with mediocre approval ratings." (In many ways, the recent fall in Bush's ratings simply brings him back to the bottom-feeding regions where he was mired before 9/11.) Clearly, Bush in particular and Republicans in general have been bolstered by concerns about terrorism. And clearly, they have used the national security card to advance their broader policy agenda. (We're reminded of Frank Luntz's recent advice to "contextualize the deficit inside of 9/11.") The most important political effect of 9/11 so far has been to create a bigger electoral "margin of error" for Republicans -- which, in our 50/50 nation, is certainly worth a lot. (We will explain in later posts, apropos of Nick Kaufman's helpful comments, how the electoral map is heavily tilted in their favor even without the 9/11 halo.)

Still, the Republican have been building the foundations of their current political power for more than a decade. Much of the organizational infrastructure and strategies of the party go back to the mid-1990s, well before the terrible attacks of 9/11. And even some of the most striking recent forays of the party off center -- most notably, the tax cuts of 2001 and the concerted effort to impeach President Clinton -- predate the 9/11 attacks.

Another thing that's often missed is that the nerve center of the contemporary Republican Party on domestic policy is Congress, not the White House. We'll have more to say about this -- a central theme of our book -- and what it means for the prospects for a big political reversal in response to Bush's troubles. But for now, we simply want to note that the "Commander in Chief" mantle is one worn by Bush, not by congressional Republicans. And yet, remember it was Bush qua Commander in Chief who struggled in 2004, winning the narrowest reelection victory of an incumbent president since Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, almost all GOP (and Democratic) congressional incumbents coasted to victory without breaking a sweat -- which, again, suggests that something more is at work.

Finally, it's also worth doubting the all-purpose power of the national security card -- absent the deeper changes we take up in the book. Wars and foreign threats have rarely helped presidential parties with their domestic agenda in the past. Yes, during such times, presidents are granted substantial latitude in foreign affairs. Historically, however, this latitude hasn't carried over to domestic policy. War presidents often gain electoral strength (though not always). But neither they nor their congressional allies have historically found it easier to advance their domestic agenda. Just ask FDR, Truman, and LBJ.

In our view, then, the transformed national security climate has mostly helped to intensify trends already underway, not created GOP advantage out of whole cloth. Even with "the 9/11 effect," the question still remains: How has the GOP has managed to keep the divisive domestic side of their agenda from provoking backlash or gridlock? In our view, the key to that has been coordination and what it allows the GOP to do.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 1:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

Why is American Politics Off Center? We are very grateful to Kevin for offering this chance to discuss the current state of American politics. Its gratifying that astute political analysts like Kevin, Chris Hayes, Henry Farrell, Mark Schmitt, Mathew Yglesias, and Paul Krugman (who has a column discussing our book in todays Times) find our book of value. And we look forward to a lively discussion with all of you over the coming week.

At the risk of an excessively long post, we thought wed start off by explaining why we wrote Off Center. To readers of this blog, the answer may seem obviousthe Republican Party is taking our country off track. But while we obviously have no affection for the Republican Party or its policy agenda, our reason for writing the book was not simply dissatisfaction with our current political leadership; it was also dissatisfaction with the conventional interpretation of contemporary politics.

In the conventional view, as Kevin said, the center ultimately rules. Middle-of-the-road voters in the electorate and moderates in government run the show because theyre the ones whose votes politicians need to get elected and pass legislation. (In response to Al's question, we mean by the center what political scientists call "the median voter"that is, the voter exactly in the middle of the electorate.) The design of the American political system, with its aggressive effort to fragment and decentralize political authority, is supposed to make it hard to do even popular thingsmuch less unpopular ones. And most political scientists as well as pundits have viewed the system as operating like a thermostat, pulling things back toward the center if they swing too far left or right.

So far, however, this hasnt happened. Despite holding very narrow advantages that are supposed to force compromise, conservatives have pursued a very right-wing agenda and continued to rack up policy successes and electoral victories. Our goal in Off Center is to explain this puzzling outcomehow, that is, Republicans have governed to the right of moderate voters and achieved considerable (but, of course, not unlimited) success in advancing their agenda, without (so far, at least) provoking gridlock or backlash. And we want to show that carefully answering this question points to clearer and stronger answers to an even more pressing question: What can be done to restore greater accountability and responsiveness within the American political system?

Thats a pretty big agenda, especially since we wished to draw on both an extensive range of little-known but important social science research and make the book accessible and engaging for a broad audience. Besides Hayess thoughtful review, you can read Farrells good and very generous (if necessarily compressed) assessment at "Crooked Timber," or consult our website, for more details. We hope well get a chance to discuss all the major issues that we take up in the book this week. And, rest assured, we plan to explain the graphic from our book that Kevin posted and answer Kevins excellent opening question about the future of GOP dominance in our coming posts.

In this first entry, however, we want to focus on what we consider the biggest and most important puzzle. If the GOP has moved so far off center, why hasnt it provoked a backlash, or, at a minimum, found its agenda completely stalemated?

It is crucial to remember, after all, that Republican electoral advantages have been very narrow. In many respects, Bushs majority in 2001 was just the flip side of Clintons in 1992. Yet the GOP clearly had much more success in shifting the contours of American politics and policy.

In the face of a puzzle like this, the temptation is to search for a one-size-fits-all explanation. In response to Kevins post on Friday, a fair number of participants thought they had the single easy answer (its framing! or its the use of cultural issues as a wedge! or its because Democrats are bumblers/cowards/sell-outs or its race). There were probably a couple of dozen factors raised by one person or another, which strongly suggests that there's more than one thing at work. To us at least, it also suggests that what's crucial is how these different plausible GOP advantages actually come together in reinforcing the party's power.

Our own emphasis lies on the organizational and social foundations of political power, rather than on the character of personalities or particular rhetorical moves. In particular, we think a central source of GOP success lies in the unprecedented (within the contours of modern American politics) capacity of conservative elites to coordinate their activities and operate in a unified fashion.

In a political system that was specifically designed to prevent unified action, coordination is an enormous political advantage, helping the GOP to get the maximum value out of many of the advantages mentioned in Fridays discussion. It makes it far easier to control the agenda (which is crucial in politics), to stay on message, to use legislative procedure (as well as even more obscure elements of policymaking) to pursue off-center goals while presenting a more moderate face to the public, to divide opponents, and to protect potentially vulnerable Republicans from exposureas well as shower them with cash if all else fails. The capacity to work in an unusually unified way allows GOP elites to provide what we call backlash insurancea variety of protections to politicians who might otherwise feel a need to be more responsive to public opinion. In a later post, well say more about how we think this works.

To be clear, we are not saying that the GOP is always unified, or that it can get away with anything even when it is. Over the past decade, however, it has been far more unified than its opponents, or than any political party in modern American history. And it is that unity that has helped it to achieve a surprising degree of electoral and policy success despite moving off centera course of action that is supposed to bring a party to ruin.

Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

2006 UPDATE....Speaking of Republican hegemony, the Washington Post reports that the GOP is having a hard time finding good candidates to run against Democrats in 2006. Apparently their prospects are suddenly looking a bit dimmer than they were a year ago....

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OFF CENTER....What's the better campaign strategy: appealing to the center in order to win moderate votes or appealing to extremism in order to mobilize your base? In Off Center, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson offer an intriguing take on this ancient question, and I've invited them to guest blog here this week and chat about it with us.

Here's the nickel version of their thesis: as Hacker and Pierson acknowledge, the conventional wisdom of the political science profession has long suggested that you ignore the center at your peril. That's where the swing votes are, and if you move too far away from the center you'll be swiftly and surely punished at the polls.

So how is it that American politics moved so far rightward? Contrary to conventional wisdom, H&P present an impressive mass of evidence indicating that, in general, the American public itself hasn't moved rightward over the past three decades. At the same time, it's unquestionable that American politics has become much more polarized over that period:

But the problem is not just polarization. It is unequal polarization unequal between Democrats and Republicans, unequal in its effect on the governing aims of liberals and conservatives, and unequal in its effects on American society.

....What makes the shift of American politics off center so puzzling is that Republicans have achieved a number of big policy changes in spite of increasing polarization and in spite of evident public concern about many of them.

But how has the Republican party managed to move so far away from the center of American politics without being turfed out of office? Readers of this blog will recognize a lot of the answers, but one of the virtues of Off Center is that it brings them all together in a single place for the first time:

  • Increasingly safe congressional districts that protect extremist candidates from the wrath of moderate voters.

  • Institutional changes such as co-opting the lobbyists of K Street as virtual arms of the Republican party.

  • "Time bombs" in legislation, in which popular measures are enacted immediately while hidden and much larger benefits for Republican supporters are delayed a year or two, when public attention has shifted elsewhere.

  • Deliberate and increasingly sophisticated efforts to mislead the public about the real aims of the party.

  • A coordinated effort by the leadership of the party both official and unofficial to punish moderates and stack the backbenches with loyal hardliners.

What makes Off Center such a worthwhile book is the way it explains how all these moving parts work together and how this has fundamentally changed American politics. For a more detailed summary of Off Center, check out Chris Hayes' review in the current issue of the Washington Monthly and Henry Farrell's review over at Crooked Timber.

As I mentioned, Hacker and Pierson will be guest blogging here for the rest of this week, so I'm going to start things off with a question for them: If I'm reading Off Center correctly, American politics has been off balance for about a decade, and seriously off balance since 2000. How long do you think this can last before the center finally pulls back? Or has American politics changed so fundamentally that it will stay off center forever unless Democrats adopt tactics similar to Republicans'?

In other words, what's your best guess: do Democrats need to fight fire with fire? Or will the center eventually hold if Democrats figure out a more effective way of appealing to moderate voters?

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

DOBSON UNDER OATH....Will Democrats and Republicans demand that James Dobson be subpeonaed to testify regarding what the White House told him about Harriet Miers? Arlen Specter sure sounds like he's serious about this.

That would be sweet, wouldn't it? Just for the sheer theater of it all.

Kevin Drum 4:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MEDICARE WOES....Are George Bush and the Republicans in trouble now? Max says: just wait until the new Medicare drug benefit takes effect.

By the way, this reminds me. If we're ever going to sell America on national healthcare and it's going to take a while to do this I think the most important thing we can do is take a page out of the conservative playbook and hammer on choice. Whatever the details of the plan are, it needs to guarantee that you get to choose your doctor. You (and your doctor) get to choose your treatment. You (and your doctor) get to choose which medications are best for you. Under any decent plan, you'd have more choice than most people do now, and that's a key selling point.

