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Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

STATE OF THE UNION 2005 LIVEBLOGGING....Another year, another State of the Union address to liveblog. Shall we begin?

Wrapup: The international part of the speech was mushier, more platitudinous than usual. In fact, what's interesting is that I think that entire section of the address could have been given by a President Kerry with no more than a few sentences changed.

The domestic stuff was just a laundry list. And what happened to healthcare? That was supposed to be a big focus of the speech, but he barely mentioned it. Nothing about tax reform, either. If he's serious about the clean energy stuff and the basic physical research, that's good news, but I'll bet he isn't. I'll wait to see the actual numbers on all that stuff. And the plea from Karl Rove's boss for bipartisan comity was either laughable or revolting, depending on your temperament. But it might play well in Peoria.

Overall, it was an ode to the era of Clintonian "small bore" initiatives. I suppose that's for the best.

A full transcript of the speech is here.

10:05 52 minutes. And a stirring wrapup. Except that Bush really doesn't do "stirring" all that well. Oh well.

9:57 Human-animal hybrids? Huh?

9:55 "We must never give in to the belief that America is on the decline." How Carter-esque.

9:54 Fewer abortions than anytime in the past three decades? Is that true? [UPDATE: Apparently it is. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate has declined every year since its peak in 1990.]

9:51 The increase in basic research funding sounds good. I wonder if it's for real? The investment tax credit stuff will be popular in Silicon Valley.

9:49 The R&D stuff he's talking about for clean energy research doesn't really sound like much. I wonder what those percentage increases come to in actual dollars?

9:47 HSA watch: Bush wants to make them available to small businesses and make them more portable. Is that it? That's not much for all the HSA hype we've been hearing for the past couple of weeks.

9:44 Now a reference to Clinton. That makes the score 4-1 in favor of references to former Democratic presidents. Aren't there any former Republican presidents he wants to give a shout out to?

9:41 Still with the business about cutting the deficit in half by 2009? Sheesh. I think Kash took care of that one a couple of days ago.

9:39 "Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan"? What happened to Ike and Nixon and Ford and Dad? Is Bush embarrassed of his own party?

9:37 By the way, Matt lost ten bucks a few minutes ago....

9:34 Yep, he's on the offensive about the NSA's domestic spying program complete with lies about previous presidents doing the same thing and federal courts having approved it. Points for chutzpah, though.

9:32 Who are these "isolationists" Bush keeps talking about?

9:23 In Iraq, "we've changed our approach to reconstruction." Didn't we just cut the budget for reconstruction to zero? That's more than just a "change," isn't it?

9:17 Hmmm, the Palestinians were left out of Bush's list of emerging democracies in the Middle East. Isn't that odd?

9:00 Wolf Blitzer on Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert: "They look mighty good there together, don't they?" Give me a break.

8:59 Cindy Sheehan tried to unfold a banner and got arrested by Capitol Police? Sheesh.

8:56 Let's see, George Bush has already adopted John Kerry's Iran policy, and tonight he will apparently adopt Jimmy Carter's energy policy as well. "America is addicted to oil," we are reliably informed he will tell us. Let's keep a sharp eye out for FDR references too, shall we?

Kevin Drum 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (234)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOTU TRIVIA....Trivia fact of the day: Up through the Carter administration, outgoing presidents traditionally gave a final SOTU address shortly before leaving office (usually in early December until FDR skipped 1933 and moved the address into January). Ronald Reagan put a stop to this lame duck nonsense, leaving the 1989 address to George Bush Sr., and ever since then there have been no State of the Union addresses in the first year of a new administration. There have only been "administration goals" speeches before a joint session of Congress. This is why tonight's State of the Union is Bush's fifth, even though it seems like his sixth.

You may now return to your normal business.

Kevin Drum 7:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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THE WAR ON TERROR....In the Boston Globe today, James Carroll asks about the elephant in the room:

Here is the embarrassing question: Is America actually at war? We have a war president, war hawks, war planes, war correspondents, war cries, even war crimes but do we have war?

....Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault.

It would be easy to dismiss this as pedantry if it weren't for one thing: it seems as though the Pentagon pretty much agrees. In this year's Quadrennial Defense Review there are no terminations of major weapons programs and, apparently, no serious changes planned in the way the military operates. InsideDefense, which has seen the QDR and spoken to a senior defense official who was one of its architects, reports that instead of offering concrete changes to respond to the war on terror, we're mostly getting Dilbert-style happy talk:

The misguided game in town is: Give me the programmatics, show where the money is going and that will tell me where the department is going, the senior defense official said. I think that would be a misreading of whats happened, because what the QDR did was to get us to start to work differently, in a much more collaborative, horizontal fashion.

....A refined force planning construct...implies the previous force planning construct is about right. I think the programming thats occurred to date, too, is about right. And what were seeing here are refinements of that.

Thats not to say theres not some changes in there, the military official acknowledged. But the [services] were on a pretty good vector and the QDR helped make some adjustments to those vectors. Thats why theres not going to be [any major weapon system terminations].

So 9/11 didn't really change anything after all. We just need a few tweaks here and there and we'll be fine.

So where's Osama?

Kevin Drum 3:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (253)

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By: Kevin Drum

STATE OF THE UNION REBUTTAL....Bruce Reed discusses at greater length than I have why the rebuttal to the State of the Union address is a preordained disaster:

Why is the response doomed to fall short, no matter who gives it? Consider the inherent disadvantages. First, it's a ten-minute rebuttal to an hour-long speech. By the time the opposition leader speaks, the television audience is desperate to go to sleep or change the channel to Sports Center.

Second, the contrast in settings is a killer. The State of the Union highlights all the president's majesty, as he speaks to a packed chamber of members who throng to shake his hand and applaud even his lamest lines. The rest of the year, the Founders' checks and balances are theoretically in effect but on this night, the president looks down on Congress and the Supreme Court, sitting powerless in the well below. By contrast, the poor sap giving the official response is like a movie without a sound track no buzz, no applause, no majesty.

I agree completely, which is why I also agree that the blogosphere should give Tim Kaine a break. Being picked to give the rebuttal is more a hazing ritual than an honor.

Anyway, I'll repeat my suggestion to the Democrats from a couple of years ago: either insist that the rebuttal speaker be allowed to speak in front of an audience or else just pack it in. The current format is so bad that I'm convinced it does the opposition party more harm than good.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

ACADEMY AWARD ROUNDUP....So the Best Picture nominees are Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Munich, Good Night and Good Luck, and Capote. For the first time in years I've already seen all but one of them (Capote), which means I'm pretty much caught up. Capote aside for the time being, I'd cast my vote for Crash.

Kevin Drum 2:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (158)

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By: Kevin Drum

HSA QUESTION....We've been hearing ad nauseam for the past couple of weeks that George Bush's domestic centerpiece for this year's State of the Union address will be Health Savings Accounts. Fine. But what exactly does that mean?

The reason I ask is that we already have Health Savings Accounts. They've been around for a couple of years now (or even longer if you count their predecessors, Medical Savings Accounts). So obviously Bush isn't going to propose that we create a new and wonderful thing called an HSA. Instead, he's going to propose some kind of expansion or modification of HSAs.

But what? I haven't even heard any speculation, and it's an important question since as an emailer reminded me last week since there are plenty of proposals Bush could make that would be pretty popular among people who already use HSAs. For example: increasing the contribution limit; expanding the range of services covered by HSAs to include things like hearing aids and maternity care (which isn't covered by many plans); allowing money to be withdrawn for nonmedical purposes after age 65 (or even better, 55); and so forth.

My point here is mainly a political one. Fighting HSAs on philosophical grounds is one thing, but people who already use them would be pretty pleased to see some concrete, money-saving improvements to HSAs and wouldn't much care about their abstract virtues or defects. If we're going to fight the HSA-ization of healthcare, we'd better be prepared to be on the opposite side of some motherhood and apple pie proposals from the White House that might sound pretty good to current users. I'm not quite sure how we plan to do that.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

GONZALES AND THE LAW....The Washington Post is reporting, essentially, that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales perjured himself during his confirmation hearings last year. Gonzales said that it was "not the policy or the agenda of this president" to authorize actions that conflict with existing law, but since Gonzales knew perfectly well the White House had repeatedly authorized warrantless wiretaps in violation of the FISA act, he was lying.

But here's the funny thing: I'd take a different lesson from the transcript of that testimony. Think Progress reported on this last December, and here's a fuller extract of Gonzales's testimony:

SEN. FEINGOLD: [Does the president] have the authority to authorize violations of the criminal law under duly enacted statutes simply because hes commander in chief?....

MR. GONZALES: ....There is a presumption of constitutionality with respect to any statute passed by Congress. I will take an oath to defend the statutes. And to the extent that there is a decision made to ignore a statute, I consider that a very significant decision, and one that I would personally be involved with, I commit to you on that, and one we will take with a great deal of care and seriousness.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, that sounds to me like the president still remains above the law.

MR. GONZALES: No, sir.

....If Congress passes a law that is unconstitutional, there is a practice and a tradition recognized by presidents of both parties that he may elect to decide not to enforce that law. Now, I think that that would be

SEN. FEINGOLD: I recognize that, and I tried to make that distinction, Judge, between electing not to enforce as opposed to affirmatively telling people they can do certain things in contravention of the law.

MR. GONZALES: Senator, this president is not I it is not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes.

What's notable is that Gonzales rather plainly didn't promise that the president would never violate the law. What he said is that if he did ignore a statute, he would do it with a "great deal of care and seriousness." And furthermore that it was not the president's "policy or agenda" to violate the law meaning, I suppose, that he would only do it occasionally.

The real lesson here is that everything these guys say has to be deconstructed word by painstaking word to find out what it really means. Gonzales never said flatly that the president wouldn't violate the law, and that's exactly what he meant. Hell, Feingold even recognized that at the time.

Honor and dignity, baby, honor and dignity.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN UPDATE....China and Russia have agreed to report Iran to the UN Security Council following resumption of their uranium enrichment work. Of course, neither China nor Russia has indicated that their opposition to sanctions has changed, so it's not clear how meaningful this is. Not to mention that sanctions have a pretty lousy history of working anyway. Still, I suppose it's a step in the right direction.

The BBC has a roundup of Iranian blogger reaction, including this one from a couple of weeks ago: "They want to deprive Iran of the right to play in the World Cup on the pretext that Iran is building a nuclear weapon." Maybe this guy is onto something....

Kevin Drum 1:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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24 WATCH....Assuming that the phrase "jumped the shark" applies in any meaningful sense to 24, I think 24 finally jumped the shark tonight. Anybody disagree?

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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January 30, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SECULAR MEDIA WATCH....Newsweek interviewed Jerry Falwell about the Liberty University debate team recently and made a wee transcription error:

Correction: In the original version of this report, NEWSWEEK misquoted Falwell as referring to "assault ministry." In fact, Falwell was referring to "a salt ministry"a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says "Ye are the salt of the earth." We regret the error.

That's some good bulletin board material for the Brent Bozell crowd. I guess Newsweek's copy desk needs to bone up on its Bible.

Kevin Drum 11:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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THEMATIC AND VISIONARY....Former Bill Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet sticks his finger in the air and takes a guess at the subject of George Bush's State of the Union address tomorrow:

Sure, his staff has been using words like "thematic" and "visionary" to describe the speech....But, beneath some idealistic and futuristic rhetoric, Bush's theme may well be that he's right and his critics are wrong; and his vision may well be of a year of partisan trench warfare with congressional Democrats.

Sounds about right to me.

Kevin Drum 9:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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ALITO AND THE 'SPHERE....The lefty blogosphere has spent the last week trying to fire up support for a filibuster of Samuel Alito. This campaign was never likely to succeed, and today it failed as expected. But that's not all: it failed by the embarrassingly lopsided margin of 72-25.

I'm glad the filibuster took place, because even in failure it puts a marker down for future court fights. Still, even given the amateurish way that Senate Dems handled it, I expected it to get more than 25 votes. So here's today's assignment: In 5,000 words or less, what does this say about the influence of the lefty blogosphere?

Kevin Drum 5:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (232)

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THE LEGAL MAINSTREAM....Yesterday's cover story in Newsweek described how Jack Goldsmith, after he was appointed head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in 2003, stood up to hardliners in the Bush administration and insisted that the president was not above the law. Dan Drezner says he has nothing to add to the Newsweek story and then immediately adds this:

I've known Jack Goldsmith for many years from his time at the University of Chicago. If you think that Goldsmith is either a RINO or a squishy "must kowtow to all forms of international law" kind of guy, well, then you don't know Jack.

The fact that Addington, Cheney, and by extension Bush managed to force out people like Goldsmith and Comey means that the legal consensus within the administration is way, way outside the legal mainstream.

Yep. And what does that say about Samuel Alito, who apparently thinks that the Addington/Cheney/Bush president-as-king theory of wartime governance is just peachy? Outside the legal mainstream, no?

Kevin Drum 4:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEAN AND THE DNC....Steve Benen takes a look at Howard Dean's fundraising priorities or, more accurately, his fund spending priorities and links to an article in Roll Call that reports serious angst on the subject among party leaders:

As the piece explains, Dean spent freely in 2005, developing infrastructure and nurturing state and local parties as part of his broader, long-term vision.

This represents something of a sea-change in how the party operates. For years, the party has bolstered the DNC coffers towards helping boost congressional candidates. This year, the DNC offers a key year, with the opportunity to take back Congress on everyone's mind, but start off without much in the bank about a seventh of what the RNC has on hand.

I'm inclined to think that Dean is doing the right thing, because in the end I suspect that Democrats will be able to raise sufficient money for every specific race that's worth contesting this year. Conversely, if you put off the infrastructure rebuilding yet again because an election is coming up, when are you going to start? Sure, it's painful, but it has to be done. Better now than later.

And besides, this is the exact issue he campaigned on when he ran for DNC chair. It's not like anyone can say that his priorities come as a surprise.

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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CULTURE WAR POLITICS....Matt Yglesias reminds me today that I had planned to excerpt another part of Garance Franke-Ruta's article, "Remapping the Culture Debate," but forgot to do it. Here she's talking about why low income voters who seemingly ought to be receptive to liberal pocketbook politics are instead strongly receptive to conservative culture war politics:

Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a great deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.

Maybe I'm just stupid or unobservant, but this particular insight had never really occured to me before. Liberal bloggers often make snide remarks about the irony of blue states being more "moral" than red states lower crime rates, less divorce, etc. but then don't put two and two together. If it's true that red states tend to have more social disruption, then it makes sense that red state voters are going to be unusually vulnerable to politicians who focus on the evils of "moral decay," doesn't it? They may indeed be getting suckered by the culture war mongers, who make their living by assuring their audience that of course someone else is to blame for all this, but if they are, it's only because they're reacting to the actual conditions of their lives in the first place.

I don't have anywhere special to take this right now, but it seems like a worthwhile notion to mull over. So mull away.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (153)

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS....Niall Ferguson writes that he thinks the good old days of the Cold War look pretty good compared to today's complex and multipolar world:

What makes me nostalgic is that Soviet wickedness made politics so much simpler in my youth. All you had to do was to go to the Eastern Bloc to see what a real military-industrial complex looked like and to feel for yourself what the absence of freedom really meant.

....The other key difference between the Cold War era and the present is, of course, the role of Islamic fundamentalism on the global stage. With the benefit of hindsight, 1989 was not the decisive turning point of the late 20th century. That came 10 years earlier, in 1979 the year of the Iranian Revolution. And militant Islamism is now as big a headache for Russia as it is for Western Europe.

Ferguson carefully notes that he's kidding sort of but I've read this kind of thing too often not to believe that he means it. An awful lot of people who should know better make the mistake of believing that the past was simple just because we now know how things turned out. But we didn't at the time. The Depression, World War II, "losing" China, Stalin getting the bomb, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the counterculture revolution of the 60s, Watergate, stagflation and the twin oil shocks, the Iranian hostages, Afghanistan at the time, all those things seemed plenty dangerous and disorienting. A historian like Ferguson should know better than to pretend otherwise, even in a casual op-ed.

There was another thing that struck me about his op-ed too. I realize that you can't make every single relevant point in an 800-word column, but in a piece comparing the Cold War era to the world of today, surely it's at least worth noting that the modern geopolitical makeup of the Middle East is almost entirely a result of Cold War geopolitics of the 50s and 60s? Ferguson is right that militant Islamism is equally a problem for both Russia and the West, and there's a reason for that. It's because Russia and the West treated the Middle East as a proxy in their ideological war for decades, and the Iranian revolution was largely a reaction to that. It's a cliche, but we really are reaping what we've sown. Today's hawks might want to keep that in mind.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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STATE OF THE STATE OF THE UNION....As we prepare ourselves for George Bush's sixth fifth State of the Union address, here's your chart of the day, courtesy of the Pew Research Center.

Bottom line: if you think this year's speech is likely to be a bore, you're not alone. Apparently hearing Bush recite the same old stuff year after year is starting to lose its appeal.

I know that it's lost its appeal for me. I'll liveblog it tomorrow like I do every year, but I'm not sure my heart is going to be in it. I'll try to keep my yawning under control and hope that someone drops a glass of water on Cheney's head or something just to liven things up.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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MORE MILITARY WOES....The LA Times has yet another report indicating that the military is under considerable stress from the Iraq war. Junior officers are leaving the Army in record numbers, which means the only way to fill the more senior ranks is to promote practically everyone who's eligible:

Last year, the Army promoted 97% of all eligible captains to the rank of major, Pentagon data show. That was up from a historical average of 70% to 80%.

....The service also promoted 86% of eligible majors to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2005, up from the historical average of 65% to 75%.

...."The problem here is that you're not knocking off the bottom 20%," said a high-ranking Army officer at the Pentagon. "Basically, if you haven't been court-martialed, you're going to be promoted to major."

....According to Army data, the portion of junior officers (lieutenants and captains) choosing to depart for civilian life rose last year to 8.6%, up from 6.3% in 2004. The attrition rate for majors rose to 7% last year, up from 6.4% in 2005. And the rate for lieutenant colonels was 13.7%, the highest in more than a decade.

It's worth reading the whole article to get more of the context behind this, but I have to say that I've been surprised over the past couple of years to learn how fragile the Army apparently is. I wouldn't have expected an occupation of 150,000 soldiers for three years to have caused as much stress as it has.

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (146)

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January 29, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

IS CHARLES LOGAN A REPUBLICAN?....A few days ago a reader threatened to report me to Glenn Reynolds unless I cleared up an important issue that I brought up last Sunday: Is Charles Logan a Republican?

Logan, of course, is the hapless president of the United States currently on offer from the producers of 24. As we all know, he was formerly vice president Charles Logan until the untimely destruction of Air Force One in Season 4, so the question of his party affiliation boils down to this: Was John Keeler a Republican?

The basic argument goes like this. The president during Seasons 1-3 was David Palmer, and we know for a fact that Palmer was a Democrat. In Season 3, Palmer is running for reelection and part of the plot involves a debate against his opponent, John Keeler. Later in the show, for reasons that need not detain us, Palmer pulls out of the race and Keeler wins the presidency. Occam's Razor suggests that if Palmer is a Democrat, and Keeler was running against him, then Keeler and Logan are Republicans.

Unless it was a primary debate. Perhaps, as in 1980, a prominent Democrat decided to challenge a sitting president. After all, would Palmer really pull out of a race against a Republican opponent? Doesn't it make more sense that he'd do that against a fellow Democrat?

On the other hand, no sitting president would deign to debate a primary opponent. And in Season 4 there's a reference from the daughter of Keeler's Secretary of Defense to a Heritage Foundation meeting, clearly a Republican hangout.

But then there's Mike Novick. If Palmer was a Democrat and Logan is a Republican, how did Novick manage to worm his way into both men's staffs? And what's with Palmer's suggestion that he had been "frozen out" of the Logan administration? That doesn't even make sense unless Logan is a Democrat and Palmer expected to retain a bit of influence with him.

Perhaps a bit of Googling could clear this up, but I figured I'd throw it out for comments instead. I think it's pretty clear that Logan is a Republican, but perhaps there's further evidence on this score that I've missed due to my lazy TV-watching habits. What say you?

Kevin Drum 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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A KING OR A PRESIDENT?....Via TalkLeft, Newsweek has a fascinating inside account of the long-running battle between the executive power absolutists in the Bush Administration (Cheney, Addington, and Yoo) and those who believed in the rule of law (Comey, Goldsmith, and perhaps surprisingly Ashcroft). There's no simple takeaway, but it's worth reading.

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TRAITOR-MONGERING, SPECIAL 2006 ELECTION VERSION....Jon Chait responds to Karl Rove's laughable suggestion that Republicans are more serious about terrorism than Democrats:

So how exactly was Bush transformed by 9/11 in a way Democrats were not? Rove listed three ways in his speech. One is the Patriot Act. "Republicans want to renew the Patriot Act, and Democrat leaders take special delight in proclaiming they've killed it," Rove said. Rove is referring to a controversy over the efforts by Democrats, and some Republicans, to modify some of the more overreaching elements of the Patriot Act while keeping in place its core.

Rove's account is actually close to the opposite of the truth. Democrats have proposed extending the law temporarily beyond the five-week compromise hastily agreed to before the holidays until the two sides can work out their disagreements. Bush has opposed an extension, so that he can say the act was killed altogether by Democrats. Apparently the law is a vital tool in our national defense, but not so vital that it can't be suspended in order to give the GOP a campaign issue.

In the Bush White House, nothing is more important than a campaign issue. Nothing.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (196)

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GLOBAL WARMING....Juliet Eilperin has a good story about global warming in the Washington Post today. Read it.

And keep in mind that the issue is not that the things she writes about are going to happen in 50 or 100 or 200 years. The issue is that within 20-30 years it will become impossible to stop them from happening no matter what we do. And since it will take a minimum of 20-30 years to make any serious progress on greenhouse gas emissions, we need to get our asses in gear now.

Here's how. Step 1: Get rid of the nitwit in the White House who's convinced global warming can't exist because that would be inconvenient for the Republican Party's funding base. Step 2: Replace him with someone who can read a simple chart. Step 3: Pray.

Kevin Drum 2:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (204)

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KUWAIT'S OIL RESERVES....This news is a week old, but I forgot to blog about it last weekend:

Word just came out that Kuwait, long regarded as home to some of the world's largest reserves of petroleum, may possess only half the amount of oil reserves that it officially has been stating for many years.

According to a restricted report issued by the authoritative industry newsletter Petroleum Intelligence Weekly (PIW), internal Kuwaiti records reveal that the nation's oil reserves are far below the officially stated amount of about 99 billion barrels....The PIW report is based upon data circulating within the top echelons of the Kuwait Oil Co....The PIW report claims that Kuwait's remaining proven and nonproven oil reserves total about 48 billion barrels, or 51 billion fewer barrels than previously advertised.

Stuart Staniford has more here, including a technical discussion suggesting that this news shouldn't come as a surprise.

For my money, though, you can forget the technical discussion. Instead, take a look at the second graph in Stuart's post, which shows that virtually every OPEC country abruptly increased their reserve estimates in 1986. Although this was partly legitimate (the American companies that had provided the earlier reserve estimates had been systematically too conservative for reasons of their own), the increases were mostly nothing more than a response to OPEC politics. Export quotas are based on reserve estimates, and in the mid-80s every country raised their reserve estimates in order to get a bigger quota. They hadn't suddenly discovered a whole bunch of new oil they never knew was there before.

My rough rule of thumb is that OPEC's real reserves are about halfway between the 1980 estimate and the 1990 estimate or maybe a bit under that. Eventually it will be impossible to pretend otherwise, and we'll start hearing rumblings from other countries similar to those we're hearing from Kuwait. Buy a hybrid now and be prepared.

Kevin Drum 2:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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January 28, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE, CONT'D....The New York Times reports that NASA scientist James Hansen says administration politicos are trying to shut him up because he insists on continuing to talk about global warming as if it actually exists. It all started after he gave a lecture in San Francisco last month:

After that speech and the release of data by Dr. Hansen on Dec. 15 showing that 2005 was probably the warmest year in at least a century, officials at the headquarters of the space agency repeatedly phoned public affairs officers, who relayed the warning to Dr. Hansen that there would be "dire consequences" if such statements continued, those officers and Dr. Hansen said in interviews.

....In one call, George Deutsch, a recently appointed public affairs officer at NASA headquarters, rejected a request from a producer at National Public Radio to interview Dr. Hansen, said Leslie McCarthy, a public affairs officer responsible for the Goddard Institute.

Citing handwritten notes taken during the conversation, Ms. McCarthy said Mr. Deutsch called N.P.R. "the most liberal" media outlet in the country. She said that in that call and others, Mr. Deutsch said his job was "to make the president look good" and that as a White House appointee that might be Mr. Deutsch's priority.

....Mr. Acosta, Mr. Deutsch's supervisor, said that when Mr. Deutsch was asked about the conversations, he flatly denied saying anything of the sort. Mr. Deutsch referred all interview requests to Mr. Acosta.

Ms. McCarthy, when told of the response, said: "Why am I going to go out of my way to make this up and back up Jim Hansen? I don't have a dog in this race. And what does Hansen have to gain?"

Note to George Bush: global warming won't stop happening even if you do manage to muzzle James Hansen. This is just not something that the White House spin shop can fix.

Kevin Drum 8:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC vs. PRIVATE....Do private schools do a better job of educating our kids than public schools? Lots of people think so. But a new, large-scale statistical analysis of the 2003 NAEP test results suggests that when you control for things like income, race, home environment, and so forth, the performance of private schools actually turns out to be worse or about the same as that of public schools, not better.

The study analyzed only the math portion of the NAEP test, and the results from the 4th grade test are shown below. The red line shows the average public school score, and as you can see from the black bars on the graph, the raw scores for most types of private schools are higher than the public school average. However, much of this difference is due to the fact that private schools attract better kids in the first place, not because the schools themselves are better.

So what would happen if both types of schools had similar student bodies? Those results are shown for private schools in the gray bars in the graph, where test scores are controlled for demographics, and they're considerably lower than the public school average. In other words, if you took two similar kids and sent one to a public school and one to a private school, the kid in the private school would probably do a little worse than his public school twin. (Note that a difference of 10 points is roughly equal to one grade level.)

The 8th grade results are better, with most private schools scoring about the same as public schools. The only exception is the conservative Christian schools, which continue to score considerably lower than public schools although the sample size is small enough that the results aren't conclusive.

I don't imagine that one study will change any minds, but the size and sophistication of this one should at least give us pause. The full report is here. The New York Times summarizes the results here.

Kevin Drum 6:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....Republican Senator Trent Lott lost his house to Hurricane Katrina last year, and the LA Times reports that although he's upset at FEMA, he's also got some other beefs:

The longtime Washington foe of "frivolous" lawsuits was no less critical of insurance companies that balked at paying claims to Mississippi homeowners. And he didn't hesitate to file suit against a company he once defended, State Farm Fire & Casualty Co.

"Funny how frivolous lawsuits stop being frivolous when it's you," said Lott's brother-in-law, Richard Scruggs, who is representing the senator. Scruggs lost his home not far from Lott's house and he, along with thousands of other Mississippi home owners, also has a claim against State Farm.

Mugged by reality indeed.

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By: Kevin Drum

A BIPARTISAN SCANDAL?....The American Prospect has commissioned Dwight L. Morris and Associates, a specialist in campaign finance, to examine the contribution records of Indian tribes since 1991 to find out how their giving patterns changed based on whether or not they hired Jack Abramoff to represent them. The full article by Greg Sargent is here, and there are two significant results.

First, Morris compared the contribution patterns of tribes that hired Abramoff to tribes that didn't. The result? Over the past 15 years, non-Abramoff tribes have given 72% of their contributions to Democrats. Conversely, Abramoff's tribes, during the period they were represented by Abramoff, gave 70% of their contributions to Republicans. Since these tribes would almost certainly have given 30% of their contributions to Democrats on their own, this is compelling evidence that Abramoff directed his clients to give the vast bulk of their contributions to the GOP.

Second, Morris looked solely at the tribes that hired Abramoff and compared their contribution patterns before and after they hired him. The figures in the Prospect article are a little unfair in this regard, since the pre-Jack period is generally twice as long as the post-Jack period, so I recalculated their figures based on approximate contribution rates per year.

The chart on the right shows what happened. Before hiring Abramoff, annual contributions to Democrats and Republicans were roughly equal. After hiring Abramoff, contributions went up across the board, but skyrocketed for Republicans. Abramoff not only persuaded his clients to increase their overall giving, but persuaded them to give practically all of the additional money to Republicans.

Here's the bottom line:

If youre going to make the case that this is a bipartisan scandal, you have to really stretch the imagination, says Morris. Most individual tribes were predominantly Democratic givers through the last decade. Only Abramoffs clients switched dramatically from largely Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican donors, and that happened only after he got his hands on them.

There's not much doubt that Abramoff directed his clients to contribute small amounts to certain Democrats. Taken as a whole, though, his direction to his clients was clear: to give more much, much more to Republicans.

POSTSCRIPT: In some sense, it's unfortunate that this has even become an issue. After all, there's nothing wrong with a politician taking a donation from an Indian tribe, regardless of whether it was directed by Abramoff or not. It's only wrong if there's specific evidence of wrongdoing associated with the contribution.

Still, since this has become an issue, it's worth looking at the figures to see what they show. And what they show is no surprise: Jack Abramoff was a Republican lobbyist who directed his clients to give overwhelmingly to Republicans. And they did.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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January 27, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

6-1, 2-0, RET....I suppose any win is a good win, but has anyone ever before won a grand slam title via forfeits in both the semifinal and final rounds? And did Justine Henin-Hardenne really just have an upset stomach? Weird.

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO'S THE ANTI-NEWT?....Liz Marlantes wonders aloud in The New Republic if 2006 could be a Democratic version of 1994, when Republicans won 54 seats in the House and and eight in the Senate and seized control of both houses:

In Democratic circles these days, there is much talk of 1994 with good reason. The president's approval ratings are bad, Congress's are even worse, and, most importantly, scandal is sweeping the nation's capital. The atmosphere is poisonous enough that some Democrats believe it could produce the kind of electoral storm last seen twelve years ago, when Republicans retook Congress by railing against corruption in Washington. Of course, the 2006 Democrats differ in many ways from the 1994 Republicans. One key difference may well be the lack of Newt Gingrich or, rather, a liberal version of him.

Marlantes may be right, but I doubt that she's really nailed the key factor. Yes, Gingrich was a pit bull, but the biggest thing he had going for him was simpler: he was on the tail end of a 30-year shift of white, mostly Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Pressure had been building along that particular tectonic plate for a long time, and in 1994 Gingrich was able to turn it into an electoral earthquake. Instead of gaining a few seats per election, he gained them all at a single time.

Without that underlying dynamic, the 1994 landslide would have been a fizzle, gaining a dozen seats, not 54. So while Democrats might very well need a Newt Gingrich of their own, what they really need if they want to win back control of Congress is a tectonic shift they can take advantage of and so far I just haven't seen any big, pent-up frustration on the part of center-right voters that might turn large numbers of them into center-left voters instead. It'll be healthcare eventually, but in the meantime I'm stumped.

Kevin Drum 11:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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By: Kevin Drum

RIOTS IN GAZA....The CNN headlines out of Gaza City have been getting steadily more dire all day. Here's the latest one:

Mob demands leaders pay for election thrashing

A mob of up to 2,000 furious Fatah supporters took to the streets Friday, burning cars, firing guns and demanding the resignation of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after the militant group Hamas trounced their party in parliamentary elections.

....Waving yellow Fatah flags in the flickering light of bonfires, protesters swarmed around Abbas' home in Gaza City, where they shot in the air and accused him of being a "collaborator" with Israel.

I'm not really sure what this all means, but I thought I'd open it up to comments anyway. Is this good? Bad? Impossible to say?

Kevin Drum 7:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAKE IT BACK....Charles Pierce has this to say about James Carville and Paul Begala's new book, Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future

C&B have some very good policy recommendations, as well as some very bad ones....

In a 1,300-word review, though, this is the last we hear about their policy recommendations.

I realize that it's currently fashionable to believe that policy doesn't matter for liberals because liberals aren't in power right now, but it's discouraging that this view seems to have become damn near universal on the left. Pierce's review may be amusing in places though only to people who already get the joke and hate Carville and Begala to begin with but if we don't start caring about policy again, the next Democratic president is going to be precisely the kind of triangulator that Pierce claims to despise. Would it really have killed him to spend a few lousy paragraphs telling us what Take It Back is actually about?

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By: Kevin Drum

CHILD SUPPORT....Mark Schmitt writes today that Republicans and Democrats worked together for more than ten years in the 80s and 90s to create a genuinely effective system of enforcement for child support payments. It passed in 1996 as part of welfare reform:

And it worked. In 2004, 51% of child support was paid. From 18% to 51% is a huge transformation. I doubt that anyone in the mid-1990s would have predicted that. One study showed that improved child support enforcement was responsible for a quarter of the reduction in welfare caseloads.

As Mark writes, getting this passed was hard work, a triumph of serious policymaking.

I imagine you can guess the rest of the story, can't you? Serious policymaking is not in vogue in today's Republican Party, which has decided to slash $4.9 billion from this program. And why not? It might be working great, but it doesn't benefit the K Street business interests that fund the GOP, and that's all that matters. Take that, family values.

