Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2006

3,000.... When it comes to Saddam Hussein's execution, the word of the day, Joshua Holland notes, is "milestone." As in Bush's statement marking Saddam's death: "Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain, and defend itself." By Holland's count, it was the sixteenth "turning point" or "milestone" (along with one chance to "turn the tide" and a "watershed event") in the last three and a half years.

But so long as "milestones" are open for discussion, a far more tragic one was reached today.

Jordan W. Hess was the unlikeliest of soldiers. He could bench-press 300 pounds and then go home and write poetry. He learned the art of glass blowing because it seemed interesting and built a computer with only a magazine as his guide. Most recently, he fell in love with a woman from Brazil and took up digital photography, letting both sweep his heart away.

Specialist Hess, the seventh of eight children, was never keen on premonitions, but on Christmas of 2005, as his tight-knit family gathered on a beach for the weekend, he told each sibling and parent privately that he did not expect to come home from Iraq.

On Nov. 11, Specialist Hess, 26, freshly arrived in Iraq, was conducting a mission as the driver of an Abrams tank when an improvised explosive device, or I.E.D., blew up with brain-rattling force. The blast was so potent it penetrated the 67-ton tank, flinging him against the top and critically injuring his spine. His four crewmates survived. For three weeks, he hung on at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, long enough to utter a few words to his loved ones and absorb all their kindness.

On Dec. 4, Specialist Hess slipped onto the ever-expanding list of American military fatalities in Iraq, one that has increased by an average of more than three a day since Oct. 1, the highest three-month toll in two years. On Sunday, with the announcement of the death in Baghdad of Specialist Dustin R. Donica, 22, of Spring, Tex., the list reached the grave milestone of at least 3,000 deaths since the March 2003 invasion.

In June, after U.S. fatalities in Iraq reached 2,500, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked if the president had "any response or reaction." Snow responded, "It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks, people want something."

In this case, I think Snow was right; people do "want something." We want a president who understands reality. We want an administration with an effective policy. We want U.S. troops to get out of the middle of a civil war.

In short, we want to avoid number 3,001.

Here's to a far less tragic 2007.

Steve Benen 8:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (127)

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LUGAR: 'THIS COULD GET UGLY'.... Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been surprisingly willing to break with the Bush White House on foreign policy and national security issues, far more than one might expect for a conservative Republican from a reliably "red" state.

Lugar, for example, was one of the first lawmakers to publicly criticize the Bush administration's practice of paying Iraqi news outlets to publish American propaganda. Soon after, Lugar told Newsweek that Bush should be more like Bill Clinton when it comes to being exposed to a variety competing ideas. Lugar has even pushed back against some Donald Rumsfeld's less defensible comments.

But today, responding to the notion of an escalation in Iraq, Lugar went a little further than he usually does.

Today on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said President Bush should have congressional support before he announces any plan for escalation in Iraq. "[I]n the past, the administration has been inclined not to disregard Congress but to not take Congress very seriously. I think this time Congress has to be taken seriously."

If Bush ignores Congress, Lugar said he should expect "a lot of hearings, a lot of study, a lot of criticism," and "demands for subpoenas." Fox host Chris Wallace said, "You saying this could get ugly." Lugar replied, "Yes, it could."

Asked directly if he supports sending more troops, Lugar said he didn't know, but recommended a "retreat" in which members of the Foreign Relations Committee studies the president's plan and responds to it, before the plan is implemented.

I hope Lugar isn't holding is breath, waiting for the White House's call. It's not coming.

Steve Benen 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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THE STATE OF FOOTBALL.... Because it's a big weekend for football, and because Kevin routinely does at least one football-related item on weekends, I thought it'd be worth mentioning that ESPN.com ran an interesting feature the other day: "How do the states stack up across all levels of football?"

The idea was to rank the best states for football, based on the opinions of the networks' NFL, college and Scouts Inc. editors. Here are the top five.

1. Texas: No. 4 pro | No. 1 college | No. 1 high school: The Lone Star State has 10 DI teams, six Heismans, six national titles, three AFL titles, five Super Bowl wins and 24 NFL Hall of Famers.

2. California: No. 2 pro | No. 3 college | No. 2 high school: The Golden State has seven DI teams, nine Heismans, eight national titles, one NFL title, one AFL title, eight Super Bowl wins and 15 NFL Hall of Famers.

3. Florida: No. 3 pro | No. 2 college | No. 3 high school: The Sunshine State has seven DI teams, six Heismans, eight national titles, three Super Bowl wins and seven NFL Hall of Famers.

4. Pennsylvania: No. 1 pro | No. 7 college | No. 6 high school: The Keystone State has three DI teams, two Heismans, four national titles, four NFL titles, five Super Bowl wins and 26 NFL Hall of Famers.

5. Ohio: No. 5 pro | No. 4 college | No. 5 high school: The Buckeye State has eight DI teams, seven Heismans, seven national titles, nine NFL titles and 21 NFL Hall of Famers.

The list struck me as inherently flawed, since everyone knows my birth-state of Florida is obviously the nation's most impressive state for football. Besides, Texas gets credit for AFL titles? And how many of those Lone-Star State national titles came within the last couple of decades?

Let the debate begin....

Steve Benen 10:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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December 30, 2006

ROCK OF AGES, AGES OF ROCKS.... An interesting controversy at the Grand Canyon has been percolating for three years now, and the issue, unfortunately, remains unresolved.

First, a little background. In August 2003, the National Park Service approved a creationist text, "Grand Canyon: A Different View," to share bookshelves with legitimate books at park bookstores and museums. In this case, the "different view" meant an unscientific approach, touting a literal reading of scripture to explain the Canyon's formation. The book argues, for example, "[A]ccording to a biblical time scale, [the Canyon] can't possibly be more than about a few thousand years old."

The decision to promote the book didn't go over well. Scientists who work at the Grand Canyon were outraged, as was the academic community -- the American Geological Institute and seven geo-science organizations sent letters to the park and agency officials asking that the book be removed. Their objections were rebuffed; the book stayed.

Three years later, the problem appears to be slightly worse.

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

"In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is 'no comment.'"

The National Park Service promised a high-level policy review of the issue three years ago. Apparently, that never occurred. What a surprise.

There are a couple of angles to this story. It's absurd, for example, that scientists working for the National Park Service can't answer questions from visitors about the age of the Canyon. A practical "gag rule" to hide accurate information from the public is just indefensible.

As for the book, creationists offer two basic arguments. Neither is particularly persuasive.

First, they argue that it's a diversity-of-thought issue. A spokesperson for the Institute for Creation Research, which publishes the book in question, said three years ago, "As long as all sides are presented, I don't see any problem with it."

I understand that this argument strikes many people as fair. The state-sponsored bookstore should, the theory goes, feature books with real information alongside books with wrong information. It's about having a sense of "balance."

It's also misguided. If the purpose of the bookstore is to offer visitors texts with accurate information that they can rely on, then creating a theological "balance" is an unattainable, and ultimately unnecessary, goal.

Does every possible idea deserve the official imprimatur of the National Park Service? Will the NPS save space for The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's ideas about the origins of the Grand Canyon, or are fundamentalist Christians the only lucky group? (In 2003, Grand Canyon officials rejected 22 books and other products for bookstore placement while approving only one new sale item -- the creationist book.)

Just to be clear, the point isn't to censor the books based on pseudo-science. If a private business, whether it be Amazon.com or a religious bookstore, wants to sell books that offer "alternative" ideas about the age of the Grand Canyon, that's up to them. That said, there's a difference between private enterprise and state sponsorship. National parks should offer the public reliable information, not religious conjecture.

Second, proponents of "Grand Canyon: A Different View" insist that there's a legitimate debate about the actual age of the canyon. That's true. Some scientists believe the Colorado River carved the Canyon 5 million years ago, others say 6 million. Some believe the rock formations are 2 billion years old, others may say 2.5 billion.

But the fact that there's some disagreement among scientists doesn't mean the floor is now open to any and all ideas as equally legitimate explanations. No matter how heated the debate between two scholars who want to argue between the 5 million and 6 million year old models, both believe the idea that the Canyon is 10,000 years old -- or perhaps even younger -- is utterly ridiculous.

I realize the Bush administration's assault on science is well-established at this point -- there's even a great book available on the subject -- but do we really have to wait until 2009 for this nonsense to stop?

Steve Benen 3:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (190)

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BEHOLDEN TO BIG OIL.... If I didn't know better, I might just think the Bush administration is a little too cozy with the oil industry.

The Justice Department is investigating whether the director of a multibillion-dollar oil-trading program at the Interior Department has been paid as a consultant for oil companies hoping for contracts.

The director of the program and three subordinates, all based in Denver, have been transferred to different jobs and have been ordered to cease all contacts with the oil industry until the investigation is completed some time next spring, according to officials involved.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation had not been announced publicly, said investigators were worried that senior government officials had been steering huge oil-trading contracts to favored companies.