After all, how much choice do you have today? I live in a pretty populous area, but even so, my plan restricts which doctors I can see, which medical groups I can sign up with, which hospitals I'm allowed to go to, and which specialists I can consult with most of them 20 miles away in Santa Ana even though there are hundreds available within a few miles of my home. I sure wish I had more control over this stuff, but I don't. I'm limited to what my particular plan allows. A national healthcare plan would allow me much greater choice and much greater flexibility. Sign me up!

UPDATE: Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow writes that there are two distinct reactions from people when he starts writing about healthcare issues:

First, those of you who felt your interest sag. You have good health insurance at work or through a spouse, a parent or Medicare.

And second, those who felt your stomachs knot. You are uninsured or on the verge of it and you're worried sick about getting sick.

.... [Healthcare is handled by the government] in every other developed nation. And it's not as foreign as it sounds. We already have it here, and I have already mentioned it Medicare.

Good old Medicare. It may not be perfect, but older Americans look forward to the day they qualify for it. And Dr. Frankel sees no reason why such a national health plan can't be expanded to all citizens, not just seniors.

If nothing else, the employer-based, private-insurance system offends Dr. Frankel for its inefficiency. He said about 25 percent of all premiums go to pay administrative costs. With Medicare, it's 3 percent.

I'm not sure that "Medicare for all" is the best answer, but it's a start. And Blow is right: most people do look forward to the day they qualify for Medicare. If national healthcare is such an abomination, why is that?

Kevin Drum 3:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

LEFTY POLITICS....Avedon Carol takes me to task today because I was critical of William Galston and Elaine Kamarck's "The Politics of Polarization," but not critical enough. Bloggish death rays are apparently what G&K really deserved, and her commenters agree. Avedon says:

I'm sick and tired of being told the base is too far left. What does the base believe in? Universal health care, universal education, safe and fair employment, a healthy economy that provides good jobs, regulation to prevent corporations from defrauding us, care for our environment.

By concidence, I was at a party last night and a similar subject came up. A friend of mine was complaining that if Democrats want the votes of the middle and working classes, they need to champion policies that genuinely benefit the middle and working classes. You bet, I said. What policies do you think those should be?

Long story short, the answer was (a) national healthcare, (b) publicly funded childcare, and (c) a more progressive tax system. Fine. But if all this stuff is so popular with the middle and working classes, how come we don't have any of it? Can it really be solely because our positions haven't been loud enough and forthright enough? Because we haven't fought hard enough?

Lots of reasons got thrown out. Healthcare? Clinton's plan would have passed if he'd bought off social conservatives first with welfare reform. Plus he handled the political end of it badly. Childcare? We'd have to pay for it, and Republicans would scream that we were raising taxes. And teachers unions might throw up roadblocks too. Progressive taxation? It would get demonized as class warfare.

This is all pretty unsatisfying. After all, you can find excuses for anything if you put your mind to it. But the fact remains that the things on both Avedon's list and my friend's are exactly the kinds of issues that Democrats routinely campaign on. And they lose.

Why? If all these policies are really that popular, it's hard to believe they could make exactly zero (or negative!) progress over the past 25 years. And it's not that no one has tried. Clinton made only minimal progress on this stuff. Al Gore ran on a populist platform in 2000 and lost. (I know, I know....) John Edwards ran on a similar message in 2004, and he didn't even win the nomination.

So this all leads back to the place it always leads back to: Democrats just don't know how to talk about these things. We frame them badly. In 25 years, not one single Democrat has figured out how to effectively sell these policies to the American public.

And I'm not sure which scares me more: the possibility that this is right or the possibility that it's wrong.

For now I'm going to leave it at that, but Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson will be guest blogging on this topic for the rest of the week and we'll all have a lot more to say about it then. In the meantime, cogitate at will.

POSTSCRIPT: This conversation is mostly about domestic policy, but even so I hate to end it without saying the obvious: there's a huge fault line among liberals on national security, and we need to address this in a way that's acceptable to a majority of our fellow citizens. It's not an issue that's going to go away.

Kevin Drum 3:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL HEALTHCARE....The LA Times has a story today about Emanuel Wilson, a school bus driver who lost his job in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Wilson has gotten both cash aid and food stamps from the federal government over the past few weeks, but he's been unable to get the one kind of help he really needs:

What Wilson needs is chemotherapy, and that is something the government seems unable to help him with. Wilson was being treated with monthly chemo injections for his intestinal cancer before the hurricane.

....Under the present rules for Katrina victims, if you are destitute, the government will pay your medical bills. Ditto if you are severely disabled or have children. But if you're an adult who had a job that included health benefits and you lost that job because of the storm, the government can't seem to help.

This is the best argument there is for adopting some kind of national healthcare plan. It's not that a good plan could rein in skyrocketing costs, although it could. It's not that it would cover more people, although it would do that too. And it's not that it would save immense amounts of money in waste and administrative costs, although that would indeed be yet another benefit.

Those are all good reasons, but the best and most fundamental reason for national healthcare is that nobody should have to fear that what's happened to Wilson might happen to them. They shouldn't have to worry that if their company changes healthcare providers they'll lose benefits they once had or be unable to continue seeing their current doctor. They shouldn't have to worry that if they get laid off they'll lose their coverage entirely. They shouldn't have to worry that when they take a new job, they or their kids won't be covered for a preexisting condition.

And they shouldn't have to worry that their chemotherapy will be cut off for any reason. People who make six-figure incomes generally don't have to be very concerned about this stuff, but for the middle class, the working class, and the poor, this kind of uncertainty is a gnawing, everpresent concern. Could this happen to me, they wonder?

That's why we need a good national healthcare plan. So it doesn't.

Kevin Drum 1:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE POLITICS OF POLARIZATION....I went ahead and read William Galston and Elaine Kamarck's "The Politics of Polarization" last night, and I was....underwhelmed. It's not so much that it's wrong, but that it's not really interesting enough to spend much time arguing with.

Their main point is that there are more conservatives than liberals in America, which means Democrats have to carry a large majority of the moderate vote in order to win. Fine. I've made the same point myself a couple of times this year. So have a few thousand other people. In addition, G&K rightly decry several common liberal myths: Mobilizing the base is the key to victory. Demography is in our favor. Lakoffian framing will save us. Voters still love us for our stands on healthcare and education.

I'm fine with all that too. There's a kernel of truth in all these things (as G&K concede), but overall they do more to cloud the truth than reveal it.

So what are the key issues for Democrats? The paper becomes a bit of an electoral mishmash at this point. We're losing support among married women and Catholics, and the way to get it back is for our candidates to stress personal integrity. We need to be friendlier toward religion because "less educated voters...respond positively to candidates who present themselves as sincere believers." We should pay more attention to the Midwest although their definition of Midwest (Table 24 on p. 55) seems a mite peculiar.

And their recommendations? Get tough on national security. Give up on gay marriage and quit opposing parental notification laws. Advocate "nothing less than a 21st century economic and social policy." And nominate candidates who are personally appealing.

I dunno. Some of this I'm OK with, some of it I'm not, but it doesn't strike me as a very coherent response to the issues they raise. G&K insist that Democrats need to demonstrate that they believe in something, but the entire paper is rooted in conventional slice-and-dice electoral polling analysis. It's not really clear precisely what they think Dems should believe in or why they should believe in it aside from the fact that poll numbers suggest it might be a good idea. Color me uninspired.

In the meantime, I guess for 2008 we need to find a charismatic midwestern Methodist who's not averse to starting foreign wars. Let's get cracking.

Kevin Drum 5:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A NEW AGE EUROPEAN SHAKESPEAREAN THING....The LA Times ran an article this morning about the relationship between constitutional cipher Harriet Miers and her longtime friend Nathan Hecht, the guy who's been blanketing the airwaves this week telling everyone who will listen that yes, she really is a conservative. Comments about their relationship range from "very European" to "a New Age thing" to "Shakespearean."

Whatever. The comment that most intrigued me, though, was this one from Ron Key, their pastor at the breakaway faction of Valley View Christian Church that they currently attend:

"It's been great to watch and a little puzzling sometimes," Key said. "Their relationship has been such a special one. Sometimes I think they wanted to protect how special it was by not getting married."

They wanted to protect how special it was by not getting married? Is that the kind of thing that Christian ministers usually say about marriage....?

Kevin Drum 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

B MOVIES....Joss Whedon gives me another reason to like Serenity today: it turns out that one of his goals in making it was to prove that you could shoot a good movie on a moderate budget:

When discussing how they did what they did, the crew of "Serenity" agrees that two things contributed to its ability to shoot what at first glance looked like an 80-day film in fewer than 50, and often just 10-hour days (as opposed to the standard 12 to 14) at that: the efficiency Whedon had learned as a television director and the familiarity many of the crew had with one another.

"In TV the attitude is: 'Tell me what we have and we'll build around that,' " says Whedon. "Feature filmmaking seems more like, 'Give me everything and then I'll choose.' "

....Whedon made it a point never to ask for more than he needed. "People would say, 'You're going to need this and that,' and I'd be like, 'Not so much.' If I only needed three walls, we only built three, and if someone asked, 'Well, what if you want to do this other shot?' I said, 'Well, we just won't.' "

I like a big budget extravaganza as well as the next guy, but I've long been convinced that what Hollywood needs more of is good B movies: not trash, and not art films, but solid stories and decent productions that can be made without a lot of risk and without relying on big stars or a huge effects budget. I know the reality of moviemaking doesn't favor productions like that anymore, but it's what I'd like to see more of.

On a slightly different note, though, I have to admit I was taken aback by a description of how they filmed a chase scene early in the movie. It involves a speeder full of bad guys pursuing a speeder full of good guys on a distant planet. On film, the sequence takes about ten minutes:

The physical nature of the setup...let Whedon focus on directing the actors rather than the action, which made the shoot go faster. "Traditionally this would have been, like, a 30-day shoot," Peristere says. "I think we did it in five."

Damn. They'd normally spend 30 days on a sequence like that? That boggles my mind not so much for the money involved, but for the idea of actors spending 30 days shooting a scene in which all they do is sit huddled together in a speeder pretending to be shot at. How could any human being stand that?

Kevin Drum 1:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

REMINISCING ABOUT MIERS....Jim Schutze wrote an interesting column about Harriet Miers in the Dallas Observer yesterday. Here's a paraphrase:

No, she wasn't gay friendly, but she was less unfriendly than most.

No, she wasn't a civil rights champion, but she came around on issues of minority representation sooner than many including many Democrats.

Yes, she opposed abortion, but not with an awful lot of fervor.

And an activist lawyer recalls that "She kept the Bar Association off our backs."