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By: Kevin Drum

RISKY BUSINESS....Virginia Postrel has an interesting column in the New York Times today. At least, it's interesting for people like me who are fascinated by research into how people evaluate risk and uncertainty. First, there's a brief test:

  1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

  2. If it takes five machines five minutes to make five widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?

  3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half the lake?

What makes this interesting is that it's not really a math/logic test. That is to say, it is a math/logic test, but Shane Frederick of MIT says it's more than that. It's an indicator of your tolerance for risk: high scorers tend to prefer risky gambles more than low scorers, even when the gambles aren't especially favorable. On the other hand, there's also this:

For instance, 80 percent of high-scoring men would pick a 15 percent chance of $1 million over a sure $500, compared with only 38 percent of high-scoring women, 40 percent of low-scoring men and 25 percent of low-scoring women.

Unless that's a misprint, I just have to wonder what kind of moron would take $500 over a 15% chance of a million bucks? That's crazy unless you're dead broke and a goon with a baseball bat is coming after you with your kneecaps in his sights.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Interesting stuff. Quiz answers are at the end.

Kevin Drum 1:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (193)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOURTH QUARTER GROWTH....Hmmm. Economic growth was an anemic 1.1% in the fourth quarter. It would have been even worse except that businesses were busily building up their inventories in the hopes that someone will buy all their stuff next quarter. Maybe.

No one seems to be very upset about today's announcement, even though 1.1% is way below the consensus forecasts of 2.8%. It's not entirely clear to me why. With oil still over $60 per barrel, the housing market starting to cool a bit, and household debt still at record levels, it's hard to see just where the consumer demand is going to come from to get things back on track. Perhaps the blogosphere's economists can weigh in to reassure me.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY MOZART BLOGGING.... Happy 250th Birthday, Mozart!

In celebration, we have douard Boubat's famous musical cat, Partition (1982), accompanied by the only slightly less famous Jasmine Sitting Over the Fireplace (2003).

Want to test your knowledge of Mozart? Put on your headphones and take the BBC's "Mozart or Not-Mozart?" audio quiz. It's my kind of quiz: so easy even I passed!

On a slightly more serious, um, note, Tyler Cowen dons his flak jacket and tells you which Mozart you need to know and which you don't. For what it's worth, I agree with him about the symphonies. He also recommends this Terry Teachout essay on Mozart's minor key masterpieces. My favorite Mozart is his Piano Concerto in D Minor K. 466 (Piano Concert #20 for the less refined, which includes me), so I recommend it too.

Better yet, go listen to some Mozart today. It might be too late for it to raise your IQ, but it can't hurt to try.

UPDATE: And I almost forgot: you might also want to go see Terrence Malick's The New World today. Not only is it a terrific film, but it features Mozart's Piano Concert #23 as a recurring theme. Lovely.

Kevin Drum 11:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Paul Glastris

A QUESTION OF INCOMPETENCE II... I mentioned yesterday that, absent strict oversight, we can't trust the NSA especially when it's controlled by an administration of proven incompetence to carry out a domestic spying program that nabs terrorists but doesn't shred civil liberties. Let's just hope the NSA has its act together better than the CIA.

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January 26, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE AND JACK....Over at The Corner, Kathryn Jean Lopez comments about George Bush and Jack Abramoff:

The Abramoff picture stuff is so ridiculous. Of course he has a ridiculous number of pictures taken all the time. That members of the press who bring relatives to the White House for pictures with the president as a matter of form would make such a ridiculous deal out of it is nonsense.

Normally I'd sort of agree with this. Even the fact that the White House is so assiduously keeping us from seeing all these routine pics doesn't necessarily mean much.

But when photo agencies go to the trouble of deleting pictures of Bush and Abramoff from their website, then deleting them permanently from their own CDs, and then claiming that they did it all on their own with no direction from the White House or anyone else well, that just starts to sound a little suspicious, doesn't it? If the White House isn't guilty of anything, why are they skulking around in shadows so much?

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By: Kevin Drum

RICK AND GROVER....Rick Santorum is getting a little touchy about the K Street Project, isn't he? Apparently he blew up at a reporter who asked about it yesterday:

"I had absolutely nothing to do never met, never talked, never coordinated, never did anything with Grover Norquist and the quote K Street Project," Mr. Santorum said.

Really? All the way back in June 2002 Jim VandeHei reported that Norquist was busily assembling the data for the K Street Project and that Santorum was an eager accomplice:

Copies of the bulky dossier, being compiled by conservative activist Grover Norquist and other prominent Republican lobbyists....dubbed the "K Street Project"...has been expedited and expanded now that Republicans control the White House and federal agencies.

....Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) last month hosted a private meeting in the Capitol, during which Norquist asked a group of about two dozen lobbyists and staffers to help complete the project, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

And here's what the Philadelphia Inquirer reported a couple of months later about Santorum's biweekly breakfast meetings with the K Street elite:

Grover Norquist, a conservative activist, has appeared before the group and sought help with an effort to push lobbying firms and trade associations to hire more Republicans.

The so-called K-Street Project got the attention of the Senate Ethics Committee, which is concerned that the project could be used to deny access to Democrats.

"He [Santorum] has gotten me in to talk to all those guys," Norquist said.

It's funny that Santorum has suddenly forgotten all about his pal Norquist, isn't it? I think I detect a whiff of panic in the air.

Democrats would be wise to keep banging on this. After all, "K Street Project" has sort of a sinister ring to it, doesn't it? I can see the grainy black-and-white ads in my mind's eye already....

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAMAS....Exit polls sure have taken it on the chin lately, haven't they? The latest casualty comes from yesterday's elections in the Palestinian Authority, where the terrorist group Hamas appears to have won an outright majority, not the 30% minority the exit pollsters predicted.

Worldwide reaction has been understandably nervous, but the Aardvark counsels caution and patience:

It is an article of faith among virtually all Arabs and Muslims that in 1992 the United States and Europe green lighted the Algerian military coup after the Islamist FIS stood on the brink of electoral victory. This has been taken for a decade and a half as the definitive evidence that the American and European commitment to democracy was a hypocritical farce: democracy only if our allies won.

....For America, I think it's extremely important right now to handle this right: honor the will of the people, demonstrate a commitment to democratic process, and see what happens. Give Hamas the chance to prove its intentions. Don't get too upset about the inevitable bursts of objectionable rhetoric by excited victors test deeds, not early words. Above all, don't give the Islamist hardliners the winning argument they crave about American hypocrisy. Refusing to deal with Hamas right now could effectively kill American attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East for a generation.

This is probably good advice. At this point, I imagine that even Hamas is stunned by the results, and the immediate rhetoric from its leaders is likely to be unrestrained. Give things a few weeks to cool down, though, and both action and rhetoric might start to adjust to the weight of actual leadership.

Or maybe not. But if they don't, patience won't have cost us anything.

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTER ALITO....I see that the New York Times is calling for a filibuster of Samuel Alito. Good for them.

Would this end up hurting Democrats? It might. And the end result would probably be the spectacle of Bill Frist and Dick Cheney ramming through the "nuclear option" to force debate to a close and install Alito on the Supreme Court regardless.

But in politics, if you only fight when you're sure of victory, you're never going to fight at all. Senate Dems blew the Judiciary Committee hearings as a chance to educate the country about Alito's radical views on presidential power, and a filibuster fight would give them a second chance. They should take it.

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By: Kevin Drum

TULIPS....Jeez, all the cool bloggers are getting an all-expenses vacation to Holland. Nothing for me, though, even though I love tulips. Sigh.

But in case the Australian tourist board is thinking of doing something similar, can I put my name in the hat for a vacation to next year's Australian Open? You guys wouldn't mind a week of tennis blogging next January, would you?

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Paul Glastris

A QUESTION OF INCOMPETENCE... Framing thought for the day: the primary worry about the NSA eavesdropping program shouldn't be civil liberties, but incompetence.

Most people agree, or can be convinced, that in order to root out terrorist threats we need to give the NSA enhanced permission to snoop on domestic communications. But this is a potentially very dangerous power were giving the government. So the question is, do we trust the Bush administration to use this power with care and competence?

The answer is, of course not. The administration has shown, time and again, that it cant be trusted to manage the power it has. Iraq, Katrina, the budget, mine safety, prescription drugseach and every one a monumental screw-up. What possible reason do we have to presume that the administration hasnt screwed up the NSA eavesdropping program? We have no real idea who the NSA is spying on. Could be al-Qaeda cells. Could be your wifes cell phone conversations. We have no idea.

Theres only one way to make sure the Bush administration hasnt blown this very important and delicate domestic spying activity. Its the mechanism bequeathed to us by the Founders: Congressional consent and oversight. But the president doesnt believe he needs Congress consent, and the Republican-controlled Congress doesnt believe in tough oversight.

The upcoming hearings on the NSA eavesdropping program are certainly welcome. But given the realities of one-party control in Washington, there's really only one way for the American people to make sure they have a domestic spying program that smokes out terrorists without shredding their civil liberties. They have to vote for it this November.

Paul Glastris 9:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE THOUSAND INJURIES OF MAUREEN DOWD....I like Reed Hundt's posts over at TPMCafe: they're short, pithy, and usually full of common sense.

Today, though, Maureen Dowd has pissed him off, and short and pithy go out the window. Still full of common sense, though, except for his conclusion:

I do wish Molly Ivins had Dowd's place in the Times.

I've never really understood the attraction of Dowd's version of junior high school snark, and I'd rather read Ivins any day. However, since replacing Dowd at the Times would just put Ivins behind a subscription wall, I think I'm happy with things just the way they are.

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By: Kevin Drum

EXECUTIVE PENSIONS....Here's a story from the Wall Street Journal that comes with a hearty dose of cognitive dissonance for well-meaning liberals. The good news is that Congress is set to pass a bill that prevents companies from funding lavish executive pension plans if the pension plan for their regular workers is underfunded and going bankrupt:

Disclosures about bankruptcy-proof supplemental executive retirement benefits at some airlines, including a $45 million fund set up a few years ago for 35 top officials by Delta Air Lines Inc., have galvanized bipartisan support for reining in such perks at other beleaguered companies.

"We've heard too many stories of top executives of bankrupt companies sticking workers with unfunded pensions while running off with millions of dollars of so-called nonqualified pension benefits," says Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

Hooray! I say. The brewing pension fund crisis is a scandal of epic proportions, and anything that helps rein in the venal behavior that caused it in the first place is fine with me. But then there's this:

For decades, executives relied on the same pension plan as other company employees, so they had an incentive to make it generous. The shift toward a dual system started in 1994, when Congress passed a law intended to limit the cost to taxpayers of runaway executive pay. The law barred companies from taking a tax deduction on compensation in excess of $1 million a year for any current employee. The result: Companies began setting up supplemental pension plans that encouraged senior managers to defer compensation.

Well. That's certainly a good example of the law of unintended consequences, isn't it? I mean, I'm sure the $1 million cap seemed like a good idea at the time.

So the lesson is to be careful. Corporate executives are greedy and devious and they get upset when anyone suggests their pay should be less than 500x that of the average worker. With that in mind, a simple requirement for transparent present-value accounting of all executive pay would probably be a better idea than the one-off reform on offer right now, and an even simpler requirement that all employees be paid out of the same pension fund and accept the same risks would be better yet.

Kevin Drum 12:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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January 25, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE....Marc Cooper comments on the court martial of Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr.:

Lets make sure we get this story right. You take the captured, uniformed general of an enemy army and in blatant violation of all notions of human decency and of the Geneva Conventions you beat him with rubber hoses, pour water down his nose, then stuff him into a sleeping bag, tie him with electrical cord, and then sit your ass down on his chest until he suffocates and you are convicted of what? Negligent homicide?

....Remember that the victim in this case, Iraqi General Abed Hamel Mowhoush was a top, uniformed officer of a recognized state-sponsored enemy army and not some illegal combatant. Worse, when Mowhoush was suffocated in November 2003, it was after he had voluntarily turned himself in to U.S. military authorities. At least, sort of voluntarily. Fact is, the General surrendered to American troops because they were holding his sons hostage yet another stark violation of international law.

And we also learn this from the LA Times account of the trial:

The day after the generals death, prosecutors said, Welshofer asked for another sleeping bag so he could continue using the technique on others.

Read the whole thing if you have a strong stomach. And then ask yourself: if the jury bought Welshofer's argument that he was just following orders, whose orders was he following?

Kevin Drum 3:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (193)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE COMPANY WE KEEP....The International Lesbian and Gay Association recently applied to join the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The following countries voted to consider their application:

Chile, France, Germany, Peru, Romania

The following countries voted to dismiss the application without even giving it a hearing:

Cameroon, China, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Senegal, Sudan, Zimbabwe

Guess which of these two fine groups of countries the Bush/Cheney administration voted with?

Via Cathy Young.

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By: Kevin Drum

DELAY TO ABRAMOFF TO LIVINGSTON....A DC TRIPLE PLAY?....Via Josh, New York Post gossip maven Cindy Adams sez:

Jack Abramoff's partner Mike Scanlon admitted to digging up former Congressman Robert Livingston's private life. Set to become speaker, Livingston then got sidelined for Tom DeLay's man Denis Hastert. Prosecutors now checking if Abramoff and Scanlon took Livingston down at DeLay's behest.

Like Josh, I also say "Hmmm."

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW WIDE A NET?....Here's a bit of thinking out loud about the NSA spying case. Don't take it too seriously; it's more barroom conversation than anything else.

First, Sifu Tweety argues that the NSA program wasn't quite as "targeted and focused" as General Hayden suggested on Monday:

Data mining WAS used, but it was used for target selection. People have been talking about data mining like its a be-all-end-all surveillance technique. Its not. All data mining (or pattern analysis, or whatever) is going to give you is a list of potential targets.

OK, but what kind of data mining? Surely even the NSA's supercomputers can't literally track and transcribe every voice call coming in and out of the United States? A reader emails an alternate possibility:

The phone network really is two parallel systems: one that switches voice signals from user to user and a second "common channel" that passes control information between the switching systems. Once the number you dial reaches your local central office, it leaves the voice system and passes from switch to switch via the common channel.

You can see where I'm headed with this. What about monitoring the common
channel?....Why do this? Let's posit that we have a list of known bad-guy telephone numbers. In the first tier around them, we collect the phone numbers of people who have called the bad-guy telephone numbers. Probably most of these folks are bad guys: cell leaders, fund-raisers, sleepers, etc. In the second tier, we find people who have called the probable bad guys. Most of these probably aren't bad, but some small fraction are the operatives who fly planes, strap on explosive belts, and so on. Et cetera as far down as you have time to go.

This strikes me as plausible, and it also explains why NSA couldn't get wiretap warrants: this kind of analysis isn't even within yelling distance of "probable cause." If you capture Osama's cell phone, it's one thing to ask for a wiretap on all the numbers you find in his speed dial, but it's quite another thing to ask for wiretaps based strictly on a once or twice-removed traffic analysis of the phone numbers dialed by anyone who is "a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda." That's a very wide net.

Which brings up another knotty question: just how wide is this net? Who's likely to have called someone who's called someone who's suspected of being affiliated with al-Qaeda? I'd guess that this description applies to vast numbers of U.S. Muslims. In other words, the NSA program might have been nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to identify a huge pool of American Muslims from which it could then pick and choose suspects it had wanted to track all along but otherwise had no justification for tracking. And this might have been so transparent that no judge would ever approve it.

As I said at the beginning, this is just thinking out loud and might be way off base. Comments are welcome.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Jonathan Dworkin

KURDS AND JEWS....When it comes to social decorum doctors in every country are the same. The old ones want their asses kissed, the young ones are waiting for the day when their asses will be kissed, and the medical students resent all the asses they are kissing. Kurdistan is no exception, and the social amenities of medicine mesh nicely with the local custom of showing deference to the wishes of older men. As a medical student I'm firmly in the should-be-kissing-ass group, but tonight I am fortunate to be present for an exception.

I sit down with Dr. Z at the Kameliati, a social club situated in Sulaimania's Azadi ("Freedom") Park. This area, a large section of town, is the site of a former Baath military base, a universally dreaded place where hundreds of city residents once disappeared without a trace. When I first met with Dr. Z he had been reserved and formal, and we spent ten minutes posing for photographs in front of a portrait of Jalal Talabani. But at the end he had invited me to the Kameliati, and I suspect what he really wanted was a drink.

The waiters most of them patients of the doctor bring out several courses of hommus, vegetables, and salads. The doctor drinks scotch and I have a few beers. The Islamic taboo aside, many Kurdish men enjoy alcohol when removed from the public gaze, and it helps break past the formalized behavior that the culture requires in public. As the conversation turns to politics, I realize that Dr. Z is liberal by Kurdish standards, declining to say anything derogatory about Arabs or Turks, even when we discuss the atrocities.

He then pauses for moment. "Let me ask you this," he says. "Is it true that the Jews escaped on September 11th?"

Dr. Z is one of the most educated people in Iraq. "No, it's bullshit," I say. I'm trying not to act irritated. I want badly to get further into this, but there are some things I'm still not comfortable revealing. "I think so too," he concludes.

In Kurdistan, unique amongst Muslim countries, there is a pro-Israel sentiment. This is by no means universal, and on some occasions Kurds that are working with me receive hostile comments because I am "not Muslim." But the Israelis helped the Kurds militarily as far back as the 1960s, and before I left New York I spoke with an Israeli doctor who had been with the KDP guerrilas in their mountain fortress of Rowanduz at that time. In Sulaimania I met one doctor who described Kurdistan as "the second Israel," though he intended the comparison as a gripe against the Americans for failing to support the Kurds more unconditionally.

Another friend, a KDP man, explained to me that he supports Israel because he believes chauvanism is an ingrained feature of Arab politics. "They have 25 countries," he said. "And still there is this talk of pushing the Jews into the sea. In Kurdistan we have been fighting this thinking for centuries, and believe me we are very tired."

Over kebabs and arak my KDP friend tells me a Kurdish parable. A man is crazy. He believes he is a flower and birds are trying to eat him. A doctor takes him to the hospital. After months of treatment he improves. "I am not a flower," he tells himself. As he is walking home from the hospital he looks up at the sky. "I know I am not a flower," he thinks. "But those birds still want to eat me. How do I convince them that I am not a flower?"

I thought about this for a few minutes, and it gave me a better understanding of both Kurdistan and Israel.


Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. Other posts in this series:

January 25: Kurds and Jews
January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

A PLEA TO THE NEW YORK TIMES....I note that the New York Times has published a piece by John Lott today and I just have to ask: what is Lott doing writing op-eds for them? The man is a fraud and the Times demeans itself by allowing him space on their pages.

This is not a matter of Lott being a conservative I disagree with. Plenty of conservatives write op-ed I disagree with. Nor does this have anything to do with complicated arguments over statistical models that require an advanced degree to understand. It's also not about the fact that he appears to have lied about conducting a survey that he doesn't seem to have actually conducted. Neither is it about his infamous career as "Mary Rosh" defending his own work under a pseudonym on the internet.

It's about the fact that he has posted, retracted, and then reposted fraudulent data and then covered it up. Details are here, and no mathematical background is needed to understand it.

If anyone from the New York Times editorial page is reading this or anyone from any other editorial page, for that matter do your credibility a favor. Stop publishing this guy. In a decent world, he would have been blackballed from polite editorial society long ago.

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD?....Terence Kindlon, the attorney for a man accused of trying to sell missile launchers to terrorists, filed an interesting motion last Friday:

An FBI sting case that targeted two members of an Albany mosque should be dismissed because the investigation originated from a national spying program that may be illegal, an attorney for one of the defendants said in a motion filed in U.S. District Court.

...."The government engaged in illegal electronic surveillance of thousands of U.S. persons, including Yassin Aref, then instigated a sting operation to attempt to entrap Mr. Aref into supporting a nonexistent terrorist plot, then dared to claim that the illegal NSA operation was justified because it was the only way to catch Mr. Aref," Kindlon's motion said.

....Now, with attorneys...confident secret surveillance was the catalyst for the FBI's Albany sting, the stage is set for the NSA program to be challenged on constitutional grounds as part of the local case. The question is whether the government will be compelled, even tacitly, to confirm that Aref was targeted because of information gleaned from the controversial spy program.

Kindlon may be fishing here, filing a motion just for the hell of it to see what happens. Then again, maybe not. This may end up being a case to keep our eyes on.

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (148)

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January 24, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE WATCH....Yesterday:

The White House was told in the hours before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans that the city would probably soon be inundated with floodwater, forcing the long-term relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, documents to be released Tuesday by Senate investigators show.

A Homeland Security Department report submitted to the White House at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, hours before the storm hit, said, "Any storm rated Category 4 or greater will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching."

....Other documents to be released Tuesday show that the weekend before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Homeland Security Department officials predicted that its impact would be worse than a doomsday-like emergency planning exercise conducted in Louisiana in July 2004.

Today:

The Bush administration, citing the confidentiality of executive branch communications, said Tuesday that it did not plan to turn over certain documents about Hurricane Katrina or make senior White House officials available for sworn testimony before two Congressional committees investigating the storm response.

.... In response to questions later from a reporter, the deputy White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, said the administration had declined requests to provide testimony by Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff; Mr. Card's deputy, Joe Hagin; Frances Fragos Townsend, the homeland security adviser; and her deputy, Ken Rapuano.

Mr. Duffy said the administration had also declined to provide storm-related e-mail correspondence and other communications involving White House staff members.

Why am I not surprised?

Kevin Drum 11:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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FISA UPDATE....I'm still confused about a number of things, but as near as I can tell here's the state of play on the NSA's domestic spying program:

  1. The administration has acknowledged that the NSA program violated the FISA act. However, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argues that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed shortly after 9/11, superseded FISA.

  2. Yesterday, General Michael Hayden said that the reason they had to bypass FISA was because it required a showing of "probable cause" that the target of a wiretap request was a foreign power (i.e., either a terrorist organization or a foreign state). That standard was apparently too difficult to meet in many cases.

  3. As Glenn Greenwald reports today, in 2002 congressman Mike DeWine introduced an amendment to FISA that would have retained probable cause as the standard for U.S. persons (i.e., citizens or foreigners with permanent residency) but lowered it to "reasonable suspicion" for non-U.S. persons.

  4. Congress refused to pass DeWine's amendment. This makes it plain that Congress did not intend for AUMF to loosen the restrictions of FISA.

So this leaves only the argument that the president's inherent constitutional powers give him the authority to order wiretaps of U.S. citizens even when Congress has passed laws forbidding it. There is, as near as I can tell, no case law that supports this view.

It's worth noting, by the way, that the administration has been adamant that calls are only monitored if one end of the call is outside the United States. But why not also monitor calls within the United States? Last month General Hayden said simply that "that's where we've decided to draw that balance between security and liberty" in this case "we" meaning the president and the NSA. This rather strongly implies that George Bush believes there's nothing stopping him from ordering 100% domestic wiretapping if he feels like it, and nothing Congress can do about it if he does. So much for Article I Section 8.

Kevin Drum 7:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (147)

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By: Kevin Drum

MAO vs. OSAMA....Noah Shachtman has some more thoughts about the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, details of which are slowly leaking to the press:

My quick, subject-to-instant-revision first impression: Rumsfeld & Co. are focusing more on China than they are on Osama.

....Terrorist-type threats will get some new attention. But the Defense Department isnt about to optimize for that threat, the way it did for the Soviet Union. Big money will continue to be spent on fighter jets designed to duel with the Soviets and destroyers designed for large-scale ground assaults. Grunts on the ground wont get much more than they do now. The war on terror may be long. But, apparently, its not important enough to make really big shifts.

I've never had a strong overall opinion about Donald Rumsfeld's "transformation" project, which seeks to make the military smaller and higher tech. It's an effort that seems to have both good points and bad, and I'm not savvy enough about it to offer any substantive analysis.

Except for one thing: as near as I can tell, Rumsfeld's vision barely changed a whit after 9/11. "Transformation" is still a project designed to make us better at fighting a conventional war against a conventional enemy which is fine as far as it goes but doesn't really address the emerging low-tech job of fighting terrorism and failed states.

This has long struck me as a serious weak point in George Bush's approach to the military, and it's one that Democrats ought to take advantage of. I hear a lot of bloviating about "running to Bush's right" on terrorism, most of which is little short of idiotic (what are we going to do, start screaming that he's not invading Iran fast enough?). But criticizing the QDR as hostage to moldy old Cold War thinking while doing too little to address the modern threat of terrorism is both good policy and good politics. Liberal military analysts ought to be latching on to this big time.

Kevin Drum 2:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (139)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS AND THE INSURANCE INDUSTRY....The conventional wisdom about the Medicare prescription drug bill is that it was a huge giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. And it was. But the real payoff was to the insurance industry, one of the Republican Party's favorite special interest groups.

Today, the Congressional Budget Office reports on the latest valentine from the GOP to the insurance industry. It turns out that Republicans met in closed session last month to make technical changes to a budget cutting bill that saved the industry $22 billion:

The Senate version would have targeted private HMOs participating in Medicare by changing the formula that governs their reimbursement, lowering payments $26 billion over the next decade. But after lobbying by the health insurance industry, the final version made a critical change that had the effect of eliminating all but $4 billion of the projected savings, according to CBO and other health policy experts.

...."It happens in the dead of night when lobbyists get a [Republican lawmaker] in the corner and say, 'We've got to have this,' " said Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (Calif.), the Democrats' point man on Medicare issues. "It's a pattern that just goes on and on, and at some point the public's going to rise up."

[Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles] Grassley disputed the CBO's interpretation of the change as "ridiculous," dismissing what appears to be a major insurance industry victory as merely a mistake in CBO calculations, not a substantive policy change. He said he accepted the policy change because he "didn't see a big difference from the Senate position and the conference position."

Indeed. Not a "big difference." Then why did the insurance industry lobby so desperately to get it passed?

Read the whole thing. It's another good example of how minor technical changes with huge consequences get inserted into conference reports with no oversight from either the public or from Democrats. Only the lobbyists and the GOP know what's going on.

And it works pretty well. $22 billion is a pretty good payoff for the insurance industry's $24 million in contributions to Republicans during the 2004 election cycle, isn't it? And it all comes out of your pocketbook.

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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QUADRENNIAL REVIEW....The Pentagon is nearly finished with its latest quadrennial review, and I'm not sure if this is good news or bad:

While some new lessons will be incorporated into the Pentagon review, the spending blueprint for the next four years will largely stick to the script Pentagon officials wrote before the Iraq war, according to those familiar with the nearly final document that will be presented to Congress in early February.

Iraq "is clearly a one-off," said a Pentagon official who is working on the top-to-bottom study, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. "There is certainly no intention to do it again."

In one sense, I'm glad to hear that the military doesn't really want to occupy another country anytime in the near future. On the other hand, given the realities of what's going on in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, it hardly seems wise to pretend that it's never going to happen again, does it? It sounds like 9/11 changed everything except the United States military.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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January 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

AMENDING FISA....Here's another point related to General Hayden's admission today that the NSA's domestic spying program isn't some kind of dazzling high tech black op, but merely garden variety wiretapping that was done outside normal FISA channels because NSA couldn't meet the "probable cause" standard normally needed to get a warrant issued.

Administration apologists have argued that the White House couldn't seek congressional approval for this program because it utilized super advanced technology that we couldn't risk exposing to al-Qaeda. Even in secret session, they've suggested, Congress is a sieve and the bad guys would have found out what we were up to.

But now we know that's not true. This was just ordinary call monitoring, according to General Hayden, and the only problem was that both FISA and the attorney general required a standard of evidence they couldn't meet before issuing a warrant. In other words, the only change necessary to make this program legal was an amendment to FISA modifying the circumstances necessary to issue certain kinds of warrants. This would have tipped off terrorists to nothing.

So why didn't they ask Congress for that change? It certainly would have passed easily. The Patriot Act passed 99-1, after all. Hell, based on what I know about the program, I probably would have voted to approve it as long as it had some reasonable boundaries.

So there must be more to this. But what?

Kevin Drum 10:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (259)

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By: Kevin Drum

TRADITION....Writing about the news that gay and lesbian family groups plan to attend the White House Easter Egg Roll in order to generate some attention for LGBT issues, Bruce Reed says:

Conservatives consider this a threat to one of their most cherished traditions: politicizing religious holidays.

Read the rest.

Kevin Drum 10:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (154)

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By: Kevin Drum

NSA SPYING UPDATE....General Michael Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence, defended the NSA's domestic spying program today:

Hayden stressed that the program "is not a drift net over Dearborn or Lackawanna or Freemont, grabbing conversations that we then sort out by these alleged keyword searches or data-mining tools or other devices that so-called experts keep talking about. This is targeted and focused."

Unless I've missed something along the way, this is important news. Hayden is saying that the NSA program isn't some kind of large-scale data mining operation that the authors of the FISA act never could have foreseen. Rather, it's "targeted and focused" and involves "only international calls and only those we have a reasonable basis to believe involve al Qaeda or one of its affiliates."

In other words, it's precisely the kind of monitoring that the FISA court already approves routinely and in large volumes. Another few hundred requests wouldn't faze them in the least.

So if (a) NSA's lawyers are allegedly convinced that the program is legal, and (b) we're talking about monitoring a specific and limited number of conversations, why not get FISA warrants? Because they knew FISA wouldn't approve them:

The standard laid out by General Hayden a "reasonable basis to believe" is lower than "probable cause," the standard used by the special court created by Congress to handle surveillance involving foreign intelligence.

....General Hayden said that the difference in the legal standards...played an important role in determining whether to go to the FISA court or not.

The 1978 law allows the agency to seek a warrant up to 72 hours after wiretapping begins when speed is of the essence. But even in an emergency, General Hayden said, the law required that the attorney general approve a wiretap before it could begin. But "the attorney general's standard," he said, "is a body of evidence equal to that which he would present to the court," meaning that an emergency application would also have to show probable cause.

So what do you do if the FISA court won't approve a lowered standard, Congress won't change the law, and even the attorney general refuses to play ball? Answer: You go ahead and do what you want anyway.

Hayden seems to think this is fine. Hopefully there are some honest Republicans left in Congress who disagree.

Kevin Drum 3:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (264)

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By: Kevin Drum

DOUGHNUT HOLE HELL....Speaking of making healthcare more complicated, Michael Hiltzik has another column about George Bush's Medicare prescription drug debacle today:

Let's consider how this system will work in practice, using the drug Actonel, a once-a-week pill routinely prescribed for elderly patients to combat osteoporosis, as an example.

Of the 48 commercial Medicare drug plans offered in Southern California, three don't cover Actonel at all; their enrollees will have to pay full price. Twenty-eight plans require prior authorization. The remaining 17 plans cover the drug, no questions asked.

That's not all. There's wide variation in how much each plan charges for a month's supply. Most price it around $500, or $125 per pill. One lists a month's supply at $470. Blue Shield lists it at $602....[But] any patient can purchase a month's supply of Actonel from drugstore.com, an online pharmacy, for $67.99, cash spending slightly more for a year's supply than some plans charge for a month.

The column is mainly about the absurd and cynical "doughnut hole" built into Bush's prescription drug plan the result of policymakers who don't actually care about healthcare policy combined with lawmakers who don't care about anything except pretending that their plan costs less than it actually does. In other words, it's the toxic intersection of incompetence and venality.

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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HEALTH SAVINGS ACCOUNTS....President Bush's Bold Proposal for 2006 is apparently going to be Health Savings Accounts, a half-baked pseudo-solution to the healthcare crisis that sounds intriguing primarily to people who are young and healthy and therefore don't think they're going to need much healthcare. That's just the right target audience for a healthcare plan, isn't it?

Technically, the idea behind HSAs is that you put, say, $2,000 in a tax-free account and then buy a health plan that doesn't pay anything until your expenses exceed $2,000. You pay for your normal healthcare expenses by drawing money out of the HSA, and if there's any left over at the end of the year you get to keep it. Ezra has more about it here.

However, for the quick and dirty explanation behind HSAs, here is Peter Gosselin in the LA Times this morning:

Most conservatives including those in the administration believe that the root cause of most problems with the nation's healthcare system is that most Americans are over-insured.

The debate over HSAs is going to get mighty wonky over the next few months, but always keep this explanation in mind as you're trying to make sense of the charges and countercharges. The fundamental idea behind HSAs is not to provide better healthcare, it's to provide less healthcare. Conservatives want you to think twice before spending a hundred bucks for your regular pap smear.

I'm probably going to write enough about HSAs over the next few months to make everyone scream for mercy, especially since I assume the White House will decline to publish an actual plan, leaving us instead to speculate wildly about what they really have in mind. So I'm going to wrap up this post right here. Just remember: if you think more risk, more complexity, and less healthcare are the answer, HSAs are for you. The rest of us will keep pushing for something that actually makes sense.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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January 22, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

MALPRACTICE WATCH....Last month, in a review of Tom Baker's The Medical Malpractice Myth, I mentioned briefly that patients sometimes file malpractice suits simply to obtain information about their own treatment. They do this because hospitals routinely refuse to disclose information about their quality of care unless they are taken to court.

Some readers wondered if this could really be true. Check this out:

Claudia Mejia gave birth eight and a half months ago....Twelve days after giving birth at Orlando Regional South Seminole hospital, she was transported to Orlando Regional Medical Center where she became a quadruple amputee. Now she can not care for or hold her baby.