This news, of course, comes shortly after we learned that former Interior Secretary Gale Norton has sailed through the revolving door to become a lawyer for Royal Dutch Shell.

Which comes shortly after revelations that officials at Bush's Interior Department tried to hide information that federal incentives for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico isn't cost effective, doesn't produce a lot of oil, and is generally just a massive give-away to oil companies.

Which comes shortly after news the Interior Department has barely bothered to collect royalties from oil companies, which the industry owes the government for drilling on federal property, in recent years.

If administration officials aren't careful, the public might get the impression that they're beholden to Big Oil. Wouldn't that be shocking?

Steve Benen 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MILITARY TIMES POLL.... A couple of days ago, the AP reported on dozens of interviews with soldiers of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, which patrols the streets of eastern Baghdad, and learned that most of those seeing the conflict up close are discouraged, dejected, and ready to leave. As informative as the piece was, it was difficult to extrapolate from it and understand how most U.S. troops feel.

Fortunately, a poll for the Military Times newspapers, which questioned 6,000 randomly selected active-duty members, gives us a much better sense. In case the myth that military personnel still widely support the president's policy hadn't been debunked enough, these results should do the trick.

Barely one in three service members approve of the way the president is handling the war, according to the new poll for the four papers (Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times and Marine Times). In another startling finding, only 41% now feel it was the right idea to go to war in Iraq in the first place.

And the number who feel success there is likely has shrunk from 83% in 2004 to about 50% today. A surprising 13% say there should be no U.S. troops in Iraq at all. [...]

Nearly three-quarters of the respondents think today's military is stretched too thin to be effective.

As for the escalation, only 38% of those surveyed believe more troops should be sent to Iraq, while 39% think there should be the same number or less than there are now. (The rest said they didn't know.)

On a related note, Greg Sargent mentioned that Defense Secretary Robert Gates "recently held a photo-op sit-down with some of the troops in Iraq. By sheer coincidence, all of the assembled troops said they support an increase in troops to Iraq."

Nevertheless, given the results, it's safe to say civilians aren't the only ones Bush is losing.

Steve Benen 11:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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EVEN IN DEATH.... Even the way in which Saddam was executed played into the sectarian conflict that's tearing Iraq apart.

The tribunal...had a unique sense of timing when choosing the day for Saddam's hanging. It was a slap in the face to Sunni Arabs. This weekend marks Eid al-Adha, the Holy Day of Sacrifice, on which Muslims commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for God. Shiites celebrate it Sunday. Sunnis celebrate it Saturday -- and Iraqi law forbids executing the condemned on a major holiday. Hanging Saddam on Saturday was perceived by Sunni Arabs as the act of a Shiite government that had accepted the Shiite ritual calendar.

The timing also allowed Saddam, in his farewell address to Iraq, to pose as a "sacrifice" for his nation, an explicit reference to Eid al-Adha. The tribunal had given the old secular nationalist the chance to use religious language to play on the sympathies of the whole Iraqi public.

The spiral continues.

Steve Benen 9:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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December 29, 2006

SADDAM EXECUTION HOURS AWAY.... There were competing reports throughout the day about when, exactly, Saddam Hussein would be executed, but it now appears that the former dictator will be hanged before dawn on Saturday in Iraq, before 6 a.m. (10 p.m. Friday ET).

The official witnesses to Saddam Hussein's impending execution gathered Friday in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone in final preparation for his hanging, as state television broadcast footage of his regime's atrocities.

With U.S. forces on high alert for a surge in violence, the Iraqi government readied all the necessary documents, including a "red card" -- an execution order introduced during Saddam's dictatorship.

Wait, they're using the same execution for Saddam that Saddam used? As Shakes put it, "Always good to show how things have changed by using the same accoutrements of death while executing their architect."

There was also this:

Al-Nueimi said U.S. authorities were maintaining physical custody of Saddam to prevent him from being humiliated before his execution. He said the Americans also want to prevent the mutilation of his corpse, as has happened to other deposed Iraqi leaders. "The Americans want him to be hanged respectfully," al-Nueimi said. If Saddam is humiliated publicly or his corpse ill-treated "that could cause an uprising and the Americans would be blamed," he said.

Yes, the battle for hearts and minds continues.

As for what to make of all of this, no one will miss the Butcher of Baghdad, and no tears will be shed for his death. That said, I think Josh Marshall's analysis is the most accurate and poignant I've seen: "Hanging Saddam is easy. It's a job, for once, that these folks can actually see through to completion. So this execution, ironically and pathetically, becomes a stand-in for the failures, incompetence and general betrayal of country on every other front that President Bush has brought us.... This is the best we can do. Hang Saddam Hussein because there's nothing else this president can get right."

Steve Benen 8:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (190)

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A SIDE OF RICE.... With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice having two years under her belt, now's a good time to step back and consider her overall job performance. David Millikin makes the case that Rice has "few diplomatic successes to show for her efforts and fewer signs she plans to change course to improve the record."

The AEI's Joshua Muravchik, hardly a Rice critic, acknowledged, "I don't know that there have been concrete advances" under Rice's diplomacy, though he nevertheless gave her "high grades" for faithfully implementing Bush's policy agenda.

I'm curious, though, if Rice's setbacks and shortcomings her fault, or those of her boss. Millikin quoted Aaron Miller, who advised six secretaries of state before joining the Woodrow Wilson Center, saying, "Great secretaries of state have compelling views of the world and/or are effective negotiators -- Secretary Rice has so far demonstrated neither."

That certainly seems true, and I'm loath to defend Rice (I'm generally stunned by mendacity and misplaced priorities), but it often seems that the Bush administration is so dysfunctional, Rice has to fail. Donald Rumsfeld wouldn't even return her phone calls, for crying out loud.

This recent anecdote highlights the problem nicely.

Consider a story in the latest Time magazine, recounting the efforts -- before the [Iraq Study Group] was approved by Congress -- of three supporters to enlist Condoleezza Rice to win the administration's approval for the panel. Here is how Time reports it:

"As the trio departed, a Rice aide asked one of her suitors not to inform anyone at the Pentagon that chairmen had been chosen and the study group was moving forward. If Rumsfeld was alerted to the study group's potential impact, the aide said, he would quickly tell Cheney, who could, with a few words, scuttle the whole thing. Rice got through to Bush the next day, arguing that the thing was going to happen anyway, so he might as well get on board. To his credit, the President agreed."

The article treats this exchange in a matter-of-fact way, but, what it suggests is completely horrifying. Rice apparently believed that Bush would simply follow the advice of whoever he spoke with. Therefore the one factor determining whether Bush would support the commission was whether Cheney or Rice managed to get to him first.

Sure, Rice hasn't had any successes to speak of, but given her superiors, should this come as a surprise to anyone?

Steve Benen 4:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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BUCKING RUBINOMICS.... Last week, Paul Krugman offered the incoming Democratic majority some advice: do not place deficit reduction at the top of the priority list.

As Krugman explained, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin helped convince the party in the 1990s that deficit reduction was key to fiscal and budgetary policy. At the time, in the midst of what Krugman accurately describes as "an era of peace, prosperity and favorable demographics," the approach was sound and successful. But we're facing different challenges now, and "Rubinomics" may not fit the circumstances. After encouraging Dems not to make the deficit worse, Krugman suggested, [G]iven a choice between cutting the deficit and spending more on good things like health care reform, they should choose the spending."

To be sure, this is a fairly controversial prescription, even (especially) among most Dems, but it's worth noting that the approach has at least one high-profile ally: John Edwards.

Ezra Klein, on the road covering the brand new Edwards presidential campaign, transcribed an important exchange Edwards had during a Q&A in Iowa. A voter noted that the deficit is often overlooked and asked the former senator what his approach to the issue would be. After noting Bush's deplorable record on the issue, Edwards acknowledged "a tension between our desire to eliminate the deficit and create a stronger economic foundation and eliminate some of the debt our children will inherit." Edwards then took a side.

"I think that, if we're honest, you cannot it, it's just common sense in the math, have universal health care, and invest in energy, and make a serious effort to eliminate poverty, to strengthen the middle class, and do some of the work that I think America needs to be leading on around the world, and at the same time, eliminate the deficit. Those things are incompatible. And anybody who claims -- politicians who say 'I'm going to give you a big tax cut, and give you health care, put more money into education, and oh by the way, we're going to balance the budget in the process,' it's just make-believe, it isn't the truth.

"So I think there's gonna be hard judgments that have to be made -- my commitment is to have universal health care, to do things that have to be done about this energy situation and global warming, because I think they're enormous threats, not only to the people of America but to the future of the world, for America to lead on some of these big moral issues that face the world, and I think America has to do something about poverty, I just do. Those are higher priorities to me than the elimination of the deficit. I don't want to make the deficit worse and I would like to reduce the deficit, but in the short-term, if we don't take a step to deal with these other issues, it in my judgment, undermines the ability of America to remain strong in the 21st century."