Obviously these are recollections from 15 years ago, but the picture Schutze paints is of someone who was conservative, but fairminded and uncomfortable with extremism. His conclusion:

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Dallas as a whole was far to the right of the rest of the nation. It was a city that seemed to have been passed over by much of the political change that swept the nation in the 1960s and '70s. The battle over the city council configuration single-member seats instead of at-large representation was the first instance of truly aggressive political action by minorities.

In that context, and with politics being the art of available alternatives, Harriet Miers looked good to many liberals. In fact, she danced just on the verge of progressivism. She supported the change to an all single-member council system. But later she told reporters she chose not to seek reelection herself because she was not interested in representing only one district instead of the city at large.

Dallas is about to find out where all of that puts Miers and Dallas on the national political spectrum.

The whole thing is worth reading.

Kevin Drum 3:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

DRAWING CONCLUSIONS....I try to limit my consumption of Fox News programming to reading transcripts--and only then on a very infrequent basis. But even in fairly harmless written form, Bill O'Reilly's rant on Wednesday about "anti-Christian bias" managed to raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels. According to O'Reilly, liberals who assume that Harriet Miers is pro-life simply because she's an evangelical Christian are guilty of "demonizing" and of "espousing an anti-Christian bias."

So let me get this straight. It was okay when, after conservatives started freaking out that maybe Miers wasn't "right" on abortion, others ran around yelling, "Don't worry...she's a born-again Christian and you know what that means [wink, wink]," implying that of course Miers is pro-life. But if liberals draw the exact same conclusion from that same piece of information about her, they're being anti-Christian?

Is there some missing shame chromosome that O'Reilly and his cronies share?

Conservative evangelicals are also guilty of conveniently faulty memories when they insist that Miers would be the first evangelical in 70 years to serve on the Court. The truth is, you'd have to go all the way back to...oh, Clarence Thomas to find a Supreme Court nominee who was a member of a conservative evangelical church. I provide more details in this piece on Salon.

Amy Sullivan 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIERS....Kathryn Jean Lopez is not happy:

The president just took some questions. To sum up his message: She's my girl. She's a good girl. Trust me.

I hate this groaning-when-the-president speaks reflex I've had all week on this issue.

K-Lo, we feel your pain. We really, really, feel it. Welcome to the club.

Kevin Drum 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME INDICTMENTS?....Today's hot topic of conversation is Karl Rove's return to the grand jury and the possibility, mentioned in this New York Times article, that prosecutors are considering federal espionage charges against Rove & Co., not charges under the more problematic Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

But as much as I hate to say it, it was the third paragraph of the Times story that caught my attention:

Mr. Fitzgerald is said by some of the lawyers to have indicated that he has not made up his mind about whether to accuse anyone of wrongdoing and will use the remaining days before the grand jury's term expires on Oct. 28 to decide.

Look, maybe this is just spin from Rove's lawyers. But if it's true, it has to mean that Fitzgerald has a weak case at best. He's been investigating for two years, he's now gotten testimony from every single person he wants testimony from, and yet he's still not sure he has the goods to hand down indictments? That doesn't sound very promising.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but at the moment I'm keeping my enthusiasm in check. If Fitzgerald has a strong case, I want to see him bring charges. But if it's a ticky tack case, I'd just as soon he didn't. We really don't need more of that.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OFF CENTER....William Galston and Elaine Kamarck have written a new report that urges Democrats to move to the center if they ever want to become a majority party again. Their thesis: emulating Karl Rove and appealing increasingly to the liberal base won't work because, as the Washington Post summarizes, "there are simply not enough left-leaning voters to make this a workable strategy."

There's something to that. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it in their new book, Off Center:

Between 1974 and 2004, the party breakdown of House members from the eleven former states of the confederacy reversed from two-thirds Democrat to almost two-thirds Republican. As everyone who follows politics knows, this massive transformation is the key to understanding the Republican Party's capture of Congress in the 1990s.

That's a switch of about 10% of all the seats in Congress, and there are times when I think there's really nothing else worth saying about American politics. Galston and Kamarck are right: when there's an electoral switch of that magnitude, the losing side doesn't have much choice except to adapt.

But it turns out that's not the whole story, because in Off Center Hacker and Pierson also provide a ton of evidence that, congressional results notwithstanding, Americans haven't become any more conservative over the past three decades. Nor has the activist base of the Democratic party become more liberal. Rather, it's the activist base of the Republican party that's gotten more extreme. The chart on the right, my favorite from the book, shows the startling story: compared to independent voters, Republican activists have gotten far more extreme since 1980, while over the same period the Democratic base has actually become more moderate.

In other words, contra Galston and Kamarck, the liberal base is not really the problem a lot of people make it out to be. It's the Republican base that's far outside the mainstream.

And yet, Republicans keep on winning anyway. But why? How is it that a party can continue to drift farther and farther from the center of American politics the Holy Grail of most political strategists and yet continue to be successful? Why is the center no longer holding?

Next week Hacker and Pierson will be guest blogging here and are going to explain how it is that an increasingly radical minority has successfully built an electoral majority that's become practically unassailable. They've written a good book with a compelling argument, and I think you're going to enjoy chatting with these guys.

In the meantime, ponder this chart and wonder what it all means.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NETROOTS....Prof. Bainbridge, who is unhappy that the White House is giving short shrift to the Harriet-phobes in its own party, emails to ask if I agree with this:

I have the distinct impression that the Democratic Party sees the liberal blogosphere as being inside the tent, while the Republican Party views the conservative blogosphere as being somewhere between an irrelevance and a minor nuisance. Maybe this is true, at least in part, because many prominent "conservative" bloggers (Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, Stephen Green, and Eugene Volokh spring to mind) are not exactly stalwart Republican party loyalists but rather libertarians (or whatever) who put routinely put their principles ahead of party interests. Alternatively, maybe the Democrats have just decided to follow Lyndon Johnson's advice about keeping your critics inside the tent peeing out rather than outside the tent peeing in.

Democrats do seem to pay more attention to the blogosphere than Republicans, but I don't think party loyalty is really the reason. After all, liberals are famously fractious, and liberal blogs spend a tremendous amount of energy fragging the Democratic establishment. I'd offer the following explanations instead: (a) Howard Dean, (b) the success of Daily Kos, a phenomenon that's unique in the blogosphere, (c) natural liberal devotion to egalitarianism, and (d) the fact that Dems are out of power and Republicans aren't.

What's more, in the specific case of Harriet Miers, liberals aren't really any more united than conservatives just a bit quieter. In fact, at the moment, most liberal bloggers seem to be sitting around in confusion. Should we back off because she's probably the best we can do? Or is she a stealth ultraconservative? Should we get out the popcorn and cheer the prospect of conservatives tearing each other apart? Or stick up for principle and oppose her because she's flatly unqualified? And why did Harry Reid recommend her in the first place, anyway?

Plus there's one other thing: George Bush is an arrogant SOB who takes an almost adolescent pride in never listening to his critics. We've been trying to tell you that for a while. Now you know.

Kevin Drum 12:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....Valerie Plame prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has invited Karl Rove back to testify before the grand jury yet again:

Federal prosecutors have accepted an offer from presidential adviser Karl Rove to give 11th-hour testimony in the case of a CIA officer's leaked identity and have warned they cannot guarantee he won't be indicted, according to people directly familiar with the investigation.

....Rove offered in July to return to the grand jury for additional testimony, and Fitzgerald accepted that offer last Friday after taking grand jury testimony from the formerly jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

Before accepting the offer, Fitzgerald sent correspondence to Rove's legal team making clear that there was no guarantee he wouldn't be indicted at a later point.

Lawrence O'Donnell thinks Fitzgerald is trying to get a few witnesses to flip and become prosecution witnesses:

Prosecutors prefer pre-indictment plea bargaining to post-indictment because they have more to offer you, like not being indicted at all or downgrading your status to unindicted co-conspirator. And pre-indictment plea bargaining can greatly enrich the indictments that the prosecutor then obtains. If, for example, Fitzgerald has a weak case against, say, Scooter Libby, imagine how much Rove's cooperation might strengthen that case.

If no one RSVPs to Fitzgerald's invitations, look for indictments as early as next week. If anyone does sit down with Fitzgerald, he will probably have to move to extend the grand jury, which now has only thirteen working days left in its term.

Prediction: at least three high level Bush Administration personnel indicted and possibly one or more very high level unindicted co-conspirators.

Remember, if no one flips, the terrorists have won!

Kevin Drum 5:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WISDOM OF SPAM....Via Alex Tabarrok, Spam Stock Trader decided to buy a virtual portfolio of every stock mentioned in a spam email received between May 5 and the end of June. Results here. Actually, he did better or, more accurately, less disastrously than I would have guessed.

Kevin Drum 3:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

URL UPDATE....Chris Nolan has moved to a new site called Spot-On:

http://www.spot-on.com/nolan

The new site also features blogs by Josh Trevino, Christopher Brauchli, and Deborah Klosky. Update your bookmarks.

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE M&M TEST....Ann Althouse on Harriet Miers:

I have yet to see a single piece of writing by Harriet Miers dealing with an issue of constitutional law or even anything purporting to demonstrate the analytical, interpretive skills required to serve on the Supreme Court. The nomination was announced on Monday. It's Thursday. Can we have something in writing that shows her mind in action, that inspires confidence that this is a person whose judgment we should all trust for the next two decades?

That would be something, wouldn't it? Not one single piece of relevant legal writing. Surely they'll come up with something?

On the other hand, David Kuo says she passes the M&Ms test:

Harriet used to keep a humidor full of M&Ms in her West Wing office....Her door was always open and the M&Ms were always available. I dared ask one time why they were there. Her answer: I like M&Ms and I like sharing.

....When she was elevated from staff secretary to Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy everyone was shocked. She didnt know policy. She wasnt a wonk. In fact, a lot of policy staffers rolled their eyes when she instituted new procedures for launching initiatives, managing information, and reviewing policy. But she never changed. Plus, the M&Ms were still there.

Well, I like M&Ms too, but I'm not sure they're quite the character reference Kuo thinks they are. Is this really the best they can do?

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HARRIET MIERS: FEMINIST MOLE?....Jeez, it sure doesn't take much to get the wingnuts excited. It turns out that in the late 90s, Harriet Miers, a pioneering woman in Texas law, pushed to establish a lecture series at SMU named after Louise Raggio, an earlier pioneer woman in Texas law. Here are the seven speakers in the Raggio Lecture Series so far:

  • Gloria Steinem (a feminist!)

  • Patricia Schroeder (a Democrat!)

  • Susan Faludi (another feminist!)

  • Gwen Ifill (liberal media star!)

  • Geraldine Laybourne (Oxygen Media magnate!)