"Yeah, I want to pick him up. He wants me to pick him up. I can't. I want to, but I can't," she said. "Woke up from surgery and I had no arms and no legs. No one told me anything. My arms and legs were just gone."

....Her attorney, Judy Hyman wrote ORHS a letter saying, according to the Florida statute, "The Patients Right To Know About Adverse Medical Incidents Act," the hospital must give her the records....The hospital's lawyers wrote back, "Ms. Mejia's request may require legal resolution." In other words, according to their interpretation of the law, Mejia has to sue them to get information about herself.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think the doctors at Orlando Regional Medical Center just hacked off Mejia's arms and legs for no reason. She had contracted both a flesh eating bacteria and toxic shock syndrome, and amputation might very well have been the only option.

Still, if I woke up from surgery with no arms or legs, I'd want to know every last detail about what happened to me. Why should I have to file a lawsuit to get that?

Via QandO.

Kevin Drum 8:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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THE POWER OF IMAGES....What's this? Photos of George Bush with Jack Abramoff? Time has the scoop:

Time has seen five photographs of Abramoff and the President that suggest a level of contact between them that Bush's aides have downplayed. While Time's source refused to provide the pictures for publication, they are likely to see the light of day eventually because celebrity tabloids are on the prowl for them. And that has been a fear of the Bush team's for the past several months: that a picture of the President with the admitted felon could become the iconic image of direct presidential involvement in a burgeoning corruption scandal like the shots of President Bill Clinton at White House coffees for campaign contributors in the mid-1990s.

Jack Abramoff is a longtime Republican operative who has met with George Bush on numerous occcasions. That's common knowledge. But the power of images is so great that the White House is nearly white with fear that pictures of Bush and Abramoff will eventually show up on the evening news. As well they should be.

Kevin Drum 2:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (119)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOWELL AND ABRAMOFF....One of the least appealing aspects of the blogosphere is its obsession with "media criticism," most of which, upon examination, turns out to have about as much heft and substance as a Krispy Kreme donut. Just in the past day or two, for example, I've come across this from a conservative, complaining about a passing remark dating the start of the current North Korean crisis to 2003. I've come across this from a liberal, complaining that the New York Times dared to even quote someone from the Discovery Institute. And I've come across this from a libertarian, complaining about differing coverage of Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite the fact that the difference was due to the reality of what people were actually saying and doing at the time.

But sometimes the criticism is spot on, and the mainstream media would do well to figure out when those times are. I mean, what can possibly explain this week's spectacle, in which the Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, made a simple factual error (namely that Jack Abramoff made "substantial campaign contributions to both major parties") and then stonewalled for days instead of issuing a quick and straightforward correction?

And then the followup reaction, in which (1) Howard Kurtz brushed off Howell's mistake as merely "inartfully worded," (2) Howell finally issued a statement but declined to admit any real error, and (3) Jim Brady, the Post's online executive editor, panicked and shut down comments on one of their blogs because he didn't like the barrage of abuse readers were directing their way?

Flame wars are ugly things, to be sure, but I think Brady is dead wrong when he says, "I dont think the tone would have been much different if shed posted something on Monday or Tuesday. The basic issue here is that she didnt deliver the exact message her critics wanted her to." In fact, if Howell had posted a simple correction to her column on Monday saying that she had made a mistake and Jack Abramoff donated money only to Republicans and left it at that instead of straining to justify her original error none of this would have happened. The messenger may have been rude and crude in this case, but the messenger was also right.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, why is it that Howell's original column still doesn't have a correction appended? Nobody reading it either at the Post site or via Nexis would have any idea that she had made a mistake.

Kevin Drum 2:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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By: Kevin Drum

24 BLOGGING....A few days ago Jim Henley said he was giving up on 24:

Watched 24 last night. Not watching tonight. It was bad. Last season was bad too, but last season was resonant bad. It was bad in a culturally interesting way. Its badness had a lot to say about kinks in the post-9/11 American psyche. It was martyr-complex bad and torture-justifyin bad and bluster/blubber bad in addition to its esthetic failures.

This time around all we have are the esthetic failures....

I think Jim is missing a bet. In seasons 1 and 2 we watched in order to find out just how comically farfetched the "Kim in peril" scenes could get. Last season we were spellbound by the bizarre and ultimately unfathomable torture fest. This season we have....

No, not datamining, although we do have that. What we have this season is President Charles Logan, possibly the most worthless excuse for a fictional leader of the free world ever. Just how much of dink will they make him into? Will he eventually panic and order the assassination of Jack Bauer? Start rolling around on the floor and chewing the carpet? Or will the scriptwriters chicken out and allow him to redeem himself with some unexpected act of moral bravery at the end?

That's what makes this season worth watching: basking in the utter worthlessness and steady emotional deterioration on Fox! of Republican President Charles Logan.

Kevin Drum 1:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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January 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI ELECTION RESULTS....The final election results from Iraq initially indicated that the combination of the Shiite religious coalition and the main Kurdish coalition had failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to form a government. Juan Cole reports that although that's true, they have enough small-party support to put them over the top:

The Shiite fundamentalist coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, won 128 of 275 seats in parliament. It needs 138 for a simple majority. The Risaliyun or Message Party won 2 seats; it represents the Sadr movement of young Shiite clerical nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr, and has announced that it will vote with the UIA. So for all practical purposes, the UIA has 130 seats, 8 short of a simple majority.

[Revised]: The Kurdistan Alliance has 53 seats. I am informed by Peter Galbraith that the Kurdish Islamists, who gained 5 seats, will vote with the Kurdistan Alliance. Together the religious Shiites and the Kurds therefore have 188. A 2/3s majority of 275 would be 184. By that calculation, the two have the votes to choose a president, who will certainly ask the UIA to form a government and provide the prime minister.

So that's that assuming that the UIA and the KA form a partnership, as everyone seems to expect. All that's left is haggling over ministries.

And the Sunnis? Out in the cold, apparently. Stay tuned to see how that works out.

Kevin Drum 5:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

CORRUPTION WATCH....Vito Corleone or Tom DeLay? Jimmy Conway or Karl Rove? If you too sometimes have trouble figuring out which ones are Republicans and which ones are mobsters, check out Republicans....or the Mafia? They're here to help.

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By: Kevin Drum

POMBO-PALOOZA....The Wall Street Journal reports today on congressman Richard Pombo, "public enemy No. 1 for many environmental groups":

In just a few short years, the 43-year-old has become a leader in Congress in rolling back environmental regulations at a time when like-minded Republican conservatives in the Senate and White House are in power. Apart from contemplating a selloff of national-park sites, Mr. Pombo has recently tried to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, privatize vast government lands in the West and open up protected coasts and wilderness to more drilling.

....Not surprisingly, Mr. Pombo has many defenders in business. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, the American Gas Association hosted a bash for him called the "Pombo-Palooza," featuring a mechanical bull and country-and-western music. "The left wing is all hot and bothered over Pombo...due to his effectiveness and a lack of willingness to pander to liberal pet causes," wrote Raymond Keating, chief economist of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, last year in an op-ed piece in Mr. Pombo's California hometown paper, the Tracy Press.

Pombo also has some ethics issues stalking him, and on Friday former Republican congressman and friend of the environment Pete McCloskey announced that he is coming out of retirement to challenge Pombo in this year's primary:

The tough-talking, 78-year-old ex-Marine said in a telephone interview that he decided to challenge Pombo in the June 6 GOP primary because of the congressman's efforts to weaken environmental laws and connections to figures in a Washington corruption scandal.

"This is no Republican Party I recognize today," McCloskey said.

Good for him. Nobody gives McCloskey any chance of winning, but at the very least maybe he can provoke a smidgen of soul searching among Republicans in Pombo's district. Maybe.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD....Remember "Welcome to the Neighborhood," the ABC reality series that was cancelled before it aired last year? It starred six couples African-American, Hispanic, Korean, tattooed, Wiccan, gay who competed to win a house in a neighborhood whose residents "overwhelmingly identified themselves as white, Christian and Republican."

The New York Times has a story today suggesting that the series was cancelled because Disney, ABC's parent, was worried about a backlash from conservative Christian groups whose support it wanted for the rollout of the Narnia film later in the year. It's worth clicking the link to read the whole story, but here's the part that's really worth reading. The winner, it turns out, was a gay couple, Stephen and John Wright:

The neighbor who was the Wrights' earliest on-camera antagonist Jim Stewart, 53, who is heard in an early episode saying, "I would not tolerate a homosexual couple moving into this neighborhood" has confided to the producers that the series changed him far more than even they were aware.

No one involved in the show, Mr. Stewart said, knew he had a 25-year-old gay son. Only after participating in the series, Mr. Stewart said, was he able to broach his son's sexuality with him for the first time.

"I'd say to ABC, 'Start showing this right now,' " Mr. Stewart said in an interview at his oak kitchen table. "It has a message that needs to be heard by everyone."

Damn. When I first heard about it, this show sounded like just another piece of crass reality TV Babbittry that I was just as happy we'd been spared seeing. But maybe I was wrong. It sounds like it might have been a worthwhile show after all.

And it makes me wonder: for all we hear about how the Christian right is practically a fourth branch of government these days, is it really true? Sure, it sounds like Disney may have buckled under to them in this case, but on the other hand it's inconceivable that "Welcome to the Neighborhood" could even have been produced as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. If the Christian right is really so all-powerful, how is it that they've lost so much ground in such a short time?

Kevin Drum 12:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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January 20, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE LAST REFUGE OF SCOUNDRELS....A few days ago I remarked that although Democrats would like corruption to be the primary issue in this year's midterm elections, the White House still has something to say about that. Today the New York Times reports that Karl Rove gave a speech in which "he left little doubt that once again as has been the case in both national elections since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that he was intent on making national security the pre-eminent issue in 2006." Here's what Rove said:

The United States faces a ruthless enemy, and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity of the moment America finds itself in. President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats.

Let me be as clear as I can be: President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.

Now don't get me wrong here. Corruption is a good issue for Dems if they can bring themselves to stop being so damn timid about it, and it's also possible that Republicans will eventually discover that they've gone to the terrorism well once too often. Maybe.

But I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. Banging away on both corruption and the broader topic of Republican fealty to corporate special interests may help Democrats at the polls this year, but I don't think national security is going away either. Unfortunately, I'm not getting a sense that Dems are spending much time thinking about that.

Kevin Drum 6:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (256)

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By: Zachary Roth

Is it just me, or is there something odd about the tone of this report in The Hill about how Tom DeLays staff can all expect to find new jobs without much trouble?

DeLay was widely regarded as highly effective at promoting the Republican agenda, The Hills Jeffrey Young tells us. His staffs role in that success did not go unnoticed. Then we get prominent Republicans, including RNC chair Ken Mehlman, singing the praises of the DeLay team. Two of those singled out for special credit are chief of staff Brett Loper and communications director Kevin Madden.

Lets take a step back here. DeLay and two former staff members have been indicted on charges of using illegal corporate contributions in a scheme that was designed to increase the Republican majority in Washington. Its at least plausible and thats putting it generously that senior staff in the Majority Leaders office had some inkling of what was going on.

To be clear, I have no evidence whatsoever that Loper and Madden or any other DeLay staffer outside of the two who have already been indicted did anything illegal or even unethical. But the possibility is hardly far-fetched. Its certainly believable enough that youd expect reporters assessing the job prospects of top DeLay staffers to at least raise the issue.

But The Hill isnt interested. To them, DeLays top aides are just a bunch of honest hacks unfortunate enough to have signed on with a boss who stepped over the line. And remember, GOP bigwigs say these guys are talented people. They deserve to succeed.

With reporting like this, its not hard to see how the GOP thought it could get away this stuff in the first place.

Zachary Roth 5:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

CLEARING THE AIR....Over at The Corner, Rod Dreher writes about Margaret Keliher, the top county executive for Dallas:

I asked Judge Keliher yesterday why she, as a conservative Republican, has gotten active to fight industry for cleaner air....She replied that for one thing, it's about health, and health-care costs. For another, it's about creating a good business climate companies don't want to move to a region that's got bad air and the health problems that go with it. And then there's the family values thing Judge Keliher said that she's tired of seeing little children around here having to run to the sidelines during soccer games to use their inhalers. All of these are ways to think about the environment that resonate with conservative Republican voters.

My first instinct was to make fun of this, but I guess I'll resist. If "family values" and "good for business" are the code phrases that will convince conservatives to get serious about clean air, then count me in. Once they're used to it, maybe we can start talking about global warming too. That's not so good for kids or businesses either.

Kevin Drum 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (186)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLLS....This is pretty much unrelated to anything, but I just wanted to point out a tidbit from that Hotline poll I linked to yesterday:

This is one of my favorite examples of why poll results should be taken with many large grains of salt: respondents lie. The actual turnout for the 2004 election among registered voters was about 70%, which means that a full 20% of the respondents to this poll flatly lied to the polltaker. This dwarfs anything related to sampling error, the only kind of error that's ever routinely cited in news reports on polls, so instead of the usual "this poll has a margin of error of 3.5%," how about the following standard disclaimer instead:

Due to well known problems of statistical error, question wording, question order, respondent dishonesty, and poor survey design, the results of this poll are probably not accurate to within more than 10 percentage points. Caveat emptor.

Just a thought.

UPDATE: Apologies. The Hotline poll was conducted only among registered voters, not all adults. I've corrected the numbers to reflect this.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE'S RECORDS....Since the Department of Justice has previously gained access to search records from Yahoo and Microsoft, shouldn't they already have plenty of data to help them make their case about porn searches on the internet? Why then are they still going after Google? Dan Drezner suggests an ulterior motive:

They don't care about the data for this case as much as they do about establishing a legal precedent and/or intimidating Google into compliance.

That sounds plausible, and it somehow sounded more plausible because I read Dan's post about two minutes after reading Eszter Hargittai's valentine to Flickr over at Crooked Timber. The two posts have nothing to do with each other except that they set up the following association in my mind: "Hmmm....porn....images....Flickr....sites that host images....Hmmm...."

I have nothing more profound to say on the subject at the moment, so draw your own conclusions. But I will say one other thing: given the fact that the NSA scandal has put everyone on edge over government spying, DOJ sure picked a lousy time to force this issue, didn't they? Do you think Congress will be (a) more likely or (b) less likely to vote for expansion of the Patriot Act after their constituents start to understand that it's not just used for terrorism investigations?

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

CIRCULAR FIRING SQUADS, CALIFORNIA STYLE....Progressives who lament the perpetually fractured and self-destructive behavior of national Democrats always have at least one place to look to cheer themselves up a bit: California Republicans. From today's LA Times:

Republican activists disenchanted with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Thursday that they will try to strip the governor of the party's endorsement unless he fires his new chief of staff, Democrat Susan P. Kennedy.

...."We've gotten to the point where we've just had it with the guy," said Michael Schroeder, an attorney from Corona del Mar and a former chairman of the California Republican Party. "It's become clear that he's no longer pursuing a Republican agenda."

Funny thing, though: it sure is easy to see how destructive this behavior is when other people do it, isn't it? I mean, don't they realize that California is a liberal state and an ideologically pure conservative has exactly zero chance of winning a statewide election? What a bunch of nitwits.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC OPINION ON IRAQ....Here's the latest chart from the Pew Research Center showing public opinion about withdrawal from Iraq. Just thought I'd pass it along.

The most interesting detail, I thought, was the educational breakdown. It turns out that among people with at least some college education, a little less than 40% think we should withdraw as soon as possible. But among those with a high school education or less, this number shoots up to nearly 60%.

I'm not sure what that means, but it's not what I would have expected. Other interesting results can be had by clicking the link.

Kevin Drum 1:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (203)

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By: Kevin Drum

SAMUEL ALITO AND THE UNITARY EXECUTIVE....Robert Parry thinks that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee badly screwed up their questioning of Samuel Alito a proposition that's hard to argue with and suggests that instead of the scattershot approach they adopted they should have lasered in on his support for expansive executive powers:

Alito has been such an unapologetic supporter of the rights beloved Imperial Presidency that Alitos one noteworthy assurance that George W. Bush was not above the law was essentially meaningless because in Alitos view, Bush is the law.

Yet the Democrats were incapable of making an issue out of Alitos embrace of the unitary executive, a concept so radical that it effectively eliminates the checks and balances that the founding fathers devised to protect against an out-of-control president.

I'm inclined to agree, although there's an inconvenient fact that gets in the way of Parry's suggestion: Bush is hardly the first president to promote the "unitary executive" theory. Nor is it an exclusively Republican fixation.

It's true that the principle of the "unitary executive" was first promoted aggressively by the Reagan and Bush Sr. White Houses, but as Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami of Ohio, noted in a paper last year, "President Clinton did more to move the executive branch agencies closer to White House control than either the Reagan or Bush presidencies." It was Clinton who "accepted and perfected" the notion of a unitary executive.

So that makes things harder. But far from impossible. Presidential signing statements are one of the key components of the unitary executive concept, and as Kelley noted in his doctoral dissertation on the subject, Clinton issued about 15 signing statements a year during his presidency. This makes him a piker. If we accept that Clinton "perfected" the unitary executive, we can only surmise that perfection wasn't good enough for Bush, who has issued a whopping 100 signing statements per year, a total of 435 in his first term alone some of them making dozens of objections to a single bill. Kelley's paper makes it clear that this obsessive performance, driven primarily by Dick Cheney's counsel (now chief of staff) David Addington, has transformed a routine part of the tug-of-war between the executive and legislative branches into an arguably abusive expression of Bush's belief that he is the commander-in-chief of a virtually unaccountable wartime presidency.

So I think Parry is right. It would have taken some serious research to prepare for an all-out attack on the Bush administration's view of executive sovereignty not to mention a bit of coordination between the Judiciary Committee's Democrats but at least it would have given the press something interesting and unexpected to write about. What's more, even if it hadn't worked, at least it would have raised an important topic for public airing, which is more than Senate Dems accomplished with their self-indulgent and ineffectual questions about Alito's membership in CAP or his conflict of interest with Vanguard Group.

It was an opportunity missed.

Kevin Drum 12:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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January 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

JACK ABRAMOFF'S CLIENTS....Indian tribes that hired Jack Abramoff gave money to both Democrats and Republicans. That much is indisputable. But was this money "directed" by Abramoff or was it money that the tribes would have given anyway? Brad DeLong notes that one way to tell is to compare the pattern of pre-Abramoff contributions to post-Abramoff contributions:

For example, the Saginaw Chippewa gave $279,000 to Democrats over 1997-2000, and $277,000 over 2001-2004, after they had gotten into bed with Abramoff. It is a safe bet that *none* of those contributions to Democrats were "directed" by Abramoff. The Saginaw Chippewa gave $158,000 to Republicans in 1997-2000, and $500,000 to Republicans in 2001-2004, after they had gotten into bed with Abramoff. It is a safe bet that $340,000 of those contributions to Republicans were "directed" by Abramoff.

Brad then links to a Bloomberg story that provides further evidence of how Abramoff directed his clients' money:

Of the top 10 political donors among Indian tribes in that period, three are former clients of Abramoff and Scanlon: the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of California. All three gave most of their donations to Republicans by margins of 30 percentage points or more while the rest favored Democrats.

So: Indian tribes usually give most of their money to Democrats, while Abramoff clients and only Abramoff clients give most of their money to Republicans. Coincidence? I think not.

Surely some enterprising reporter could do this kind of simple analysis for all of Abramoff's tribal clients? We already know that Abramoff's personal contributions went 100% to Republicans, and I'll bet that comparing (a) pre-Abramoff to post-Abramoff contributions and (b) Abramoff clients to non-Abramoff clients would show that the money he "directed" also went almost exclusively to Republicans. We could then finally put an end to the whole "bipartisan scandal" charade.

Perhaps Jeff Gerth can atone for his sins by cranking out five or ten thousand words on the subject?

Kevin Drum 8:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Zachary Roth

ABRAMOFF AND THE DEMOCRATS, CONT'D....Two weeks after Jack Abramoff's plea deal was announced, the press is continuing to fall for the GOP line that the scandal is somehow bipartisan. In todays Washington Post, Jonathan Weisman reports that Congressional Democrats yesterday laid out a plan to change what they called a GOP 'culture of corruption' in Washington, even as Republicans pointed to ethics lapses on their antagonists' side of the aisle.

One such ethics lapse, according to Republicans and the credulous Post, is the following:

Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of Abramoff's toughest critics, has acknowledged that in the fall of 2003 he pushed Congress to approve legislative language urging government regulators to decide whether the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts deserved federal recognition. About the same time, Dorgan met with the tribe's representatives and Michael D. Smith, an Abramoff associate.

But as we reported last week: Dorgan...has been working on behalf of Indian tribes far longer than Abramoff has been bilking them. Whats more, we also confirmed that: Smith, a veteran Democratic operative, had worked closely with Dorgans office since well before he joined Greenberg [the lobbying firm for which Abramoff worked] in 2000, a year before Abramoff did." So the fact that Dorgan continued to work with Smith on behalf of Indian tribes in no way suggests that Dorgan was implicated in Abramoffs schemes.

Maybe not every Post reporter reads the Monthly site. But it wouldnt have taken more than a couple of phone calls to get this crucial context about Dorgan and Smith.

If reporters are simply going to repeat GOP charges wholesale rather than subjecting them to some basic scrutiny, and figuring out whether or not theyre valid we could be hearing the phrase bipartisan scandal for quite a while.

Zachary Roth 3:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

CORRUPTION WATCH....Here are three responses from the national media to Wednesday's Democratic plan to fight congressional corruption:

  • Washington Post: "Democratic leaders from the House and Senate endorsed proposals that closely mirror Republican plans unveiled this week...."

  • Knight Ridder: "The Democratic plan resembles the reform agenda unveiled by Republicans the day before...."

  • Los Angeles Times: "But a crucial question remains: whether either party's plans would alter the close relationship between the capital's lobbyists and lawmakers."

Not every newspaper played it this way, but enough did to convince me that the Dem plan was simply too mushy to make much of an impact, even if the presentation and delivery were better than usual for these kinds of things.

That's too bad. As the latest Hotline poll shows, public awareness of Jack Abramoff is rising (nearly half have heard of him), as is awareness that he's a Republican operative. What's more, although independent voters mostly think corruption is a problem for both parties, a significant number don't and of those, nearly all associate it more with Republicans than Democrats.

So there's a real opportunity here. A more dramatic proposal on Wednesday could have done a better job of taking advantage of that.

Kevin Drum 1:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Amy Sullivan

HOPE AND PRAYER....I haven't known what to write about the abduction of reporter Jill Carroll in Iraq two weeks ago, and I still don't. But I want to send our thoughts and prayers to her family, particularly her mother and my high school English teacher Mary Beth Carroll, who appeared on CNN this morning to appeal for Jill's release.

No aspect of war is pretty, but hostage-taking involves a special horror in that the family often has the opportunity to know their loved one is alive, they have the illusion that there is something they can do to secure a good outcome, and yet it really is impossible to predict or influence the actions of the hostage takers. We can only wish the Carrolls strength and peace at this very difficult time.

Amy Sullivan 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHRIS MATTHEWS SPEAKS....The "wonderful Michael Savage"? WTF?

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON PRESCRIPTION DRUGS....Jon Cohn returns to the Medicare prescription drug debacle with a simple question: are the kinds of problems we're seeing just the inevitable startup bugs you get with any big new government program? He takes a look back at the start of Medicare itself to get the answer:

So what happened on the day that this complex program was implemented? Thousands of senior citizens simply went to the hospital and got the health care they needed. "There were no crises that I remember," says Yale University political scientist Theodore Marmor, who worked in the office overseeing Medicare implementation and went on to write The Politics of Medicare, the program's definitive history. Newspaper accounts from the '60s back him up. Under the headline "medicare takes over easily," a Post writer described the program's first day as "a smooth transition, undramatic as a bed change." Three weeks later, the Times affirmed that "medicare's start has been smooth."

There's nothing inevitable about the chaos we're seeing with the prescription drug rollout. If the program had been designed with patients in mind, it would have rolled out smoothly. But it wasn't. It was designed to benefit corporate special interests and to provide a test bed for crackpot free market theories.

What's more, we haven't even begun to hit the "donut hole" problems. That should start happening a couple of months before the midterm elections, which is poetic justice indeed. By then I hope that everyone knows exactly which party was responsible for all this.

UPDATE: Michael Hiltzik's column today is a pretty good wrapup of the whole prescription drug debacle.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

DIGGING DEEPER IN THE VALUES DEBATE....My professional background is marketing, and although my career was spent in smallish tech companies without access to the high-powered tools used by huge consumer-oriented firms, I have a lot of respect for those tools. They won't tell you everything, but companies spend billions of dollars a year based on what those tools do tell them, and they do it because they work.

In the American Prospect this month, Garance Franke-Ruta has a fascinating piece about Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, a pair of activists who made a name for themselves a couple of years ago with an essay called "The Death of Environmentalism" and who have now taken on a new task: using the tools of consumer marketing to try to get a better fix on the American psyche. Their goal: figuring out how to fix liberalism so that it appeals to more voters.

The Prospect article summarizes their findings and makes a couple of points that are longtime hot buttons of mine:

  • Liberals need to abandon the fantasy that "opinion polls show that voters agree with us!" Only the shallowest analysis of opinion polls supports this notion, and when you dig even an inch below the surface it turns out that in many cases "our issues" have a lot less salience than we think.

  • Although it's true that median incomes have largely stagnated over the past few decades, Americans are still pretty rich. This is why economic arguments simply don't resonate the way we think they ought to.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger's analysis suggests that the answer is to pay more attention to values but in a subtly different way than pollsters did after the 2004 election:

They found economic changes driving changes in social values, and those, in turn, driving political preferences. Using data from Environics in-home consumer survey in the United States, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were able to tease apart changes in the thinking of voters since 1992 on 117 different social values trends. These values, such as time stress, joy of consumption, and acceptance of violence, are not what people normally think of as values abortion, gay marriage, or other hot-button social issues.

....Nordhaus and Shellenberger arrived at what they call social values trends, such as sexism, patriotism, or acceptance of flexible families. But the real meaning of those trends was revealed only by plugging them into the values matrix a four-quadrant plot with plenty of curving arrows to show direction, which is then overlaid onto voting data....Despite the increasing political power of the religious right, Environics found social values moving away from the authority end of the scale, with its emphasis on responsibility, duty, and tradition, to a more atomized, rage-filled outlook that values consumption, sexual permissiveness, and xenophobia. The trend was toward values in the individuality quadrant.

The article is too dense to excerpt it fairly, but this passage should at least pique your interest to read the rest. Roughly speaking, N&S are suggesting that although progressive policies are (mostly) fine, they need to be explained not as policies per se but as natural outgrowths of core values that resonate with working and middle class voters. That's what Peter Brodnitz found out when he started talking to focus groups in Virginia about Tim Kaine's opposition to the death penalty:

Brodnitz found that once Kaine started talking about his religious background and explaining that his opposition to the death penalty grew out of his Catholic faith, not only did charges that he was weak on crime fail to stick, but he became inoculated against a host of related charges that typically plague and undermine the campaigns of Democratic candidates. Once people understood the values system that the position grew out of, they understood thats hes not a liberal, says Brodnitz. We couldnt even convince them he was a liberal once wed done that.

There's a lot to agree and disagree with here, and it's a provocative piece. It's well worth reading the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (352)

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January 18, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE GENDER GAP....Ken Hilton is a New York statistician who has studied gender differences in school achievement and concluded that the reason more girls go to college than boys is because girls have way better reading skills. In the New Republic this week, Richard Whitmire investigates:

Combine Hilton's local research with national neuroscience research, and you arrive at this: The brains of men and women are very different. Last spring, Scientific American summed up the best gender and brain research, including a study demonstrating that women have greater neuron density in the temporal lobe cortex, the region of the brain associated with verbal skills. Now we've reached the heart of the mystery. Girls have genetic advantages that make them better readers, especially early in life. And, now, society is favoring verbal skills. Even in math, the emphasis has shifted away from guy-friendly problems involving quick calculations to word and logic problems.

....Ninth grade is where boys' verbal deficit becomes an albatross that stymies further male academic achievement. That's the year guys run into the fruits of the school-reform movement that date back to the 1989 governors' summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Democrats and Republicans vowed to shake up schools. One outcome of the summit is that, starting in ninth grade, every student now gets a verbally drenched curriculum that is supposed to better prepare them for college. Good goal, but it's leaving boys in the dust.

Read the whole thing quickly and fluently if you're female, slowly and laboriously if you're male to find out what he thinks we ought to do to fix this.

Kevin Drum 9:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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By: Kevin Drum

TARGETING AL-QAEDA....We may not have gotten Zawahiri, but we did get one of al-Qaeda's big fish in the attack on Damadola last week:

ABC News has learned that Pakistani officials now believe that al Qaeda's master bomb maker and chemical weapons expert was one of the men killed in last week's U.S. missile attack in eastern Pakistan.

Midhat Mursi, 52, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, was identified by Pakistani authorities as one of four known major al Qaeda leaders present at an apparent terror summit in the village of Damadola early last Friday morning.

...."Pakistani intelligence says this was a very important planning session involving the very top levels of al Qaeda as they get ready for a new spring offensive," explained Alexis Debat, a former official in the French Defense Ministry and now an ABC News consultant.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that we had pretty good intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders were in the house we bombed. And let's also assume that we did indeed kill al-Masri and several other major al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, let's assume that the 18 civilians killed in the attack were genuinely innocent bystanders with no connection to terrorists.

Question: Under those assumptions, was the attack justified? I think the answer is pretty plainly yes, but I'd sure like to see the liberal blogosphere discuss it. And for those who answer no, I'm curious: under what circumstances would such an attack be justified?

Kevin Drum 8:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (461)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOP LAMENESS WATCH....I'll get around to commenting on the official Democratic plan for battling congressional corruption eventually, but in the meantime I want to draw your attention to what may be the lamest criticism ever of an elected official:

Republicans mounted a fierce counteroffensive....accusing Mr. Reid of using his Senate office to prepare political documents.

"Does Mr. Reid think that using an official government office for political purposes is ethical?" asked Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Do Republicans really think they're going to score points by accusing Reid of the dastardly sin of using his office to prepare attacks on the opposition? Lee Atwater would be ashamed.

The full quote is here.

Kevin Drum 5:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

NOT ONE DIME....Tired of wimpy proposals for cleaning up the corruption mess in Congress? In the March issue of the Washington Monthly, James Carville and Paul Begala offer up their red-meat version of campaign finance reform:

First, we raise congressional pay big time. Pay 'em what we pay the president: $400,000....In return, we get a simple piece of legislation that says members of Congress cannot take anything of value from anyone other than a family member. No lunches, no taxi rides. No charter flights. No golf games. No ski trips. No nothing.

And when it is campaign time, incumbents would be under a complete ban on raising money. You read that right. No president or member of Congress could accept a single red cent from individuals, corporations, or special interests. Period.

Challengers, on the other hand, would be allowed to raise money in any amount from any individual American citizen or political action committee. No limits, just as the free-market conservatives have always wanted....The day after you disclose [a contribution], the U.S. Treasury would credit the incumbent's campaign account with a comparable sum say 80 percent of the contribution to the challenger to take into account the cost of all the canaps and Chardonnay the challenger had to buy to raise his funds as well as the incumbent's advantage.

There are more details, so read the whole thing before you raise technical objections of which there are plenty. However, Carville and Begala think that it may be possible to bulldoze through these problems simply because modern fundraising is such a degrading, soul-destroying pursuit for members of Congress. "You should never underestimate how much these folks hate spending half their time or more sniveling for money."

I don't know if their plan would work, but I'd sure like to see congressional Dems put something like this on the table. It's going to be hard to get any serious attention from anything less, and practical or not, at least it gets us talking about the core issue instead of arguing over minutiae like toothless travel bans and meaningless extensions of "cooling down" periods.

So let's talk. What do you think?

POSTSCRIPT: This proposal is from Taking It Back, Carville and Begala's new book. You can order it here.

Kevin Drum 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (225)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PRESCRIPTION DRUG DEBACLE....PART 341....Jon Cohn who's writing a book about the American healthcare system promises more about the Medicare prescription drug debacle shortly but wants to pass along one tidbit while we're waiting:

It's a Government Accounting Office report, issued in December, warning that the Bush administration hadn't done enough to make sure the most medically and financially vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries could actually get their drugs.

If you do get around to reading it, make sure to check out the part where Mark McClellan, director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, says the GAO has it all wrong the part where he insists that "CMS has established effective contingency plans to ensure that dual-eligible beneficiaries will be able to obtain comprehensive coverage and obtain necessary drugs beginning January 1, 2006."

You know, that sounds familiar. The Bush administration is warned that its planning is inadequate but it ignores the advice and plows ahead without listening.

Very familiar. It's on the tip of my tongue. Help me out here.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. This is his third dispatch for the Washington Monthly.


AT HOME IN THE NEW KURDISTAN....In the bazaar in Sulaimania I can buy almost anything. It's my second day in town, and I'm walking through a byzantine maze of stone passages where merchants sell everything from swords to bedroom sets. It's the latter that my friend Dr. Nazm is interested in, because he and his wife Dr. Shosha are trying to furnish their new home. They are in their mid-20s, roughly my age and recently married. In a scene repeated throughout the bazaar Dr. Nazm enters into fierce negotiations with a merchant, their voices ranging from annoyed to amused.