Ezra described this as "a genuinely important admission, and one that very, very few Democrats are willing to make." I think that's absolutely true, particularly after the voter probably asked the question with a far different answer in mind.

First, Edwards deserves credit for an honest, informative answer. Second, and perhaps more importantly, watch for this issue to be a key policy debate during the primaries.

Steve Benen 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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CONGRESS TO REVISIT THE MCA.... When the Military Commissions Act, which among other things suspended habeas corpus for detainees in U.S. custody, went to the Senate floor in September, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) noted, "Surely as we are standing here, if this bill is passed and habeas corpus is stricken, we'll be back on this floor again" after the courts reject the legislation.

We may not have to wait that long. Earlier this month, we saw the first inkling that the MCA might be revisited in 2007, but it now appears almost certain that the law will be re-examined by the new Democratic Senate.

Senate Democrats plan to revisit one of the most contentious matters of 2006: deciding what legal rights must be protected for detainees held in the war on terrorism.

In September, Congress passed a bill that gave President Bush wide latitude in interrogating and detaining captured combatants. The legislation prompted more than three months of debate -- exposing Republican fissures and prompting angry rebukes by Democrats of the administration's interrogation policies.

A group of Senate Democrats and one Republican, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, want to resurrect the bill to fix a provision they say threatens the nation's credibility on human rights issues.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) office said this week that Reid "would support attempts to revisit some of the most extreme elements of the bill" including language stripping detainees of habeas corpus rights.

Good. I don't doubt the White House will issue all manner of veto threats, but I'd like to see just how many lawmakers are willing to undo what they did.

Steve Benen 1:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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LIEBERMAN MAKES HIS CASE.... Sen. Joe Lieberman just returned from a 10-day visit to the Middle East, but it appears the senator didn't learn much. He's still very much the neo-con.

...While we are naturally focused on Iraq, a larger war is emerging. On one side are extremists and terrorists led and sponsored by Iran, on the other moderates and democrats supported by the United States. Iraq is the most deadly battlefield on which that conflict is being fought. How we end the struggle there will affect not only the region but the worldwide war against the extremists who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001.

The entire argument -- more troops in Iraq, more confrontation with Iran -- is so detached from reality that one almost suspects the Bush White House helped Lieberman draft his op-ed in advance of publication. It is strikingly painful to read.

There's a lot of quality analysis of Lieberman's piece out there, but I'm partial to Steve Clemons' take. For example, Lieberman noted, "The most pressing problem we face in Iraq is not an absence of Iraqi political will or American diplomatic initiative, both of which are increasing and improving; it is a lack of basic security." Clemons responds:

What Lieberman doesn't understand is that his realization of the "security problem" is not new. Our forces have been struggling for a number of years now and not solving this problem. Our troops are considered by many in Iraq to be just another militia among many -- or to even be the primary cause of the insurgency for others. Senator Lieberman fails to deal with either of these impulses behind the violence.

And he seems to be advocating just starting from scratch. Just get the security problem fixed. With what Senator Lieberman? ... Senator Lieberman, let their be no doubt that the outcome you fear was totally predictable -- and was triggered by you and the other enablers of this war. Where is your humility and your own ownership of the consequences of what you have unleashed?

It's an agonizing reminder that those who helped orchestrate and execute this fiasco are not only proud of their work, they're intent on making it worse.

Steve Benen 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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REDEFINING FAILURE.... Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, was on CNN yesterday discussing the war in Iraq, Saddam's pending execution, and the Middle East, but CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry had the temerity to ask about the terrorist behind 9/11.

Officials from this White House are known for some bizarre comments, but Townsend's response has to go in the Hall of Fame. (via)

HENRY: You know, going back to September 2001, the president said, dead or alive, we're going to get him. Still don't have him. I know you are saying there's successes on the war on terror, and there have been. That's a failure.

TOWNSEND: Well, I'm not sure -- it's a success that hasn't occurred yet. I don't know that I view that as a failure.

A "success that hasn't occurred yet"? By that logic, practically nothing could ever be characterized as failure. Indeed, I'm not sure why the Bush gang hasn't thought of this sooner.

"Budget deficits are just surpluses that haven't occurred yet."

"Global warming is just global cooling that hasn't occurred yet."

"Stagnant wages are just raises that haven't occurred yet."

"The civil war in Iraq is just peace that hasn't occurred yet."

It'd be amusing if it weren't so sad.

Steve Benen 10:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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KERRY PIC REVISITED.... I don't want to belabor the point, but the TPM Muckraker report on the "lonely Kerry" photo that I linked to yesterday needs some follow-up.

Justin Rood's original report noted concerns about the picture that raised questions about its authenticity. Last night, Rood spoke with CPT Benjamin G. Runkle, former Bush speechwriter and staff assistant to Defense undersecretary Douglas Feith, who originally published the picture and vouched for its authenticity.

The photo is authentic, he said. "Although I did not personally take the pictures, I saw the person who did immediately after they took them and asked for a copy." [...]

To cement the photo's authenticity, Runkle attached a photo taken in the same hall with someone holding a copy of the most recent edition of the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.

Moreover, as several helpful emailers noted, Michelle Malkin did some digging and found fairly compelling evidence that the photo in question was, in fact, taken during Kerry's visit to Iraq earlier this month. Barring any additional revelations, it would appear that the mystery is solved.

There is, however, the broader point to consider. The original "lonely Kerry" picture was supposed to be evidence of U.S. troops shunning the senator. He'd been ostracized, the story went, in retaliation for his "botched joke." If the troops respected Kerry, he wouldn't have been sitting by himself at the breakfast shown in the photo.

With the new evidence in mind, we apparently can accept the original photo as legitimate, but the narrative still seems unreliable. Malkin herself posted a picture of Kerry sitting at a mess-hall table, talking with troops who were sitting with him. Kerry wasn't being intentionally isolated as some kind of symbolic slight; he appears to be engaged in conversation.

So, how then do we explain the original photo of Kerry with some empty chairs around him? I haven't the foggiest idea. Maybe he got to the table early and the troops filled in afterwards. Maybe some troops had to leave shortly before the picture was taken. Without any real context, it's very hard to say with any certainty.

But ultimately, it doesn't really matter. This flap was about alleged proof that Kerry's flubbed joke from November caused lingering resentment between the senator and the men and women in uniform. Given the picture Malkin found of Kerry surrounded by troops, that part of the story appears to be untrue.

Steve Benen 9:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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SADDAM NOT LONG FOR THIS WORLD.... There are some competing reports that differ on details, but MSNBC reports that Saddam Hussein will be executed sometime over the next couple of days, possibly as early as today.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, sentenced to death for his role in 148 killings in 1982, will have his sentence carried out by Sunday, NBC News reported Thursday. According to a U.S. military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity, Saddam will be hanged before the start of the Eid religious holiday, which begins at sundown Saturday.

The hanging could take place as early as Friday, NBC's Richard Engel reported.

The U.S. military received a formal request from the Iraqi government to transfer Saddam to Iraqi authorities, NBC reported on Thursday, which is one of the final steps required before his execution. His sentence, handed down last month, ordered that he be hanged within 30 days.

Saddam's chief lawyer, Khalil al-Dulaimi, asked that the former dictator receive the protections afforded a "prisoner of war," but the appeals appear to have been rejected. CNN noted that under Iraqi law, Saddam's defense lawyers and family would be notified before the death sentence is carried out, and "there has apparently been no such notification." That said, the MSNBC report added that Saddam met with two of his half-brothers on Thursday, and al-Dulaimi has apparently been notified that Saddam is not long for this world.

And then, of course, there's the question of whether the execution will be televised. Reuters has an interesting piece on the subject, noting that the networks are torn but will likely err on the side of good taste. Iraqi National Security adviser Mouffak al Rubaie told CBS News that officials will "video everything," and networks began making editorial decisions yesterday. ABC and CBS said they wouldn't air the full execution; NBC said it would not air anything graphic but might use some footage; while CNN and Fox News had not yet come to any conclusions.

According to the Reuters report, the airing of an execution is "unprecedented" in the history of U.S. television.

Whether the networks broadcast footage or not, one has to assume the video will appear online fairly quickly.

Steve Benen 8:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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December 28, 2006

GORDON SMITH THINKS AHEAD.... The New York Times had an interesting profile today of Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who, after years of relative silence on the president's policy on Iraq, decided earlier this month that he'd seen enough and denounced the entire endeavor. At one point, the quiet backbencher went so far as to say Bush's Iraq policy was not only "absurd," but "may even be criminal."

The remarks, the Times said, "made Washington take notice, transforming him into one of the most talked-about Republicans heading into the new Congress." Indeed, the article noted that Smith's remarks became a "tipping point" for some congressional Republicans, and that in the aftermath of his speech, "Smith said he heard from several other Republican senators who he said agreed with his views." And what of the timing of Smith's concerns?