  • Ann Richards (another Democrat!)

  • Colleen Barrett and Herb Kelleher (um....)

Stanley Kurtz is upset:

Now I dont think this necessarily establishes Miers as a closet feminist....The charitable view is that Miers was willing to see left-leaning feminists take advantage of the donation in a spirit of intellectual fairness, and because her larger concern was to honor her predecessor and to encourage young women lawyers....In any case, I find this disturbing, especially because it happened in the late nineties, by which time Miers was well into her conservative phase....I must say that this report worries me.

It doesn't take much to get Stanley Kurtz upset, does it? In any case, last year's lecture featured a couple of Southwest Airlines luminaries, surely acceptable figures in the conservative pantheon. We can rest easy now.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

OH NO! NOT THAT!....Stanley Kurtz, who has generally been defending Harriet Miers over in the despairing sea of gnashing teeth that is the National Review's Corner this week, reports that he's found some disturbing news that may change his mind about the Supreme Court nominee: "[She] was a key figure behind the establishment of a lecture series in womens studies at SMU."

Well, clearly she should be drawn and quartered. This just won't do.

Kurtz allows that "maybe conservative women lectured in this series." But he quickly decides that "it seems more likely that this lecture series was taken over by doctrinaire feminists who shut out conservative views." What Kurtz seems to find especially upsetting is that "it happened in the late nineties, by which time Miers was well into her conservative phase."

It boggles the mind. This is the type of questionable behavior that worries some conservatives about a Supreme Court nominee's fitness for office? I rather enjoy my infrequent Tour Bus rides through Bizarro World--they certainly do see life differently. But I'm glad I live over here.

Update: Apologies for the duplicate posts. That's what happens when two bloggers on two different coasts read the same piece of nonsense at the same time.

Amy Sullivan 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC HEALTH....Lorelei Kelly says we're screwed:

On Monday, I was visiting a friend in the House of Representatives....While sitting there, I noticed the [receptionist] open a pack of wall posters from the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at National Defense University. They were handsome, instructive public health posters about how to recognize bird flu and what to do about it. My mom is a public health nurse, so I looked at them covetously and then watched with dismay as PLOP they went into the garbage can.

....Throwing the posters into the trash pretty much symbolizes how Congress has responded to new security issues since the end of the Cold War. Global threats in particular just don't fit into the antique structure of Congress, and because they don't fit into the jurisdictions of existing committees, they fall between the cracks. This is particularly true of trans-national security issues.

....The Senate passed legislation on Thursday to add $4 billion to fight avian flu. This money was tacked onto the defense appropriations bill for 2006. Now, I think that's great, but why can't we fund a solid and generous public health system like most normal countries? Countries where public health is a high priority are far better prepared and defended against global pandemics and biological terrorism. Why does avian flu only get the urgency it deserves on a defense bill during wartime? Something is wrong with this picture.

Preach it, sister. Avian flu may or may not mutate into a dangerous pandemic, but why not fund a modern public health system regardless? After all, we're bound to need it someday.

Kevin Drum 2:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....Reuters reports that Patrick Fitzgerald "is expected to signal within days" whether he intends to bring indictments in the Valerie Plame case. The signal, apparently, will initially come in the form of letters to the officials who are under investigation. According to Reuters, "Fitzgerald could announce plea agreements, bring indictments, or conclude that no crime was committed."

That seems to cover the bases.

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE....The Senate has voted 90-9 to oppose the torture and abuse of prisoners held by American forces. Good for them.

Of course, the bill still has to go through the usual conference committee charade, in which Senate conferees "reluctantly" accept changes from the House designed to water down the bill, and then everyone who voted for the original Senate language "reluctantly" votes for the conference bill.

Maybe that won't happen this time. We can hope. But even if it doesn't, the bill also has to survive a veto threat from George "Honor and Integrity" Bush. So we're not out of the woods yet.

But it's a start.

Kevin Drum 1:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MIERS MISCELLANY....I've been trying to suss out the real skinny behind the Harriet Miers nomination, but I have to admit I'm still flummoxed. Here are a few miscellaneous thoughts:

  • In the end, I expect that Republicans will all simmer down and toe the line on Miers. It's true that the White House sales job has been pretty transparent, producing suspiciously identical stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post about Miers's religious convictions that are obviously just crudely coded assurances that she'll vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, but so what? Everyone knows the easiest person to sell is another salesman. The pitch may be crude, but conservative senators want to be sold. After a bit of grumbling, they're going to put lipstick on this pig and head off to the prom.

  • On the other hand, this time around it's going to be Republicans who want the nominee to respond substantively to questions about judicial philosophy. Just a couple of weeks ago they were furiously berating Democrats who tried to get serious answers out of John Roberts, and it will be fun to see which Republican gets whiplash first by insisting that the two cases are completely different.

  • Like a lot of people, when James Dobson endorses Miers and then says, "Some of what I know I am not at liberty to talk about," I too would like to know just what it is that he's not at liberty to talk about. A subpoena to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee would be kind of fun, wouldn't it?

  • Oddly enough, I agree with the conservative White House lawyer who said this:

    Judging takes work, but the folks who think "constitutional reasoning" is a talent requiring divination, intense effort and years of monastic study are the same folks who will inevitably give you "Lemon tests," balancing formulas, "penumbras" and concurrences that make your head spin. The President sees through that mumbo jumbo and recognizes that good Justices are the ones who focus on the Constitution's text, structure and history and who call balls and strikes.

    I actually think the length of modern Supreme Court decisions is ridiculous, and the "brilliant thinkers" who produce the cleverest arguments aren't necessarily the best judges. The Supreme Court's job is to provide guidance to lower courts, not to produce absurdly subtle arguments that mere mortals can neither understand nor apply coherently.

    In other words, the fact that Harriet Miers isn't the most brilliant legal mind in the country isn't necessarily a strike against her. On the other hand, it would be nice if she had at least a teensy bit of background in interpreting constitutional law, wouldn't it? Surely we can all agree that President Bush has taken his signature anti-intellectualism to indefensible levels here?

  • It's kind of odd that it's liberals who are the ones digging out evidence that Miers might hold some moderate opinions, isn't it? Here's Jon Cohn suggesting that she sided with the non-wingnuts in a dispute at her church. Here's Ryan Lizza wondering if she supports gay adoption and the International Criminal Court. Here's AmericaBlog posting a memo that implies support for gay civil rights as far back as 1989. That's mighty tolerant of Ms. Miers.

    Naughty, naughty, boys. Are you trying to stir up trouble?

  • So what should liberals do about Miers? It's hard to see how we can support her. After all, a non-judge is one thing, but Miers takes the principle of non-qualification to new heights. Bush has basically made a mockery out of the very idea of being even minimally qualified to be a Supreme Court justice.

    Still, Bush is a Republican and that means Miers is a Republican problem. I'm not sure we're really obligated to do anything except sit back and watch the show. Let 'em clean up their own messes.

I guess that's it. Except for one thing: Harry Reid is a devious fellow, isn't he?

Kevin Drum 11:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD NEWS AND BAD....Scientists have analyzed the genome of the 1918 flu virus that killed 50 million people and have discovered that it was originally a bird flu that made the jump to humans. So that means my grandmother's two sisters were both killed by a bird flu.

It also means we know for sure that bird flus like the H5N1 virus currently causing havoc in Asia can mutate to become transmissible by humans. That's the bad news. Here's the good news:

Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, chief of molecular pathology department at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, notes that the bird flus have not yet spread from human to human. He hopes the 1918 virus will reveal what genetic changes can allow that to happen, helping scientists prevent a new pandemic before it starts.

...."This is huge, huge, huge," said John Oxford, a professor of virology at St. Bartholmew's and the Royal London Hospital, who was not part of the research team. "It's a huge breakthrough to be able to put a searchlight on a virus that killed 50 million people. I can't think of anything bigger that's happened in virology for many years."

In other bird flu news, President Bush suggested yesterday that if a flu pandemic hit the United States he might use the Army to quarantine affected areas. Tyler Cowen suggests that would probably just make things worse.

Kevin Drum 5:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL UPDATE....Our allotment of tickets for Thursday's film, Darwin's Nightmare, is gone, but you can still purchase tickets here, via phone by calling 202-857-7700, or at the ticket window.

We still have some tickets left for Saturday's film, Innocent Voices. If you're interested in attending, e-mail a ticket request to service@washingtonmonthly.com and include your name, contact phone number and e-mail address.

Kevin Drum 5:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BENCHMARKS vs. TIMETABLES....Over at TPMCafe, Reed Hundt points out that our commanders in Iraq now agree that the U.S. presence in Iraq has become counterproductive. He thinks George Bush will eventually be forced to agree and that Democratic leaders are therefore foolish not to aggressively take ownership of this position right now. "I think it will be fairly judged as a tremendous missed opportunity," he says.

Ed Kilgore disagrees:

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding Reed's last point, but he seems to be saying that because Bush may move to the position that many Democrats currently hold a withdrawal linked to benchmarks for Iraqi self-government and marginalization of the insurgency we must rush to a different position in order to maintain a political advantage. This is an example of raising "partisan differentiation" to a fetish that ignores both principle and larger political issues.

....In reality, most Democrats favor a gradual withdrawal from Iraq linked to a political setttlement, enabled by "reducing our military footprint." We mainly differ as to whether the pace should be dictated by a specific timetable or specific events, and there are people who opposed and supported the original decision to go to war in Iraq on both sides of that debate.

This doesn't sound right to me. I've argued for a timetable before, but I've also argued that I'm not sure there's really much difference between linking withdrawal to a timetable and linking it to benchmarks. In fact, I'd be pretty happy with a benchmark-based approach, since I think it's impossible to have serious benchmarks and not have at least tacit timetables. After all, once you lay down benchmarks, people are inevitably going to start wondering how long it's going to take to achieve them and how much progress we're making toward getting there.

But here's the thing. Is Ed right that "many Democrats" currently support "a withdrawal linked to benchmarks"? I can't think of any. And I don't mean just vaguely saying that this is what we should do, I mean seriously proposing a set of specific benchmarks that will lead to withdrawal of specific troop levels, combined with a demand that the President should propose benchmarks of his own if he's serious about winning the war.

If anyone has done this, I've missed it. But if it were a sound plan, it would get my instant support. It's a way of getting many of the advantages of a timetable firm goals, incentives for Iraqi leaders, and military accountability without some of the drawbacks that have been legitimately raised. Is there a Democratic leader who's actually proposed something along these lines?