Dr. Shosha picks up a long, sharp knife, and points it at her husband. "I am terroreest," she flirts. Seven or eight minutes later, long after I've lost interest, Dr. Nazm ends his verbal assault and money changes hands. The couple walks away with four triple A batteries. "For my camera," Dr. Nazm explains.

With the mountains in the background, Sulaimania is prettier than ramshackle Erbil. It is also in the midst of an economic boom. The approach to town reveals new tree-lined walkways and construction sites. Older buildings crumbling from lack of maintenance are being replaced everywhere by new ones, despite the fact that these too will be poorly maintained. People are spending discretionary income on consumer goods even as the service sector remains undeveloped. An insufficient electric grid? Buy a generator. A crater in the middle of your road? Buy a truck.

It occurs to me that this is the kind of city that Americans love. Centered around the bazaar it is hectic and optimistic, and its people are hungry for knowledge of the outside world. Whenever I mention I'm an American I am met with smiles and questions about my country. Each person that I speak with long enough reveals a horror story from the days of Baathist rule, but the stories hardly seem relevant now. Even the security presence heavy by any standard is unobtrusive amidst the clammer of pedestrian traffic.

The journey from Erbil to Sulaimania is also a transition from KDP to PUK-governed Kurdistan. Both parties are too powerful for their own good, and each finances a separate peshmerga force as well as a large private economy that serves as a patronage system in their respective zones. Party checkpoints along the road delineate the boundaries. The mobile phone system is also divided, with AsiaCell (PUK) users in Sulaimania unable to communicate with Korek (KDP) users in Erbil. Even the hotel I am staying in is part of the PUK financial fiefdom. The situation is currently peaceful, but armed political parties are in their nature unstable things, and I wonder who stands to benefit if the system ossifies. Perhaps political Islam, a thought that makes the secular Kurdish politicians shudder.

Getting Kurds to talk openly about this situation has been a challenge the past few days, and I suspect the hesitation in voicing criticism is itself a barrier to change. "Free speech yes," says Dr. Nazm, "but not as free."

Meetings with government ministers and university professors are a requirement before we can begin our work in Halabja. It's a bureaucratic minefield, but I am fortunate because my Kurdish friends know how to navigate it. Most of the time I am required only to keep my mouth shut or to eat something. Given the chance to watch the Kurds move about their city, this suits me fine.


Posts in this series:

January 18: At Home in the New Kurdistan
January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSHONOMICS....Bloomberg News writes the following about the state of the economy:

After 16 consecutive quarters of economic growth, pay is rising at a slower rate than in any similar expansion since the end of World War II. Companies are paying less of their cash gains in the form of wages and salaries than at any time since the Great Depression, according to government figures.

...."There is no doubt that something is happening" to reduce labor's share of income, says Robert Solow, a Nobel Prize- winning economist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. An economy that doesn't distribute its gains widely is "poorly performing," he says.

From the final quarter of 2001 through last year's third quarter, total compensation paid to employees by corporations, including health benefits, rose at a 4.3 percent average annual rate, according to government figures. That's the slowest growth for any similar period in post-war expansions lasting at least four years.

Translation: supply side economics works. It just doesn't work for you or me.

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By: Kevin Drum

JERRY....Jon Stewart's interview with Jerry Bremer last night wasn't very enlightening, but it did answer at least one question that many of us have long been idly curious about: why does a guy whose legal name is L. Paul Bremer go by Jerry?

Answer: It's his nickname because he was born on September 30th, St. Jerome's Day. Now you know.

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By: Kevin Drum

ALL ABOUT OIL?....It's no surprise that Charles Krauthammer wants to blame the Euroweenies for all our problems with Iran, but is he really serious about this?

The only sanctions that might conceivably have any effect would be a boycott of Iranian oil. No one is even talking about that, because no one can bear the thought of the oil shock that would follow, taking 4.2 million barrels a day off the market, from a total output of about 84 million barrels.

....Which is one of the reasons the Europeans are so mortified by the very thought of a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities....The problem that mortifies the Europeans is what Iran might do after such an attack not just cut off its oil exports but shut down the Strait of Hormuz by firing missiles at tankers or scuttling its vessels to make the strait impassable. It would require an international armada led by the United States to break such a blockade.

Let me get this straight: the only people worried about Iran's oil are the Europeans? Whereas United States foreign policy is blissfully free of any concern over protecting the global flow of oil? I know that Krauthammer is prone to flights of fancy when he ponders American actions overseas, but even for him this is a doozy.

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By: Kevin Drum

KURO WEDNESDAY?....What the hell?

Investors spooked by a raid on an Internet company and weaker U.S. tech earners dumped Japanese shares Wednesday, sending the Nikkei plunging and prompting the Tokyo Stock Exchange to suspend trading on the world's second-largest market.

The TSE halted all trade 20 minutes early at 2:40 p.m. (0540 GMT), as the number of trades neared the 4-million capacity limit of the exchange.

....The massive selling on Wednesday came as investors became nervous over an investigation into Japanese Internet company Livedoor, allied to weaker than expected results from Intel and Yahoo in the United States.

The TSE's technical problems are one thing, but the proximate cause of Wednesday's massive selloff is quite another. Livedoor may be a typically overpriced dotcom with an unsustainable market cap, but it's still not that big a company. Is the Japanese stock market really so jittery that the mere prospect of problems at a smallish company like Livedoor can send it into a panic?

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By: Kevin Drum

SMELLING THE COFFEE....Garance Franke-Ruta notes that an all-too-common controversy has broken out over the "Saving Our Democracy" conference, sponsored by The Nation Institute and The New Democracy Project: out of 25 scheduled speakers, only two are women:

It is a source of great perplexity to me that otherwise clear-headed men who are genuinely committed to promoting Democrats or "the progressive movement" should be so blind when it comes to understanding why the Democratic Party and the left even continue to exist. The Democratic Party and left exist because of female voters and volunteers. No ifs, ands, or buts.

As I noted in detail last summer, virtually every left organization that relies on volunteer labor succeeds because of the labor of female volunteers, who comprise the vast bulk of such low-level workers, and when Democrats have won at the national level in the past 40 years, it has been because of their appeal to female voters.

What makes this whole thing even more peculiar is the makeup of the two sponsoring groups. The New Democracy Project has four staff members and four senior fellows, and half of them are women. The Nation Institute is headed by a woman, the editor of The Nation is a woman, and although TNI's staff isn't online, its Board of Trustees is about one-third women. So it's not as if these organizations are just a bunch of good old boys who don't even realize women exist.

Even so, as Garance suggests, the most likely reaction will be a defensive one:

Controversies like this benefit no one. They make women feel diminished and excluded, and men feel like they're never going to be able to organize a simple public conversation with their professional friends without getting hit over the head with identity politics. And yet the same sad script keeps playing out, over and over again, until everyone feels like throwing up their hands in despair.

But this shouldn't be an issue of quotas or identity politics. It should just be a matter of awareness. I always try to get both men and women to guest blog for me when I'm on vacation, and I've never had any trouble finding people of either sex willing to do it. Is getting speakers for conferences really that much harder?

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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January 17, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CLASS ACTION FOLLIES....The Washington Post has a story today about one of my pet peeves: class action suits in which the "penalty" is more a benefit than a punishment. The piece in the Post is about a settlement in a case against Netflix:

In the past few years, both the FTC and the trial lawyers group have been actively protesting class-action settlements that bring little value to consumers, usually coupons with little monetary value, but pay off handsomely for lawyers.

....The FTC said the Netflix settlement was "more a promotional vehicle" for the company than a means to correct alleged misleading practices....Under the proposed settlement, which must be approved by the court, current Netflix customers would get a one-month upgrade to receive more DVDs, a value that ranges from $2 to $6, depending on the plan a customer already had. But if consumers fail to cancel that upgraded service at the end of 30 days, they would be billed for the more expensive service every month after that.

Netflix would pay to run a program like this. In fact, they do. After all, this kind of thing is a pretty standard sort of marketing come-on: "Upgrade free for 30 days! If you don't like it, cancel with no further obligation!"

I've gotten offers like this several times, most recently from my cable company. In their case, the "settlement" was (I think) a one-month upgrade to digital cable for half price an offer not even as good as the usual promotions they run two or three times a year. It was a joke.

Why judges approve these kinds of deals is beyond me. They should either insist on cash settlements or else not bother. What we have now is just a sham.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION....Nathan Newman recommends a report on immigration from the Drum Major Institute that makes a couple of points that ought to be obvious but often don't seem to be:

  • America wants immigrants and has plenty of jobs for them.

  • Illegal immigrants are easily intimidated by employers and therefore accept low pay and abysmal working conditions. This drives down wages and working conditions for everyone, not just immigrants.

Unfortunately, the Drum Major report loses me here:

We submit that immigration reform can successfully address both of these realities if it maintains the flow of legal immigrants, enables undocumented immigrants to continue living and working in the United States and also ensures that all immigrants are able to exercise full rights in the workplace, empowering them to demand working conditions that dont undercut the U.S. citizens with whom they share a labor market.

I simply don't see how undocumented workers will ever be able to "exercise full rights in the workplace." After all, an employer can always carry out a threat to report a worker to the INS no matter what rules you have in place, and we can hardly forbid the INS from deporting an illegal immigrant just because he or she has filed a workplace claim of some kind. This is simply unworkable, which might explain why the report doesn't recommend any actual policy prescriptions.

DMI's basic points strike me as plainly correct, but I suspect there's only one real way to address them: (a) increase significantly the number of legal immigrants we accept and (b) tighten up enforcement of immigration laws. This would lower the cost of legal immigration and raise the cost of illegal immigration, and if we can find the right balance it would make illegal immigration rare while keeping legal immigration at levels sufficient to provide the workforce we rather obviously want. Workplace protections and higher wages follow almost automatically, and that in turn will allow us to find out once and for all whether or not native Americans are willing to do the work that immigrants currently do.

Politically, of course, this is a nonstarter. Employers wouldn't like it because they prefer illegal immigrants who can be treated poorly and can't do anything about it, while the Tom Tancredos of the world just don't want any immigrants at all. It's hard to see any rational compromise coming out of Washington DC anytime soon.

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By: Kevin Drum

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN....You can have your Washingtons, your Jeffersons, and your Madisons. All great men, to be sure. But for my money, the greatest of them all was Benjamin Franklin, my favorite founding father and the first great American liberal: an outstanding humanist, brilliant scientist, and incomparable statesman; a man who could run a postal service, a small business, or a legislature with equal ease and who'd be happy to share a friendly beer with you after he was done.

Happy 300th Birthday, Ben! We could use a few more like you these days.

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By: Kevin Drum

STARE DECISIS....I'm curious about something and I'm not quite sure how to go about looking it up, especially since it involves a judgment call. Here it is: When was the last time the Supreme Court voted to overturn a truly seminal decision?

Obviously the definition of "seminal" is a matter of interpretation, but I'm thinking of something similar to the way Brown overturned Plessy or West Coast Hotel overturned Lochner. That is, a major and longstanding precedent that was clearly repudiated by a later court.

Any nominees?

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By: Kevin Drum

JUDICIAL ACTIVISM....The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government has no right to block a state law permitting physician-assisted suicide. The vote was 6-3, and John Roberts joined Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in the dissent. As E.J. Graff says:

It's very interesting to see that Scalia and Thomas are so quickly willing to desert Rehnquist's federalist revolution (i.e., the Rehnquist court's signature determination to shift power away from the federal government and back to the states), and that Roberts too has no interest in it. My guess is that Alito would have made the decision 5-4.

Federalism is at least a principled conservative position on which reasonable people can disagree. But the current crop of "conservative" justices is more interested in figuring out excuses to impose their own version of morality on the rest of us than they are in any meaningful application of conservative principle. I eagerly await thundering editorials from the right inveighing against judicial activism.

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By: Kevin Drum

NSA vs. FBI....For what it's worth, I wouldn't get too excited about today's New York Times story suggesting that the NSA's domestic spying program accomplished nothing except sending FBI agents on hundreds of wild goose chases. Aside from the fact that the whole thing smells pretty strongly of a bureaucratic turf war, the effectiveness of the program just isn't a big issue. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't. Not every program pans out.

What's important is that the intercepts were done without a warrant even though the law expressly requires a warrant. That's the issue.

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January 16, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS ON DRUGS....On the subject of Republicans treating legislation as mere vehicles for doling out favors to corporate special interests, one of Josh Marshall's readers offers up some comments about the Medicare prescription drug bill:

Arbitrary drug classes like benzodiazepenes and barbiturates are specifically excluded from coverage. Congress left no clue as to the legislative intent of the exclusion. Someone seems to have decided that these two drug classes are incompatible with some Biblical teaching. Or maybe the competing drug classes are much more profitable for someone's campaign contributors (as both benzodiazepines and barbiturates are cheap and produced as generics, unlike their likely treatment alternatives). As a result the nation's psychiatrists are going batshit right now, trying to figure out what to do with patients on drug regimens for things like seizures.

I don't know if this was the worst bill ever written, but it's certainly in the top ten. I'd actually be willing to cut the funding for prescription drugs in half if only they'd let actual policy experts design the implementation of the damn thing. Of course, since Republicans don't have anybody who cares about policy in this area, that would mean handing it over to Democrats.

Say....

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By: Kevin Drum

OUR LAPDOG CONGRESS....There's plenty to highlight from Al Gore's speech today, but here's an excerpt that probably won't get the attention it deserves:

The most serious damage has been done to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of congressional power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the Executive Branch to attain a massive expansion of its power.

....There have now been two or three generations of congressmen who don't really know what an oversight hearing is. In the 70's and 80's, the oversight hearings in which my colleagues and I participated held the feet of the Executive Branch to the fire no matter which party was in power. Yet oversight is almost unknown in the Congress today.

....Look for example at the Congressional role in "overseeing" this massive four year eavesdropping campaign that on its face seemed so clearly to violate the Bill of Rights. The President says he informed Congress, but what he really means is that he talked with the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the top leaders of the House and Senate. This small group, in turn, claimed that they were not given the full facts, though at least one of the intelligence committee leaders handwrote a letter of concern to VP Cheney and placed a copy in his own safe.

Though I sympathize with the awkward position in which these men and women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty Coalition when it says that Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share the blame for not taking action to protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program.

Democratic timidity in the face of a "wartime" president who's not afraid to play the patriot card combined with Republican subservience to a president of their own party has turned Congress into an embarrassing caricature of itself. Read the whole speech if you're interested in Gore's suggestions for turning this around.

C-SPAN has the video here.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BIGGER CORRUPTION PICTURE....I briefly mentioned last night that Dems might do well to tie the Republican corruption scandal to the broader theme of Republican addiction to special business interests. Greg Sargent of the American Prospect talked to some Democratic strategists about this, and they seem to agree:

Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee...."What we need to make sure we explain to voters is...'Theres a cost to this corruption, and youre paying the bill. This comes at a cost to you in the form of an $800 billion prescription drug bill, and an energy bill where your taxpayer dollars are subsidizing the energy industry.'"

....Karl Agne, a senior adviser at Democracy Corps..."Pointing to the lobbying scandals becomes more potent if it's put in a larger context of Republican fealty to special interests in energy and health care, which makes it impossible for the GOP to bring about real reform on their most pressing problems."

....Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution..."So they might be better off tying Republican corruption and incompetence to their alliance with specific sectors energy and health where individuals feel burned, rather than to a larger anti-business argument."

Energy and health sure seem to be the consensus favorites here, and why not? People are pissed off about both high gasoline prices and the botched Medicare prescription bill, so why not point out exactly why the Republican approach to these issues was so lousy? It's because the Republican Party considers legislation to be a vehicle for giving special breaks to favored corporate interests rather than a vehicle to actually solve people's problems.

It might work. At the very least it has the advantage of being true.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION QUERY....Since my commenters frequently delight in reminding me that I'm practically a Republican compared to their pure and unsullied leftiness, I have a question for them. First, here is Jonah Goldberg writing about the conservative position on immigration:

There are, I believe, some minimal principles all conservatives agree on and I think those who disagree really aren't conservatives. Conservatives agree that there should be borders and that these borders have significance. Conservatives agree that citizenship has a definition and that there are rules, rights and responsibilities which come with it. Conservatives believe that it would be, at minimum, preferable if immigrants didn't come here illegally. Conservatives agree that there is something called American culture (though we debate its adaptability and power to assimilate).

And here's my question: is there anything here than even lefties would disagree with? I could quibble with the "American culture" thing, which is frequently a codeword for "keeping the brown people out," but it seems fairly unobjectionable here given the minimally mushy interpretation Goldberg puts on it. So what exactly makes this a set of conservative principles?

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By: Kevin Drum

ALL ALONE IN DC....Poor George Bush. Once he was the leader of the free world. Now he can't even convince his own party to cut their vacation short.

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By: Kevin Drum

EXECUTIVE POWER AND NATIONAL SECURITY....In the LA Times today, former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach writes about Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, wiretapping, and national security:

In October 1963, Hoover requested Atty. Gen. Kennedy to approve a wiretap on King's telephone....Bobby was furious. Hoover's charge that King was a pawn of the communists could potentially taint the whole movement and bring into question everything we were doing to vindicate the constitutional rights of black citizens. It was hard to think of an issue more explosive.

....It was only years later, at the Church Committee hearings held after Hoover's death, that the full scope of Hoover's anti-King activities became known. I was and am appalled. And sad. This man who was a national symbol of law and order ended up grossly violating the nation's trust and respect in the name, he said, of national security.

....Today we are again engaged in a debate over wiretapping for reasons of national security the same kind of justification Hoover offered when he wanted to spy on King. The problem, then as now, is not the invasion of privacy, although that can be a difficulty. But it fades in significance to the claim of unfettered authority in the name of "national security." There may be good and sufficient reasons for invasions of privacy. But those reasons cannot and should not be kept secret by those charged with enforcing the law. No one should have such power, and in our constitutional system of checks and balances, no one legitimately does.

As Katzenbach says, the issue is not wiretapping per se or even national security per se. It's all about oversight. The president is not above the law, and the history of unchecked power shows pretty clearly that even if it starts out with good motives, it usually doesn't end that way.

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN AND ITS OIL....Iran's economy minister warned over the weekend that sanctions on Iran could "raise oil prices beyond levels the west expects." Over at the Oil Drum, Stuart Staniford suggests that this is pretty much correct:

To give you the punchline up front, I'm going to argue that, with large (50%) uncertainties, a complete loss of Iranian production for an extended period might be expected to roughly double oil prices and cause massive economic impacts, while a halving of oil production due to sanctions, or retaliation to sanctions, might be expected to produce a 30-40% increase in price and significant economic impacts.

My uninformed gut opinion is that Stuart is actually being optimistic here. A shutdown of Iranian supplies in 1979 led to a doubling of world prices, but that's only because Saudi Arabia made up for part of the loss. They can't do that anymore.

In any case, read the whole thing if you're interested in a historical perspective on oil embargoes and their impact on the global economy.

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By: Kevin Drum

JUDGING THE JUDICIARY....I happen to think that it was never remotely practical for the activist base of the Democratic Party to think that Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination could be scuttled in the Senate. After all, only one nominee in the past 35 years, Robert Bork, has been rejected for ideological reasons. Rehnquist and Scalia were both confirmed easily, as was Clarence Thomas, despite the explosive testimony of Anita Hill. Both liberal and conservative nominees know perfectly well how to play the testimony game these days, and by the time the process gets to the hearings stage the outcome is all but certain. It's naive to think that a few days of questioning could change this dynamic if only Senate Dems "grew a spine."

That said, Reed Hundt has some interesting comments about how that could change over the longer term. Here are two of his points:

First, as to judicial nominees, the blogosphere is so far rather ineffective. It doesn't seem that easy to translate the record of a Judge Alito into comprehensible bits and bytes that in turn can shape the mainstream media's reporting. Law professors need to help more.

....Fifth, if the left doesn't like the way the judiciary is behaving it will have to mount a sustained critique on a broad front, with many details. Legal and popular blogs could do that, but have not yet done so. The right is ahead of the left on this topic, by about 30 years.

Obviously these two points are related, and I think they're correct. The right has a comprehensive and understandable critique of "activist liberal judges" while the left has nothing comparable (as discussed here and here.) If we lefties want to sway public opinion, we need to explain in a systematic way what's wrong with the current conservative hegemony over our judicial system. Most liberals can't do that in any kind of compelling way, which makes it hardly surprising that the public is not up in arms over it.

It's going to have to be law professors and judges who mostly take the lead on this. Who wants to start?

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By: Kevin Drum

ABRIDGED EVENING NEWS ROUNDUP....Shorter Ralph Reed: Jack who?

Shorter Texas 22nd: Tom who?

It really couldn't happen to a more deserving pair of guys, could it?

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January 15, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

IRAN AND THE BOMB....Niall Ferguson pretends to be a future historian looking back on today:

The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

I have a feeling we can look forward to a lot more op-eds just like this over the next few months.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMPEACH BUSH?....Elizabeth Holtzman has a cover story in The Nation this week called "The Impeachment of George W. Bush." Here's her case:

  1. Bush illegally approved the NSA's surveillance of calls between al-Qaeda suspects overseas and persons inside the United States without getting a FISA warrant.

  2. He spun the evidence for WMD and deceived the country into supporting the war in Iraq.

  3. He's incompetent.

  4. There is evidence that "suggests" that Bush "may have" authorized detainee abuse.

I gotta be honest: this strikes me as pretty weak brew. By my count, based on Holtzman's criteria, the following recent presidents would also have been in acute danger of impeachment: Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton. I've provisionally left out Ford and Carter, but I'm open to arguments that they ought to be on this list too.

Still, logic aside, I suppose the argument in favor of running articles like this is that they're good for getting the base riled up, and a riled-up base is what Democrats desperately need. But is that true? We had a pretty riled-up base in 2002 and 2004 and it didn't seem to do the trick.

But perhaps times have changed. After all, George Bush's approval ratings are in the low 40s these days, not the high 50s, and maybe the country is finally ready for a tub thumping campaign against our commander in chief (though please spare me the "evidence" of childishly contrived polls like this one). Maybe.

I guess I'm still skeptical, though, and the limpness of the Alito confirmation hearings is why. John Aravosis tries to pin the blame for this on the Democratic establishment, arguing that "Heads need to roll. ROLL." But guess what? Senate Dems pretty much followed the script favored by the blogosphere. Strip searches? Check. Membership in CAP? Check. Abortion rights in danger? Check. Imperial presidency? Check. This was the activist case against Alito, and it failed miserably. Maybe heads do need to roll, but we'd better have some better ones at hand before we haul out the guillotine and commence our knitting.

Personally, I'd like to see us warm up by actually winning a midterm election before we get too excited about impeaching George Bush. In addition to a coherent position on national security, maybe some good old fashioned populist business bashing would do the trick. Highlight the thousands of payoffs to Republican donors that have been written into law during the past five years of GOP legislation; tie it all in to Jack Abramoff and the K Street Project; and just tar the hell out of insurance companies while we're at it. I think they'd make a great target, and it might even soften up the ground for universal healthcare in some happy-but-not-too-distant future.

Anyway, consider this an open thread for random vituperation. What's your preference: ringing calls for impeachment or an actual electoral strategy?

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By: Kevin Drum

STEALTH BUSINESS INTEREST PANDERING....The Wall Street Journal reports today that the FDA is considering a rule that would allow federal law to pre-empt state law in the area of medication labeling. If approved, it would give pharmaceutical firms protection from suits in state courts as long as they follow the FDA's guidelines on its labels:

Other federal agencies have made similar moves toward helping to shield businesses from certain forms of legal action. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last August proposed a new rule on car-roof strength that would grant legal protection to car makers that adhere to the safety standard. The U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency issued a sweeping regulation in early 2004 that said federal banking laws take precedence over a number of state consumer-protection statutes when applied to national banks.

This is a good example of how George Bush's business pandering instincts are considerably stronger than his conservative instincts. After all, liberals are the ones who usually support federal-level regulations, while conservatives believe such things should be left up to the states as much as possible. This is not a fundamentally conservative proposal, it's just a sop to a K Street campaign contributor.

As usual, though, the whole issue is a bit trickier than it seems at first glance. The fact is that federal rules probably make a lot of sense here, for the same reason that federal rules make a lot of sense for anything related to interstate commerce. What's not so obvious, however, is what happens when you move issues into the federal court system without expanding the federal courts to handle the increased load: it doesn't simply rationalize the rules surrounding liability suits, it makes many of them impossible if you accept that "wait five years while hemorrhaging your client's money" is frequently equal to "impossible."

And of course that's the whole goal. This is not stealth conservatism so much as stealth business interest pandering. And it's what the Bush administration specializes in.

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By: Kevin Drum

GULLIBLE OR CREDULOUS?....YOU MAKE THE CALL....I suppose it's a little meanspirited to highlight this, but this op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post is a humdinger. Amherst grad Bess Kargman writes that until recently she had been earning some extra money editing and proofreading college applications:

Then my employer suggested that I could earn more money working as a "comprehensive" editor....After a few days of e-mail correspondence, I would churn out the model compositions, which the students were instructed to use for "inspiration" during the process of writing their own. I didn't question why a student (or, rather, a parent) might be willing to pay as much as $399 for a service that provided nothing more than inspiration.

....Several weeks into the process, I found out that my first comprehensive client had in fact included my essay with his application verbatim....I confronted my supervisor: How could the company offer a service that was so easily abused? She said unapologetically that the firm's practices and intentions were legitimate. I was taken aback by this blatant indifference. Actually, the company's only real response was to stop sending me any clients altogether. After all, they have a whole slew of college graduates willing to do the kind of bogus work I've decided to turn down.

This form of organized, for-profit cheating was unfamiliar to me....

Do I have any Amherst grads out there? Is it really possible that a grown woman who spent four years there is so painfully naive that she didn't realize her essays were being used for a wee bit more than "inspiration"? And furthermore, was shocked to discover that an online essay writing company might not be entirely on the up and up?

The mind reels.

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January 14, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....Today's quote comes from Voltaire, who wrote in 1763:

Men use thought only as authority for their injustice, and employ speech only to conceal their thoughts.

There's no hidden agenda here. I just happen to like this quote.

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By: Kevin Drum

PC MOVIES....Given its well known "gay cowboy" theme, you'd think that Brokeback Mountain would be a shoo-in for most PC movie of the year. But I have another candidate. Marian and I saw The Family Stone this afternoon, and Tyrone Giordano plays a character who is deaf (the whole family signs, natch), gay, in an interracial relationship, and planning to adopt a baby. And just for good measure, Diane Keaton plays a character who's dying from breast cancer.

That's PC.

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By: Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin, a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006. This is his second dispatch for the Washington Monthly.


CITY OF REFUGEES....I am in the house of Kak Lolan, a run down but beautiful stone structure in Erbils citadel. This is a part of town inhabited continuously since the time of the Assyrians, though in recent decades it has decayed into slums. The house is now the Erbil Textile Museum, an institution begun by Kak Lolan to staunch the exodus of one of Kurdistans great art forms.

Kak Lolan grew up in a shepherd's family surrounded by kilim Kurdish tapestry but it wasnt until he studied anthropology in the United States that he developed an appreciation of the tradition as a cultural resource. According to my host, two events nearly destroyed the craft altogether. The first was Saddams military incursions the infamous Anfal Campaign of 1988 which leveled thousands of villages and drove the survivors into urban centers. Cities like Erbil and Sulimani swelled with refugees as the countryside crumbled. The other event, ironically, was the establishment of semi-autonomous Kurdistan in 1991. This opened the country to the UN and foreign visitors, who promptly exported the most exceptional kilim to Turkey and the EU.

The textile museum contains hundreds of colorful kilim, complete with descriptions of their tribal origins. But what makes it interesting from a social perspective is the window it offers into an aspect of Kurdish culture that was buried with the lost villages. Forced urbanization was a central feature of the Anfal campaign, and the Kurdish connection to an agrarian lifestyle was one of its principal victims.

Later in the evening I link up with an American friend, and together with an Arab employee of the Erbil International Hotel we head to Anqawa. This is a Christian town near Erbil, and it is the center of the post-Anfal relief effort, hosting NGOs and hundreds of foreign workers. Its also the center of beer and shisha, a place where people go for fun without risk of running into their imam.

We settle into a seat at Happy Times, a smoke-filled pizza restaurant that contains colored lamps and a large screen TV. Bare armed beauties in Lebanese pop videos are the only women present in a crowded room. Our Arab acquaintance, who we will call M, is originally from Mosul, and after the American invasion he and a friend worked as interpreters for the 101st Airborne, which was stationed in the Mosul area. These were excellent people according to M. Relations with the Arab population were handled deftly, and property damages were quickly and quietly compensated.

Later a new unit arrived, and the policy became more standoffish. The soldiers had their reasons, force protection being one of them, though M argues that simple cultural incompetence also played a role. But whatever their rationale, relations with community leaders slowly deteriorated, and in the aftermath of the Falluja assault the situation exploded. The Iraqi police force collapsed, and soon afterward Ms friend was shot. A campaign of violence now consumes almost every family that cooperates with the Americans. The reconstituted police are worthless and terrified, he says; they will let anything on four wheels pass a checkpoint. M fled to Erbil, where the Kurds distrust him because hes an Arab, and he lives in a constant state of fear that someone visiting from Mosul will recognize him.

Looking around when I return to the Erbil International, I notice that many of the employees are Arab. Often they dont speak Kurdish. How many of these people are Kudistans new refugees?

As someone sympathetic to Americas broader political aims in Iraq, listening to M leaves me feeling bleak and irritated. Here is a man, rational and well-intentioned in every way, and hes a stranger in his own country. No matter how you look at it, the inability of America to protect its friends is one of the defining failures of the Iraq war.


Posts in this series:

January 14: City of Refugees
January 11: First Impressions

Jonathan Dworkin 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMS ON IRAN....Atrios is almost certainly right about this, but it still doesn't answer the question. At some point it seems likely that the choice George Bush will offer the nation regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions is either (a) leaky and ineffective sanctions or (b) air strikes. I don't like this choice, but that's probably what we're going to get anyway.

Of course, you never know. Maybe diplomacy will work and Iran will back down. But just in case it doesn't, Dems would be wise to start thinking about whether (a) or (b) or some hypothetical (c) is the right policy. And then, having thought about it, we can start figuring out how to persuade the American public that our choice is the right one.

We can gripe and complain about the perfidy of Karl Rove all we like, but it's idiocy not to think seriously about a subject that's at least 50% likely to be a major campaign issue. And the sooner the better.

Kevin Drum 2:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (334)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON BOEHNER....Here's a few paragraphs about John Boehner from an LA Times story about Republicans and the lobbying community:

As House Republican Conference chairman from 1995 to 1998, Boehner played a key role in the party's effort to systematically build stronger ties to businesses and lobbyists. It was an effort that included DeLay's vaunted "K Street Project" to encourage lobbying firms to hire Republicans.

Beginning soon after the GOP took control of Congress in 1995, Boehner held weekly meetings with about a dozen of the most powerful lobbyists in the speaker's suite in the Capitol.

He was heavily criticized in 1996 for distributing campaign checks from tobacco interests to colleagues on the House floor. It was not against the rules, but was said to be unseemly.

Yep, he's a real reformer. And the really pathetic part of all this is that, relatively speaking, Boehner is the good guy in the race for Republican Majority leader. The favorite, Roy Blunt, is so close to the lobbying community that they'll probably erect a statue of him in Farragut Square someday one hand on a lobbyist's shoulder and the other holding a check, no doubt.

The K Street Project isn't a fall from grace, it's part of the DNA of the modern Republican Party. It's a joke to pretend that they can repudiate it without tearing down the entire party itself first.

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHUTZPAH WATCH....I've linked to Nick Confessore's "Welcome to the Machine" before, but I know that most of you probably haven't followed the link to read his seminal piece on the K Street Project. So here's the nickel version:

It took something that hadn't happened in 40 years to begin to change the culture of K Street: In 1994, Republicans won control of Congress....New Republican leaders like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, and a handful of close advisers like Ed Gillespie and Grover Norquist, quickly consolidated power in the House, and turned their attention to the lobbying community.

....In 1995, DeLay famously compiled a list of the 400 largest PACs, along with the amounts and percentages of money they had recently given to each party. Lobbyists were invited into DeLay's office and shown their place in "friendly" or "unfriendly" columns. ("If you want to play in our revolution," DeLay told The Washington Post, "you have to live by our rules.")

....Working on the outside, Norquist accelerated what he calls the "K Street Project," a database intended to track the party affiliation, Hill experience, and political giving of every lobbyist in town. With Democrats out of power, these efforts are bearing fruit. Slowly, the GOP is marginalizing Democratic lobbyists and populating K Street with loyal Republicans. (DeLay alone has placed a dozen of his aides at key lobbying and trade association jobs in the last few years "graduates of the DeLay school," as they are known.) Already, the GOP and some of its key private-sector allies, such as PhRMA, have become indistinguishable.

Here are the key points: Today's Republican entanglement with corporate lobbyists like Jack Abramoff is not an accident. It's not a matter of a few bad apples. And it's not something that happened gradually as Republicans got overly accustomed to power and lost their revolutionary zeal. It was a deliberate strategy, conceived by the leaders of the 1994 revolution as part of their fundamental governing strategy, and pursued relentlessly ever since.