He said he had decided not to speak out before the midterm elections, both out of political loyalty and a fear that his words would be drowned out by partisan attacks.

"Then we were back in Washington for the lame-duck session," he said, "and I woke up one morning and turned on the news and another 10 soldiers had been killed. And I went from steaming to boiled. And then I went to the floor."

Mr. Smith faces re-election in 2008, and some Democrats in Oregon have suggested that his break with the White House was timed to aid his coming campaign, an accusation he adamantly denies.

I obviously have no way of knowing whether the shift in the political winds spurred Smith to action or not, but I can't help but notice that there are a handful of Republican senators, all of whom have been at least somewhat supportive of the president's policy over the last several years, who are now expressing fairly strong criticisms.

Just in the last few weeks, Sens. Smith, John Cornyn (R-Texas), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), and John Sununu (R-N.H.) made the transition from public support of the White House's approach, to public criticism of existing Bush policy.

And all of them, coincidentally, are Senate Republicans who are up for re-election in 2008. Too cynical?

Steve Benen 8:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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'I DON'T KNOW WHAT COULD HELP AT THIS POINT'.... When it comes to an escalation in Iraq, the public is opposed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are reportedly against it, Defense Secretary Robert Gates apparently has some concerns, and many of the troops themselves don't seem too keen on the idea either.

Many of the American soldiers trying to quell sectarian killings in Baghdad don't appear to be looking for reinforcements. They say the temporary surge in troop levels some people are calling for is a bad idea.

President Bush is considering increasing the number of troops in Iraq and embedding more U.S. advisers in Iraqi units. White House advisers have indicated Bush will announce his new plan for the war before his State of the Union address Jan. 23.

In dozens of interviews with soldiers of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment as they patrolled the streets of eastern Baghdad, many said the Iraqi capital is embroiled in civil warfare between majority Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs that no number of American troops can stop.

Spc. Don Roberts told the AP, "I don't know what could help at this point..... What would more guys do? We can't pick sides. It's almost like we have to watch them kill each other, then ask questions."

Sgt. Josh Keim, who is on his second tour in Iraq, said, "Nothing's going to help. It's a religious war, and we're caught in the middle of it. It's hard to be somewhere where there's no mission and we just drive around."

Sgt. Justin Thompson added that a troop surge is "not going to stop the hatred between Shia and Sunni." Thompson, whose 4-year contract was involuntarily extended in June, added, "This is a civil war, and we're just making things worse. We're losing. I'm not afraid to say it."

Now, these are comments from one battalion, not a poll with a random sample, so it's difficult to say with any certainty that "the troops are against escalation plans."

That said, two quick points. One, kudos to the AP for going straight to the source and getting so many soldiers' perspective. Two, how, exactly, do supporters of the war dismiss the opinions of the Army's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, patrolling the streets of Baghdad? Cut-and-runners? Defeatocrats? Surrender monkeys?

Steve Benen 5:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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IS THE KERRY PIC LEGIT?.... Several of the right's major blogs were all aflutter yesterday over a picture of John Kerry, in Iraq a couple of weeks ago, apparently sitting alone at a mess hall. The picture, as the story went, proves that Kerry's "botched joke" has caused lingering resentment among men and women in uniform. If the troops respected Kerry, he wouldn't have been sitting by himself at the breakfast shown in the photo.

The picture, and the accompanying narrative about how the troops avoided Kerry, made the rounds by way of far-right radio-host Scott Hennen, who claims the "priceless story" was sent by "a friend of mine serving in Iraq." (If Hennen's name sounds familiar, it's because he has an interesting history with the White House.)

The problem, however, is that the "priceless story" may not be true. Justin Rood explains.

At Hennen's site, commenter "Anthony" noted that the picture's embedded data, just a right-click away, shows the picture was taken on January 9, 2006 -- several months before Kerry botched his joke....

News accounts at the time put Kerry in England around that time -- which might explain the giant Union Jack hanging on the far wall.

At PowerLine, another problem surfaced: As commenter "Angus" noted, the flag hanging to the right of the Union Jack belongs to Portugal, which withdrew its mighty 120-man coalition force from Iraq nearly two years ago.

Between Cliff May's email yesterday, and the questionable pic of Kerry today, conservatives aren't having any luck at all lately, are they?

Steve Benen 3:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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LET THE SMEARING BEGIN.... I wondered this morning whether Gerald Ford's embargoed criticism of the Bush White House and the war in Iraq might affect the right's praise of the former president this week. As it turns out, the blowback didn't take long.

Consider Bill Bennett's fairly aggressive attack on Ford this morning. (via John Cole)

Since "decency" seems to be the watchword of the day and the consensus modifier for Jerry Ford (a view with which I generally concur), may I nevertheless be permitted to ask this: just how decent, how courageous, is what Jerry Ford did with Bob Woodward? He slams Bush & Cheney to Woodward in 2004, but asks Woodward not to print the interview until he's dead. If he felt so strongly about his words having a derogatory affect, how about telling Woodward not to run the interview until after Bush & Cheney are out of office?

The effect of what Ford did is to protect himself, ensuring he can't be asked by others about his critiques, ensuring that there can be no dialogue. The way Ford does it with Woodward, he doesn't have to defend himself...he simply drops it into Bob Woodward's tape recorder and let's the bomb go off when fully out of range, himself. This is not courage, this is not decent.

I guess it's fair to say the hagiography period is over for some of Ford's former allies on the right?

For what it's worth, I think John's right about Ford's motivations: "[T]he reason Ford did not speak out is because all of the aforementioned blowhards would have savaged him for not keeping his opinions to himself, as former President's are 'supposed to do'. I think we can all agree that had Ford come out against the war, these same knuckleheads would have called him Jimmy Carter Ford or the like."

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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EDWARDS '08.... I'm officially neutral on the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but I don't mind admitting that I like John Edwards -- who officially threw his hat into the ring this morning -- and consider him a strong top-tier candidate.

Former North Carolina senator John Edwards this morning declared his candidacy for president in 2008, sounding a populist call for citizen action to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, combat poverty and global warming and help restore America's moral leadership in the world.

Using a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina as his backdrop, Edwards said New Orleans symbolizes not only the theme of two Americas -- haves and have-nots -- that was the underpinning of his 2004 presidential campaign but also the power of ordinary citizens to take responsibility for their own futures.

By all indications, the Edwards '08 campaign will have a very different style from Edwards '04. The first campaign was slow to embrace technology; the new campaign included a YouTube video announcement. The first one sought support from the DC establishment; the new one vows to be a "grassroots, ground-up campaign where we ask people to take action."

Edwards also laid out a policy agenda that will be the basis for his campaign: "Provide moral leadership in the world," "strengthen our middle class and end poverty," "guarantee universal health care for every American," "lead the fight against global warming," and "get America and other countries off our addiction to oil."

He'll have some high hurdles to clear -- most notably, he's starting off with practically no money in his campaign coffers -- but given his base of support, aggressive outreach over the last two years, his mea culpa over the 2002 vote for the war Iraq, and strong qualities as a campaigner, it's safe to assume Edwards is going to be a major player in this contest.

What do readers think? A voice for the future or yesterday's news? I'm all ears.

Steve Benen 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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A CONTRAST IN LEADERSHIP STYLES.... I've been a little surprised by the analyses drawing parallels between Ford's presidency and that of George W. Bush. Other than taking office under dubious circumstances, they don't seem particularly similar.

And yet, plenty of news items have been published like this one, from Newsweek's Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey, noting the "striking parallels between two administrations," and considering Ford's "surprising influence" on Bush. Both Ford and Bush, the argument goes, approached their leadership roles in similar ways.

To be sure, Bush has surrounded himself with a throng of Ford-era staffers. Cheney, Rumsfeld, Scowcroft, Baker, O'Neill, Greenspan, Hadley ... the names all sound rather familiar. The Washington Post's Peter Baker noted today, "When George W. Bush arrived at the Oval Office ... it felt as if he were shooting a remake of the Ford White House."

But the similarities seem to end there, particularly with regards to leadership styles. Consider this LA Times piece about how Ford approached controversial policy discussions.

In seeking answers to problems, Ford -- a veteran of more than two decades of debate in the House of Representatives -- relished the give-and-take of open and sometimes heated debate. He would force the strong egos that surrounded him to make their case in person during lengthy White House sessions, where he would constantly question the most minute details. [...]

Said L. William Seidman, a top Ford economic advisor, "I worked for three or four presidents, and I think more than any other president, [Ford] was determined that all views be presented to him before he made a decision."

It's a helpful contrast. According to Bush aides, "Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty." I'm also reminded of a Time interview with a "youngish" White House aide, described as a Bush favorite, who said, "The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me. Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, 'All right. I understand. Good job.' He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom."

Ford and Bush had similar leadership styles? I don't see it.