Kevin Drum 4:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

UNRIGGING THE ELECTION....I see that after initially thinking otherwise, Iraq's leaders have decided that if you use the word "voters" twice in one sentence, it should mean the same thing both times. Good move.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LISTENING TOUR....Abu Aardvark offers a late comment on Karen Hughes' famously unsuccessful "listening tour" of the Middle East:

The "I'm a working mom" thing I'm glad she did it. I'm glad it bombed, horribly and humiliatingly. Maybe now she'll start really understanding that Arab publics are savvy, smart, aware, and highly politicized, and don't appreciate being talked down to....The idea that Hughes could bond with Arabs around common humanity "we all love children" is deeply patronizing, infantalizing, and condescending. It also flies in the face of all available survey and focus group data, which overwhelmingly shows appreciation for American society and Americans as individuals, but hostility to American foreign policy.

Max Boot, conversely, tries to make the best of things by suggesting that "Hughes has made a good step forward by engaging with more or less regular folks." Maybe. But as the Aardvark says, it all depends on what lessons Hughes takes away from her experience. If she decides that Bush-style spin is still the answer, but it needs to be better Bush-style spin, then I imagine we can expect nothing but continuing failure in the public diplomacy area. After all, there's only so much that spin can do when you have 150,000 soldiers stationed in the heart of the region and public threats seem to be your answer to every problem. That's hard to spin away.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

HUMAN PROPS....Remember those firefighters used as props for George Bush's visit to the Gulf Coast following Katrina? It looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger has learned from the master. Apparently he wanted some human props too during California's recent wildfires, and he wasn't about to let a little thing like his current war against the firefighters union get in his way.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL....Interested in seeing a free movie and mingling with some Washington Monthly editors? If you live in the Washington DC area, we have a limited number of tickets available for the Washington Amnesty International Film Festival, cosponsored by National Geographic and The Washington Monthly. There's one film on Thursday and one on Saturday. Here are the details:

5:00 pm Wednesday Update: Our allotment of tickets for Thursday's film is gone. However, tickets are still available for Saturday's film.

Thursday: The invitations are for the opening reception (6:00 pm), the film premier (7:30 pm), and the after film discussion.

DARWINS NIGHTMARE
Director: Hubert Sauper
Documentary. 2004. 107 min. English/Russian/Swahili, subtitled.

Hubert Saupers riveting documentary examines the devastating effect of the introduction of the Nile perch to Tanzania's Lake Victoria. It is a tale about fish, but also about starvation and globalization. Winner of the Best Documentary Award at the 2004 European Film Awards.

Saturday: Invitations are for the screening at 7:00 pm.

INNOCENT VOICES
Director: Luis Mandoki
Feature Film. 2004. 111 min. Spanish, subtitled.

This feature film tells the poignant tale of an 11-year-old boy who suddenly becomes the "man of the house" after his father abandons the family during El Salvadors civil war.

Both events are in Washington at the National Geographic's Grosvenor Auditorium, 1600 M Street, NW (16th & M). The invitations include free parking in National Geographic's adjacent garage.

If you're interested in attending, e-mail a ticket request to service@washingtonmonthly.com and include your name, contact phone number and e-mail address.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LAW IN SHAMBLES....I've now read my second pamphlet from the good folks at Prickly Paradigm Press, Thomas Geoghegan's The Law in Shambles. His argument is an important one: conservatives complain endlessly about the rising number of lawsuits in America, but in reality they have no one but themselves to blame. Why? Because it's the inevitable result of cutbacks in corporate regulation:

It galls me to hear the President rail about trial lawyers suing hospitals. Why is it that the trial lawyers bring these suits? Because the hospitals depart from a standard of care, often set out in federal regulations, which the President of the United States has the duty to enforce.

....If the President wanted to cripple the lawyers, he might consider, for example, setting nurse to patient ratios. Of course he won't. Yet as hospitals cut back on nurses, they end up violating more standards and regulations.

Result? More and more patients die. Bring on the trial lawyers! For when the rule of law really is in shambles, that's what people get. When we have no contract, we get tort. And when we have no trust law, we get tort. And when we deregulate, we get tort, as well. One can calculate the rise of tort from the drop in the numbers of those who simply watch over us, from various civil servants to the nurses on the floor.

Roughly speaking, most European countries have adopted a regulatory model in order to keep corporate abuse in check. There are drawbacks to this model, but it does result in relatively few lawsuits. Conversely, in the United States, business-friendly conservatives have fought to keep regulation light. This often leaves lawsuits, which are inevitably less predictable and more arbitrary than regulation, as the only avenue that ordinary citizens have for checking corporate abuse.

But Geoghegan points out that it's not just inadequate regulation that has led to the rise in torts. It's also the demise of unions. In the past, he says, employee grievances from unionized workers were mostly handled via arbitration, which is quick and easy. But with arbitration mostly gone, largely replaced by a mass of confusing and poorly enforced civil rights legislation, the only remedy an employee has if she's unjustly fired is a lawsuit, and this is fundamentally a more scorched-earth process than old style arbitration:

It is not so much about conduct as state of mind. The issue is no longer whether the employer fired the plaintiff for "just cause," whatever that might now mean in a world of "employment at will." What the plaintiff must do is show that the employer acted to harm him.

....In post-union America, this is the legal system we now have. It forces us to cast legal issues in the most subjectively explosive way, i.e., "racism," "sexism," to get around the fact that we no longer can deal objectively with "just cause." Do I regret I am part of it? Yes. Are my clients often full of hatred? Yes.

Geoghegan argues that as tort has become the primary means of settling disputes, it's necessarily also become more politicized, more expensive, and far more complex. As a result, respect for juries has diminished, respect for judges has diminished, and respect for the rule of law itself has diminished. We have created a system in which often the only way left to hold corporations accountable is via furious battles to the death in courtrooms around the country, and nobody is happy with it.

I'm not sure I agree with every argument Geoghegan makes, but it's a provocative thesis that's written in a wonderfully accessible, polemic style. And it's short! And only ten bucks!

Recommended.

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE BEST KELO CASE YET....For those of you who felt that I was insufficiently outraged over the Kelo eminent domain decision, I've got just the story for you. This isn't about a city condemning blighted land for redevelopment. It's not even about a city condemning good land for redevelopment. It's about a city condemning good land for a project that's almost identical to the project the land's current owner wants to put up himself. The city is Union Township in New Jersey and the owner is Carol Segal:

On May 24, the five-member township committee voted unanimously to authorize the municipality to seize Segal's land through eminent domain and name its own developer.

"They want to steal my land," Segal said. "What right do they have when I intend to do the exact same thing they want to do with my property?"

.... Segal...signed a contract last week to sell his property to Centex Homes for about $13 million, contingent upon local approval. Centex, a nationally known developer with projects in Middlesex, Morris and Monmouth counties, would then build 100 townhouses on Segal's property....

Florio and Capodice [the mayor and deputy mayor] said they preferred AMJM because it is a local company.

"I've never heard of Centex," Capodice said. "They're not Union County people."

It's worth noting that the Star-Ledger story quoted above strongly implies that there's some fairly sleazy political corruption involved in all this, and it's possible that this might be a bigger factor than the Supreme Court's ruling in Kelo. Hey, this is Jersey we're talking about.

Still, it smells pretty bad, and it couldn't have happened if Kelo had gone the other way. Libertarians should feel free to feel vindicated.

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A FIRM STAND ON TORTURE....In the Weekly Standard, Tom Donnelly and Vance Serchuk argue that Congress should pass clear guidelines prohibiting abuse of detainees in Iraq and elsewhere:

The relevant legislation proposed by Senator John McCain and supported by a who's who of retired military and intelligence officers would go a long way toward ending the climate of confusion and uncertainty that has contributed to abuses at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.

In opposing the legislation, the Pentagon argues that it is not Congress's place to be arbiter of the rules for treatment of detainees, insisting that it alone should wield that power....[But] despite the unique challenges posed by the war on terror, the Congress and Republican conservatives, in particular should be skeptical when the executive branch says, in effect, "Just trust us."

....The consequences of the failure to set a clear standard for the treatment of detainees are plain to see. Again, set aside the obvious impact of Abu Ghraib and consider the less-publicized deaths at Bagram, which created a dangerous irritant in U.S.-Afghan relations. President Karzai, for instance, spent his trip to the United States on the defensive, forced to justify why he was calling for a long-term strategic partnership with Washington including long-term access by the U.S. military to Afghan bases in light of the murder of Afghan citizens by American soldiers. We're not only making it easier for our enemies to hate us, but harder for our friends to love us.

Italics mine. It's telling that George Bush, the first president in over a century who hasn't vetoed a single bill, has finally threatened a veto over this. Despite the events of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, the 82nd Airborne, and over a dozen separate reports detailing gruesome abuses of captives around the world, the one thing that Bush thinks is worth his veto pen is a set of clear guidelines telling our own military and the rest of the world that America believes in treating prisoners decently.

This is, once again, a test for moderate Republicans in Congress. There's no excuse not to pass this legislation, which largely codifies rules the Pentagon claims to be following anyway, and centrist Republicans should join John McCain and congressional Democrats in voting for it. If Bush insists on vetoing the guidelines, so be it. He will have shown us his true heart at last.

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ REPORT....Suzanne Nossel spent last week in Princeton at a conference on "National Security in the 21st Century." Her report: compared to last year, attendees were more bullish on China, India, and avian flu, and more bearish on Europe, the UN, and U.S. global dominance.

The conference included both liberal and conservative attendees but trended liberal. Here's what Suzanne says about Iraq:

Though opinions were divided, the majority of those I spoke to favored the US withdrawing the bulk of its troops in 2006. It was not that they disagreed on the potentially devastating consequences of Iraq becoming a failed state, nor that they had any confidence that the country would hold together. They were just convinced that the continued American presence was doing more harm than good. (Personally, having seen nothing that makes me confidence that the glaring holes in the US's strategy and approach in Iraq are being filled, I am slowly coming to the view that withdrawal may be the best among lousy options more on that another time).

In this, they seem to agree with the uniformed military on the ground. All that's left now is for liberal leaders to get on board.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

Here Comes the Judge... Former judge and Ten Commandments whack job Roy Moore has announced that he is running for governor of Alabama. This might not have seemed like a very big deal to me had I not read Joshua Green's definitive profile of Moore in the latest Atlantic Monthly. Since departing the bench, Moore has been touring the country with his Ten Commandments rock, whipping up crowds of Christians who feel victimized by secular society and who see him as a kind of martyr to the cause of putting all constitutional law on a religious footing.

Moore is extremely popular in Alabama and has an excellent chance of winning. If he does win, he will likely use the office to move the state towards a theocracy, purposely sparking fights with federal courts. This will position him to run either in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, which could force other candidates to move further to the right, or as an independent, which could fracture the GOP base. In short, Green makes a strong case that Moore could be the George Wallace of the early 21st century. Definitely worth reading.