Got that? Good. Now listen to this excerpt from John Boehner's pathetically inept PowerPoint pitch, "For a Majority That Matters":

The sordid spectacle of Jack Abramoff arises from two factors....The second is that many of the lobbyists who enter our offices every day to represent their clients are, for all practical purposes, complete mysteries to us. Yet for the House to function, some degree of trust is necessary. Many lobbyists are of the highest integrity and feel as much of a duty to the House as a democratic institution as they do to their clients. But theres every incentive for those with more questionable ethics to shortchange us and the House. And absent our personal, longstanding relationships, there is no way for us to tell the difference between the two.

The chutzpah quotient here is staggering. Boehner is seriously trying to suggest that the real problem behind the Republican corruption scandal is that Republicans don't know the lobbying community well enough.

Let that sink in. No group in history has been closer to the corporate lobbying community than today's GOP. They meet with top lobbyists weekly. They track their every donation. They keep detailed databases of thousands of them. They put the arm on them to host fundraisers at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And of them all, Jack Abramoff was by long odds the best known of the bunch: a Republican operative for three decades, a good friend (and generous campaign contributor) to more than half the Republican caucus, and a man who steered tens of millions of dollars into Republican coffers.

But according to Boehner, the real problem behind the "sordid spectacle" of Jack Abramoff is that Republicans aren't close enough to the lobbying community. What's desperately needed is more "personal, longstanding relationships," not fewer.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, liberal weenies.

Kevin Drum 1:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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January 13, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

ZAWAHIRI DEAD?....CNN and ABC are both reporting that al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri and several other high-ranking al-Qaeda figures may have been killed in a CIA airstrike on a building in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border. No confirmation yet, but if it's true it would certainly be a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary news week.

Kevin Drum 9:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (110)

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By: Kevin Drum

CIVIL WAR WATCH....October 2005:

Four days before Iraqis are to vote on their country's proposed constitution, Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish power brokers reached a breakthrough late Tuesday that revived hopes of winning Sunni support for the charter and defusing the Sunni-led insurgency by political means, Iraqi political leaders said.

....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....

January 2006:

Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the most powerful Shiite party in the ruling coalition, appeared to back away from the constitutional compromise Wednesday.

"The first principle is not to change the essence of the constitution," Hakim said in a speech given during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, according to the Associated Press. "It is our responsibility to form Baghdad provinces and southern Iraq provinces."

A spokesman for Hakim's party confirmed the remarks. "The major points in the constitution were agreed to by all the parties that participated in the drafting of the constitution," Haitham Husseini, the spokesman, said in an interview. "As for changes in the powers, some points or details, these are open to negotiation. However, the main principles which were agreed to by all sides, and approved by the people in a popular referendum, they cannot be touched."

That deal back in October never struck me as much more than window dressing, and in any case Hakim never really agreed to it anyway; he just smiled, said it was a great day for Iraq, and told his followers that if they voted Yes on the constitution everything would be fine. And from his perspective, I suppose that's true. However, from the perspective of anyone who would prefer not to see southern Iraq turn into a de facto client state of Iran, probably not so fine.

Stay tuned. The pot is starting to boil.

Kevin Drum 4:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL SECURITY....John Dickerson says in Slate that the president's sudden enthusiasm for a congressional investigation into the NSA's surveillance program is probably bad for the country:

But that's precisely why George Bush wants hearings on domestic spying. He's inviting Democrats to another round of self-immolation. In 2002, the Republican Party used the debate over the Department of Homeland Security to attack Democrats in the off-year election by arguing the party was soft on terror. The president and his aides hope the NSA hearings will offer the same opportunity in 2006.

That's exactly right. Marshall Wittman, who I think is dangerously complacent about George Bush's apparent belief that he has emergency war powers forever, nonetheless provides the obvious explanation:

One can question the legal rationale that was employed by President, but there is absolutely no evidence that he was attempting to do anything else but protect America. It might be satisfying for partisans to cast around comparisons to Nixon or Harding, but this was a program to thwart terrorists not for political aggrandizement.

Politically, this is almost certainly how a majority of Americans will see it, especially after a few friendly rounds of traitor-mongering and mushroom-cloud-alarmism to soften up the crowd. What's more, there's another looming national security issue on the near horizon as well: Iran. Martin Walker lays out the issue succinctly:

The only question now is whether the world is prepared to put up with a nuclear-armed Iran, which is currently led by a religious zealot who declares publicly that the Holocaust never took place and Israel should be wiped off the map.

....If Iran, as an oil-rich sovereign state, is determined to become a nuclear power there are no obvious steps short of all-out war and occupation that could prevent it eventually from doing so. So just as the world has learned to live with the Soviet-American nuclear balance, and with the Indo-Pakistani nuclear balance, it may soon start to accept that it will probably have to live with the balance of nuclear terror between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

Sometime this summer and fall we can probably expect yet another marketing campaign from the White House, this time aimed in the direction of Iran, and before long the alternatives are going to get pretty stark: do we recommend continuing sanctions and multilateral opprobrium, or do we support air strikes? Do we "live with" Iran's nuclear program or do we do something about it? Yes or no?

All this is by way of saying that although Democrats would like the 2006 election to be about Jack Abramoff and Republican corruption, the White House still has something to say about that. George Bush is going to do his best to keep national security front and center, and Democrats had better have a more crowd-pleasing answer on this subject than they did in 2002 and 2004. Just saying.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (294)

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PRIORITIES....It's always good to see Republican administrations taking the actual administration of federal programs so seriously:

California officials ordered emergency action Thursday to cover drug costs for 1 million elderly citizens, many of whom have been denied life-saving medications or charged exorbitant amounts because of glitches in the new federal prescription drug program.

....Critics said the program, which Bush has touted as the most significant advance in Medicare in 40 years, was fast becoming a public health emergency. California officials said that as many as one-fifth of the 1 million elderly, poor or disabled state residents who were switched into the federal program on Jan. 1 could be wrongly denied their medications because of flaws in the program.

In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, took action similar to Schwarzenegger's, ordering state funds to be used to provide emergency drug coverage for the elderly. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a leading figure among Republican governors on health policy issues, took a similar step Wednesday. Nine states, including California, have stepped in to fill the gaps in the federal program.

If George Bush and Karl Rove spent half as much time on the actual governance of the country as they do on figuring out new ways to portray Democrats as weak-kneed terrorist appeasers, seniors might be getting their drugs. But we all have our priorities.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIFE AND DEATH....On Thursday the Supreme Court heard the case of Paul House, a Tennessee man who is appealing his death sentence based on new DNA evidence suggesting he's innocent. Antonin Scalia indicated during the arguments that he wanted to take a very strict, legalistic approach to the case, and Cathy Young isn't impressed:

So the difference between a man's life and death hinges on the difference between "could" and "would." It sounds like something out of a very black comedy satirizing the courts.

The convenience of the criminal justice system really shouldn't be the primary factor in deciding whether someone lives or dies. House deserves a new trial.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

JUDGING ALITO....I've only paid a modest bit of attention to the Alito hearings, but from what I've seen I'd say that Michael O'Hare has it about right:

....He doesn't have a screw loose; what he has is a piece missing, conspicuously, radiantly, displaying the absence of any sense of, well, justice. Not a case came up for discussion in which he registered that one or another outcome was just wrong, outrageous to a sense of decency, or to him.

He's on record in a memo as believing that to shoot an eighth grader, known not to be armed, who was trying to climb over a fence in escape, is a proper use of deadly force by a policeman. In a discussion of immigration cases that have been regularly occasioning inexcusable, vile, un-American heartbreak on people who missed obscure deadlines or violated arcane requirements, all he could say was that the courts get bad transcripts and it was hard to find translators for some of the plaintiffs, but that was a problem for Congress.

It wasn't exactly Pilate washing his hands, but the man appears to be completely comfortable dealing with frightful social wrongs by moving the issue down the hall to another office. Sometimes the Court has to do this, but to Alito it's an especially good day's work, not a disappointment.

A smart, decent, small man....

Kevin Drum 1:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (268)

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January 12, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FAIRY TALES FROM THE RIGHT....John Boehner, candidate for Republican Majority Leader in the House:

If I am elected Majority Leader, there will no longer be a K Street project, or anything else like it.

Give me a break. The Republican Party would disintegrate if he magically got rid of the K Street project and "anything else like it." Who does he think he's kidding?

Kevin Drum 6:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....A reader emailed me a few minutes ago asking if I had a full screen shot of the K Street Project website from which I cropped the small piece posted here. I said I was sorry, but no I didn't.

But it turned out I did: Google Desktop keeps screen captures of nearly every site I've visited in the past few months. For any individual website it only seems to keep the most recent two or three screens, but that's still pretty handy.

Just thought I'd pass that along.

Kevin Drum 6:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

AMERIKA....The Guardian describes the charges faced by Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, currently on trial in London:

The cleric faces nine charges under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 alleging he solicited others at public meetings to murder Jews and other non-Muslims. Mr Hamza denies all the charges.

....Mr Hamza faces a charge relating to the [Encyclopaedia of Afghani Jihad, which was found in his home] under section 58 of the Terrorism Act, which accuses him of possession of a document which contained information "of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

....Mr Hamza also faces four charges under the Public Order Act 1986 of "using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up racial hatred".

Hamza is an unusually repellent person, which makes it hard to work up much sympathy for his plight. And yet something about this trial struck me: unless I'm mistaken, not a single one of these charges would make it to trial in the United States, Patriot Act or no. (I suppose the solicitation to murder is a bare possibility though it's a longshot since the "solicitation" apparently consisted of spittle-flecked speeches in mosques, not actual conspiracies in which Hamza's followers were told to go out and kill people but the others sound like complete nonstarters.)

I don't really have any reason to post about this except to point out that this is yet another example of a way in which America, which is supposedly far to Europe's right, isn't always. Four years after 9/11, we're still pretty distant from being the fascist state some seem to think we are.

Kevin Drum 6:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (110)

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By: Kevin Drum

I WONDER HOW MUCH THIS JOB PAYS?....A reader who followed my link to the K Street Project website last night emailed to point out the following item on its front page. Does the Department of Labor really have a Special Assistant for Conservative Outreach? Do they also have a Special Assistant for Liberal Outreach?

I suppose I could call and ask, but maybe someone will do it for me if I post this. Inquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 3:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL INTEREST CONSERVATISM....Today's lecture on Republican pandering to special business interests concerns the soon-to-be-extinct legal doctrine known as "equitable subrogation." You're excited already, aren't you?

Here's the nickel explanation. Suppose you're in a car accident and you suffer a bunch of damages: medical bills, lost wages, lawyers' fees, and so forth. Your insurance company pays your medical bills, and then you sue the other guy and recover damages. What happens to the money you recover?

Your insurance company naturally thinks the first priority should be to repay them for the medical bills they covered. However, anyone who's not a paid spokesman for the insurance industry probably disagrees. After all, the insurance company has been collecting premiums for years and has enormous financial resources, while the victim is the one who's actually suffering from both physical injury and financial distress. Common sense suggests that the injured party should get first crack at the dough, and only after he's "made whole" should the insurance company get repaid. This is the doctrine of equitable subrogation.

That's fair, and it's also the law in most states. But of course, insurance companies hate it, and we all know that the insurance industry's best friend is the Republican Party. Isn't it about time for all those campaign contributions to start paying off?

You betcha! And the magic answer to the insurance industry's woes is "ERISA," a federal law that has grown since 1974 to oversee 130 million workers covered by employer pension and health plans and oh-by-the-way, a law that sweeps away any pesky state regulation in its path. Wouldn't it be nice if ERISA were amended to get rid of equitable subrogation and give insurance companies first crack at any money recovered in legal settlements?

You hardly have to ask what happened next, do you? This is from Sue Steinman, policy director of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America:

Heres what happened on the Hill. The House bill [on pension reform], as originally introduced, did not contain the subrogation language nor did the bill reported out of committee contain the subrogation language. It was added surreptitiously, just prior to the House floor debate as part of a Managers Amendment. The House Rules allow this, if a Managers Amendment is blessed by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the Majority. Thats what happened in this case.

Yes, that's surreptitiously, the Republican majority's favorite way of screwing their own constituents. From here the bill will go to a conference committee, where the subrogation language will either live or die. If you think this sucks, call your congressman and complain.

NOTE: This issue was brought to my attention by Brian King, a Utah lawyer who specializes in ERISA cases. You can find a more detailed explanation of this issue on his blog.

Kevin Drum 2:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE BLOGGING....Chris Mooney's science blog is now being sponsored by Seed magazine, where Chris works, and has a new URL:

http://scienceblogs.com/intersection

The Seed borg is apparently swallowing up quite a few other science-oriented blogs as well, including PZ Myers' Pharyngula, Chad Orzel's Uncertain Principles, Tim Lambert's Deltoid, and about a dozen others (so far). The main site is here. It's worth checking out.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORNING CRANKINESS....Things that bug me:

  • "Link rich" commentary. This code word usually indicates that instead of taking the trouble to write a persuasive and coherent post, the author has simply done a search of Google News and linked to everything he could find.

  • Full page ads covering up entire sites. The New York Times has long done this for individual articles, and now Slate and the Los Angeles Times are doing this on their home pages. Before long, the only paper I'm going to read will be the Washington Post, and this decision will have nothing to do with the quality of their journalism.

  • Daily updates from bloggers who think I need an email reminding me of every post they write. I don't. Just knock it off, OK?

  • Bloggers who continue to blog about New York Times op-eds available only via TimesSelect. If you really want the Times to realize how pissed off you are about TimesSelect, then quit linking to them.

That is all. Normal non-cranky blogging will resume shortly.

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL SECURITY....Laura Donohue provides an excellent reason to believe the Patriot Act needs a bit of tweaking before it's reauthorized. It's not that it's too tough on terrorism, it's just the opposite:

Many Americans might approve of data mining to find terrorists. But not all of the inquiries necessarily relate to terrorism. The Patriot Act allows law enforcement officers to get "sneak and peek" warrants to search a home for any suspected crime and to wait months or even years to tell the owner they were there. Last July, the Justice Department told the House Judiciary Committee that only 12% of the 153 "sneak and peek" warrants it received were related to terrorism investigations.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg, who believes that slippery slopes are the merest hooey, explains why he thinks all the recent concern over national security abuses is overblown:

At first, I thought this NSA story was a big deal on the merits, and I wrote that Bush should have asked to fix the law rather than work his way around it....Now I'm beginning to think this is just the latest in anti-Bush hype. The New York Times, which launched this "scandal," remains at journalistic DEFCON 1, releasing a stream of articles, editorials and Op-Ed articles as if the nation were up in arms over what some hotter heads believe to be an impeachable offense.

....Now, forgive me for not loading up my car with bottled water and canned goods and heading off into the hills to fight with the partisans, but I just don't see what the big deal is.

Translation: I used to think the critics were right, but then I realized this might actually do some damage to the Republican cause. So I changed my mind.

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE K STREET PROJECT....Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post provides a brief history of modern lobbying and how it's evolved since Republicans came to power a decade ago:

The change in standards of what is objectionable versus what is commonplace is suggested by a nearly forgotten uproar nearly two decades ago. On Feb. 3, 1987, newspapers disclosed that then-Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Finance Committee, had set up a "breakfast club" for lobbyists who donated $10,000 to his campaign committee.

The implied bargain money for access struck many as just too obvious. Three days later, Bentsen ended the breakfasts and acknowledged that his error of judgment had been "a doozy."

Now, every day Congress is in session, there are lobbyist-organized fundraisers for senators and representatives at breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner at which the basic transaction is little different than what got Bentsen in hot water.

....The pivotal point in Washington's changing culture, according to lobbyists and congressional ethics analysts, came in 1995, shortly after Newt Gingrich and his "Republican Revolutionaries" roared to power in the 1994 midterm elections. Tom DeLay, the new majority whip, and his allies began the "K Street Project" the pressuring of trade associations and lobbying firms to hire Republican, and to contribute to Republican campaigns if they wanted access to key leaders and committee chairmen in the House.

By the way, the K Street Project has its own website if you're interested in checking it out. It's entirely "non-partisan" of course....

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By: Kevin Drum

ARTICLE 31....Hmmm. Colonel Thomas Pappas, the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, has been granted immunity from prosecution and will be testifying about the military's interrogation policies at an upcoming court martial. But what about the guy responsible for "Gitmo-izing" those policies in the first place?

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, a central figure in the U.S. detainee-abuse scandal, this week invoked his right not to incriminate himself in court-martial proceedings against two soldiers accused of using dogs to intimidate captives at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to lawyers involved in the case.

....Miller invoked his military Article 31 rights through his Army lawyer on Tuesday, after a Navy judge in the Military District of Washington ruled that lawyers defending the two dog handlers could interview Miller this week. Article 31 rights are almost identical to those afforded civilians by the Fifth Amendment, and invoking them does not legally imply guilt.

....In an interview with defense attorneys for those MPs in August 2004, Miller said he never told Pappas to use dogs in questioning detainees...."At no time did we discuss the use of dogs in interrogations," Miller said, according to a transcript.

So why isn't Miller willing to repeat his previous denial? His lawyer's explanation is basically that Miller is a busy guy and he's already answered the question. Am I the only one who finds that slightly less than convincing?

Kevin Drum 1:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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January 11, 2006
By: Paul Glastris

POLITICAL TRIBALISM... If you've ever wondered what percentage of voters think for themselves when it comes to public policy matters, and what percentage just robotically follow whatever their party's leaders happen to say, then check out this little tidbit from the new Pew poll:

[I]n the wake of the news that President Bush has authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor Americans suspected of having terrorist ties the issue has become more divisive. Today, Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats (37% vs. 18%) to say they favor allowing the government to monitor their telephone and email communications. This marks a 15-point increase in support among Republicans, and a nine-point drop among Democrats since 2002.

CORRECTION: Sorry folks. I somehow misprinted the year. It's since 2002, not 2000. I've corrected the post accordingly.

Paul Glastris 5:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION....In their book Off Center, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that although the Republican Party has moved far to the right of the political center, it has nonetheless managed to hold onto power by adopting a variety of hardnosed and cynical electoral strategies. The problem with this thesis is that, in practice, Republicans haven't actually moved all that far to the right. Charlie Cook sums it up this way:

There is a growing divide between those members of the GOP Conference who want confrontation with Democrats and those who seek compromise. According to one influential Republican, "We cannot govern from the right," but added, "you cannot control this caucus from the center."

I think that's just about right. As Cook's source puts it, the Republican caucus has indeed moved radically to the right, but at the same time they all know perfectly well they can't govern from there lest they be tossed out of office en masse. It's just another piece of evidence that the "conservative revolution" is, and always has been, a myth.

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (110)

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By: Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin, formerly of the blog Aspasia, is a medical student in his final year at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. For the past year he has organized a collaboration between Kurdish and American doctors with the twin goals of better defining the long-term consequences of Baathist chemical attacks on the Kurdish civilian population of Halabja and advocating for increased access to resources for the survivors. Jonathan is travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan from January to March of 2006 and will be sending occasional dispatches about his travels to the Washington Monthly. Here's his first one.


FIRST IMPRESSIONS....Whats the Kurdish word for chutzpah? I want to know after arriving at my window seat on Air Kurdistan and finding an old woman resting comfortably in my chair. I point to my ticket and act confused, but she just smiles serenely. Its ok, she says, indicating the middle chair. The game repeats itself throughout the airplane, with arguments breaking out in a few places. Midway through the flight, when the woman starts vomiting, she refuses to surrender her window seat. Instead she climbs over her neighbors and carries plastic bags to and from the bathroom. Its rudeness taken to an almost spiritual level. When we land in Erbil there is clapping and a few shouts of Kurdistan! from the passengers. Customs is a mess, with a mass of people and luggage bottlenecked behind two army checkpoints. Despite the pushiness, people are helpful and direct me to the right place. Its not until Im outside the airport that the emptiness of the place strikes me. Instead of our industrial zones there are concrete security perimeters. Instead of fences I see barbed wire sprawling around like confetti. Men with Kalashnikovs, many without uniform, greet individual passengers and race off in SUVs. Were they peshmerga, a private security detail, or just family members? The security system is a recurrent topic throughout my first day.

A driver from the Ministry of Health greets me at the airport and packs my bags into his car. As we drive I notice improvised concrete buildings everywhere. In the post-Anfal Kurdistan, this is affordable housing. We pass the regional bank, hit last year by RPG fire, and then a patch of green called Sammy Abdul Rahman Park. This is named after a KDP official who died in a suicide bombing, one of the few large incidents in the Kurdish region. When we reach Erbil International Hotel, I am struck by how out-of-place it looks. It is glass and steel on stone columns, and it looks like a toy skyscraper stuck in the mud. Dr. Ali Sindi, a Harvard educated physician at the health ministry, insists that I am safe here. But safe from what? Its a question no one seems able to answer.

In the hotel lounge theres a Kurdish version of The West Wing unfolding. Officials from political parties meet and then head to the restaurant for shisha. Wedding receptions gather, with the Kurdish men in stocky suits and bulging pink ties. The women embody modern Islam, with arms and legs covered but hair flowing. A few women use elements from the dishdasha (a colorful traditional dress), but most wear western style pants and shirts. Peshmerga search and frisk everyone who enters.

Later in the day I get bored and walk outside to the peshmerga checkpoint. I bring a book of pictures from New York and a Hersheys chocolate bar. The soldiers politely turn down the chocolate, but they are excited by the pictures of New York. Chinatown takes a minute to explain, but then there are fast exchanges in Kurdish and everyone nods approvingly. Demoway bizanum Kurdi (I want to learn Kurdish), I say. They teach me a few phrases and each shakes my hand.

Its my first day. I am exhausted, and the details of the Halabja work begin to fill my mind with petty anxieties. One thing alone seems clear: The Kurds are a people under siege. In the United States we are not. Its a distinction that will color every aspect of life here.

Jonathan Dworkin 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

BOMBING AL-JAZEERA....Did George Bush seriously suggest that coalition forces should bomb al-Jazeera headquarters because he was unhappy over their coverage of the siege of Fallujah in 2004? Christopher Hitchens describes just how loony the thought is:

The state of Qatar, which though a Wahabbi kingdom has a free press and allows women to run and to vote in elections....It has also been the host of United States Central Command....It is the site each year of a highly interesting and useful conference, co-sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution....Its emir has been a positive help and supporter to many democrats in the region. Bombing or blowing up the Al Jazeera office would involve hitting the downtown section of Doha, the capital city of a friendly power. It's difficult to think of any policy that would have been more calamitous.

OK, agreed. But did Bush suggest it? The two guys who leaked the contents of the incriminating memo are currently on trial in Britain, and the New York Times buries the following confirmation in its report:

Peter Kilfoyle, a legislator from Mr. Blair's Labor Party, said he...had tried to publicize the document in the United States in 2004.

Mr. Kilfoyle said in a telephone interview that he and [Tony] Clarke had hoped to influence the 2004 presidential election by sharing information from the document with John Latham, 71, a British citizen with connections to the Democratic Party.

The Guardian has more details on the Kilfoyle/Latham connection, and it all sounds pretty lame to me. Are these guys seriously saying that they couldn't figure out any way at all to safely get a photocopy of this document to an American newspaper? Why? Were they afraid no one would be interested? Sheesh.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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By: Kevin Drum

BREMER ON RUMSFELD....Anybody who writes a memoir obviously has a considerable incentive to try to make himself look good. And when you were the guy in charge of a debacle like the occupation of Iraq, you really, really have an incentive to try to make yourself look good.

That said, Paul Bremer is apparently pretty clear in My Year in Iraq that he and Colin Powell were the real hawks in Iraq hawk being defined here as someone who actually wanted to win, as opposed to someone who just wanted to test out pet theories of military transformation. The Weekly Standard has a series of excerpts demonstrating that Bremer and Powell (a) wanted more troops in Iraq and (b) wanted to gain control of the insurgency, while Rumsfeld just wanted to get the hell out.

Perhaps someday Rumsfeld will write his own book. I can't wait.

UPDATE: Think Progress illustrates Bremer's strenuous efforts to make himself look good here. It's a pretty safe bet that no one is coming out of this debacle with his reputation intact.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

TOM DELAY AND THE RUSSIAN TYCOONS....The Campaign for America's Future plans to run ads on Houston TV stations accusing Tom DeLay of corruption. DeLay says he'll sue any station that runs the ad (KHOU report here).

So what does the ad say that DeLay objects to? The fact that he's been indicted? That's perfectly true. The fact that he took money from Jack Abramoff? Also true. Perhaps the fact that he's accepted hundreds of golf trips, private airplane flights, and expensive stays at world class resorts from friends? That's public record as well. So maybe it's this:

One million dollars from Russian tycoons to allegedly influence his vote. One million dollars from Russian tycoons?

You need to watch the video to catch the announcer's wonderful inflection on the second sentence, but you get the idea. The good folks of Sugar Land might not mind a bit of red-blooded American influence peddling, but they sure as hell don't think much of taking money from commie tycoons.

For the record, here's the Washington Post story that led to the charge:

The U.S. Family Network, a public advocacy group that operated in the 1990s with close ties to Rep. Tom DeLay....$1 million of its revenue came in a single 1998 check....from Russian oil and gas executives. Abramoff had been working closely with two such Russian energy executives on their Washington agenda, and...had helped organize a 1997 Moscow visit by DeLay (R-Tex.).

Russian tycoons! That's the ticket!

UPDATE: From comments: "DeLay will sue? For what? Definition of character?"

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

INTELLIGENT DESIGN UPDATE....The El Tejon Unified School District has approved a new class:

An initial course description, which was distributed to students and their families last month, said "the class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological and biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. The class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the Earth is thousands of years old, not billions."

The course, which began Jan. 3 and is scheduled to run for one month, is being taught by Sharon Lemburg, a special education teacher with a bachelor of arts in physical education and social science.

And just how are school officials planning to apply a gloss of secular lipstick to this transparently religious pig? Why, it's a philosophy class, they say, not a science class.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe both. But it does go to show that the real divide in California is not the famous one between north and south, it's the less well known one between coastal and inland. Drive a hundred miles into the interior of the state, and you might as well be in Mississippi.

Kevin Drum 1:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (331)

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January 10, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HISTORY BLOGGING....Looking for a good history blog? On Saturday at the American Historical Association convention in Philadelphia, Ralph Luker announced the winners of the Cliopatria Awards for excellence in history blogging. You can see the results here.

Kevin Drum 8:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX NOTES....As Max points out, tax fraud by the working poor is estimated at no more than $9 billion annually while tax fraud by the not-so-poor weighs in at about $340 billion. Nonetheless, Republicans in Congress have long insisted that the IRS focus a disproportionate amount of attention on policing requests for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax refund that's available exclusively to the working poor.

Still, at least honest poor people can get their EITC refunds, right? Think again:

Tax refunds sought by hundreds of thousands of poor Americans have been frozen and their returns labeled fraudulent, blocking refunds for years to come, the Internal Revenue Service's taxpayer advocate told Congress today.

The taxpayers, whose average income was $13,000, were not told that they were suspected of fraud, the advocate said in her annual report to Congress. The advocate, Nina Olson, said her staff sampled suspected returns and found that, at most, one in five was questionable.

....Ms. Olson said that 66 percent of those taxpayers who pressed for their refunds were found to be due all the money they sought or even more than they asked for.

They weren't even told they were suspected of fraud. Nice. And how about the rich? How's the IRS treating them these days? Good luck finding out:

Records showing how thoroughly the Internal Revenue Service audits big corporations and the rich, and how much it discounts the additional taxes assessed after audits, are being withheld from the public despite a 1976 court order requiring their disclosure, according to a legal motion filed last week in federal court in Seattle.

For decades, the information was given at no charge to a professor at Syracuse University, Susan B. Long, who made it available on the Internet at trac.syr.edu, with tools for people to conduct their own analyses.

....The agency has no plans to release the information, [IRS spokesman Frank] Keith said Friday. He argued that Professor Long's latest requests went far beyond the order, covering costly detailed information that could inadvertently allow the identification of specific taxpayers.

Professor Long said that was false. "There is no change in what we have asked for, and they know it," she said.

It's good to be rich. Especially under a Republican administration.

Kevin Drum 6:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALITO UPDATE....I'm curious. I listened to a few minutes of the Alito hearing this morning and I heard Alito say that he thought Griswold v. Connecticut, the landmark privacy case, was correctly decided. But of course he won't tell us whether he thinks Roe v. Wade was correctly decided. Why not?

Why is it OK to take a firm stand on some decisions but not on others? What's the supposed algorithm here?

Kevin Drum 3:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

COGNITIVE ABILITIES....Fred Kaplan writes in Slate that the Army has responded to its recruiting woes by dramatically lowering its standards:

The bad news is twofold. First, the number of Category IV recruits is starting to skyrocket. Second, a new study compellingly demonstrates that, in all realms of military activity, intelligence does matter. Smarter soldiers and units perform their tasks better; dumber ones do theirs worse.

"Category IV" is the Army's term for recruits who score in the bottom third of the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. Matt Yglesias comments:

I tend to doubt, however, that this line of criticism will gain any traction, since making the argument requires you to say that IQ tests (which is all the AFQT really is) are an important measurement and most liberals prefer to shy away from the topic.

If that's true, it's too bad for a community that likes to think of itself as reality based. Like it or not, all the PC handwaving in the world won't change the fact that (a) IQ tests are a pretty good measure of the cognitive ability normally referred to as "intelligence" and (b) intelligence is an important trait for a wide variety of modern day tasks. Kaplan reviews the evidence that intelligence matters for military tasks in his Slate piece.

Of course, we all know what the real problem is here: in contemporary discourse intelligence is inextricably bound up with race, which is why it's almost impossible to talk honestly about it. For that we mainly have conservative race demagogues like Charles Murray and Steve Sailer to blame although liberals themselves haven't been entirely blameless either when it comes to demagoging IQ.

In any case, I've long had a suspicion that one of the reasons IQ is so overvalued in our society it's important, but it's not that important is because it's one of the few cognitive traits that's routinely measured. Simply because it's something that most of us can put a number to, it becomes a de facto stand-in for all cognitive abilities, even though it very clearly isn't.

The answer? How about more testing, not less? Cognitive traits like sociability, empathy, self-discipline, and extroversion, just to name a few, are as important in contemporary society as IQ, but most of us have only a vague idea of how we compare to other people in these areas. If we routinely measured these things in addition to IQ, perhaps the lay public would start treating IQ as just one of many important cognitive traits and we'd all start to assign it an importance more in keeping with its true worth. This in turn might help to reduce IQ as the cultural flashpoint that it is today.

Anyway, it's just a thought. Let the rending begin in comments!

Kevin Drum 3:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (292)

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By: Zachary Roth

ABRAMOFF AND THE DEMOCRATS....Its now clear that the GOP strategy for limiting the damage from the Abramoff scandal is to employ the Democrats were doing it too defense. And the press has been willing to help that strategy along. An Associated Press story, for instance, reported that a contribution to Democratic senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota had been made by the Coushatta Indians on Abramoffs instructions. But AP failed to note that its source for that story, Jimmy Faircloth, is not just the Coushattas lawyer, but a Republican operative.

Its no surprise that Republicans would hope to take out Dorgan as collateral damage in the Abramoff affair. Not only is he a red state Democrat, but, as the top Dem on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee he joined with John McCain earlier this year to hold the hearings into the Abramoff matter that got the ball rolling on the issue. Last month, in a piece headlined Dorgan Tangled in Abramoff Web, the Washington Post reported that Dorgan was among beneficiaries of the largest campaign contributions from Abramoff's associates and clients. And its true that in March 2001, Dorgan held a fundraising event at the MCI Center in Abramoffs skybox.

But Dorgan, who has been working on behalf of Indian tribes far longer than Abramoff has been bilking them, reported the gift as an in-kind contribution at the time. More important, the event was organized not by Abramoff but by Mike Smith, a colleague of Abramoff at the Greenberg Traurig lobbying firm. Smith, a veteran Democratic operative, had worked closely with Dorgans office before he joined Greenberg in 2000, a year before Abramoff did. Smith told Dorgans office that the box was owned by the Choctaw Indians, not by Abramoff something Smith himself was led to believe by Abramoff and his staff, according to a former Greenberg staffer.

But its not just Dorgan. The attempt to tie Democrats to Abramoff is breaking out all across the country and the press is buying it. AP reported last week (link no longer available) that in Arkansas, Republican and Democratic leaders are taking swipes at each other over both parties ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates (italics added). Democratic senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, AP reports, received money from Abramoff associates, including Ron Platt, a Democratic lobbyist.

Platts connection to the disgraced lobbyist had first publicly surfaced in December, when the Washington Post listed Platt as part of Team Abramoff, asserting that he lobbied for tribal clients of Jack Abramoff and...contributed money to politicians.

Its true that Platt and Abramoff had worked together on behalf of tribal clients at Greenberg. But the problem with making the link between Platt and Abramoff, as both the Post and AP try to do, is that Platts contributions pretty clearly have nothing to do with Abramoff. His wife contributed to Lincolns 1998 Senate run, three years before her husband started working with Abramoff. And Platt told me that his contribution to Pryor in 2004 came at the behest of the senators mother, an old personal friend. But that doesnt stop the AP from headlining the story, GOP, Dems, trade barbs over Abramoff ties.