Steve Benen 11:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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ETHNIC CLEANSING 'SAD BUT TRANQUILIZING'?.... When it comes to the war in Iraq, George Will has not always been entirely unreasonable. He's denounced neocons, and in a surprisingly hard-hitting 2004 column, described the war as "untenable," compared it to Vietnam, and said the war could "unmake" Bush's presidency.

With this in mind, I was a little startled to see this Crooks & Liars clip of Will from Sunday's "This Week" on ABC. Will said:

"Baghdad is the problem and while we debate what to do about Baghdad, the Shiites are changing the facts on the ground in Baghdad through incremental, not at all stealthy, rather rapid ethnic cleansing so we may get a monochrome Baghdad out of this, which would be sad but perhaps tranquilizing."

The whole transcript is not available online, but to offer some context, the roundtable discussion was addressing the likelihood of an escalation, with as many as 30,000 additional troops in Iraq. Melinda Henneberger, from the Huffington Post, had just commented on the potential problems with the strategy, including her take that "this is only going to escalate the problem in Baghdad." It prompted Will to make his "sad but perhaps tranquilizing" remark.

I've been trying to come up with some explanation for what in the world Will was talking about here, but I'm afraid I'm at a bit of a loss. Watching the video, it certainly sounded as if Will was characterizing ethnic cleansing in Baghdad as having an upside.

One could argue, I suppose, that there will be "tranquility" when one side of a conflict finishes annihilating their rivals. A widespread massacre, once complete, can do wonders for producing a degree of serenity. But in what moral universe does that make it preferable?

Will might find it helpful to clarify these remarks sometime soon.

Steve Benen 9:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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FORD: BUSH 'MADE A BIG MISTAKE'.... Late on Tuesday, after the Ford family announced the passing of the former president, President Bush released a statement praising Gerald Ford for his "quiet integrity, common sense, and kind instincts."

As it turns out, Bush was more right than he realized -- Ford's common sense and instincts served him well.

Former president Gerald R. Ford said in an embargoed interview in July 2004 that the Iraq war was not justified. "I don't think I would have gone to war," he said a little more than a year after President Bush launched the invasion advocated and carried out by prominent veterans of Ford's own administration.

In a four-hour conversation at his house in Beaver Creek, Colo., Ford "very strongly" disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously. In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his Pentagon chief.

"Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction," Ford said. "And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do."

It's a shame the former president felt it was necessary to keep his opinions on the war quiet until after he died, though in fairness, I suspect the debate over Iraq would have unfolded exactly the same way, whether Ford had gone public with his denunciations or not.

That said, will Ford's criticisms of the Bush gang's handling of the conflict change the way the former president will be honored? Based on his comments to Bob Woodward, Ford's concerns were very much in line with those of many congressional Democrats, most of whom were dismissed by the right as weak on national security and dangerously ignorant on foreign policy. As it turns out, Ford agreed with Democrats that the U.S. should only go to war when a conflict is "directly related to our own national security" -- and Iraq didn't fit the bill.

I'm curious; will this temper the GOP's praise of the former president?

Steve Benen 8:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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December 27, 2006

A LITTLE OUT OF DATE.... National Review's Cliff May published this comment today from an unnamed Marine in Iraq.

[M]orale among our guys is very high. They not only believe that they are winning, but that they are winning decisively. They are stunned and dismayed by what they see in the American press, whom they almost universally view as against them. The embedded reporters are despised and distrusted. They are inflicting casualties at a rate of 20-1 and then see shit like "Are we losing in Iraq" on TV and the print media. For the most part, they are satisfied with their equipment, food and leadership. Bottom line though, and they all say this, is that there are not enough guys there to drive the final stake through the heart of the insurgency, primarily because there aren't enough troops in-theater to shut down the borders with Iran and Syria.

In other words, here's a Marine who, coincidentally, is repeating the exact talking points approved by the White House and supporters of the war. Sure, the Marine's reported perspective seems completely at odds with everything we know about the crisis -- indeed, it even conflicts with some of the president's own concessions last week -- but the National Review was fortunate enough to hear from a soldier willing to tell the magazine what Cliff May wanted to hear.

Except, there's a catch. The nearly identical text from May's NR post was part of a widely disseminated email from over a year ago. Worse, there were slight deviations in the original text in 2005, which made it difficult to confirm its authenticity.

As Justin Rood put it, "Despite a civil war and mounting body counts on all sides, the National Review folks can still find good news coming out of Iraq. Too bad it's over a year old and of questionable provenance."

Oops.

Steve Benen 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (151)

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TAKING THE HIGH ROAD.... In a Republican-led Congress, life in the minority was surprisingly unpleasant. Legislation was written without Democratic input; bills were passed without letting Democrats read it; Democrats' bills were denied hearings and votes; they weren't allowed to offer amendments to legislation; they weren't even allowed to use hearing rooms. If Dems managed to win a key vote on the floor, Republicans would simply keep the vote open -- literally for hours, if necessary -- until enough arms could be twisted and/or lawmakers bribed. For the last several years, it was nothing short of humiliating.

Back in the majority, congressional Democrats have a choice: act like the Republicans acted for 12 years, or act the way a majority is supposed to act. The New York Times noted today that the new Dem leadership has decided to take the high road.

It all sounds very nice. Out of respect, Pelosi made sure Hastert got prime office space in the Capitol. She's also reached out to House Minority Leader John Boehner on creating some task forces. The Times added that the new leadership has issued a statement of principles that "calls for regular consultation between the Democratic and Republican leaders on the schedule and operations of the House and declares that the heads of House committees should do the same."

So, how will Republicans respond to these open and democratic conditions? We'll see.

...Republicans are hoping Democrats stick to their guns and allow the minority a stronger voice on legislation. The opposition leadership said it would take the opportunity to put forward initiatives that could be potentially troublesome for newly elected Democrats in Republican-leaning districts who within months will have to defend their hard-won seats.

"There are going to be days when we will offer alternatives in ways that are going to be very appealing to Democrats in districts the president carried just two years ago," said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, who will be the second-ranking House Republican in the 110th Congress.

Republicans see the ability to force tough votes -- which they avoided in the majority by stifling Democratic alternatives -- as having two potential benefits: It can put vulnerable Democrats on record with positions that might not be popular at home, or it can fracture the untested Democratic majority. Mr. Blunt noted that even senior Democrats who served in Congress when Democrats held control had no experience dealing with a relatively thin, 16-seat majority that will not allow many lawmakers to avoid tough votes.

I certainly like the idea of changing the way Congress operates; the last 12 years have been frequently ridiculous. But, as Kos noted, "This is an era of hardball politics, and the GOP clearly has no intention to play nice." I suspect he's right -- and I hope Pelosi, Hoyer, & Co. keep it in mind.

Steve Benen 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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DON'T CALL IT A 'SURGE'.... A surprising amount of the debate surrounding the war in Iraq has been about word choice. We've had debates about whether or not there's a "civil war," whether there's an "insurgency," what the meaning of "last throes" is, whether we're "winning," whether we can characterize the conflict as part of the "war on terror," etc.

This is not to say the rhetorical questions are inconsequential, only that the White House's drive to shape the language of the debate has led to a near-constant, ever-evolving discussion about language, which runs parallel to the debate about the policy itself. The key difference, of course, is that in nearly every instance, the debate over word-choice has been unnecessary -- the answer was fairly obvious.

We're in the midst of yet another war of words, and like the others, one word is clearly wrong. It's pretty straightforward: White House aides and senior Pentagon commanders prefer the word "surge" to describe a plan to send tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Iraq. "Escalation," a term commonly associated with the Vietnam War, is frowned upon for its political implications.

This need not be complicated. A "surge" suggests a brief increase in troops. Jack Keane and Fred Kagan, leading proponents of the idea, explained today that they want a "surge" that "is both long and large." It prompted Spencer Ackerman to explain:

[T]his is not a surge. This is escalation.... [Keane and Kagan] themselves are half-steppin'. They argue against a surge in substance, but call their plan a surge as well, since they know that what they actually endorse -- escalation -- is vastly more unpalatable to the public.

Well, enough of this. Liberals, journalists, I'm calling on you. We must never talk about a surge unless we're actually talking about a surge -- a temporary infusion of troops. We should resist that as well. But now, if the proponents of escalation have escalation on their agenda, we must bring this out in the open and defeat it. Deal?

Sounds right to me.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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By: Kevin Drum

SACRE BLEU!....I've been doing crossword puzzles lately, so Marian got me a copy of the companion book to Wordplay for Christmas. Here, from p. 74, is an excerpt from NYT crossword editor Will Shortz's guidelines for contributors:

Do not use....uncommon abbreviations or foreign words.