Paul Glastris 11:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY MIERS?....I may be totally wet on this, but I want to toss out a theory about why George Bush picked the obviously underqualified Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court nominee. Try this on for size.

Everyone seems to agree that Bush didn't want a big ideological fight. Fine. But even if that's the case there are a hundred moderate but highly qualified candidates he could have chosen. So why pick Miers and then be forced to endure relentless mockery for nominating such a lightweight?

Here's my guess: if he had picked a highly qualified moderate with a long paper trail, it would have been way too obvious that he really was backing down from a fight. Conversely, by nominating Miers, he's got everyone convinced that he's just picking a friend. Sure, the base is temporarily pissed that he's let them down, but before long they'll convince themselves that (a) it's just cronyism and (b) she's probably pretty conservative after all (especially after Dick Cheney has spent enough time peddling her conservative cred to Limbaugh and Hannity).

If Bush had picked a real judge with a moderate record, his base would have been absolutely sure they were being betrayed. With Miers they're not. She allows him to avoid a fight while suffering only momentary venting from his supporters. From that perspective, it was a smart choice.

And if I'm wrong, won't it be fun to see Miers get confirmed with more Democratic votes than Republican votes? Maybe Dems will even break a Republican filibuster! That would be too rich....

UPDATE: The officially leaked version from the White House is that Bush has been planning to nominate Miers for months. Sure.

Kevin Drum 1:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE RULE OF LAW....The New York Times reports that Iraqi leaders have changed the rules for ratification of their new constitution:

Under the new rules, the constitution will fail only if two-thirds of all registered voters rather than two-thirds of all those actually casting ballots reject it in at least 3 of the 18 provinces.

....Given that fewer than 60 percent of registered Iraqis voted in the January elections, the chances that two-thirds would both show up at the polls and vote against the document in three provinces would appear to be close to nil.

Italics mine. Obviously the idea is to guarantee passage of the constitution, but this interpretation seems self-defeating, doesn't it? After all, here's what Article 61 of the Transitional Law says:

The general referendum will be successful and the draft constitution ratified if a majority of the voters in Iraq approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more governorates do not reject it.

If "voters" means "all registered voters," then the constitution has to be approved by a majority of all registered voters in the first place which isn't very likely. So how does this help things? The Times explains:

In their vote on Sunday, the Shiite and Kurdish members interpreted the law as follows: the constitution will pass if a majority of ballots are cast for it; it will fail if two-thirds of registered voters in three or more provinces vote against it. In other words, the lawmakers designated two different meanings for the word "voters" in one passage.

It would appear that Iraq's leaders have learned well from their Republican mentors. It's sort of like their own personal nuclear option.

Aside from the obvious travesty of democracy in play here, what's really odd about all this is that most of the recent reports from Iraq have indicated that it was unlikely the Sunnis would successfully reject the constitution anyway. But I guess the Shiites and Kurds must have felt differently. I wonder what they know that Western reporters apparently don't?

Kevin Drum 9:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH BASHING....We already know that lots of conservative are skeptical about Harriet Miers, but what's more interesting is the number of conservatives who are turning their guns on George Bush himself. Here's a sampler:

  • Steve Dillard: I am done with President Bush.

  • John Podhoretz: I think this was a pick made out of droit de seigneur an "I am the president and this is what I want" arrogance.

  • Peter Robinson: What people see in this is the Bush of the first debate, the Bad Bush, the peevish rich boy who expects to get his way because it's his way.

  • Andrew Sullivan: Boy, does this pick remind us of who GWB is: about as arrogant a person as anyone who has ever held his office. Now the base knows how the rest of us have felt for close to five years.

  • Stephen Bainbridge: I got a lot of criticism for saying that George Bush was pissing away the conservative moment via his Iraq policies....With this appointment, I'd echo Andrew's sentiment with something a tad more off color: Bush is now peeing on the movement.

  • Rod Dreher: As for me, I am really, really disappointed in the president.

  • Bill Kristol: It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that President Bush flinched from a fight on constitutional philosophy.

  • Pat Buchanan: What is depressing here is not what the nomination tells us of her, but what it tells us of the president who appointed her....In picking her, Bush ran from a fight. The conservative movement has been had and not for the first time by a president by the name of Bush.

  • David Frum: The record shows I fear that the president's judgment has always been at its worst on personnel matters.

  • Michelle Malkin: Message to the White House: Don't get stuck on stupid.

  • Jonah Goldberg: Bush's instincts about where his principles should be are often right. But in this case the principle seems to be that Bush's instincts are principle enough.

Kevin Drum 8:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD NEWS MONDAY....What's this? More DeLay indictments?

UPDATE: Fox News confirms that there were two grand juries considering different elements of the case against DeLay. Based on an AP dispatch, they report that the second grand jury has handed down an indictment that has "something to do with money laundering."

UPDATE 2: Full story here.

Kevin Drum 6:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PAPER TRAIL....Via Stephen Bainbridge, here's a case in which a Texas law firm agreed to pay $22 million because it had concealed knowledge of a client's illegal activity. The case involved a Ponzi scheme run by Russell Erxleben, a former NFL placekicker. Do any of these names sound familiar?

Daniel N. Matheson III, a former Locke Liddell partner who represented Erxleben, said in his deposition that he knew in March 1998 that $8 million in AFI's losses hadn't been reported to investors....A few days later, Texas securities regulators seized its accounts and put the company into receivership. Harriet Miers, co-managing partner of Locke Liddell, said the firm denies liability in connection with its representation of Erxleben. "Obviously, we evaluated that this was the right time to settle and to resolve this matter and that it was in the best interest of the firm to do so," Miers said.

I'm sure Miers knew nothing about this, of course. Still, a lawyer who knows how to paper over fishy activity sounds like just the kind of gal that would appeal to George Bush, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 6:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Paul Glastris

BAD GAMBLE... The fallout continues from William Bennett's on-air speculation about the crime-reducing potential of aborting African-American fetuses. Today, the virtuecrat-turned-radio-host resigned as chairman of the online education firm K-12, saying the move was necessary because "I am in the midst of a political battle based on a coordinated campaign willfully distorting my views, my record, and my statements." Presumably the White House is not part of that coordinated campaign, even though it too has criticized Bennett's remarks. I suppose I could say that those ill-advised coments were the most expensive mistake Bennett's made since he lost $500,000 at the Bellagio, but that would be ridiculous and morally reprehensible.

Paul Glastris 4:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BAMBOOZLED?....My favorite Miers quote so far. This one is from an anonymous lawyer who is "a conservative Christian and worked with Harriet Miers in Texas":

Harriet worships the president and has called him the smartest man shes known. Shes a pretty good lawyer....This president can be bamboozled by anyone he feels close to. If a person fawns on him enough, is loyal, works 25 hours a day and says youre the smartest man I ever met, all of a sudden youre right for the Supreme Court.

Sounds about right. Maybe we're all just overanalyzing this thing....

UPDATE: Second favorite quote comes from Dan Drezner:

Would Miers ever be an answer to any legal question that starts, "Name the top nine lawyers who _____" besides serving George W. Bush for an extended period of time? In a post-Katrina environment, that dog won't hunt.

Something tells me the "favorite quote" competition is going to be pretty fierce before long.

Kevin Drum 2:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MIERS AND THE BASE....I have to admit: conservatives really do have plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Harriet Miers. Here's an incomplete list:

As near as I can tell, this really is a nomination that conservatives have to take on faith. I guess if I were a conservative, I'd be pretty peeved too.

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGGING AND BACKTRACKING....Here's a thought about how blogging (and the web in general) have changed politics. In times past, everyone would have had at least a few hours to compose themselves before producing an opinion about Harriet Miers's fitness to be a Supreme Court justice. That's a few hours spent on the phone, around the water cooler, and just generally thinking about how your comments are going to sound once they become public.

No longer. This time, conservative cries of dismay were littering the internet within minutes of the announcement, and there's not much doubt that these were genuine reactions. The disappointment was real, and despite the apparent efforts of at least one conservative to erase his first impression, that just won't work. Once it's up on the web, it's up forever.

I have little doubt that the conservative brain trust will quickly take a deep collective breath and decide that they really ought to support George Bush's nominee. But instead of this deep breath being taken in private, it's going to have to be taken very, very publicly. All that stuff I wrote a few hours ago? I was just kidding. Hasn't everyone contributed money to Al Gore at one time or another? We shouldn't make such a big deal out of that.

If nothing else, the internet is likely to usher in a golden age of backtracking. Either that or people are eventually going to learn to think for a few minutes before they blog.

I'll put my money on backtracking.

UPDATE: Then again, maybe not. Go scroll though The Corner and you'd almost think you were reading Democratic Underground. They're not going to have an easy time backing off some of that stuff.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

MORE MUSING ON MIERS....As Kevin pointed out, conservative reaction to the Miers pick is broadly negative. But it's split into two camps: those who question whether she is "conservative enough" and those who question whether she is qualified. It's the latter point that really matters, and it's one reason why I didn't make a peep about Roberts. The man may be conservative--and I'm in the camp that says you shouldn't get to vote someone down because you don't agree with them--but he has a top-notch legal mind. Miers, by comparison, does not.

And that's not just me talking. Here's Rich Lowry: "Just talked to a very pro-Bush legal type who says he is ashamed and embarrassed this morning. Says Miers was with an undistinguished law firm; never practiced constitutional law; never argued any big cases; never was on law review; has never written on any of the important legal issues. Says she's not even second rate, but is third rate. Dozens and dozens of women would have been better qualified. Says a crony at FEMA is one thing, but on the high court is something else entirely. Her long history of activity with ABA is not encouraging from a conservative perspective--few conservatives would spend their time that way. In short, he says the pick is 'deplorable.'"

If liberals were off on their own making the case that Miers is unqualified, they would be hit with the tried-and-true Bush strategy of claiming bias: "How sad that liberals attack her just because she's a woman..." Again, this is an insult to the legions of intelligent, highly-qualified conservative women out there who have been passed over in favor of a yes-woman. That, perhaps more than anything else, is what seems so dispiriting to conservatives this morning.

Amy Sullivan 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MUSING ON MIERS....I'm reading Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's Off Center at the moment (more about that later), and one of the points they make is that because ultraconservatism isn't actually very popular in the United States, ultraconservatives like Tom DeLay and Karl Rove have to constantly figure out new and clever ways to hide what they're doing from the public (Hacker and Pierson explain several of their favored methods in the book). H&P don't use Supreme Court nominations as examples, since the book was finished earlier this year, but George Bush's two recent picks sure fit the mold, don't they?