The idea that Democratic lobbyists contributing to Democratic politicians were acting as part of Abramoffs scam is absurd on its face. But its an idea that the press, in its obsession with finding an objective storyline, cant resist. And this is just the beginning.

Zachary Roth 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (170)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING ALITO....Over at Crooks and Liars, Glenn Greenwald says:

The Democrats are a party in urgent need of a good fight. And the Alito nomination presents the perfect opportunity for Democrats to demonstrate that they are willing to wage a real battle for the things they believe in. Two core Democratic principles, at least, are at stake in these hearings, and are clearly threatened by the Alito nomination:

(1) whether we live in a country where the President has the right to declare himself to be above the law and can freely violate whatever laws he wants; and, (2) whether the privacy rights which are the bedrock of individual liberty in this country will be decimated by the Supreme Court....If Democrats are unwilling to fight for these principles, what are they willing to fight for?

Roughly speaking, I agree with Glenn. The problem is, how do we wage the fight? Here's what Alito said today about the president being above the law:

In response to questions from Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alito said that "no person in this country is above the law." But he said some issues related to executive powers fall into "a twilight zone" where presidential authority is at a low point.

And here's what he said about privacy and abortion:

Alito said he agreed "that the Constitution protects a right to privacy," the main underpinning of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationally....If the [abortion] issue were to come before him today, the first consideration would be precedent, he said. "If the analysis would get beyond that point, I would approach the question with an open mind," he said.

Is Alito fudging furiously? Probably. But it still doesn't give liberals much of a purchase to lead a battle against his nomination. Subtle arguments about the nature of stare decisis and the precise extent of the president's Article II powers just aren't going to get very many people ready to take to the streets with pitchforks. So what's the battle cry?

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE: STILL A PROBLEM....To absolutely no one's surprise, overall healthcare costs rose at a breathtaking rate yet again last year. Healthcare now accounts for 16% of U.S. GDP, compared to about 10-11% in our nearest competitor.

And what do we get for all that dough? Not much. Healthcare quality rose only marginally, which means we still suck on virtually every aspect of healthcare compared to industrialized countries with sane national healthcare policies.

But it could be worse. And for a lot of people it is. As the Washington Post chart above shows (taken from the National Healthcare Disparities Report), if you're black, native American, Hispanic, or poor, your healthcare sucks even worse than if you're middle class and white.

It sort of feels like whistling into the wind to keep harping on this, but it's still hard to believe that more Democrats aren't willing to put their reputations behind a genuinely sane, comprehensive, modern national healthcare plan. Not a patch, not "catastrophic insurance," and certainly not HSAs. After all, lots of countries already have decent systems for us to borrow ideas from, and citizens in those countries generally have greater choice of physicians, better (and more equal) care, lower costs, wider coverage, and better outcomes. Sure, it won't happen anytime soon, but it would still be the most effective rallying cry I can think of to truly differentiate Democrats from Republicans. Only a madman would prefer our bizarre hodgepodge system.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (170)

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By: Kevin Drum

EXECUTIVE PAY UPDATE....The Wall Street Journal reports that new SEC chairman Christopher Cox is getting ready to propose the "most sweeping overhaul of pay disclosure rules in 14 years":

The proposed changes, according to SEC officials, would for the first time require corporate proxy statements to provide a column with a total annual compensation figure for each of a company's five highest-paid executives and be far more specific about the value of their various benefits. Total compensation is an elusive number under the current system, and one for which investor advocates have long sought greater disclosure.

In addition, the SEC would force companies to take the monetary value of the stock-option grants given to top executives and place those figures side-by-side with salary and bonus information. Under a new accounting rule, companies must start expensing the value of their stock options.

....Mr. Cox, a free marketer and former congressman who worked in the Reagan White House, has signaled in recent months that executive compensation is going to be a major issue for him, and indeed the proposal will be the biggest change he has championed since taking over five months ago.

Good for him. Sunlight may or may not be the best disinfectant, but it's a pretty good one. These rules are long overdue.

Kevin Drum 2:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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January 9, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

TARGETING JOURNALISTS?....What the hell?

American troops in Baghdad yesterday blasted their way into the home of an Iraqi journalist working for the Guardian and Channel 4, firing bullets into the bedroom where he was sleeping with his wife and children.

Ali Fadhil, who two months ago won the Foreign Press Association young journalist of the year award, was hooded and taken for questioning. He was released hours later.

The troops told Fadhil they were looking for an insurgent, but Fadhil isn't buying it. He thinks it might have something to do with the fact that a few days ago he asked U.S. authorities for an interview regarding his findings that tens of millions of dollars in U.S. and British funds have been misused or misappropriated.

At this point, of course, there's no telling who's right. Still, this whole "targeting journalists" thing is starting to look more credible every day, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 8:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (159)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALITO THREAD....Atrios and Dan Drezner both have basically the same idea: to keep ourselves awake during the Alito hearings, we should be on the lookout for the stupidest and/or most pompous phrase uttered by a United States senator. The winner either gets a prize or gets pleasantly blitzed.

That's probably OK for today, but I have a different idea for the balance of the hearings: take a drink every time Alito claims he can't answer a question because it might prejudice his opinion in a future case. There's only one problem with this game: you won't just end up drunk, you'll probably end up lying face down in a gutter dead from alcohol poisoning.

In a remarkable evolution of democracy, we have now entered an era in which candidates for the Supreme Court are allowed to glide through their hearings without once giving a straight answer about anything having to do with the laws or constitution of the United States. After all, Supreme Court justices might conceivably rule on anything in the future. It's yet another sign that the separation of powers envisioned by the founders has slowly morphed into a de facto parliamentary system except without any of the institutional means of accountability normally built into a parliamentary system. Someday Congress is going to regret that.

Kevin Drum 2:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (121)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW TO TALK ABOUT CORRUPTION....Mark Schmitt has some framing advice for Democrats about the Abramoff affair:

This is not a lobbying scandal. It's a betrayal-of-public-trust scandal. Lobbyists have no power, no influence, until a public servant gives them power. That's what DeLay and the K Street Project was all about. What they did was to set up a system by which lobbyists who proved their loyalty in various ways, such as taking DeLay and Ney on golf trips to Scotland, could be transformed from supplicants to full partners in government.

....But every time we say "lobbying reform," we reinforce the idea that it is only the lobbyist who is the wrongdoer.

Sounds right to me. Mark promises a followup in a day or two.

Kevin Drum 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATS AND THE NSA....Joe Klein thinks Democrats are heading off a cliff by making too big a deal out of the NSA's domestic spying program. Conservative James Joyner has a reasonable reaction:

Klein is right on two counts here. First, there are some legitimate questions about the scope of this program and especially about the Bush administration's assertions of power to conduct it without congressional authority. Second, by seeking to turn this into the next Watergate, the Democrats are overplaying their hand and may well see it backfire.

An AP-Ipsos poll released over the weekend showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans think a warrant should be required for domestic eavesdropping. I believe these numbers are distorted by a misunderstanding of the nature of the program, caused by poor reporting and the constant use of the term "wiretapping." Still, the Democrats are on firm ground in challenging the administration on civil liberties and legal/checks and balances grounds.

This is a legitimately tough issue for Democrats, because I think James is right on both counts. Americans should be suspicious of Bush's assertions, especially given his almost complete lack of candor about the war on terror for the past four years, and they should be concerned about domestic spying conducted without a warrant.

At the same time, the NSA program itself is quite likely a reasonable response to 9/11. In fact, the only reason I have even a niggling doubt about that is the fact that Bush resisted getting the law changed to explicitly authorize it. In the weeks after 9/11, Congress would have approved virtually any reasonable intelligence program by huge bipartisan margins, and the only reason not to ask for that approval is to preserve the president's ability to do something unreasonable. But what?

Politically, I continue to think Democrats should make it absolutely clear that what they're attacking isn't necessarily the NSA program itself, but the fact that the president unilaterally decided that he could approve the program without congressional authorization even though Congress had specifically forbidden it. In the world of 10-second sound bites, that might end up being a difficult distinction to make, but it's worth making it over and over anyway. We're not opposed to cranking up our intelligence efforts, but we are opposed to a president who thinks that a vague and indefinite state of war gives him the authority to do anything he wants.

POSTSCRIPT: As for Klein's assertion that "the terrorists have modified their behavior" in response to disclosure of this program, that barely even deserves a response. Like many another liberal, I'm still waiting for even a colorable argument that al-Qaeda knows something today that they didn't know two months ago.

UPDATE: Wording changed in response to Mark Kleiman's comment here. He's right.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (259)

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By: Kevin Drum

BREMER ON IRAQ....On Dateline last night, Paul Bremer confirmed something that he briefly alluded to last year: we never had enough troops on the ground to keep order in Iraq, and both George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld knew it.

Bremer said he sent a memo to Rumsfeld suggesting that half a million soldiers would be needed, three times the number deployed by the Bush administration.

"I never had any reaction from him," the former diplomat told NBC's Brian Williams on "Dateline."

Although he never heard back from his direct boss, Bremer said he discussed his concerns with Bush, who told him he would seek troops from other countries, but did not mention increasing U.S. forces.

Now, Bremer is trying to sell his new book, and he's also trying to make sure that other people take the blame for screwing up the occupation. Still, that half million number is pretty stunning. It's one thing to tell your boss you need more troops, but it's quite another to tell him you need three times as many as you have. That's the kind of warning that really ought to make someone sit up and listen, and if Bremer is on the level here it means that Rumsfeld and Bush screwed the pooch even worse than we thought something I'm not sure I would have thought possible until now.

Of course, Bremer's statement makes it all the more odd that he allowed the Iraqi army to disband shortly after he took over. His explanation? "We really didn't see the insurgency coming." Sounds like everyone screwed the pooch here.

Kevin Drum 11:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (144)

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January 8, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE DOWNING STREET MEMOS REVISITED....Jonathan Schwarz is reading James Risen's State of War and says there's a lot more to it than just the revelations about Bush's domestic spying operation. In particular, it turns out that Risen highlights some new information about the infamous Downing Street Memos.

One of those memos quoted Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, as reporting after a visit to Washington DC that military action against Iraq was inevitable as early as July 2002:

Therefore, one of the most important questions about the Downing Street Memo has always been who exactly Dearlove met with in Washington. This would go a long way to answering why Dearlove believed "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Pundits wishing to play down the important of the memo, such as Michael Kinsley, opined that Dearlove may have just been talking to "the usual freelance chatterboxes" and perhaps was simply reporting on the "mood and gossip of 'Washington.'"

This isn't what Risen writes, to say the least.

Read the rest to find out who Dearlove was really talking to. Hint: it wasn't a bunch freelance chatterboxes.

Kevin Drum 6:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Debra Dickerson

Two-fer: How to stab both your race and your gender in the back with one post....Kevin foolishly forgot to disable my password, so, never one to under stay my welcome, I just had to John-Hancock another demerit onto my ghetto and womyn's room passes when I ran across this interview with Craig Brewer, writer and director of the controversial movie Hustle and Flow. Let me save you some time: homey's a freak.

Here's an extended excerpt from MSNBC's chat with him

Brewer: "Hustle & Flow" is actually about me and my wife making that first movie. I had my father, at the age of 49, die rather unexpectedly of a heart attack and literally his last words to me were you should do this script you wrote, this "Poor and Hungry" script, and don't shoot it on film. Don't spend all your money. Just celebrate the fact that you don't have that much money. So my wife and I would build these sets inside our house and we'd have to quiet down the neighbors and it was a very difficult time for us. My wife was working as a seamstress and then she started working as a stripper. I was writing in this bar and working in receiving at a bookstore. And really, this movie changed us and saved us from this crazy life we were living in Memphis. We became filmmakers. That's really what "Hustle & Flow" was about, we just changed it to rap and made the character a pimp.

AP: Why do you think the movie has such broad appeal?

Brewer: I think everybody has related to DJay. Everybody has thought, "I've been moving away from that dream that I had when I was a younger person, like an inch every day and now I'm on the other side of the room and I don't know if it's even possible for me to return to that time ever again. I'm closer to the end than I am to the beginning and is it OK for me to reboot?" Of course it's OK for you to reboot. Of course it's within your right to try and change your life. ... "Hustle & Flow" is for everybody who wants to reboot and I think that's why people connected with it.

....AP: Your next film is even more risky. What is the story behind "Black Snake Moan"?

Brewer: It's about this young white girl I don't like the word nymphomaniac but she suffers from this intense sexual addiction through these panic attacks she gets. It's about the relationship she has with this old black man who finds her beat up on the side of the road, nurses her back to health and he tries to help her. She's a very self-destructive young woman and so he keeps her chained, with a long chain, to this immovable rusty radiator out in his country home so she can't go back into town and hurt herself again.

I cannot wait to see Black Snake Moan and, dammit, I hope I like it as much as I liked Hustle and Flow and Jane Campion's 1993 The Piano. No, that's wrong: I didn't just like those movies. I was mesmerized by them. (Even though the male friend I saw the Campion with was so put off by Holly Hunter's butt shots that he nearly had to spit).

For those of you who were lobotomized by the feminist fury that movie incited, here's a The Piano cheat sheet lifted from the Boston Phoenix:

Women find another, more eloquent expression in The Piano, as does Campion in her consummate work to date. The film begins with a voiceover from Ada (Holly Hunter, with scarcely a syllable of dialogue, in her greatest performance) that comes not in her speaking voice she has not spoken since childhood but in her "mind's voice," that of a changeling child. Imprisoned in the 19th-century social restraints embodied by her stern black bonnet and gown, Ada gives voice to her soul through her piano (in the moody, somewhat anachronistic rhapsodies of composer Michael Nyman).

Unwed and burdened with her child Flora (an eldritch Anna Paquin, winner of one of those freak Best Supporting Actress Oscars), herself a witchy handful and her mother's interpreter and familiar, Ada is sent packing from her native Scotland to the surf-tossed, mud-clotted wilds of New Zealand and mail-order husband Stewart (Sam Neill). There, the piano proves an object of contention, as the hapless and puritanical Stewart insists on leaving it on the beach. On the other hand, his semi-feral neighbor Baines (Harvey Keitel, poignantly vulnerable despite his Maori markings, piggish behavior, and trademark nudity) is intrigued both by it and by the truculent, fragile Ada, who passes through the benighted settlement like an inkdrop through water.

Baines offers Stewart a strip of land for the instrument and then enlists Ada for "lessons." What follows is a perverse and wrenching treatise on capitalism, sexual politics, and passion as he trades piano keys to Ada for increasingly intimate, fetishistic favors. Far from being victimized, Ada gains power through the transactions, and though it carries the price of a brutal convulsion of violence, the finished composition is a sensuous meditation on language, sublimation, fate, and the ineffable mystery of the female will.

Now, while studying on an Ivy League campus, imagine loving a movie about a woman, er, womyn who comes to glory in trading sexual favors to ransom her beloved piano. I thought my own ovaries would stage a walk out before it was over. The fury of even my closest friends we'd mostly met, after all, through feminist groups was so thorough going, so Old Testament-ly impervious to the notion that theirs, too, were mere opinions, I ended up just metronoming things like, "Dunno. Just liked it, ok?" Or "Did you hear Holly Hunter play that piano? Sis was jamming." In particular, "C'mon. You know you'd a done that naughty pudge Keitel, too if no cameras were rolling" seemed to set them off.

It's not that I (duh) endorse anyone forcing anyone else to pole dance to retrieve stolen heirlooms, but, given my whole hearted embrace of the feminist critique of patriarchal sexual relationships, especially for a mute 19th century mail order bride with a bastard daughter who was sold by her father to a stranger, why is it so wrong to paint a picture of what such a reality might have looked like? For all its titillation, doesn't it prove the very point feminists make: that, at best, it makes sado-mascohists of us all, just as slavery and Jim Crow did? Unless we fear the bright, disinfecting light of public debate, why not interrogate our own notions of how those power relationships might have played out? Am I the only black feminist who hopes that Sally Hemmings might have actually loved Jeff-Daddy, even as I believe that waaaaaay most pre-1964 or so offspring of biracial unions were the result of rapes or, at best, date slash keep-my-job rapes? I don't need for every enslaved/ or Jim Crow'd mother of biracial children to have had to suckle her rapists' offspring to assert that 98 per cent of racial problems in America derive from whites' determination to control the black body, male and female. Hideous as it is to accept, there was the odd, counterintuitive instance that highlighted exactly that while providing for a modern day, unimaginable parable that kept our Starbucks'd minds from wandering into our millionth Nigerian-lottery-winning email of the day.

I know 'someone' who manipulated the love of her life into slapping her to prove that she could make him do any thing she wanted. You had to be there, not that I was, but it proves the point that often, the most passionate relationships, almost by definition, have some element of S & M at their core. It's not right. It's not preferable. It just is, as with the tale of a pimp who, even tho he forces his 'top bitch' to service a store owner to procure a top-of-the-line microphone for him, nonetheless has a heart of gold and just wants to be loved as a rapper.

Bring on the pitchforks.

Debra Dickerson 4:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (166)

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By: Kevin Drum

SODA BLOGGING....Over at Begging to Differ, Greg has a rundown of all the different kinds of Diet Coke. Here's his top pick:

  1. Coke Light. Only available internationally, but man is that stuff good. Its taste is similar to regular Mexican Coke, which has a strong flavor and is made from cane sugar. On a trip that Allison and I took to Mexico a few years back, we drank this stuff almost non-stop. As I understand it, Coca-Cola first tried to market Diet Coke internationally, but it flopped. People thought it was only for those trying to lose weight. Coke Light, on the other hand, could be marketed like light beer.

So what's the deal here? Does Coke Light taste better than American Diet Coke because they can still use cyclamates overseas? It turns out that's not it:

Fans of the drink often express a strong preference for the continental European formula over the British-American version, as it tastes far closer to regular Coke. This is because the Diet Coke formula is based upon the New Coke formulation and Coca-Cola Light, now being sold in the U.S. as Coca-Cola Zero, is based on the Coca-Cola Classic formula.

So Coke Light is Coke Zero? Why then does Greg rank Coke Light #1 and Coke Zero #6 ("not bad, but there's something slightly empty to its flavor")? I think Greg needs to perform a blind taste test. For what it's worth, though, this 1999 article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle confirms that when Coke Light was introduced overseas it kicked Diet Coke's butt pretty spectacularly. That Ace-K stuff must be sweetener gold.

Still, I have a question: how could Diet Coke (introduced in 1983) be based on the New Coke formulation (introduced in 1985)? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that New Coke was based on the Diet Coke formulation?

And while we're at it, what's up with cyclamates, anyway? The FDA pretty much admitted that the cyclamate ban was stupid more than 15 years ago, and since Republicans are supposed to be the ones opposed to "junk science" and overregulation of all sorts, repealing the ban would be right up their alley. What's more, it would win them the votes of the nation's grateful diet soda drinkers, surely one of the largest untapped voting blocs in the country. So what's the holdup?

Kevin Drum 3:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

FARM WORKERS AND THE UFW....The United Farm Workers union isn't something I've ever paid deep attention to, but I've been reading bits and pieces for years suggesting that the UFW has basically betrayed Cesar Chavez's legacy by abandoning the fieldworkers themselves and focusing its attention mostly on bits of occasional lobbying combined with a healthy chunk of self-promotion. Today, the LA Times publishes way more than just a few bits and pieces about this:

Thirty-five years after Chavez riveted the nation, the strikes and fasts are just history, the organizers who packed jails and prayed over produce in supermarket aisles are gone, their righteous pleas reduced to plaintive laments.

What remains is the name, the eagle and the trademark chant of "S se puede" ("Yes, it can be done") a slogan that rings hollow as UFW leaders make excuses for their failure to organize California farmworkers.

Today, a Times investigation has found, Chavez's heirs run a web of tax-exempt organizations that exploit his legacy and invoke the harsh lives of farmworkers to raise millions of dollars in public and private money.

The money does little to improve the lives of California farmworkers, who still struggle with the most basic health and housing needs and try to get by on seasonal, minimum-wage jobs.

Most of the funds go to burnish the Chavez image and expand the family business, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with an annual payroll of $12 million that includes a dozen Chavez relatives.

The whole story weighs in at 5,000 words and it's worth reading. Parts 2-4 will run later this week.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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January 7, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FEDERER AND HISTORY....I'm not convinced yet that Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player in history. But I'm certainly open to the idea. Paul Bailey makes the case in the Observer today.

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By: Kevin Drum

BYE BYE, TOM....Tom DeLay has resigned as Republican majority leader in the House.

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By: Kevin Drum

CHERRY PICKING ADVICE FROM THE MASTERS....The Pentagon says it's reluctant to release all the documents captured after the fall of Iraq. Why? Because they're afraid the press might cherry pick just a few of the documents and thus make some kind of unfair point not supported by the entire weight of the evidence.

No, really, that's what they say. I'm not making that up. Marc Lynch has the details.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY ROUNDUP....Hmmm, it's Friday night. Things should be slow. Let's take a jog around the newspapers.

At the Washington Post we learn that the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says couched in suitably bureaucratic language, of course that President Bush is indeed wrong to assert that he can do anything he wants because we're at war. Illegal is illegal.

The New York Times reports that the administration has known for a couple of years that better body armor would have saved hundreds of American lives in Iraq but did nothing about it. Too expensive, I guess.

The Times also reports that Tom DeLay is toast. "Rightly or wrongly, Mr. DeLay is seen as the public face of Washington," says Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona, though no explanation is forthcoming for Flake's peculiar assertion that "wrongly" is actually a reasonable option here.

Finally, Knight Ridder passes along the undoubtedly shocking news that the Bush administration "has been more lenient toward mining companies facing serious safety violations, issuing fewer and smaller major fines and collecting less than half of the money that violators owed." The going rate for killing a man is apparently now $440.

Not bad for a Friday evening.

Kevin Drum 12:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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January 6, 2006
By: Debra Dickerson

We have met the enemy....The race for Newark's mayoralty has begun. Oh goody. Sharpe James is running for his sixth term. Where, oh where do we begin with this man? America's last sitting mayor who is a Movement veteran, he makes $213,000 a year, more than any American governor. What a great mayor he must be! Since Newark is humming along so well, James can afford the time to also be a State Senator. Four Rolls Royces. Imprisoned cronies and subordinates, bribery and theft. Kleptocracy on the Passaic. (not the Hudson. My bad.)

In 2002's race, James met his first serious challenger, City Council member Corey Booker, a young black man raised in Newark's white suburbs by Movement veteran parents. Stanford, All-American football hero, Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law Grad. For all that he realizes that racism still exists, Booker, representing Newark's poorest ward, believed that the crime, drugs and nihilism that bedevil the inner city could be tamed without waiting for the rapture and the end of racism. More, he believes that Newark's black mayor James and its moribund black leadership are more responsible for urban blight and the long term failure of Newark's ghetto than any white person or institution, however racist. Booker did things like camp out and fast in front of open air drug dens to both protest lack of police protection and live out his commitment to his constituents. He lived in a RV so he could respond immediately to any problems in his ward. Imagine that. Focusing on the black input into, and black solutions to, black problems. There's lots of ways for blacks to stay busy cleaning house while we wait for the white folks to buy a vowel.

James ran on a platform of squashing any dissent from within the black ranks and of letting his beleaguered constituents eat the cake of impoverished black identity. He called Booker white boy, faggot, and claimed he was a Republican supported by the Jews and the Klan. The off duty policemen in James' security detail roughed up Booker supporters and the documentary film crew following the campaign (I supplied commentary for the film); they ejected Booker supporters and journalists from public spaces where James campaigns. Booker supporters lost their jobs, their licenses, their parking permits. James affected fury that Booker, what Bull Connor would have called an outside agitator, maligned Newarks inner city as blighted, that people suffered there. He was shocked, shocked that anyone would claim that there was a lost tribe of poor blacks somewhere in Newark who weren't quite living the dream. Watching the footage was like watching Eyes on the Prize but with blacks as the truncheon-wielding thugs.

Its not that Booker is necessarily right; hes young and somewhat callow and certainly has a lot to learn. (Apparently, he's covering his ass more since the last election, remaining silent on the business-development-at-the-expense-of-the-hood type issues that were his stock in trade last campaign). Its just that James refuses to give him his due as a fellow black man (shaking Booker's hand might be a good start), as a valued son with a valid right to speak. James wont debate Booker on the merits, instead lowering the discourse to name calling and subject changing.

Heres the other thing: what are we to make of a community which can be made to believe that a Stanford and Yale Law grad, a football hero, Rhodes Scholar and teetotaling vegetarian who voluntarily lives in the projects is someone to despise, a stranger? "[He] acts like us, talks like us, but is not us, was one mild James broadside. "You have to learn to be an African American, and we don't have time to train you." Ugh. Al Sharpton stumped for James, "saying that reform leadership is only valid if it grows from within an established, on-site political community. He illustrated with an analogy about how when Moses died, Joshua was picked to lead the Hebrews, as opposed to someone from Pharoah's army," one observer noted. The allusion, with its enemy army image, meshed with Sharpton's declaration that Booker was "sent" to Newark and bankrolled by mysterious "outside" money. Jesse Jackson called Booker a wolf in sheeps clothing. Check out the ever venomous, never at a loss for bile black racists here and fasten your seat belts: Newark Part Deux is going to be a very bumpy ride.

Debra Dickerson 8:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

POSTAGE RATES....The following public service announcement is part of the full service blogging here at the Washington Monthly:

On Sunday, first class postage goes up to 39 cents.

This appears to have been something of a stealth increase, but now that you know about it you can educate and amaze your friends with this knowledge.

But wait there's more! As an exclusive for Washington Monthly readers, the chart on the right shows you the new postage rates all the way up to the first class maximum weight of 13 ounces. This is an exact replica of the chart currently taped to the postal scale next to my desk!

BONUS NEWS YOU CAN USE: If you have unused books or rolls of old stamps, you can trade them in for new books/rolls at the post office by simply paying the difference.

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Debra Dickerson

Barak Obama was right....When he quipped to Jon Stewart, "the only person more hyped than me is you."

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By: Kevin Drum

DUKE UNPLUGGED....This is too rich. According to Time, disgraced Republican congressman Duke Cunningham "wore a wire at some point during the short interval between the moment he began cooperating with the feds and the announcement of his guilty plea on Nov. 28." And of course there's this:

The identity of those with whom the San Diego congressman met while wearing the wire remains unclear, and is the source of furious and nervous speculation by congressional Republicans.

As well it should be. It just makes all our liberal hearts go pitty pat, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 4:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

DIFFICULT SUBJECTS....Commenting on a couple of essays about the future of Israel, Matt Yglesias makes one very brief remark and then stops short:

I could say more on this, but like many bloggers I've come to feel that discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I feel his pain. But of course, that's the whole problem, isn't it? Too many of us with non-fanatical views on the subject have simply decided that it's not worth engaging with something that routinely attracts near-insane levels of vituperation from partisans on both sides. As a result, the debate is left primarily in the hands of the fanatics.

There are other difficult subjects that have ended up ghettoized the same way in the blogosphere. I'd say that race and feminism, for example, are largely ignored by all but dedicated partisans because a lot of bloggers have decided it's just not worth the grief. Ev psych and the whole issue of biological/cultural differences probably falls in this category as well.

That's a shame, because if there's anything the blogosphere ought to be good at, it's encouraging people to talk about the things that niggle at the backs of their minds but that they're afraid to air in more formal forums. Unfortunately, it really hasn't worked out that way. The problem, as Dahlia Lithwick put it last year, is that people are often terrified to open their mouths on difficult subjects "because the inquiry is so fraught with the possibility of career-terminating levels of politically correct blowback." (She was specifically addressing the topic of women on the op-ed pages, and via private emails I know that several prominent male bloggers feel the same way. They figure that saying nothing is better than the risk of getting crucified for saying something wrong.)

But guess what? The fact that we shut up about these things doesn't mean we don't still think about them. It just means we don't explore them. There's obviously no simple fix for this, but a little less venting and a little more empathy might help make conversations on difficult subjects more widespread in the blogosphere, something that would do this medium a world of good. After all, if you miss ranting, there's always Fox News.

Kevin Drum 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC NEWS....This is a couple of weeks old, but I'm just getting around to it now. If you want to know why the economy feels kind of lousy even though the nation's journalists keep telling us everything is peachy, EPI explains it all here.

The short answer is that although the headline numbers of growth and productivity are healthy, this growth isn't benefiting actual workers: hourly wages are down, household income is down, debt is at historic highs, the personal savings rate is now negative, job creation is sluggish, poverty is up, and the number of people without health insurance is rising.

So how come those numbers so seldom end up in the headlines?

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By: Kevin Drum

THINK BIG!....Brad Plumer has a few modest proposals for cleaning up corruption in Congress.

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By: Kevin Drum

PRESIDENT GORE....As a matter of policy, I think that pining over the results of the 2000 election is pretty counterproductive. But hey sometimes you just can't help yourself. Here's an interview with Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor at Florida State University who recently published The Battle for Florida:

One of the most interesting points you make in the book is that the focus on undervotes (ballots containing no vote for president) the hanging, dimpled and otherwise pregnant chads was misplaced. Instead, you explain that a study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which looked at all the ballots that were initially rejected on election night 2000, revealed a surprise: most of these uncounted votes were in fact discarded because they were over-votes, instances of two votes for president on one ballot. What do you think the NORC study tells us about the election?

LdHS: There were 175,000 votes overall that were so-called spoiled ballots. About two-thirds of the spoiled ballots were over-votes....And nobody looked at this, not even the Florida Supreme Court in the last decision it made requiring a statewide recount. Nobody had thought about it except Judge Terry Lewis, who was overseeing the statewide recount when it was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The write-in over-votes have really not gotten much attention. Those votes are not ambiguous. When you see Gore picked and then Gore written in, theres not a question in your mind who this person was voting for. When you go through those, theyre unambiguous: Bush got some of those votes, but they were overwhelmingly for Gore. For example, in an analysis of the 2.7 million votes that had been cast in Floridas eight largest counties, The Washington Post found that Gores name was punched on 46,000 of the over-vote ballots, while Bushs name was marked on only 17,000.

For your research, you merged this set of data with detailed profiles of Floridas electoral precincts. What did you find?

LdHS: One of the things I found that hadnt been reported anywhere is, if you look at where those votes occurred, they were in predominantly black precincts. And (when you look at) the history of black voting in Florida, these are people that have been disenfranchised, intimidated. In the history of the early 20th century, black votes would be thrown out on technicalities, like they would use an X instead of a check mark.

So you can understand why African Americans would be so careful, checking off Gores name on the list of candidates and also writing Gores name in the space for write-in votes. But because of the way the vote-counting machines work, this had the opposite effect: the machines threw out their ballots.

Via Andrew Tobias.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (275)

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By: Kevin Drum

VOUCHER SCHOOLS....Greg Anrig comments on yesterday's Florida Supreme Court decision striking down Jeb Bush's school voucher program:

One of the great unresolved contradictions in the conservative movement's advocacy on education is the extent to which it is demanding that public schools adhere to rigid testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act while simultaneously promoting voucher systems that require no reporting at all from private schools about their performance. Research into charter schools by Columbia's Amy Stuart Wells and others is showing that providing them with autonomy while imposing accountability for results has by and large resulted in schools that look much like their conventional public counterparts.

No one has yet demonstrated that they know how to make an urban school district succeed in this country. Voucher systems, because they lack accountability, were never going to be the answer. The Florida decision is a welcome step toward focusing on possibilities that offer hope, like public school choice and Wisconsin's own Chapter 220 program, which enables low-income urban students to attend suburban schools.

I'm a cautiously optimistic fan of charter schools, which seem to provide a decent avenue for experimenting with different ways of teaching kids while still providing common-sense levels of accountability. Voucher schools typically don't, and while some percentage of inner city schools are going to fail no matter what, there's a big difference between schools that are trying and failing and schools that fail because they're essentially allowed to get away with fraud.

Bottom line: conservatives can't have it both ways. If high-stakes testing is the be-all and end-all of education reform, then their pet voucher proposals need to include the same kind of testing requirements that they demand for public schools. And if voucher schools end up doing no better than public schools, providing little more than a safe haven for a voting bloc that wants to protect their kids from learning about evolution? Then it's back to the drawing board.

The Florida Supremes did the right thing. Public money without public accountability is fundamentally wrong.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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By: Debra Dickerson

It's No Theory That This is a Conspiracy....It's taken me two days to digest and respond to Nick Chiles' excellent New York Times piece on the sorry state of black literature and the crucial role that the big book chains play in it. Chiles' point:

Last month I happened to go into the Borders Books store at the Stonecrest mall in Lithonia, Ga., about a half-hour from my house here. To my surprise, it had one of the largest collections of books by black authors that I've ever seen outside an independent black bookstore, rows and rows of bookcases. This is the sort of discovery that makes the pulse quicken, evidence of a population I've spent most of my professional life seeking: African-American readers. What a thrill to have so much space in a major chain store devoted to this country's black writers.

With an extra spring in my step, I walked into the "African-American Literature" section and what I saw there thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted me.

On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called "literature."

Hallelujah, brother!

The problem is not that blacks want to read porn and prefer junk to serious writing like everyone else. It's that black porn and junk are passed off as literature. I can't help believing that both publishers (though much of this dreck comes from fringe houses or is self-published) and the chains believe that this is the best that blacks can do, that this crap is good enough for us.