Do not use foreign words?!? Allow me to translate: "Do not use foreign words except for those from Latin ("Pater," 63 Across, Dec. 21), Spanish ("Vaca," 11 Across, Dec. 23), German ("Nie," 10 Down, Dec. 24), or French ("Sacre," 45 Across, Dec. 26). Occasional use of Portuguese, Greek, Italian, Hebrew, and peculiar Gaelic dialects is also acceptable." Not that I'm keeping track or anything. Believe me, I would pay money to support a hardy band of true Americans to picket Shortz's office until he starts enforcing this "rule." Where are the activists from U.S. English when you need them?

That is all. I now return you to Steve Benen's more consequential musings.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THE COMPANY MCCAIN KEEPS.... Earlier this month, Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) exploratory committee announced that Terry Nelson, a veteran GOP campaign operative, would be McCain's national campaign manager for the 2008 campaign. It was an odd choice, not because Nelson isn't qualified to run a national campaign, but because he seems to represent everything the old McCain used to hate about politics.

Nelson, for example, became known as the strategist behind the infamous "bimbo" ad used against Harold Ford, Jr., in Tennessee's Senate race this year. (Wal-Mart fired Nelson as an advisor for his role in the creation of the commercial.) It's also worth noting, that Nelson was mixed up in Tom DeLay's money laundering scandal, and the phone-jamming scandal in New Hampshire's 2002 Senate race.

What's more, it's not just Nelson. TNR's Brad Plumer notes Team McCain's latest addition.

And now McCain has hired Jill Hazelbaker to be his communications director in New Hampshire. Hazelbaker got press for engaging in a bit of sock-puppetry while she worked for Thomas Kean's New Jersey Senate campaign earlier this year, commenting on liberal blogs under a variety of aliases -- including "cleanupnj" and "usedtobeblue" -- and attacking Kean's opponent, Senator Robert Menendez. When reporters started asking around, she called the allegations "nonsense" -- even after the comments had been traced to her IP address. Oops.

There's no use pretending that dirty tricks and ruthless operatives are something new and shocking in the world of campaigns. Mostly this is just another routine (and probably futile) plea for the press to stop pretending that McCain's presidential run is somehow going to be "above politics," or that he's "the last honest man" in Washington.

As a rule, political consultants and campaign aides are not well known enough to warrant media coverage of their own, so it's unlikely political reporters following the presidential campaign will devote a lot of ink to who McCain chooses to bring on board the bus formerly known as the "Straight Talk Express."

But that doesn't change the fact that the old McCain claimed to have certain standards for the style of politics he wanted to be a part of. The new McCain seems to have looked at the worst of right-wing politics and decided, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Steve Benen 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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IGNATIUS SEES A 'WEARY' PRESIDENT.... After noticing that Atrios had named David Ignatius today's "Wanker of the Day" because of his column in the Washington Post, I checked out the piece to see what all the fuss is about. Lo and behold, it's pretty bad.

Ignatius believes that the burdens of leadership during the crisis in Iraq have taken their toll on President Bush, and that the "stress of the job -- so well hidden for much of the past six years -- has begun to show on Bush's face."

Bush and his officials are strong characters; they work hard not to let you see them sweat. But the anguish and exhaustion are there.

Bush is not a man for introspection. That's part of his flinty personality -- the tight, clipped answers and the forced jocularity of the nicknames he gives to reporters and White House aides. That's why this version of reality TV is so poignant: This very private man has begun to talk out loud about the emotional turmoil inside. He is letting it bleed.

Ignatius seems to be suggesting that the president is somehow a sympathetic figure in this fiasco. He launched a disastrous war for reasons that turned out to be wrong; he mismanaged practically every possible angle to the conflict; and he's left with critically-important questions for which he has no answers.

Ignatius considers this and notes that Bush seemed "stressed." Forgive me, but isn't that what's supposed to happen to a president in the midst of a disastrous war of his own making? It gets back to a point from yesterday -- it's the soft bigotry of low expectations. We've become so accustomed to the president appearing detached and separated from reality that if he appears vaguely concerned during a press conference, we're supposed to be impressed. "See," Ignatius seems to be arguing, "he's aware of reality after all."

Nearly four years after the initial invasion, that's setting the bar rather low, isn't it?

For that matter, Bush isn't really "letting it bleed" at all. LBJ may have had trouble sleeping during the war in Vietnam, but when asked a few weeks ago about his own sleeping habits, Bush told People magazine: "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."

Ignatius perceives "emotional turmoil inside" the president. I'm left wondering whether he's watching a different president than the rest of us.

Steve Benen 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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PRAGER CAN'T STOP DIGGING.... About a month ago, right-wing talk-show host and writer Dennis Prager became something of a laughing stock by arguing that Rep.-elect Kieth Ellison (D-Minn.), Congress' first Muslim, will literally "undermine American civilization" and "embolden Islamic extremists" if he takes the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Christian Bible. Prager's Townhall piece, despite its historical and legal inaccuracies, was quickly embraced by the religious right, picked up by the cable networks, and became a real news story.

As a rule, when you fall in a ditch, you should stop digging, but Prager couldn't help himself. A week after his first column sparked widespread criticisms, Prager followed up with yet another column, blaming Ellison for the "controversy." As Prager saw it, if Ellison would just go along with using a Christian Bible, right-wing critics wouldn't feel compelled to attack him.

This week, Prager, shovel in hand, digs a little deeper.

That a belief or lack of belief in the divinity of a book dating back over 2,500 years is at the center of the Culture War in America and between religious America and secular Europe is almost unbelievable. But it not only explains these divisions; it also explains the hatred that much of the Left has for Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon Bible-believers. For the Left, such beliefs are irrational, absurd and immoral. [...]

This divide explains why the wrath of the Left has fallen on those of us who lament the exclusion of the Bible at a ceremonial swearing-in of an American congressman. The Left wants to see that book dethroned. And that, in a nutshell, is what the present civil war is about.

I'm actually left feeling a little sorry for Prager. After all of his other arguments were debunked and rejected, this is the best he could come up with: that liberals want the Bible "dethroned." Why? Because some wacky civil libertarians believe a member of Congress should be free to use any book he or she chooses during the ceremonial swearing-in ceremony, just as it's been for decades.

As Prager explains it, to support the right of religious minorities to incorporate their religious texts in personal ceremonies is to be necessarily hostile to Jews and Christians. Indeed, he characterizes it as a "civil war." Breathtaking.

Of course, let's also not overlook an important detail -- Prager is not just a random blowhard, he's the man the Bush White House appointed to a five-year term on the taxpayer-funded United States Holocaust Memorial Council. A statement announcing Prager's appointment praised his "unique moral voice."

Where does the Bush gang find these clowns?

Steve Benen 10:03 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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GERALD FORD DIES AT AGE 93.... I'm afraid I was a little young to have any memories of Gerald Ford's presidency -- when he took the oath of office, I was a year old -- and, regrettably, I'm more inclined to think of Chevy Chase's Saturday Night Live impression of a bumbling president than Ford's actual performance in office.

That said, I think it's fair to say that Ford will be remembered as a modest, decent man thrust into leadership under the most difficult of conditions.

Mr. Ford, who was the only person to lead the country without having been elected as president or vice president, occupied the White House for just 896 days -- starting from a hastily arranged ceremony on Aug. 9, 1974, and ending after his defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election. But they were pivotal days of national introspection, involving America's first definitive failure in a war and the first resignation of a president.

After a decade of division over Vietnam and two years of trauma over the Watergate scandals, Jerry Ford, as he called himself, radiated a soothing familiarity. He might have been the nice guy down the street suddenly put in charge of the nation, and if he seemed a bit predictable, he was also safe, reliable and reassuring. He placed no intolerable intellectual or psychological burdens on a weary land, and he lived out a modest philosophy. "The harder you work, the luckier you are," he said once in summarizing his career. "I worked like hell."

I suspect today will include plenty of debate about whether Ford was wrong to pardon Nixon, speculation about whether there was some kind of "deal" that may have elevated Ford in exchange for a promise to issue that pardon, and consideration of Ford's controversial decision to back the 1975 Helsinki Accords, but I think it's also noteworthy that Ford was the last moderate Republican president.

As the GOP shifted further and further to the right over the last generation, Ford, who was not considered a particularly progressive Republican in the 1970s, looked less and less conservative. Indeed, the former president and his wife both acknowledged in the 1990s that they were pro-choice, and more recently, expressed their support for gay marriage.

Upon joining the Advisory Board of the Republican Unity Coalition, a group of moderate Republicans hoping to drag the party to the left by more than a few degrees, Ford said, "I have always believed in an inclusive policy in welcoming gays and others into the party."

I suspect that these positions will tarnish his memory in the eyes of some of today's Republican leaders and activists, but that's a shame. The GOP would be wise to honor Ford's tolerant, inclusive approach.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (166)

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December 26, 2006

'HE HAS BUILT UP EXPECTATIONS'.... As far as the Bush White House was concerned, December posed a bit of a challenge: in the midst of the crisis in Iraq, the president had to a) ignore the Iraq Study Group; b) appear engaged as American support for the conflict evaporated; c) stop pretending we're "absolutely" winning; and d) convince as many people as possible that he's still capable of charting a course for "victory," whatever that might be. He just needed time to put a new plan together.