After all, what do John Roberts and Harriet Miers have in common? As near as I can tell, only one thing: they're ciphers. Roberts's judicial paper trail was only two years long and Miers's is even shorter: she has no judicial paper trail at all. Zero.

So what's the reaction? The folks over at NRO are pretty unhappy about Miers ("the GOP base is dispirited by this nomination," says Jonathan Adler), as is the conservative site ConfirmThem ("My first reaction: Not thrilled.") Stephen Bainbridge is "appalled." Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog predicts that she'll be rejected by the Senate, helped along by conservative ideologues who hope that "the President would then nominate, for example, Janice Rogers Brown." Uber-neocon Bill Kristol says he's disappointed in the Miers pick "because I expected President Bush to nominate someone with a visible and distinguished constitutionalist track record."

I think they're all missing the point. Yes, Miers is a Bush crony, and that's surely part of the story, but the bigger point is that Bush and Rove are practical politicians who know perfectly well that the kind of candidate the activist base likes is wildly unpopular with the public, because the ultraconservative agenda itself is wildly unpopular with the public. A "distinguished constitutionalist track record" is the last thing Bush and Rove want. A cipher is the best chance they have to get a real conservative on the court, and they know it.

Will the ideologues figure that out soon enough to begin the task of digging up enough previously undiscovered conservative credentials in Miers's resume to allow them to pretend they're satisfied after all? Or will they continue throwing a hissy fit because they're convinced their agenda is actually supported by the country at large and they want Bush to nominate a fellow ideologue to prove it? This could be a very interesting confirmation battle.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

SO IT'S TO BE HARRIET...."Bush names Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court." Harriet Miers is a woman who has excelled in endeavors that require networking and shoulder-rubbing and no actual proof of legal expertise. (General counsel? Lest we forget, Mike Brown's first job at FEMA was as general counsel.) Already I've received a robo-email from Ken Mehlman proclaiming her "extremely well-qualified" and declaring that "like Justice O'Connor", she "is a legal trailblazer." That is an insult to Justice O'Connor. Even the Washington Post's morning piece on Miers, which goes out of its way to make the most of her skimpy qualifications, can't avoid the fact that Miers has done very little of note in the legal world and, "if confirmed, she would be a rare appointee with no experience as a judge at any level."

And since Mehlman has already despaired of any effort by liberals to judge Miers fairly, I'll go ahead and say it: It's possible that with a six-week bar review course, any of us would be more qualified than Harriet Miers to sit on the Supreme Court. Bush chose hackery. Let the debate begin!

Amy Sullivan 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DELAY UPDATE....What kind of evidence does Ronnie Earle have against Tom DeLay? Earle isn't talking, but the head of the grand jury that handed down the indictment against DeLay claims that Earle has a good case:

Grand jurors were presented a load of evidence, including testimony and phone records, that led them to believe Rep. Tom DeLay should be tried on a conspiracy charge, the leader of the Travis County grand jury that indicted the congressman said Friday.

"It was not one of those sugarcoated deals that we handed to [District Attorney] Ronnie Earle," William M. Gibson said.

He added: "Mr. Earle has stacks and stacks of papers evidence of telephone calls from Mr. DeLay and everybody."

Offhand, a stack of phone records doesn't sound like solid gold evidence to me unless the testimony that goes along with them is pretty good. So the question remains: who's squealing on DeLay and what are they saying?

Kevin Drum 11:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

DECISIONS, DECISIONS....Election day is only a few weeks away here in California, which means that pretty soon I have to decide whether or not to vote for Arnold's anti-gerrymandering initiative. Ethan Rarick says that although it's a good idea, he's going to vote against it anyway:

Here's why. I'm a Democrat, and while I don't think that the nonpartisan redistricting would have much of an effect on the legislative majorities in the California statehouse (where Democrats are likely to keep control of both the Assembly and the Senate), I do think a nonpartisan redistricting could reduce the number of Democrats in California's congressional delegation, lessening the chances that Democrats will ever be able to regain control of the House of Representatives.

....But why should California Democrats be fair to Republicans when they have no guarantee that Republicans in the rest of the country will behave likewise? I will support a nonpartisan redistricting of Democrat-dominated California on the same day I can be assured of similar fairness in Republican states.

....I'm all for fairness, but I'm not so noble that I'm willing to lay down my Democratic sword here in California while Tom DeLay and his henchmen disembowel my soul-mates on the dusty plains of the Lone Star State, all the while swinging the federal government further and further to the right.

That pretty much gets at the nub of the whole thing. I'm all for good government, but do I have to commit partisan suicide in the process? And yet....someone has to start. I have a feeling I won't know how I'm going to vote on this until my finger is actually hovering over the voting machine.

UPDATE: Oh hell. Tomorrow is election day in my congressional district to replace Chris Cox. The special election to decide the initiatives isn't until next month. I've updated the post to reflect this.

Kevin Drum 10:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MORE SINGULARITY TALK....I've been reading political books lately, but before the weekend is over I think I'll backtrack and have a bit more fun with Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near. As you may recall, Kurzweil's basic thesis is that within a few decades we will (a) develop super intelligent machines and (b) this will produce an inflection in human development, and as a result massive intelligence will shortly thereafter spread throughout the entire universe ("shortly" compared to the age of life on earth, that is).

Is this really what will happen? Maybe. If I can offer a crude analogy, however, this seems sort of like predicting what will happen if you throw a baseball toward a box of ping pong balls a few hundred feet away. Even if the wind is swirling, you can make a pretty reasonable prediction that the ball is going to hit the box, but it's virtually impossible to tell what happens after that. Maybe they aren't ping pong balls after all, but hard boiled eggs. Or blobs of plastic explosive. And even if they are ping pong balls, we still don't know enough about them to predict how they're going to scatter once they're hit.

That's how I feel about the Singularity. I think the evidence is pretty strong that intelligent machines are in our future, and Kurzweil marshals that evidence pretty well. But is he right about what takes place after that? Do we really know what's going to happen to the box of ping pong balls? This is obviously the domain of dorm room bull sessions, but with that caveat, there's another possibility for our future development based on something Kurzweil himself suggests in his book.

In a section discussing how the brain works, he casts some doubt on whether human beings even exercise free will in the first place:

Interestingly, we are able to predict or anticipate our own decisions. Benjamin Libet at the University of California at Davis shows that neural activity to initiate an action actually occurs about a third of a second before the brain has made the decision to take the action. The implication, according to Libet, is that the decision is really an illusion, that "consciousness is out of the loop."

....A related experiment was conducted recently in which neurophysiologists electronically stimulated points in the brain to induce particular emotional feelings. The subjects immediately came up with a rationale for experiencing those emotions. It has been known for years that in patients whose left and right brains are no longer connected, one side of the brain (usually the more verbal left side) will create elaborate explanations ("confabulations") for actions initiated by the other other side, as if the left side were the public-relations agent for the right side.

With this in mind, here's another possibility for what happens after we create fantastically advanced computing capabilities that are thoroughly merged with human consciousness: we discover in a way that's truly convincing that free will doesn't exist. And so we give up. Within a few decades, the human race chooses to put itself out of existence because there's really no point to its continued survival and our biological urge toward self preservation, honed over millennia by evolution, no longer controls our merged biological/machine selves.

(Needless to say, we don't really have the right language to write about this. Since we're positing a lack of free will in the first place, "chooses" in the sentence above should be read in the same way that "flowers choose to grow toward the sun," or something like that.)

This would certainly explain why there don't seem to be any other intelligent races in the universe. It's not that we're the first (Kurzweil's guess), it's that any species that evolves far enough to produce machine computation in the first place quickly produces computation advanced enough to reveal that free will is a sham. And that's that.

Or maybe not. Who knows? But in any case, I suspect that it's wrong to assume that our future super-intelligent selves will have the same motivations that we do, any more than a super intelligent monkey has the same motivations as an ordinary monkey. At least, that's not how it turned out with monkeys, is it?

Kevin Drum 7:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CORRUPTION....Jonathan Alter ate his Wheaties this morning:

A decade ago, I paid a call on Tom DeLay in his ornate office in the Capitol. I had heard a rumor about him that I figured could not possibly be true. The rumor was that after the GOP took control of the House that year, DeLay had begun keeping a little black book with the names of Washington lobbyists who wanted to come see him. If the lobbyists were not Republicans and contributors to his power base, they didn't get into "the people's House." DeLay not only confirmed the story, he showed me the book. His time was limited, DeLay explained with a genial smile. Why should he open his door to people who were not on the team?

Thus began what historians will regard as the single most corrupt decade in the long and colorful history of the House of Representatives....

Let's think about this. Alter is right about the corruption at the soul of today's Republican leadership, but it's not necessarily the technical legal infractions that are most likely to resonate with voters. Indictments help, of course, if only because they get people's attention, but the actual charges against guys like DeLay, Frist, and Abramoff are pretty complex and hard to explain. The question is, what's at the core of all these charges?

Alter has it right: it's Republican leaders' abject fealty to corporate donors:

Yes, special interests have bought off members of Congress at least since Daniel Webster took his seat while on the payroll of a bank....But never before has the leadership of the House been hijacked by a small band of extremists bent on building a ruthless shakedown machine, lining the pockets of their richest constituents and rolling back popular protections for ordinary people.

How do you get people to understand this? I'm not sure. Maybe a McCarthyesque piece of theater: "I have in my hands a list of 205 tax breaks bought and paid for by the wealthiest corporations in America. Republicans in Congress have eagerly passed them all in return for a few pieces of silver."

Maybe not. But it has to be something simple. Something that gets across the key concept that the Republican leadership is in thrall to corporate donors and will do anything they ask as long as the donations keep pouring in. What's the most colorful way of doing that?

Kevin Drum 2:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SCOOTER LIBBY: HIT MAN, NATURE LOVER, OR HOPELESS ROMANTIC?....In his letter to Judith Miller urging her to testify before the grand jury, Scooter Libby closed with this mysterious turn of phrase:

Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them. Come back to work and life.

What does it all mean? Three theories:

  • Mickey Kaus: Libby's writing in code! "And you know what happens to the aspens that sever their deep connections and fail to turn with all the others, don't you, my little pretty?"

  • Jeralyn Merritt: Libby just likes aspens! "The last weekend of September is known in Colorado as being the aspen-turning weekend and they do turn in beautiful clusters. It's a big deal in the mountain states. Also, his comment about her liking to visit the mountains is probably true she's a member of the Aspen Institute's Aspen Strategy Group."