Liberals and blacks don't help matters much in this regard. We participate in black degradation by refusing to make distinctions between literature and manure as long as it's produced by blacks; back in 1992 (or so) when Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Terry MacMillan (which of these is not like the others? Anyone?) were all on the bestseller list, papers around the country ran photos of the three writers, or the three books, together and celebrated the "coming of age of black women's literature." Literature. Terry MacMillan. Please. My writer friends and I were so depressed, we got together just to pass the offending page around, stunned into wordlessness at having our intelligence so blatantly insulted. Serious writers must sit on panels moderated by best selling hacks. Award winning hacks, blessed by a condescending white majority. Black/liberal writers at major newspapers fight to run profiles of these authors and review their work. Increasing numbers of black/liberal professors teach unworthy writers like Benilda Little and Omar Tyree in their African American Literature classes. Can you imagine scraping up the tuition to pay for your kid to study James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Sister Souljah? God forbid they've begun to go beyond the merely awful to the actually pornographic. Magazines like Essence and Black Issues Book Review legitimize the least objectionable of this ilk by taking them seriously, the equivalent of a poetry magazine reviewing odes to men from Nantucket.

One of the reasons I quit reviewing books (aside from the miserable pay) is my disgust with how often I was asked to review these monstrosities. Most were so awful, I refused and dissuaded the editors from insulting their readers with such offerings. Often enough to sap my will, though, editors always white liberals either rejected my withering critiques of the ones passably worthy of review or edited them into meaningless. I can't tell you how often some white boy from Yale, who chuckled over my maulings of a white author's work, chastised me for my "insensitivity." They were honestly shocked that anyone would rip apart a black person's work. How dare I subject blacks to the same level of analysis as whites?

But what can be done about it? No doubt, the "blacklash" against us elitists and playa haters will be swift and vicious. Nonetheless, those of us who know the difference between Jerome Dickey and Shinola have to stand our ground. No one's saying black porn and beauty parlor books shouldn't be either written or read. I'm saying they shouldn't be taken seriously. I have a lowest-common-denominator novel or two in my head that are going to buy me all the plastic surgery and boy toys I'll ever need. I'm just not going to call them literature.

If you want to help pressure the chains to rethink their position on what is and is not Black Literature, write 'em:

Letters for publication should be no longer than 150 words, must refer to an article that has appeared within the last seven days, and must include the writer's address and phone numbers. No attachments, please.

We regret we cannot return or acknowledge unpublished letters. Writers of those letters selected for publication will be notified within a week. Letters may be shortened for space requirements.

Send a letter to the editor by e-mailing letters@nytimes.com or faxing (212) 556-3622.

You may also mail your letter to:

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Debra Dickerson 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Amy Sullivan

WHO SPEAKS FOR EVANGELICALS?....Atrios wants to know who, if not Pat Robertston or Jerry Falwell, should be thought of as a spokesperson for evangelicals, or at least someone evangelicals themselves think of as a leader. It's a good question, and one that I wish more tv bookers would ask.

I need the caveat, of course, that the evangelical community (and even the conservative evangelical community) is very diverse and doesn't have one acknowledged leader. But given that, there are a few different groups of people who should be (and sometimes are) featured as evangelical voices. For religious leaders, there are Ted Haggard of New Life Church and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Brian McLaren of Cedar Ridge Church, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church, and Franklin Graham (Billy's son). Political voices include Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Cizik of NAE, Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

And then, of course, there are your white liberal evangelicals (Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo) and your black evangelicals (Herb Lusk, TD Jakes).

As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was twenty years ago; the only reason they're still booked as talking heads is that most producers don't know these two men no longer have any power. But more than that, they're just not representative of today's evangelicals. Robertson is a Pentecostal and Falwell is a fundamentalist, and while you could broadly say that most Pentecostals and fundamentalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Pentecostals or fundamentalists. That's why some of the more extreme theological statements you hear from those two (God let 9/11 happen because of gays and women and the ACLU) aren't shared by a lot of evangelicals. That's not to say that many evangelicals (and some of the names I mentioned) don't hold intolerant, troubling views. But when we criticize them, we should be able to distinguish between widely-held beliefs and the wacked-out positions of a couple of has-beens.

UPDATE: Whoops...managed to leave the granddaddy of them all--Dr. Dobson--off my list.

Amy Sullivan 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATS AND CORRUPTION....If Democrats are going to make hay out of Republican corruption as a campaign issue this year, isn't it about time to start cracking some heads? Their smartest move would be a genuinely bold and aggressive anti-corruption proposal, one that Republicans couldn't possibly support and that would make any Republican counter-proposal look weak and opportunistic by comparison. I doubt the public will even begin to wake up for anything less than a proposal so dramatic that it promises to turn Congress upside down and forces the GOP to play catchup for the rest of the year.

The best time for this is before the Republicans roll out their own proposal, right? And that doesn't leave much time. So where is it?

POSTSCRIPT: Last year I suggested a few anti-corruption ideas here. But that was just brainstorming. I sure hope the Democratic leadership has some more dramatic ideas than these on tap.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: And please, just a few short, punchy proposals, OK? Let's not see a reprise of Nancy Pelosi's pathetic 60-point snooze-fest from last year's election.

Kevin Drum 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEGGING THE QUESTION....I think that this is the last word in the great "begging the question" debate.

Kevin Drum 12:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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January 5, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GOOD LUCK, JULIE!....Can I just say that I'd hate to be Julie Myers right now? I mean, I'm sure she's happy that she got that recess appointment as the head of DHS's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but she's going to be absolutely crucified by a bipartisan lynch mob of bloggers and pundits the first time she so much as spells a word wrong on an interagency memo. Insects on specimen plates have nothing on this gal.

BY THE WAY: I'm sure I ought to know this, but what's the deal with all these recess appointments, anyway? Clinton did a few, but that's because he had Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch to contend with. Is it really the case that Bush can't even convince his own party to confirm these losers? Or is there something else going on?

Kevin Drum 11:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Debra Dickerson

George Will, his own worst enemy.....Will is a reluctant liberal's (I'm only one because 'conservative' is the only other viable option. Moderate schmoderate) dream. I viscerally disagree with just about everything he says (the baseball stuff renders me immediately blind and illiterate, so it doesn't count) but it's usually so simultaneously persuasive and so fundamentally amoral, it forces me to think about why he's so dangerously wrong. I read him faithfully because he's a great intellectuo-gut check (I debated him briefly once and he graciously held his tongue after I made a pithy riposte that I know he could have countered. Wouldn't have been right, but he could have silenced me, poised, prepared and confident debater that he is, if he weren't such a gentleman). Ann "the hobglobin of small minds" Coulter you can dismiss without argument since she so rarely makes any, so busy striking poses as she is. But Will....he makes you better and he makes you work for it, a rare commodity in today's "discourse."

His latest column is the perfect example. In it, he calmly rips apart liberals' attacks on school's/team's ethnic mascots such that the litigants' own mothers would disown them.
His latest is a seemingly well trodden take down of lefty attacks on ethnic sports team names and mascots, in this case, Chief Illiniwek of the U of I. After I finished the piece though, I sat there wondering why I had such a bad after taste in my mouth. Then it hit me. His arguments proved the opposite point: it's not that liberals are right in arguing that team names like the Redskins et al are ipso facto offensive. It's that the argument itself is progress. America needed to know that:

This story of progress, as progressives understand that, began during halftime of a football game in 1926, when an undergraduate studying Indian culture performed a dance dressed as a chief. Since then, a student has always served as Chief Illiniwek, who has become the symbol of the university that serves a state named after the Illini confederation of about a half-dozen tribes that were virtually annihilated in the 1760s by rival tribes.

In 1930, the student then portraying Chief Illiniwek traveled to South Dakota to receive authentic raiment from the Oglala Sioux. In 1967 and 1982, representatives of the Sioux, who had not yet discovered that they were supposed to feel abused, came to the Champaign-Urbana campus to augment the outfits Chief Illiniwek wears at football and basketball games.

If true, knowing this makes a world of difference, doesn't it, in deciding how to feel about how we use shorthand for cultural events? Makes a world of difference, no? And if the liberals were too busy nitpicking to trace the history, hat's off to the team effort of setting this particular record straight.

Three cheers for George Will, right? ... anybody? Mrs. Will....?

Debra Dickerson 11:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Debra Dickerson

Affirmative action is un-American, racist, condescending, infantilizing, and the final sign of the Apocalypse/Rapture. Unless it's the right kind of affirmative action.... The kind that hurts America but helps religion and the GOP's far right wing. Salon has the goods on the latest Bush-mongered 'speaks in tongues well but couldn't find her buttocks with both hands' wannabee appointed to a post of the highest significance. First it was Michael "A little water never hurt anyone" Brown. Then Harriet "Why do y'all keep bringing up the Constitution?" Miers. Now it's a Christo-right wing zealot whose mission in life is to punish anyone who has sex EVER. For their own good of course.

A disastrous appointment: Bush's backdoor choice of unqualified right-winger Ellen Sauerbrey to head the U.S. refugee-response team raises the specter of Michael Brown.

...Bush couldn't slip his nomination for assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration under the radar. It's too important a position. With a $700 million annual budget, the department formulates America's response to refugee crises all over the world. So in October 2005, when Bush picked Ellen Sauerbrey, right-wing social conservative with little background in international affairs, to replace Arthur ("Gene") Dewey, a career foreign policy official, newspapers all over the country including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Antonio Express-News, the Miami Herald and the Charlton Gazette came out against her. During her October Senate hearings, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said, "It doesn't appear that you have very specific experience." Given Sauerbrey's weak rsum for the position, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., convinced the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to put off a vote on her nomination until after the winter break. At the time, there seemed a slim possibility that the appointment would be defeated.

Rather than fight it out on Capitol Hill, Bush chose to circumvent the confirmation process. Yesterday, with Congress out of session, the president made more than a dozen recess appointments, granting positions to several controversial nominees. Julie L. Myers was made head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau at the Department of Homeland Security, despite criticism by Democrats and Republicans that she lacks experience. Tracy A. Henke became executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness; as the Washington Post reported, "She had been accused in her politically appointed post at the Justice Department of demanding that information about racial disparities in police treatment of blacks in traffic cases be deleted from a news release."

Sauerbrey is already being compared to Michael Brown, the hapless former head of FEMA who famously worried about his on-camera wardrobe while New Orleans drowned. "If she is confirmed by the Senate, think of her as the Michael D. Brown of the refugee world," opined the Washington Post. Her lack of qualifications are so glaring that two of the last three people to hold the position Democrat Phyllis E. Oakley and Republican Julia Taft, both of whom served under Clinton signed a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opposing her confirmation.

Hard to see how we're going to bring freedom to Iraq when the same folks are trying to impose Sharia law here at home.

Debra Dickerson 10:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Debra Dickerson

Proof that a little knowledge is dangerous....Check this out from the New York Times:

Minister, a Bush Ally, Gives Church as Site for Alito Rally. The Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II is a maverick (emphasis added) black minister who took to his pulpit in Philadelphia in 2000 and pledged his support for a Bush presidency, a speech broadcast live at the Republican National Convention. Two years later, Mr. Lusk was criticized when he received a $1 million grant through the president's new religion-based initiative to run a housing program for the poor.

This Sunday, Mr. Lusk has offered his church in Philadelphia as the site for a major political rally intended to whip up support for the president's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose confirmation hearings begin on Monday.

OK. Now for the dangerous part. From The Negro Cowboys:

One of the early Negro cowboys has been forgotten, and his name will probably never be recovered. He was a slave and a rather poor cowboy, hardly worth a place in history. But because he was inefficient, even lazy, he made his master famous.

He and his family lived on the San Antonio River in Texas, and they were owned by a lawyer, not a cattleman. In 1847, when the lawyer received four hundred head of cattle in payment of a debt, he entrusted them to the Negro and continued his practice and his business of land speculation.

The Negro neglected to do much branding, and the cattle roamed free, growing and multiplying on the open Texas range and straying far from their home ranch. Consequently, the herd had scattered when the lawyer sold his land, cattle and brand in 1856.

the lawyer's name was Samuel A. Maverick, and the buyer of his ranch was A. Toutant Beauregard, an active and ambitious cattleman. Beauregard sent his men riding over several counties, searching for Maverick's cattle. Whenever they found an animal unbranded, they claimed it as Maverick's. Thanks to a Negro cowboy's carelessness and Beauregard's enterprise, every wandering animal, unbranded and unclaimed, soon came to be called a maverick, and hunting for such animals was called mavericking. Even men, for that matter, were called mavericks if they were free and independent and wore no man's brand.

Now for the even more dangerous part: poor cowboy? inefficient? lazy? neglected to? carelessness? How about this as an alternative explanation?

Debra Dickerson 9:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Amy Sullivan

NUTCASE THEOLOGY....I try not to comment on all of the ridiculous things that come out of Pat Robertson's mouth because 1) he's a moonbat who seems to be reading a very different translation of the Bible than I am, and 2) most evangelicals, even conservative ones, don't think of him as a spokesperson who represents their views.

But then there are statements like this, in which he suggests that Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine retribution for "dividing God's land." This general line of thinking isn't new for Robertson (see: post-9/11, post-Katrina, dire predictions for Dover, PA post-election). But it's interesting that he chooses to ascribe personal illness to divine disfavor.

I seem to remember that a few years ago Pat Robertson spent some time battling prostate cancer. What was God punishing him for then? It's not hard to think of some possibilities, including Robertson's gold-mining deal in Liberia with the vicious Charles Taylor.

Amy Sullivan 4:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING SOLVED!....The topic of this year's Edge question is "What is your dangerous idea?" The responses are all here, and they range from dangerous to incomprehensible to completely off-topic. However, some are not only not dangerous, but positively optimistic. Gregory Benford, for example, says that the carbon in farm waste alone is a substantial fraction of the man-made carbon that's responsible for global warming:

Take advantage of that. The leftover corn cobs and stalks from our fields can be gathered up, floated down the Mississippi, and dropped into the ocean, sequestering it. Below about a kilometer depth, beneath a layer called the thermocline, nothing gets mixed back into the air for a thousand years or more. It's not a forever solution, but it would buy us and our descendents time to find such answers. And it is inexpensive; cost matters.

The US has large crop residues. It has also ignored the Kyoto Accord, saying it would cost too much. It would, if we relied purely on traditional methods, policing energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. Clinton-era estimates of such costs were around $100 billion a year a politically unacceptable sum, which led Congress to reject the very notion by a unanimous vote.

But if the US simply used its farm waste to "hide" carbon dioxide from our air, complying with Kyoto's standard would cost about $10 billion a year, with no change whatsoever in energy use. The whole planet could do the same. Sequestering crop leftovers could offset about a third of the carbon we put into our air.

This sounds pretty obviously too good to be true. Does anybody know what the catch is?

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (197)

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By: Kevin Drum

GEORGE ALLEN GETS A MONEYMAN....The Hotline reports that former RNC chair Ed Gillespie has signed on to be the treasurer of Sen. George Allen's political action committee. That's a big boost to Allen's 2008 presidential aspirations.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING....John Quiggin summarizes the state of play of scientific evidence for global warming and concludes that "2005 saw the final nail hammered into the arguments climate change contrarians have been pushing for years." As he says, at this point virtually every legitimate question about the reality of human-induced climate change has been answered.

Equally important, though, is this:

Now that the scientific phase of the debate is over, attention will move to the question of the costs and benefits of mitigation options. There are legitimate issues to be debated here. But having seen the disregard for truth exhibited by anti-environmental think tanks in the first phase of the debate, we shouldnt give them a free pass in the second. Any analysis on this issue coming out of a think tank that has engaged in global warming contrarianism must be regarded as valueless unless its results have been reproduced independently, after taking account of possible data mining and cherry picking. That disqualifies virtually all the major right-wing think tanks, both here and in the US. Their performance on this and other scientific issues has been a disgrace.

Exactly right. With the scientific debate now largely over, the loony right and the corporate interests they represent will simply pick a different line of attack probably without even batting an eyelash. Their basic contempt for serious scientific and factual analysis, however, is a matter of public record. They simply don't deserve to be taken seriously on this subject.

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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By: Kevin Drum

STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE....Is the media to blame for reporting that 12 miners had been found alive in the Sago mine disaster, only to report hours later that they were all dead? Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, says probably not. Instead, she fingers a different culprit:


Don't blame the media. First, the mine owners did nothing to correct the misinformation for three hours, a mistake they admit. However, I also know that in past accidents, the press office of the Mine Safety and Health Agency has played a significant, and sometimes exclusive role, in successfully communicating with the families and media, allowing the company to deal with the crisis. In this case, MSHA sent down Dirk Fillpot from Labor Dept. headquarters. Although Fillpot is not to blame for the horrific miscommunication that led families to believe for three hours that their loved-ones were alive, he has absolutely no experience in dealing with mine disasters, unlike two highly qualified and seasoned press people Rodney Brown and Amy Louviere who sat back at MSHA headquarters in Arlington twiddling their thumbs. And who was in charge at headquarters? Suzy Bohnert another person with absolutely no experience in dealing with mine disasters and the confusion that the situation brings, and who in fact, has given out incorrect information in the past due to her lack of knowledge of MSHA policies and past practices. I cannot imagine that Amy or Rodney would have let this incorrect information go unanswered for so long. In the past, MSHA has stepped up to the plate when the company failed in communications during past disasters. It's time for the agency to recognize its role in this media and family nightmare. Kevin Drum 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NSA AND CNN....I'm playing catchup here, but in case you haven't read about this yet check out AmericaBlog on Andrea Mitchell's interview with New York Times reporter James Risen. The topic was the NSA's domestic spying operation, and Mitchell asked Risen this question:

You don't have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon?

Risen didn't know anything about this, but that's not what's interesting. What's interesting is that Mitchell asked the question at all. And what's even more interesting is that NBC deleted the question from its transcript shortly after it was posted.

Question: Why did Mitchell ask this? And why did NBC delete the exchange from its transcript? Josh Marshall speculates.

Kevin Drum 2:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (209)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE NSA PROBLEMS?....Russ Tice is a former employee of DIA and NSA who reported in 2001 that a coworker might be a Chinese spy. After Tice pressed his concerns, NSA declared him mentally unbalanced, reassigned him to clean cars in the motor pool, and eventually revoked his security clearance. He was fired last year.

Today the Washington Times reports that Tice has written letters to Congress claiming that he has knowledge of illegal activity carried out by NSA:

"I intend to report to Congress probable unlawful and unconstitutional acts conducted while I was an intelligence officer with the National Security Agency and with the Defense Intelligence Agency," Mr. Tice stated in the Dec. 16 letters, copies of which were obtained by The Washington Times.

....The activities involved the NSA director, the NSA deputies chief of staff for air and space operations and the secretary of defense, he stated.

Tice is either a genuine whistleblower or else he's a genuine screwball. But the only way to find out is for Congress to investigate. Will they?

Kevin Drum 2:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

BURYING THE EVIDENCE....More from Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News:


It will be a long time before we know what happened at Sago. It will also be a long time before we know anything about the role (or lack thereof) of the Mine Safety and Health Agency in the accident. Why? Because MSHA no longer makes available to the public its own internal investigations on accidents and the role of MSHA and its inspectors leading up to the accident. The last time MSHA conducted an internal investigation, the Assistant Secretary announced that serious deficiencies had been found with MSHA inspections and that appropriate actions had been taken but the public was not allowed to view the report to read what those deficiencies were or what changes were being made to avoid similar problems in the future. It's not only internal reviews that MSHA has cut back on. The agency is even holding back accident investigation elements that used to be considered matters of public record, such as interview transcripts, rock dust samples, inspector notes and MSHA-approved mine plans. Claiming interference with law enforcement, the agency now holds these records back at least until it issues its final report and has claimed the right to withhold these records until all possibility of litigation has been exhausted possibly many years later.

MSHA does occasionally release such records early but only when it wants to, as it did with selected photos in the Quecreek investigation.

It's worth noting that we're talking here about factual records, not conclusions or opinions. The agency used to release such discrete factual items even during an investigation, including non-confidential interview transcripts after all interviews were complete and release of the information could not influence witnesses' memories. Pledges of confidentiality, of course, were always honored, but rarely requested by interviewees.

Examples of the traditional practice: the Wilberg fire of 1984, the Southmountain explosion of 1992, and the 2000 Martin County inundation.

As a result of this change, concerned individuals outside MSHA now have no chance to examine the evidence and draw their own conclusions until MSHA has released its own conclusions and maybe not even then. MSHA followed this new withholding practice in 2001 in the case of the explosions at the JWR mine in Alabama and interestingly, key results of that investigation were later thrown out in court.

Return to the former policy woud be right, healthy and help keep the government up to the mark via greater public scrutiny.

Kevin Drum 1:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Amy Sullivan

FINE YOUNG MAN....Condolences to Kevin and the USC Trojans, but what a game! Much as I hate to see a victory go to the president's favorite team and that dreadful hook 'em horns sign, Texas pulled out a heart-stopper of a win. Tied for MVP in my mind are Vince Young and his offensive line. Nearly every time someone was headed straight for Young, a well-placed block gave him just enough room to scramble. That fourth down touchdown was a thing of beauty.

Besides, I'd expect nothing less from the team that managed to beat the mighty, mighty Wolverines in last year's Rose Bowl.

UPDATE FROM KEVIN: Consider this an open thread for USC fans to whimper and Texas fans to gloat.

BTW, did everyone notice that all the BCS bowls were great games this year? The last few days have been chock full of terrific football.

Amy Sullivan 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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January 4, 2006
By: Christina Larson

NEWT II .... So Newt Gingrich has also been making the talk-show rounds on Abramoff. Yes, his own past ethical problems make him a dubious messenger. And yes, youre entitled to question the motives of anyone whose name is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as 2008 for seizing this moment to present himself as the voice for reform in Washington. (Heck, I wish more potential 2008 Democrats were seizing the spotlight.)

But Gingrich does have an enviable knack for getting attention and tossing off ideas -- sometimes terrible ideas, sometimes better ones. In response to the Abramoff scandal he proposed:

1. Ban fundraising entirely in Washington. "The election process has turned into an incumbency protection process in which lobbyists attend PAC fundraisers to raise money for incumbents so they can drown potential opponents, creating war chests to convince [opposing] candidates not to run and freeing up incumbents to spend more time in Washington PAC fundraisers." Alas, his diagnosis of the problem sounds better than his solution. Leaving aside the enormous hurdles to passing such a law, wouldn't a DC ban just make Arlington the next boomtown for black-tie dinners?

2. Require lobbyists, members of Congress, and their staffs, to keep an online public record of their meetings. I don't know the practical hurdles, but I have long heard similar entreaties for an online database of lobbyists' activities from the left-leaning watchdog group Public Citizen.

It's easy to make proposals when you've got little to lose -- and potentially a lot to gain. But I don't begrudge Gingrich, problematic though he may be, for seizing the megaphone to propose more than a nip here and a tuck there in current lobbying practices. (Look for the nip and tuck approach from Frist and Hastert in the coming weeks.)

Plus it's hard not to enjoy the fact that, unlike 11 years ago when he campaigned against entrenched Democrats, Gingrich is now charging against the culture of incumbent Republicans though he wont quite put it so bluntly. After all, he might need the establishments favor in two years.

UPDATE: I'm quoting from Gingrich's Wednesday speech at Hotel Washington.

UPDATE II: Here's Frist's reaction to the big story: "I look forward to working to secure the continued integrity of the Senate." Christina Larson 11:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

WEDNESDAY CAT BOWL BLOGGING....Blogging is officially suspended for the next few hours. I assume this picture makes the reason sufficiently clear.

As you can see, Inkblot has put on his best Heisman Trophy look for this portrait. Or should that be his best Outland Trophy look? Inkblot will never be an Academic All-American, but he's definitely got the build to be a good offensive lineman.

And now, on with the show just as soon as I get back from the store with some guacamole to go with the bag of cardinal and gold tortilla chips that I got for Christmas. As for the game itself, honesty compels me to admit that my faith is shaky this year, but loyalty compels me to predict a Trojan victory anyway. So here it is: USC wins 24-21 on a field goal in the closing minutes.

UPDATE: Well, that kinda sucked. You just knew Vince Young was going to run it in standing up on that final fourth down, didn't you? But hey congratulations to Texas. It was a great game.

Kevin Drum 6:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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By: Christina Larson

NEWT ON JACK .... Last August when the DC Rotary Club asked Newt Gingrich to speak at a luncheon at Hotel Washington, members had no idea that Gingrichs talk would happen to fall on the day after Jack Abramoffs guilty plea shook Washington.

Glancing at the packed ballroom and the crowd of reporters and TV news cameras, the woman who organized the event told me, Its serendipitous. Were happy to be able to provide a forum for.... she struggled to find the right word this sort of thing. By that, she meant granting a platform for the man who led the class of 1994 Republican gate-crashers to hold forth on whats happened since that revolution ossified.

Newt's not happy, and says the more he learns the angrier he gets. He said he thought Abramoff should go to jail, but added:

This is not about one person doing bad things. You cant have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member [of Congress] or a corrupt staff. This was a team effort ... The system created the opportunity for an Abramoff. Abramoff did not create the system.

Well, surely Abramoff helped nudge things in a certain direction. But the point of the Jack Abramoff story is not really about Jack Abramoff. As Kevin has posted, the real story is that the Abramoff scandal is casting a spotlight on the extent to which K Street over the last decade has become a near seamless extension of the Republican power structure in Washington. Christina Larson 5:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

SAGO AND THE PRESS....Over at Courant, Roger Catlin examines television coverage of the West Virginia miner-miracle-turned-disaster and comes away unimpressed. Greg Saunders does the same for newspaper coverage, and he's not impressed either.

So what really happened here? CNN has this explanation from mine company chief Ben Hatfield:

"What happened is that through stray cell phone conversations it appears this miscommunication from the rescue team underground to the command center was picked up by various people," Hatfield said. "Simply overheard conversation was relayed through cell phone communications without our ever having made a release. International Coal Group never made a release about all 12 of the miners being alive and well."

Did the wire services and cable news channels simply decide to report this apparently unverified information as fact? Or is Hatfield not telling us the whole story? Hopefully someone out there is working on the definitive story of how this happened.

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

ABRAMOFF AND K STREET....Janet Hook and Mary Curtius have a pretty good story in the LA Times today that ties the Jack Abramoff story to the broader and ultimately more important story of the K Street Project, a scheme dreamed up by Republican leaders a decade ago as a way of cementing their control of Congress via permanent and ironclad links to pro-business lobbyists:

GOP leaders, seeking to harness the financial and political support of K Street, urged lobbyists to support their conservative agenda, give heavily to Republican politicians and hire Republicans for top trade association jobs. Abramoff obliged on every front, and his tentacles of influence reached deep into the upper echelons of Congress and the Bush administration.

....Critics of the campaign finance system say it would be a kind of rough justice if Republicans were hobbled by their relationships with a lobbyist, because they worked so hard to increase coordination between their party and K Street.

....According to a study by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, 296 members of Congress since 1999 have received contributions from Abramoff, his Indian tribe clients or SunCruz Casinos. Abramoff and his wife contributed $204,253 all of it to Republicans.

As always, Nick Confessore's "Welcome to the Machine" is the best primer available about how the K Street Project was born and how it works. I also recommend Thomas Edsall's piece in the Washington Post last year explaining how the Project has morphed to the point where K Street lobbyists are now practically an arm of the Republican Party itself, expected to cooperate on cue whenever they're needed to help intimidate reluctant members into voting with the leadership.

One of the underreported stories of the past few years is the evolution of the Republican Party from being the party of capitalism and free enterprise to being merely the party of whichever business interests can help Republicans get reelected. There's a big difference between being pro-market and being pro-business in fact, they're often diametrically opposed but the difference isn't always obvious until something like the Abramoff affair shines a bright light on it. If the Democratic Party is smart, this will be a learning moment for the country about not just garden variety corruption, but about the true nature of how the modern Republican Party operates.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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By: Kevin Drum

SAFETY AT THE SAGO MINE....Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, probably knows as much about mine safety and more about the obscure Mine Safety and Health Administration than anyone alive. She sent along the following brief summary of the safety record at the Sago Mine:


How bad was the accident and injury rate at the Sago Mine? Terrible. The national average for mining accidents (non-fatal days lost) in 2004 was 5.66 per 200,000 manhours worked. The Sago Mine, which was owned by Anker West Virginia Mining Co. at that time, had an accident rate of 15.90. In 2005, Sago's accident rate increased to 17.04, and 14 miners were injured.

So how does that compare to other underground coal mines in West Virginia?

  • Kingston Mining No. 1 Mine, which is about the same size as Sago, had an accident rate of 1.21 and one miner injured in 2005.

  • Mountaineer Alma A Mine, which is a larger mine, had an accident rate of 3.08.

  • Robinson Run Mine No. 95 and the Harris No. 1 Mine both had accident rates of 3.93.

  • The Blacksville No. 2 Mine last year had an accident rate of 4.41 and the Loveridge No. 22 Mine had an accident rate of 5.62.

All of these mines were below the national average. One has to ask what was happening at the Sago Mine or its sister mine, Stony River, which had an even higher accident rate than Sago.

MSHA was issuing citations, but nothing seemed to change, and at the Sago Mine things got worse in 2005.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

UNDER MINED....What's the story behind the story of the tragedy at the Sago Mine? At least part of it is predictable: after George Bush took office in 2001 the Mine Safety and Health Administration was stocked with coal mining executives who were distinctly less interested in mine safety than they should have been. Clara Bingham told the story in "Under Mined," in the January 2005 issue of the Washington Monthly:

Coal executives, threatened by Vice President Al Gore's green background and his pledge to increase taxes on fossil fuels, thought they could get a better deal with the Republicans when they raised a record $3.8 million dollars for the 2000 federal election, 88 percent went to the GOP. At the annual meeting of the West Virginia Coal Association a few months after Bush's inauguration, the group's director told 150 industry executives, You did everything you could to elect a Republican president. [Now] you are already seeing in his actions the payback.

....Bush also demonstrated his friendship to industry leaders when he awarded the top job at MSHA to an executive with Utah's Energy West Mining Company, David Lauriski, whose top two deputies would also be recruited from mining companies. The woman who would become their boss, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, is the wife of Kentucky's Republican senator Mitch McConnell, a long time political ally of coal companies.

Bingham's story is primarily about Jack Spadaro, who was hounded out of his job as superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy after he became a whistleblower on an investigation into a coal waste leak in Kentucky. Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM....The Guardian reports on a leaked European document about Iran's nuclear ambitions:

The Iranian government has been successfully scouring Europe for the sophisticated equipment needed to develop a nuclear bomb, according to the latest western intelligence assessment of the country's weapons programmes.

....The 55-page intelligence assessment, dated July 1 2005, draws upon material gathered by British, French, German and Belgian agencies....

The assessment declares that Iran has developed an extensive web of front companies, official bodies, academic institutes and middlemen dedicated to obtaining in western Europe and in the former Soviet Union the expertise, training, and equipment for nuclear programmes, missile development, and biological and chemical weapons arsenals.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I don't have any trouble believing that this is true, but on the other hand the "leak" is pretty obviously deliberate and the article gives no indication of what the assessment is based on. What's more, given the track record of western intelligence over the past few years, I'm reluctant to take their conclusions at face value just because they happen to seem believable to me.

So: maybe this is for real. Or maybe it's just an effort to prepare public opinion for a military strike against Iran. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (242)

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By: Kevin Drum

2006 IF STONE MEMORIAL AWARD NOMINEE....From the Department of Trying Too Hard comes this hard hitting investigative report from the Los Angeles Times:

Despite spending $1 million in the last two years to assure Los Angeles residents that their tap water is not only safe to drink but also top quality, city officials spent $88,900 in public money during that time on bottled water from private firms.

The Department of Water and Power, which supplies the city's water and promotes it, spent the most on bottled water, paying $31,160 to Sparkletts.

For the DWP that works out to $1.86 per employee per year for bottled water. That's what? Two or three bottles each?

Give me a break.

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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January 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

DOG DAYS....In the November issue of the Washington Monthly, Christopher Lehmann explained why he thinks American political fiction sucks:

From The Gilded Age on, Washington was to be the premier setting of a strikingly continuous American political fable of innocence at risk. This sturdy tale typically pitches a political naif's fateful interest in the machinery of reform against the backdrop of irredeemably fallen, endlessly seductive relations of power in the nation's capital.

....This stubborn moralizing impulse is what makes American political fiction, even today, such watery and unsatisfying literature: It deprives writers of the best material.

Hmmm. Here is Janet Maslin of the New York Times describing Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days:

The BlackBerry in "Dog Days" is more than just a shamelessly promoted product. It is a symbol, too. It represents the glib, facile, cynical, artificial and calculating values amid which Melanie finds herself as she wags the dog in Washington as a 28-year-old minor political operative working on the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign.

...."Dog Days" really does resort to what [Cox] herself calls "the Hallmark Channel ending." So it's bye-bye BlackBerry and hello Iowa for Melanie at the story's end. Any smart Web site would mock her final gesture: turning on her laptop and writing the opening lines of this book.