It's that last point that seems to have become problematic. As Greg Sargent noted, "Despite White House efforts to diminish public expectations by depicting the future of the war as a long, hard slog, Bush has inadvertently inflated the public's expectations of him by dwelling so long on choosing his plan for what he calls the 'new way forward.'" From the AP:

By the time he announces his Iraq plan in January, roughly two months will have passed since a humbling election for Republicans brought a promise of a "new way forward."

There might as well be a drum roll.

"He has built up expectations," said David Gergen, a former White House adviser in the administrations of presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. "People are saying, 'OK, if you've spent all this time and effort on it, you better have a pretty darn good plan.'"

Oddly enough, managing expectations is supposed to be one of the White House's strengths, but as the AP piece explained, this hasn't worked according to plan. Every question about the war -- of the president, of Tony Snow, of administration officials -- has been put off of late with the same response, "We're working on a new way forward right now."

Not surprisingly, this has created a sense of anticipation. The scrutiny, naturally, will be intense. Americans are looking for something drastically different from the status quo, and opposition to a McCain-backed escalation plan is enormous.

Your move, Mr. President. No pressure.

Steve Benen 8:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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LOST IN TRANSLATION.... I can only hope Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs were sitting down when they heard about this one.

The armed forces, already struggling to meet recruiting goals, are considering expanding the number of noncitizens in the ranks -- including disputed proposals to open recruiting stations overseas and putting more immigrants on a faster track to US citizenship if they volunteer -- according to Pentagon officials.

Foreign citizens serving in the US military is a highly charged issue, which could expose the Pentagon to criticism that it is essentially using mercenaries to defend the country. Other analysts voice concern that a large contingent of noncitizens under arms could jeopardize national security or reflect badly on Americans' willingness to serve in uniform.

The idea of signing up foreigners who are seeking US citizenship is gaining traction as a way to address a critical need for the Pentagon, while fully absorbing some of the roughly one million immigrants that enter the United States legally each year.

Let me get this straight: The Pentagon is open to having people who aren't American citizens serve in the military, but they're not open to having well-trained, patriotic, law-abiding Americans serve, if they happen to be gay.

Just to be clear, my personal take is that both groups of people should be welcome in the military. My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. and became a citizen by virtue of serving in World War I. If the Pentagon wants to consider a program that would accelerate citizenship for legal residents who volunteer for the military, it sounds good to me.

But I can't help but wonder, if armed forces' recruiting is struggling to the point in which noncitizens would be welcome, shouldn't the Defense Department at least consider letting capable, qualified gay volunteers wear the uniform?

Steve Benen 5:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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'GOING UNIVERSAL'.... The Washington Post reported yesterday that "health care is set to return to the national political stage in 2007, setting up partisan clashes in Congress that could end with rare vetoes from President Bush and help to define the 2008 presidential campaigns." It's about time.

Democrats have been trigger-shy about making serious changes to the system since 1994 and Republicans have largely satisfied with the status quo (Bush has argued that Americans already have too much health insurance). Regardless, this upcoming year will almost certainly see the debate begin anew, whether the GOP, the insurance companies, or the White House like it or not.

As is often the case, the public has been away ahead of their leaders on this. They can't afford the status quo; they'd support increased government spending on the issue; and perhaps most importantly, Americans clearly want a universal health-care system.

With this in mind, the estimable Ezra Klein has a terrific op-ed in the LA Times today suggesting the arc of health care policy is long, but it tends towards universality. The key is shifting the debate towards rejecting an employer-based system.

Once a perk of employment, health insurance is now a necessity, and a structure that dumps such power, complexity and cost in the laps of employers is grotesquely unfair to both businesses and individuals. There's no logic to an auto manufacturer running a multibillion-dollar health insurance plan on the side; it should stick to making cars. There's no excuse for pricing the self-employed and entrepreneurial out of the market. And there's no reason the owner of a three-employee start-up should have to go to bed with a heavy conscience because his coffee shop can't pay for chemotherapy.

Quite right. Kevin recommended a while back that a key part of this debate is "hammer[ing] on the notion that it's crazy to rely on employers as the main healthcare suppliers in America.... Why should you have to pay the price every time your HR department decides to switch to a cheaper health plan? Or lose coverage if you get laid off? Or be forced to keep a dead end job forever because it provides health coverage and you're uninsurable anywhere else?"

When Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) unveiled a universal-care proposal two weeks ago, several corporate leaders took notice, and found a lot they could agree with. Can you blame them?

Steve Benen 3:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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FIRST, HIRE ALL THE LAWYERS.... Late last week, U.S. News' Paul Bedard noted that key congressional committees, in both chambers, have begun "hiring lawyer-investigators whose job will be to probe the administration." This isn't about witch-hunts, of course, it's about oversight -- Bedard quoted a Democratic leadership official who said that "the planned hearings and investigations into the war and other issues the lawyer-investigators are being hired to look into will be 'very focused.'"

With this in mind, the Bush White House is probably doing the right thing by lawyering-up. (via Justin Rood)

President Bush is bracing for what could be an onslaught of investigations by the new Democratic-led Congress by hiring lawyers to fill key White House posts and preparing to play defense on countless document requests and possible subpoenas.

Bush is moving quickly to fill vacancies within his stable of lawyers, though White House officials say there are no plans to drastically expand the legal staff to deal with a flood of oversight. [...]

[I]n the days after the elections, the White House announced that Bush had hired two replacements to plug holes in his counsel's office, including one lawyer, Christopher G. Oprison, who is a specialist in handling white-collar investigations. A third hire was securities law specialist Paul R. Eckert, whose duties include dealing with the Office of the Special Counsel. Bush is in the process of hiring a fourth associate counsel, said Emily A. Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

Charles Black, a strategist with close ties to the White House, said the Bush gang isn't panicking, just getting prepared. "They don't think they have anything to hide," Black said.

The Bush gang? Nothing to hide? Of all the talking points to offer, that's the wrong one.

Steve Benen 2:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THROWING CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION UNDER THE BUS.... The New York Times has a fascinating piece today on Democratic strategist Mara Vanderslice, and her 2-year-old consulting firm, Common Good Strategies, which aims to help the Democratic Party and its candidates appeal to theologically conservative voters. I found most of what Vanderslice had to say compelling, with one major exception.

Vanderslice reportedly helped Dems make "deep inroads" among white evangelical and churchgoing Roman Catholic voters in 2006 in Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. I haven't seen the specific numbers -- nationally, the evangelical vote was largely unchanged this year -- but the Times piece reports that Vanderslice's candidates did "10 percentage points or so better than Democrats nationally among those voters." If so, that's pretty impressive.

All of Vanderslice's advice -- speak at conservative religious schools, buy commercials on Christian radio, and organize meetings with politically-influential clergy -- sounded largely inoffensive to my secular ears, right up until Vanderslice addressed church-state separation.

In an interview, she said she told candidates not to use the phrase "separation of church and state," which does not appear in the Constitution's clauses forbidding the establishment or protecting the exercise of religion.

"That language says to people that you don't want there to be a role for religion in our public life," Ms. Vanderslice said. "But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate."

That's spectacularly wrong, and frankly, a little dangerous. The separation of church and state is what guarantees religious liberty in the United States. It's the principal reason religion has flourished in this country -- because believers have always known that they are free to worship (or not) without aid or interference from the state, which is bound by the Constitution to remain neutral on matters of faith. No matter what your beliefs, the separation of church and state protects you, not inhibits you.

To tell candidates to avoid support for church-state separation, and to insist that the constitutional principle is somehow hostile towards religion, is not only to play the religious right's game, it's endorsing the movement's rules.

I can appreciate the fact that Vanderslice is almost certainly well-intentioned, and her approach to religious outreach appears to be successful, but have we really reached a point in which Democrats have to hesitate before embracing First Amendment principles, for fear that voters won't approve?

Don't answer that; I'm afraid I already know the answer.

Steve Benen 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (127)

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PET PEEVE WATCH.... The AP ran a story over the weekend about the ways in which presidential hopefuls are turning to the Internet to boost their chances. It's a fairly routine piece, but it leads with a joke that has long since outlived its usefulness.

Al Gore claimed he invented it. John McCain predicted it would revolutionize political campaigning. Howard Dean made it pay -- and then some.

Ah, the Internet.

Ah, the six-year-old Gore joke. What would an article about politics and the web be without it?

In a word, better. Look, this was debunked years ago. Gore never claimed he invented it; he actually did take the lead congressional role in developing the Internet as we know it today; and media coverage of the "exaggerated" claim has always been ridiculous.

And yet, he we are, six years later, and the AP is still going for the cheap laugh. Isn't it time to retire this joke once and for all?

Steve Benen 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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'FEMIFASCISTS'?.... For some reason, legal experts seem to believe it's problematic for a sitting judge to write a book bashing everyone with whom he disagrees.