  • Laura Rozen: Libby has a weakness for purple prose! "I remember flipping through Libby's novel several months ago, set in Japan, the same sort of tone and haiku imagery....All I'm saying is, the novel suggests, this is just how the guy writes!"

Feel free to cast your vote in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAME UPDATE....I haven't commented much about Judith Miller's testimony in the Valerie Plame case because there hasn't been much new to speculate about. Miller's source was Scooter Libby, which we've known for a long time, and beyond that we really haven't learned anything specific about her testimony. TalkLeft has a lengthy speculation about what it all means if you want to get into the weeds on the whole thing.

In the Washington Post today, Jim VandeHei and Walter Pincus provide some additional speculation. They suggest that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald may be trying to put together a conspiracy case, not an espionage case:

Under this legal tactic, Fitzgerald would attempt to establish that at least two or more officials agreed to take affirmative steps to discredit and retaliate against Wilson and leak sensitive government information about his wife. To prove a criminal conspiracy, the actions need not have been criminal, but conspirators must have had a criminal purpose.

....One source briefed on Miller's account of conversations with Libby said it is doubtful her testimony would on its own lead to charges against any government officials. But, the source said, her account could establish a piece of a web of actions taken by officials that had an underlying criminal purpose.

Conspiracy cases are viewed by criminal prosecutors as simpler to bring than more straightforward criminal charges, but also trickier to sell to juries. "That would arguably be a close call for a prosecutor, but it could be tried," a veteran Washington criminal attorney with longtime experience in national security cases said yesterday.

Conspiracy. Hmmm. Lot of that going around in Republican circles these days. And George Stephanopoulos said this morning that "a source close to this told me this week, that President Bush and Vice President Cheney were actually involved in some of these discussions."

That would be a helluva thing if Bush and Cheney were named as unindicted co-conspirators, wouldn't it? I doubt it's going to happen, but it makes my fingers happy just to type the words.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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October 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BENCHMARKS IN IRAQ....The LA Times tells its readers today that our field commanders in Iraq have decided the pro-withdrawal argument makes sense after all:

During a trip to Washington, the generals said the presence of U.S. forces was fueling the insurgency, fostering an undesirable dependency on American troops among the nascent Iraqi armed forces and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.

For all these reasons, they said, a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops was imperative. "This has been hinted at before, but it's a big shift for them to be saying that publicly," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Timetables for withdrawal are still out of the question, of course, but General George Casey provided the closest thing we've heard yet at a press conference on Friday. He was telling reporters that rather than focusing on the current number of Iraqi battalions trained to "Level 1" proficiency a figure that's declined from three to one they should focus on the rate of improvement instead:

GEN. CASEY: First of all, we purposely set a very high standard for the first level....We set that standard knowing full well that it was going to be a long time before all Iraqi units got in that category. And so the fact that there's only one or three units, that is not necessarily important to me right now. Next year at this time, I'll be much more concerned about it. Right now I'm not.

....Q: How quickly do you expect other units to quickly move from stage two to stage one? Or do you think that will be a long time?

GEN. CASEY: I think it will be a while. I think before we see much movement from two to one, it's going to be a couple of months.

So that's it from the horse's mouth. We should expect to see a noticeable increase in Level 1 battalions by December, and the absolute numbers should be significant by September 2006. Donald Rumsfeld's mantra is that "the numbers are interesting, but the soft stuff, the things you can't quantify, are as important or more important," but eventually the soft stuff has to lead to hard results. Casey's statements are the closest thing to a benchmark we've gotten out of the Pentagon, and it's something we should hold them to.

Of course, what I'd really like to see is the "wide-ranging U.S. military plan for reducing forces in Iraq" mentioned here. At the moment, though, that doesn't seem to be in the cards.

Kevin Drum 8:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FEELING THE HEAT....Is USC planning to give its fans heart attacks every week? Or are they just going to go ahead and lose this time and get it over with?

I'll go for option 1, since Pete Carroll seems to have some kind of pact with the devil when it comes to locker room pep talks at halftime. But we'll know soon.

THIRD QUARTER UPDATE: That's more like it. But can I just say that this "excessive celebration" nonsense has really gotten out of hand? And video review is an abomination that slows down the game and isn't any more accurate than calls on the field. Just thought I'd vent a bit about that.

FINAL UPDATE: Trojans win 38-28. That was a nailbiter, though, and a helluva game from Arizona State. USC sure doesn't look as invulnerable as they did last year, do they?

Kevin Drum 6:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SERENITY....I saw Serenity yesterday. Comments and spoilers below the fold.

(If you don't want to read the spoilers but want the review, here it is: It was good. Go see it.)

No matter what I say in the rest of this post (and I haven't really made up my mind yet what that will be), I'll say this first. When I see a tedious movie, I eventually find myself glancing at my watch to see how much longer it has to run. When I walked out of the theater after watching Serenity, I realized I hadn't done that. So by that test, it was a terrific movie. It kept my attention on the screen throughout, which is exactly where it's supposed to be. In other words, thumbs up.

Aside from that, the hard part of reviewing the movie is trying to figure out what I would have thought about it if I hadn't just spent the last week watching all 14 episodes of Firefly, but I guess that's hopeless. So take the rest of this with that particular grain of salt.

First off, my impression is that the whole concept behind Firefly works better as an episodic TV show than it does as a feature film. The show was built around the idea of revealing small bits of backstory each week, and in a sense, it's almost a betrayal to then turn around and reveal nearly everything in a single movie. Does that make sense? Maybe not. And I confess that I was a little disappointed that River's "secret" turned out to be merely that she had read the minds of a few government mucky-mucks. That just didn't seem quite big enough, if you know what I mean.

Nitpicking aside, though, the story was tight and it clipped along nicely. There were no dull moments and no dumb plot holes. I'll confess that I never grew to like the pseudo-Western language tics of the series, and they were even worse in the movie. But still, the dialog was crackly, the characters interacted nicely, Kaylee got her man, and there's just got to be a sequel to give Zoe a chance to fall in love again, right? The final fight scene between Mal and the Operative was a little more contrived than it should have been, but only by a little bit.

On a production level, one of the nice things about the movie is that it allowed the action to catch up with the special effects. Here's what I mean: even on medium-budget sci-fi TV shows (Stargate, Firefly, Babylon 5), the special effects these days tend to be great, nearly as good (though more limited) as in a feature film. But the rest of the production isn't. As with any TV show, they can't do lots of rehearsal or lots of takes, they don't have time to really polish the script, they can't afford complex dolly and tracking shots, etc. And it's a little jarring. The show has the outward look of an expensive production, but the rest of the action doesn't quite fit.

Serenity may not have had a huge budget either, but it was big enough to provide feature-level production values that were as good as the special effects. I liked that a lot. I missed the episodic nature of the TV show, but on the other hand, the bigger budget of the feature film really allowed the whole production to come together in a way the TV show couldn't.

Bottom line: we're not talking about Oscar caliber stuff here, but who cares? Serenity was tightly plotted, nicely acted, moved along at a fast clip, and looked good. If you liked the series, you should like the film. If you've never seen the series, I think you'll like it too, but I'd be curious to hear from readers in comments on that score.

(And speaking of the score, it seemed pretty unmemorable, which is too bad since the TV show had such interesting music. Oh well.)

Kevin Drum 1:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE VIRTUECRAT....Reed Hundt writes that back when he was chairman of the FCC he spent some time seeking support for legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. He asked Bill Bennett if he'd be willing to help:

Since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education. Well, I thought, at least he's candid about his true views.

Indeed he is, as we're even more aware of now thanks to events of recent days. He's quite a guy, isn't he? A real conservative hero.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, two years ago I wrote that I thought there was a similar agenda behind NCLB: it was a stealth attempt to eventually label every public school in the country as "failing," thus ginning up support for vouchers and privatization. I've had a number of liberals tell me I'm wrong about that, but nobody has really explained why I'm wrong. Stuff like this just convinces me more than ever that I'm not.

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MOVIES SUCK....This just in: movies suck. From the LA Times today:

"It's really easy for all of us to blame the condition of the theaters, gas prices, alternative media, the population changes and everything else I've heard myself say," said Sony Pictures Vice Chairman Amy Pascal, whose summer releases "Bewitched" and "Stealth" flopped. "I think it has to do with the movies themselves."

After months of hand-wringing and doomsday forecasts about the permanent erosion of moviegoing, the lunchtime chatter at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills and other industry haunts has turned decidedly inward. Now, four straight weekends of crowded theaters have forced moguls and creative executives to admit in public what they have spent months avoiding: They were clueless about what audiences wanted.

The weird thing is that I suspect the movie industry is once again overreacting to short term news. It's not that movies don't suck. They pretty clearly do. But DVDs and plasma screens and videogames really have had an effect. Frankly, looking at the chart on the right, it doesn't look to me like the movie biz is doing half bad, all things considered.

On the other hand, I don't think they should be patting themselves on the back too quickly either. I mean, if they think Transporter 2, Flightplan, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and The Constant Gardener are examples of a resurgence of great movies, they're setting the bar mighty low. A year from now no one is going to look back and think of those as memorable films.

But here's the mystery: why are movies so crappy? I know the usual excuses: movie executives are unwilling to take chances; movies are all aimed at kids, who just want lots of action and special effects; and merchandising and marketing are more important than the movies themselves.

Fine. But you know what? You can have a movie with lots of car chases, raunchy language, and special effects and still have a smart story. It's not as if a tightly written production would actively drive kids away, after all. So what keeps Hollywood from producing decent scripts? Hell, they can produce cartoons with smart enough writing to attract adults while still appealing to children, so surely they could do the same thing with live action movies? What's up?

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LEFTY BLOGOSPHERE....Illinois Senator Barack Obama looks at the lefty blogosphere's strident vilification of the 22 Democrats who voted to confirm John Roberts to the Supreme Court and doesn't like what he sees. After all, he says, short of mounting an all-out filibuster, "blocking Roberts was not a realistic option":

In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense. Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn't become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments.

....Or to make the point differently: How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton, if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line? How can we expect Republican moderates who are concerned about the nation's fiscal meltdown to ignore Grover Norquist's threats if we make similar threats to those who buck our party orthodoxy?

American Prospect senior editor Garance Franke-Ruta also takes a look at the lefty blogosphere, and she's not especially happy either:

There has been a very weird backlash on the blogs against so-called civil-rights liberals in the past year, and, frankly, the more time I spend on the blogs, the less I know what liberalism still stands for, other than hating Bush and getting out of Iraq. There's a lot of talk of movement-building these days, but it's not at all clear to me what this new movement actually values.

Who's right? Both of them? Neither of them? Or a bit of each? Discuss.

Kevin Drum 1:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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