Help me out here. Lehmann and Cox are married, which means that Lehmann must have read Dog Days before he wrote his essay. Right? And the book's own website, which describes Melanie as sacrificing "all of her long-held ideals," combined with Maslin's review, sure makes it sound as if Dog Days follows nearly the precise moralizing arc that Lehmann disparages as "watery and unsatisfying." So does that mean he thinks his wife's book is just another predictable piece of political pap? That would make for some interesting dinner table conversation, wouldn't it?

UPDATE: That's Christopher Lehmann, not Nicholas. I knew that.

Kevin Drum 8:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

CRACKS IN THE EDIFICE....I'm still catching up on the Jack Abramoff plea deal, but I thought I should at least pass along this analysis from CREW:

The information also refers to three unnamed co-conspirators: Representative #1 and Staffers A and B. Representative #1 refers to Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), Staffer A is likely Tony Rudy, former Deputy Chief of Staff to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Staffer B is Neil Volz, former Chief of Staff to Bob Ney.

Will Rudy and Volz crack too? Wait and see!

Kevin Drum 7:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

STUPID OR VENAL?....Over at the Prospect, Bob Kuttner asks the eternal question: stupid or venal? The motivation for the question this time around is the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and given George Bush's well-known disdain for actual policy analysis I suppose you could make a reasonable case for stupid as the guiding principle behind this mess although it would be a very specific and willfull brand of stupid. But in the end, it just doesn't stick. Even aggressive ignorance couldn't have produced this particular sausage.

So venal it is. In fact, the Medicare prescription bill is such an astonishingly bad piece of legislation that it's hard not to believe that it was deliberately designed to prove that the federal government can't be trusted to do a good job of administering healthcare as of course it can't be as long as people dedicated to proving this very point are in charge of the federal government. This leads Kuttner to propose that Democrats should campaign this year on the promise that they're the only ones who can fix this abomination, and he may be right. After all, 2006 is the year that an awful lot of people are going to find out firsthand just exactly what the Republican Party's idea of good legislation really is.

Kevin Drum 3:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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By: Kevin Drum

A TAXING ISSUE....This is hardly the most earth shaking issue to write about, but let's chalk up this post to a desire to ease ve-r-r-r-r-y slowly into the the blogging routine after a week off, OK? With that said, here is Ralph Lauren's daughter, Dylan Lauren, talking in the New York Times about her Manhattan-based candy store:

She says she has turned down rich business deals from, for example, Target, that other company owners would probably kill for. "It's not about the money to me," she said. "I believe I'm here to do something, to create something that makes people happy and expresses myself."

....She won't say how much money her parents gave her to start the business, except that it was "a lot." She also contributed money of her own.

....Ms. Lauren has not yet paid her father back for his initial investment...."I don't consider it a loan. She does. If she wants to pay me back, it's very good of her, and I'll take it. If she can't pay me back, I know whatever she did she's done because she believes in it and was honest about it and works hard. I'm glad she had a chance to use her creativity and express herself."

The Laurens have now made it crystal clear in the pages of the most influential newspaper in the country that Ralph's money was neither a loan nor an investment. It was a gift. So who's paying the taxes?

Kevin Drum 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAPPY NEW YEAR!....It's not often that someone writes a column that is simultaneously as condescending, juvenile, obtuse, and soul cankered as this one in Slate. You'll think it was written by a native of Alpha Centauri trying to parody Ayn Rand, but you'll be wrong. It was written by Steven Landsburg.

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (223)

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By: Kevin Drum

VACATION'S END....Well, I'm back. Finally. Did you miss me?

Many thanks to Steve Benen, who did some terrific guest blogging in my absence, as well as the Washington Monthly editors who also pitched in. As I hope all of you know by now, Steve's regular blog is The Carpetbagger Report, and for my money it's probably more deserving of wider recognition than any political blog out there. If you haven't bookmarked it yet and made it part of your daily reading, you should consider doing it. Right now would be a good time.

You've probably also noticed that Debra Dickerson is visiting with us and has written a few guest posts recently. She'll be here for a few more days, and if she wants to use the word "spoze" she's more than welcome to. Everyone OK with that?

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Debra Dickerson

What nerds dream about....The Washington Post tells of a groovy new national push to systematically promote and support learning foreign languages. Useful ones like Mandarin and Russian, vice French (neuf useless years pour moi. Sigh.) and German (Spanish, with its three million students, is the most taught language in America so we got that covered). In response to incentives from the College Board, the DOD and Congress, schools have rushed to teach Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken language on Earth, in immersion style programs that take kids from kindergarten through college and on into the new world economy in which China is certain to be a global super power. It might behoove us not to have to rely on translators when multimillion dollar deals are going down.

I spoze the usual suspects will, ahem, take umbrage at having any government, especially DOD, role in civilian, liberal artsy affairs but as long as participation in the program remains voluntary, works for me. The X Files notwithstanding, one can only hope that many of the graduates of these programs will indeed go on to contribute to DOD, as well as economic and diplomatic, efforts. (Full disclosure: I was a DOD-trained Korean linguist for about half of the twelve years I spent on active duty, so, ok, I'm biased.)

I would argue, however, that given the holistic nature of the program on offer, it's anybody's guess as to how these programs' graduates will use their training:

"In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee is considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion to boost classes on Chinese language and culture in public schools, and China, too, is doing its part, said Michael Levine, education director at the Asia Society in New York City. China's education ministry has formed partnerships with states including Kentucky and Kansas, as well as Brazil, Australia and Britain, to boost teacher exchanges and training."

That'll make the world smaller, won't it? I was taught by civilian native speakers on an Army post (I was USAF tho) and plied my tradecraft on military installations in ways purely antagonistic to the country I studied. Fortunately, I got to spend two years in Korea and become truly fluent (if largely illiterate) but most military linguists never get to set foot in the country of the language they studied: you'd lose your clearance, and end up in the brig, for using your Serbo-Croatian, Chinese or Rumanian in its country of origin. Many of these grads will probably opt to live and work in China, do export/import stuff or simply become Chinese teachers. Er, teachers of Chinese. In any event, only good can come of such a program. I'm reading The Black West right now, which chronicles the role of blacks on the frontier. I'm blown away by how often blacks, free and slave, excelled as cowboys, scouts, diplomats and very, very frequently as interpreters. It's nothing to run across blacks on expeditions who spoke several European languages (having traveled with their owners or employers for years at a time) and several Indian ones as well. Apparently, learning languages, especially 'savage' ones, was considered lowly. Weird how oppressed and yet how much a part of things they were. More, they were often running things whites routinely deferred to them in negotiations with Indians, for instance due to the disciplines, like language learning, that they mastered.

So, a good thing for everyone but my poor kids. It will take an act of Congress to keep me from forcing them into this program. What geek worth her salt could resist this nerdery:

In September, most of Yen's 24 students could not speak a word of Mandarin, one of the most difficult languages to learn. But three months later, the students were singing songs in Mandarin, laboriously printing Chinese characters and following Yen's instructions, delivered in Mandarin, with no need for any English translation. They jumped up to imitate trees, mountains and frogs at her command.

So what if they're too geeky to have friends once I'm done with them. They'll have Chinese.

Debra Dickerson 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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January 2, 2006

SLIPPING SUPPORT IN THE MILITARY....With his political support still suffering, the president can at least count on broad support among men and women in uniform, right? According to the 2005 Military Times Poll, perhaps not. (via Political Wire)

Support for President Bush and for the war in Iraq has slipped significantly in the last year among members of the military's professional core, according to the 2005 Military Times Poll.

Approval of the president's Iraq policy fell 9 percentage points from 2004; a bare majority, 54 percent, now say they view his performance on Iraq as favorable. Support for his overall performance fell 11 points, to 60 percent, among active-duty readers of the Military Times newspapers. Though support both for President Bush and for the war in Iraq remains significantly higher than in the public as a whole, the drop is likely to add further fuel to the heated debate over Iraq policy. In 2003 and 2004, supporters of the war in Iraq pointed to high approval ratings in the Military Times Poll as a signal that military members were behind President Bush's the president's policy.

The poll also found diminished optimism that U.S. goals in Iraq can be accomplished, and a somewhat smaller drop in support for the decision to go to war in 2003.

To be fair, there are a few caveats. The survey was conducted through the mail, which affects the sample and margin of error. Moreover, as the Military Times noted, respondents to the poll tend to be "older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the military population." But with these details in mind, one might expect the president's support to be higher, not lower. For that matter, because previous Military Times polls were conducted the same way with the same audience, comparisons are helpful in showing trends.

And at this point, the trend is towards less support for the president and his agenda, not more. For that matter, it's not just Bush -- the same poll showed a decrease in support for Congress and civilian and uniformed Pentagon leaders.

This is going back a ways, but Benjamin Wallace-Wells had a terrific piece in the November 2003 issue of the Washington Monthly on the slow but steady decline of the bond between the GOP and the U.S. military since the war in Iraq began. As Wallace-Wells explained, soldiers and their families feel as if they've been neglected and mistreated.

It seems we're now seeing the results.

It's also worth remembering the Army Times' devastating editorial about Republicans' priorities when it comes to Americans in uniform.

In recent months, President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress have missed no opportunity to heap richly deserved praise on the military. But talk is cheap -- and getting cheaper by the day, judging from the nickel-and-dime treatment the troops are getting lately.

For example, the White House griped that various pay-and-benefits incentives added to the 2004 defense budget by Congress are wasteful and unnecessary including a modest proposal to double the $6,000 gratuity paid to families of troops who die on active duty. This comes at a time when Americans continue to die in Iraq at a rate of about one a day.

Similarly, the administration announced that on Oct. 1 it wants to roll back recent modest increases in monthly imminent-danger pay (from $225 to $150) and family-separation allowance (from $250 to $100) for troops getting shot at in combat zones.

Then theres military tax relief -- or the lack thereof. As Bush and Republican leaders in Congress preach the mantra of tax cuts, they cant seem to find time to make progress on minor tax provisions that would be a boon to military homeowners, reservists who travel long distances for training and parents deployed to combat zones, among others. [...]

Taken piecemeal, all these corner-cutting moves might be viewed as mere flesh wounds. But even flesh wounds are fatal if you suffer enough of them.... Money talks -- and we all know what walks.

This isn't the kind of dynamic Karl Rove & Co. can fix with a few more photo-ops on military bases. The Bush gang may want to back up the signs that say "Supporting the Military" with some actual substance that shows support for the military. Just a thought.

Steve Benen 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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IT'S LIKE A WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY....The writing was on the wall. Two weeks ago, Texas Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn dropped hints that she'd consider leaving a GOP primary against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry (R) and commissioned a poll asking Texans about a scenario in which Strayhorn ran as an independent. Today, she made it official.

Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn turned her back on the Republican Party and announced Monday she will run for governor as an independent.

The move allows Strayhorn to escape a potentially ugly primary battle against Gov. Rick Perry. The GOP primary is set for March 7.

Strayhorn, who calls herself "One Tough Grandma," has been a harsh critic of Perry's leadership over the past couple of years.... "I am a Republican," she said. "But I know we must set partisan politics aside and do what's best for Texas. That is why I am running for governor as a Texas independent."

It sets up one of the more entertaining gubernatorial contests of the year. At this point -- and, given recent history, conditions can still change -- we have one vulnerable incumbent Republican (Perry), a Republican running as an independent (Strayhorn), a musician/writer/humorist running as an independent (Kinky Friedman), and two very credible Democrats (former Rep. Chris Bell and former State Supreme Court Justice Bob Gammage).

Will Strayhorn peel off Perry's Republican support? Will Friedman be taken seriously enough as a candidate to compete? Will White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, Strayhorn's son, help his mother's campaign?

This one's going to be fun to watch. Pass the popcorn.

Steve Benen 8:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Debra Dickerson

Dudes. Quit Bogarting....For a person WHO NEVER SHUTS UP, being asked to guest blog anywhere is a little like asking Anna Nicole Smith if she'd like to 'entertain' the newly reincarnated but still insane Howard Hughes. Duh, yes!!! Then, the time comes, guest blog time. You have two political science degrees....a law degree.......libel insurance....a huge brother who's a bouncer and cousins who'll do anything for a six-pack and a slice of sweet potato pie......all the nation's politics and policies to wax philosphical about...not to mention the planet generally and you, never-at-a-loss-for-words Debbie,.......dither. You pick one subject, then the other. You read the last six month of entries and see, one by one, every topic you've ever even mumbled about in your sleep debated ad nauseam. Thoroughly. Provocatively. The inescapable conclusion? The regulars have bogarted all the umbrage! But stay tuned. This is still America: I know I can find something fresh to be pissed off about.

Debra Dickerson 6:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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10 WORDS....I'm glad to see the fine folks at National Journal's Hotline are back after a holiday break with a pretty good round-up of political/campaign news from the last two weeks. But like Ezra, I thought one of the items stood out.

Best Good Question To Which I Don't Yet Have An Answer: IA Gov. Tom Vilsack, who asks in a Heartland PAC e-mail "What are your ten words that define the Democratic Party's message?"

Ezra suggests it's crazy to think "a major political party in the world's most powerful country should be able to define its message in ten words." I'm not so sure.

I don't think it's controversial to believe that Democrats need to do a better job with message development and party sales pitches. Matthew Yglesias noted some months back that The American Prospect solicited ideas from readers for a liberal counter to the conservatives' "low taxes, traditional family values, and a strong military" frame -- and the results were hardly encouraging. It'll surprise no one to hear that the left is still dealing with the whole "elevator pitch" problem.

With this in mind, it's not necessarily absurd to think a party's general approach to government can be summarized quickly and easily. Using Yglesias' question, the right's pitch of "low taxes, traditional family values, and a strong military" is only nine words. If you take out "a" and "and," it's seven. Does it even begin to address important policy questions like the environment, the judiciary, health care, the budget, and poverty? Not even a little.

But when the typical voter wants to know what the Republican Party is all about, the GOP has these nine words. The nation won't necessarily hear these nine words and understand where the Republicans fall on every important policy question, but it's a quick summary of what drives the party.

Of course, it doesn't matter whether these ideas are good, fair, or even accurate; it's about whether the Republicans have a coherent idea about guiding principles that they take to voters. They do. Dems are making progress -- admitting you have a problem is always the first step -- but I don't think they're there quite yet. I hope they keep trying.

Over a year ago, Kevin laid out a rough pitch for the left that read, "Equal rights, economic security, personal liberties, and protection from huge corporations." Sure, that's 11 words, but it's clearly on the right track.

Steve Benen 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (204)

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CHURCH-STATE SHOWDOWN IN INDIANA....It's not unusual for state legislatures, like the U.S. Congress, to start the day with an official non-denominational prayer. On the Hill, the House and Senate have chaplains to cover this, while many states invite local religious leaders to handle the invocation. Yes, this is all legal -- the Supreme Court cleared the way for these prayers in 1983, ruling that a legislature could hold nonsectarian invocations, in part because they reflect "elements of the American civil religion."

The fight over invocations in Indiana's legislature, however, is anything but civil. For years, pastors have been brought in to lead state lawmakers in prayer at the start of their work day with increasingly evangelistic language. Matters came to a head in April when the Rev. Clarence Brown delivered an invocation that included thanks to God "for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, who died that we might have the right to come together in love." He said he had been thinking about the separation of church and state, but decided to ignore it because "I have to do what Jesus Christ says for me to do as a witness."

Once his prayer was complete, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma (R) announced that Brown would "bless us with a song," leading to an energetic rendition of "Just a Little Talk With Jesus."

It was the tipping point. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the name of four people -- a retired Methodist minister, two Roman Catholics, and a state lobbyist for a Quaker group -- arguing that the practice of legislative invocations had crossed the line from nonsectarian civil religion to state-sponsored promotion of Christianity.

About a month ago, a federal judge agreed, ruling that the Constitution insists that "one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another." Indiana's legislative prayers represent "a clear endorsement of Christianity, sending the message to others that they are outsiders and the message to Christians that they are favored insiders."

So, state lawmakers are prepared to be more inclusive now, right? Not so much.

[U.S. District Judge David F. Hamilton] ordered the House to avoid mentioning Christ in the formal benedictions. As the House prepares to open its 2006 session on Wednesday, a number of politicians have vowed to defy Hamilton, whom they accuse of undermining a 188-year Indiana tradition and interfering in legislative branch affairs.

Terry Goodin, a Democrat who rejects Hamilton's order, is among at least two dozen House members who have asked to give Wednesday's prayer. He said he would "absolutely" speak Christ's name if given the chance.

"Really, who do you pray to? If you're offering up a prayer, you're praying to a deity. You don't offer prayers to just an open space," Goodin said. "I will give the same type of prayer that's been given for 100 years. I won't change my words because of someone in the judicial branch who tells me I must."

Judge Hamilton, who is the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, said he intends "to take appropriate steps to insure compliance," suggesting that lawmakers who ignore the ruling will likely be held in contempt of court. This could get ugly.

I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to church-state separation, but this case does raise legitimate questions about drawing the civil religion line. Opponents of the status quo believe it's ridiculous for lawmakers to officially promote and endorse Christianity on the floor of the legislature. They're right. Supporters of evangelistic legislative prayers believe it's ridiculous to insist that prayers are fine so long as they're watered down and generic in order to make everyone feel comfortable. They're right, too.

I have a compromise solution to offer: Indiana lawmakers can pray, alone or in groups, to any god they like, and with any language they like, before and after the legislative work day begins. Lawmakers who don't want to pray, or prefer a more inclusive, non-faith-specific prayer, can get together alone or in groups as well. The floor of the legislature would be reserved for official legislative work, while everyone, including lawmakers, could worship however they please, just not on the floor of the state capitol. There'd be no need for lawsuits, or defiance of court orders, because everyone could worship, or not, on their own time and with no restrictions or church-state questions.

What do you say, Indiana?

Steve Benen 2:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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GOP DIVISION OVER NSA SEARCHES....Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) is hardly among the chamber's more liberal Republicans, but he's certainly been willing to break with the administration more and more lately. In just the last month, Lugar has criticized the Bush administration's practice of paying Iraqi news outlets to publish American propaganda, and has told Newsweek that Bush should be more like Bill Clinton when it comes to being exposed to a variety competing ideas.

Better yet, yesterday Lugar became the latest Republican senator to echo the call for congressional hearings into Bush's warrantless-search program. For those keeping score at home, that raises the total number of Senate Republicans to back hearings to explore this controversy to five: Specter (Pa.), Graham (S.C.), Hagel (Neb.), Snowe (Maine), and now Lugar. It's something to consider when the issue is characterized as a partisan fight.

Of course, for nearly every Republican senator who supports hearings, there's another pushing in the other direction. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has helped lead the way in carrying water for Bush, though Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined the fun yesterday, arguing on Fox News that the warrantless-search program was a legitimate use of presidential power because "the president believes very, very strongly that he has the constitutional authority." And, obviously, if Bush feels "very, very strongly" that he's right, it must be so.

The division within the GOP ranks notwithstanding, the next big challenge is determining which Senate committee chairman will get to host the hearings: Arlen Specter or Pat Roberts. Time reports this week that the White House is hoping to convince Specter to forgo Judiciary Committee hearings and defer the matter to the Intelligence Committee. In fact, Time quoted a GOP official saying that the White House is "going to lean on Specter very hard not to hold hearings."

This makes perfect sense. If the Judiciary Committee investigates the controversy, the White House will have to endure a very public grilling at the hands of a relatively moderate committee chairman who's already suggested he thinks the president has gone too far.

If the Intelligence Committee investigates the controversy, the White House can take comfort in the fact that the hearings would be behind closed doors and the testimony would be classified. Instead of a committee led by a moderate skeptic, the Intelligence Committee is chaired by a partisan hack who's already announced his belief that the administration's conduct in this matter is perfectly legal.

If you're the Bush White House, which of these would you prefer?

Steve Benen 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Debra Dickerson

Enough Christmas a'ready. Bring on the disfunction....I don't know about y'all, but I am Christmas'd out. I spent most of the last two weeks squinting at directions written in Elvin runes and talking with nice ladies in India (aka the Toys R Us help desk. My fave was the one who suggested I "ask a man. Sometimes they know best." When I pointed out that a "man didn't buy the bloody play house," she laughed so hard her bindi probably popped off.) All this while squatting in my freezing utility room lest a wandering toddler make mean old mom be the one who breaks the news about Santa really being a middle-aged black woman with fading eyesight and poor mechanical skills. Then I got to spend the big day itself trying to remember whether it was the fuzzy bear's right paw or left foot that made him (creepily) carry on like an infant. Was it the baby in the red onesie (with my two year old, all dolls are named "Baby") or the baby in the pink onesie who cooed and cuddled, and, in either case, what was I supposed to push, pinch or strangle to make it happen? I ended up making a chart 'cause the good Lord knows there aint enough crap on my refrigerator door. Last Christmas, we spent most of the first half of 2005 discovering that toy trains, etc. were mechanized in some way. So I forgot. So shoot me. It's my job to teach them about deferred gratification, right? Next year, they'll be 5 and 3. I'm switching to cash.

Debra Dickerson 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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TAKING 'STOCK'....In February 2004, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was on CNN defending the Bush administration's economic policies. When Judy Woodruff noted the president's poor record on job creation, Chao suggested there's only one number that matters.

Woodruff: I want to cite the one economic analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston. He said, these are his words, quote, "very disappointing; we're not getting the jobs to replace the stimulus in the economy which will fade once the first quarter ends." Another economist said, "It's the weakest job-creation rate relative to economic growth on record."

Chao: Well, the stock market is, after all, the final arbiter.

In retrospect, Chao may have wanted to pick a different standard of measurement, because if the stock market is "the final arbiter," Bush has some explaining to do. The Dow ended 2005 lower than when it started 12 months ago.

In fact, while it was the 0.6% decline for the year that generated headlines, most seem to have overlooked the fact that on the day Bush was sworn into office in January 2001, the Dow Jones stood at 10,732.46. As of now, it's at 10,717.50.

In other words, after five years of Bush's presidency, the stock market has a cumulative gain of negative 15 points.

Under Reagan, the Dow went up 148%. Under Clinton, it grew 187%. After five years, Bush isn't quite breaking even.

Sure, Republican administrations have consistently under-performed Democratic administrations on stock market growth, but who would have guessed that nearly five years after Bush took office, the Dow wouldn't have grown at all?

Steve Benen 11:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (138)

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COME FOR THE SUNSHINE; STAY FOR THE INSANITY.... Having been born and raised in Miami, I look back at Florida with some fascination. In fact, I've long harbored a silly notion that all bad things that happen in this country have an almost direct connection to the Sunshine State. After the Elian Gonzalez controversy, the 2000 election debacle, the original anthrax letters, the flying lessons for the 9/11 terrorists, and the Terri Schiavo matter, it's hard not to notice that Carl Hiaasen doesn't have to exaggerate much for his novels.

And in case Florida's "eccentricities" weren't obvious before, publishers of non-fiction are helping educate the rest of the country.

How weird is Florida? So weird that not one, not two, but three different books have been titled "Weird Florida."

The first, written by Palm Beach Post reporter Eliot Kleinberg, hit stores in 1998 and detailed years of strange news stories. Charlie Carlson published his "Weird Florida" in 2005 documenting unusual sites around the state. Now Kleinberg is coming out with a "Weird Florida II" in January with more true, offbeat stories.

"I'm already putting together a file for book three," Kleinberg said of his works. "If I thought for a second that Florida was going to stop being weird, I'd be worried. There's no signs of abatement."

Florida did indeed have scores of weird stories in 2005, from the woman who concealed a stolen parrot in her bra to a beagle puppy that was trained to sniff out pythons to a Key West man who robbed a bank with a pitchfork.

I can appreciate that people in across the country are prepared to argue that their state is bizarre. It's almost a matter of civic pride. But as Tom Tomorrow noted earlier this year, there's just something about Florida that makes it a "cauldron of craziness."

My question, for anyone who might be able to explain it to me, is how this tropical state managed to become such an attraction for disaster.

Is it the influx of immigrants from around the world who don't always get along with one another? The competition between cultures and languages? Too much sun?

Mike Wilson, the Floridian editor of the St. Petersburg Times, wrote an item (which is no longer available online) suggesting that it's more of a genetic problem.

Friends in other states expect me to defend Florida in times like these. But like a parent making excuses for an aberrant teenager, justifying it is the best I can do. Look, this isn't Boston, founded on intellect and the principles of religious freedom. This is Florida, founded by hucksters and luckless dreamers. Eccentricity is in its DNA.

Wilson was Guatemala in the early 1990s on assignment. While there, he spoke with locals who said they couldn't imagine living in Florida. It was, in their minds, "too dangerous" and too overwrought with "bad people."

Guatemala was in its 25th year of a civil war at the time.

Steve Benen 10:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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FAITH-BASED FUNDING GONE AWRY....The idea that the Bush administration would use tax dollars to pay religious leaders to advance its agenda is, alas, not new. Throughout Bush's first two years in office, for example, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives routinely distributed grants to ministries that, coincidentally, Republicans were trying to curry favor with in key congressional races.

The practice of paying American religious leaders with our money raised all kinds of questions about church-state separation, corruption, cronyism, and exploitation of religion for partisan gain. But when it happens in Iraq, it poses a whole new set of problems.

A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees.

The Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, was told early in 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency, according to a former employee.

Since then, the company has retained three or four Sunni religious scholars to offer advice and write reports for military commanders on the content of propaganda campaigns, the former employee said. But documents and Lincoln executives say the company's ties to religious leaders and dozens of other prominent Iraqis is aimed also at enabling it to exercise influence in Iraqi communities on behalf of clients, including the military.

To be fair, we're not talking about multi-million dollar bribes for clerics. The NYT reported that the Lincoln Group "spent about $144,000" on this propaganda program from May to September, and details are sketchy about exactly how many religious leaders were paid and how much each received.

What's more, the program, at least on the surface, wasn't explicitly about buying political support. The Sunni religious scholars were effectively public relations consultants, advising a Pentagon contractor on how to craft appealing messages.

It's likely, however, that there will be serious political and practical implications. As the NYT explained, "Sunni religious scholars are considered highly influential within the country's minority Sunni population." Call it a hunch, but it's not likely that Sunnis driving the insurgency will be pleased to know that we're "contracting" with their spiritual leaders about disseminating propaganda. As Kleiman put it, "I can't think of a better way to (1) discredit those who are genuinely on our side or (2) express contempt for Islam."

Steve Benen 9:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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January 1, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN ASHCROFT: WEAK ON TERRORISM?....Look, if even John Ashcroft had qualms about the NSA's secret domestic spying program, as Newsweek reports today, I think it's safe to say that something is seriously wrong here. After all, we now know that the FISA court was unhappy about the NSA program; Congress was unwilling to pass a law authorizing it; and both John Ashcroft and his chief deputy in an election year! eventually came to feel that the program was being abused. That's the trifecta: senior officials in all three branches of government felt that the program went beyond the president's authority.

This whole thing is kind of depressing, isn't it? I don't mean in just the obvious sense, but also in the sense that this issue seems like such a clear loser for Democrats. Once again the president will be allowed to paint this as an issue of either wholeheartedly supporting the fight against terrorism or else being one of those whiny liberals who's allied with Osama in all but name. That the real issue is that Bush secretly broke the law instead of getting congressional authorization for it which would have been a slam dunk for any remotely reasonable program will end up lost in a whirlwind of the jingoistic bloviating we've come to expect from Fox News and Dick Cheney.

But who knows? Maybe this time the press will see through the prattle and write about this scandal without the usual insistence on accepting transparently childish talking points from the conservo-bots as actual reportable news. That would be a nice New Year's present.

Oh, and maybe the the tooth fairy will drop by with that quarter he forgot to give me 40 years ago. You never know.

Kevin Drum 5:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (266)

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STILL MISSING THE POINT....It's been 12 days since the president has had to deal with questions about his warrantless-search program, a respite Bush has no doubt enjoyed. But today, after visiting with some injured troops, the president took a few questions from reporters. Guess what they wanted to talk about.

"It's seems logical to me that if we know there's a phone number associated with al-Qaida or an al-Qaida affiliate and they're making phone calls, it makes sense to find out why," Bush said. "They attacked us before, they'll attack us again."

Bush spoke to reporters at Brooke Army Medical Center where he was visiting wounded troops. He said the leak of information about the secret order to eavesdrop on Americans with suspected ties to terrorists causes "great harm to the nation."

Asked how he responds to Americans worried about violations of their privacy, he responded, "If somebody from al-Qaida is calling you, we'd like to know why.... I think most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy's thinking."

Yes, of course we want to know. To fight a war on terrorism and defend the country, we need to know. In fact, the FISA court would be delighted to give the administration a warrant so officials can know why someone is chatting with terrorists. It leads, of course, to the one question the president doesn't want to hear and can't answer: why not spy on the bad guys without circumventing the rule of law?

As for today's revelation -- that the Justice Department was hardly on board with this warrantless-search program -- the AP account explained that Bush "dodged a question about whether he was aware of any resistance to the program at high levels of his administration and how that might have influenced his decision to approve it."

And with that, the fight to frame the controversy continues. For Bush, it's "there's an enemy, so spying is a necessity." For his critics, it's "spy all you want, just get a warrant and allow for some oversight." 'Round and 'round we go....

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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TV BLOGGING....A few years ago, I was among at least 12 people who were deeply disappointed by the cancellation of Matt Groening's Futurama, yanked mercilessly from the air after just five entertaining seasons. If you were one of the 12, however, you'll be pleased to know that there's talk of a comeback.

After better-than-expected DVD sales, Futurama may follow in Family Guy's footsteps and make it back onto the air.

"Three months ago, I would have said we were going to start tomorrow," says writer David X. Cohen, who collaborated with Groening on Futurama. "And one month ago I would also have said we were going to start tomorrow. So ..." He pauses. "My current estimate is that we're starting tomorrow."

On a related note, I was one of at least seven people saddened by the news that Arrested Development was no more, but was heartened by rumors about interest from another network.

Will the pay-TV environs of Showtime be a friendlier place for the Emmy-winning comedy "Arrested Development," which just got canceled by Fox?

Word around town this week is that Showtime is in talks to pick up the comedy about a chaotic family. Sources stressed that the talks are still exploratory and that it would be a big financial commitment on Showtime's part to pick up the show in its current form with a large ensemble cast that includes Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Portia de Rossi, Jessica Walter and Will Arnett.

And as long as we're talking about television, does anyone have any guesses as to what The West Wing will do with the Santos campaign in light of John Spencer's recent death? Crazy thought: Sam Seaborn has been in Congress -- the show left some ambiguity about his departure -- and will join Santos on a "youth/handsome ticket."

Steve Benen 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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RESISTANCE AT JUSTICE ON WARRANTLESS SEARCHES....After the Bush administration's warrantless-search program came to light, one of the early talking points used to defend the program's legality emphasized Justice Department support. As Condoleezza Rice explained on Meet the Press, the initiative "has been reviewed not just by the White House counsel but by the lawyers of the Justice Department."

On its face, this wasn't exactly a persuasive defense. To hear Rice and others tell it, the warrantless spying was permissible because Harriet Miers, John Ashcroft, and Alberto Gonzales told him the president he could get away with it. But as it turns out, there's a lot more to the Justice Department's "approval" of the program than the White House talking points let on.

A top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight, according to officials with knowledge of the tense internal debate. The concerns appear to have played a part in the temporary suspension of the secret program.

The concerns prompted two of President Bush's most senior aides - Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general - to make an emergency visit to a Washington hospital in March 2004 to discuss the program's future and try to win the needed approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery, the officials said.

The unusual meeting was prompted because Mr. Ashcroft's top deputy, James B. Comey, who was acting as attorney general in his absence, had indicated he was unwilling to give his approval to certifying central aspects of the program, as required under the White House procedures set up to oversee it.

When Comey balked, Card and Gonzales literally had to go to Ashcroft's sickbed to ask him to sign off on the warrantless-search program. What's more, according to the article, even Ashcroft was reluctant to go along, fearful that there was inadequate oversight and limited legal justifications for such sweeping presidential authority. So what happened? According to the New York Times, "It is unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Mr. Ashcroft to give his approval to the program after the meeting or moved ahead without it."

The article suggests, however, that Ashcroft may not have been convinced.

What is known is that in early 2004, about the time of the hospital visit, the White House suspended parts of the program for several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the security agency on how the program was used, in part to guard against abuses.

The concerns within the Justice Department appear to have led, at least in part, to the decision to suspend and revamp the program, officials said. The Justice Department then oversaw a secret audit of the surveillance program.

What did the audit conclude? It's hard to say; the Times doesn't report on whether abuses were discovered during the review or not.

As for the story behind the story, it appears that there's something of a revolt underway at the Department of Justice. There's no way the NYT could get this story, with these details, unless several in-the-know Justice officials decided it was time to start talking.

Indeed, it may be part of a trend. DoJ officials recently leaked word, for example, that attorneys in the in the Civil Rights Division concluded that Georgia's poll-tax law was discriminatory against minority voters and should be blocked from implementation, but they were quickly overruled by Bush-appointed higher-ups. Moreover, the lead attorney in the government's landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry recently told reporters that her politically appointed bosses undermined her team's work on the case. And earlier this month, the Washington Post reported on leaked memos showing that DoJ officials concluded, unanimously, that Tom DeLay's re-redistricting scheme in Texas violated the Voting Rights Act -- but once again they were overruled by Bush's political appointees.

When the Justice Department starts leaking like a sieve, and all the news embarrasses the White House, you know Bush has a problem.

Steve Benen 10:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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