Chapter 1 of Circuit Judge Robert H. Dierker Jr.'s book, "The Tyranny of Tolerance: A Sitting Judge Breaks the Code of Silence to Expose the Liberal Judicial Assault," has circulated via e-mail since last month and been widely read in legal circles, lawyers and judges say.

The sentiments expressed in that chapter, which frequently uses the term "femifascists" and is titled "The Cloud Cuckooland of Radical Feminism," have already prompted a complaint with the state body that can reprimand or remove judges.

Other judges and lawyers have said that Dierker may have violated a state rule against a judge using his or her position for personal profit. One judge said it would be surprising if Dierker was not removed, calling the book "professional suicide."

In a disclaimer at the end of the book, Dierker writes that the views in the book are "personal, and should not be construed as any indication of how I would rule on any case coming before me." No, of course not. Just because he spent nearly 300 pages explaining his beliefs that liberals and "femifascists" are wrong about everything is certainly no reason to question his judicial independence, temperament, and impartiality, right?

Certainly women in St. Louis bringing a case about, say, sexual harassment, can take comfort in knowing that Dierker will be fair and evenhanded, right?

Please.

Steve Benen 10:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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SOFT BIGOTRY, LOW EXPECTATIONS.... It's come to this. Expectations for the president have fallen so low, the New York Times devoted an entire piece to Bush's recent claim that he read a newspaper article.

Is there hope for newspapers after all? Readers may be abandoning the printed versions, but over the last couple of years, at least one person seems to have started reading them, at least sometimes. He lives in the White House.

President Bush declared in 2003 that he did not read newspapers, but at his final news conference of the year last week, he casually mentioned that he had seen something in the paper that very day.

Asked for his reaction to word that Vice President Cheney would be called to testify in the C.I.A. leak case, the president allowed: "I read it in the newspaper today, and it's an interesting piece of news."

If the president had read something in the newspaper, it is a break with his admitted habits. In September 2003, Bush told Fox News' Brit Hume, "I glance at the headlines just to kind of [get] a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are [sic] probably read the news themselves."

For that matter, Bush talked to the Washington Times' Bill Sammon a year later and boasted about his news-consuming habits, or in this case, lack thereof: "I get the newspapers -- the New York Times, The Washington Times, The Washington Post and USA Today -- those are the four papers delivered," he said. "I can scan a front page, and if there is a particular story of interest, I'll skim it."

(When most of us see a newspaper article that we think might be interesting, we read it. When the president sees a story of particular interest, he'll "skim" it. How reassuring.)

With this in mind, when Bush casually mentions having read something in a newspaper, it's literally newsworthy. Talk about your soft bigotry of low expectations.

Steve Benen 9:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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December 25, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

WEATHER UPDATE....By the way, we're having wonderful Christmas weather here in Southern California. Mid-70s, I'd say. Just thought you'd all like to know.

Kevin Drum 6:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

WELDON'S LAST STAND....I know, I know. It's Christmas and I'm supposed to be on vacation. But in the spirit of wrapping up loose ends, I see that the Senate Intelligence Committee has finally finished its investigation of "Able Danger," the secret Pentagon program that supposedly identified Mohamed Atta before 9/11. Last year, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Crazy) claimed that Able Danger had produced a chart with Atta's picture on it well before 9/11, and that the program had later been shut down -- and a coverup launched -- by ass-covering officials afraid of admitting that they had seen the chart and ignored it. The Senate panel disagreed:

Military analysts assigned to the effort did create charts with pictures of Al Qaeda operatives whose identities were known publicly at the time, the committee found. But the committee concluded that none of those charts depicted Atta, and that the claims of Weldon and others may have been caused by confusion.

...."One of these individuals depicted on the chart arguably looked like Mohammed Atta," the committee concluded. "In addition, the chart contained names of Al Qaeda associates that sound like Atta, as well as numerous variations of the common Arab name Mohammed."

Now, it's not as if the Senate Intelligence Committee is the final word on all things 9/11. On the other hand, there were lots of reasons to suspect that the Able Danger story was mostly rubbish, one of which is that "Crazy" Curt Weldon is, well, crazy. He's also going to be out of office in a few days, spending his retirement years trying to convince a grand jury that it was only a coincidence that his daughter got a million bucks worth of lobbying contracts from his pals.

So I think we can safely put a nail in this particular coffin. After 16 months of investigation, we've learned that there's more than one guy named Mohamed who works for al-Qaeda. Shocking news, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS.... Christmas is a day about giving, so I thought it'd be fun to consider some gift ideas for those on our list.

Karl Rove gets a calculator this year, because his own personal math turned out to be a little unreliable.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves a comfy massage chair, so foreign heads of state don't feel compelled to accost her at G8 meetings.

More so than anyone else in the country, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) needs a copy of "An Inconvenient Truth."

Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) gets a copy of the U.S. Constitution, with Article VI highlighted so he can't miss it.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) would clearly get a lot of use out of a CD set of "How to Speak Conversational Spanish."

Stephen Colbert gets a ticket to next year's White House Correspondents' Dinner, just in case next year's headliner is tempted to go easy on those guys.

Scooter Libby could probably use a bulletproof vest, just in case he goes hunting with Dick Cheney before the VP is scheduled to testify.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) might enjoy a copy of Dan Savage's "Skipping Toward Gomorrah," so at least he'd finally know what all the snickering is about.

Tony Snow obviously deserves an Honorary Presidency of the Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf Appreciation Society.

And for President Bush, I'd like to give him a World Atlas, because at this point, he seems entirely unable to find his way out of Iraq on his own.

I hope all of you enjoyed whatever was under your tree this morning. Any other gift ideas for others I might have missed?

Steve Benen 9:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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December 24, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

MERRY CHRISTMAS....Christmas Eve is here and I'm signing off for the year now. Merry Christmas, everyone!

I'll be on vacation until shortly after New Year's. Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report will be guest blogging for me, and I may pop in occasionally myself depending on mood and availability of internet time. But probably not. See you in 2007!

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

IF I HAD DONE IT....Paul Wolfowitz, now head of the World Bank, tells Sonni Efron why he refuses to talk about Iraq these days:

I would like nothing better than to be able to get involved in this debate [over Iraq]. I would particularly like to be able to clear the record of some of the garbage about myself personally, but if I start doing that, the people I work for would say, "You are not doing your job, you are getting mixed up in something that is a distraction from the message that we would like you to deliver."

The guy has a friggin PhD in political science and this is the best he can come up with? That's pathetic.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA-FEST....I guess today is officially Barack Obama day. All three major dailies have front-page profiles of Obama:

LA Times: What is it About Obama?

New York Times: Testing the Water, Obama Tests His Own Limits

Washington Post: Clinton, Obama Clearing The Field

Merry Christmas! This ought to be good for a few million dollars in contributions.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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December 23, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON THE SURGE....I wasn't planning to follow up my earlier post about the coming troop surge in Iraq, but I probably should clear up at least one thing. As regular readers know, I'm unequivocally in favor of withdrawing from Iraq, but this morning I suggested that I'd be secretly happy to see a surge happen since it would deprive conservatives of an excuse to blame the Iraq fiasco on something other than the war itself (i.e., bad execution, liberal perfidy, media bias, etc.). Both Matt Yglesias and Atrios disagree because, they say, conservatives will blame the loss in Iraq on liberals no matter what happens.

Believe me, I've got no argument with that. There's no question that conservatives will try to hang our failure in Iraq around liberal peacenik necks, but that's not what's important. What's important is whether they succeed. Public opinion is key, and if they go ahead and do their surge, and it fails, it's going to make the conservative story a lot harder to tell. The public just isn't going to buy it.

Now, I might still be wrong about this. Maybe the public will buy it no matter what happens. But for what it's worth, my sentiment about this isn't driven by some hazy belief that conservatives will eventually see the light and start singing Kumbaya. Rather, it's based on two things: (a) George Bush is in charge and there's no real way for liberals to influence war strategy anyway, and (b) if the surge fails, the public will be less amenable to an eventual conservative stab-in-the-back narrative.

And if the surge works? I'm not going to waste any brain cells on that remote possibility, but if it does I guess it'll teach us liberals a lesson, won't it?

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (342)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIVE THINGS....Dan Drezner suggests that I should entertain the blogosphere by listing Five Things You Didn't Know About Me, the latest meme making the rounds. I've escaped this game until now, and I suspect it's largely because the people playing it figure I probably don't really have five interesting things to tell about myself. This intuition is shockingly correct: I'm a very boring person. Hell, I'm not even enough of nerd to have funny ultra-nerd stories to tell. Still, these games are interesting, even for those of us who don't enjoy talking about ourselves all that much, so here it is: Five Not-Very-Interesting Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About Me:

  1. My first job out of college was managing a Radio Shack store. I hated it, though it turned out to be an excellent education in raw capitalism that served me well later in life. (Actually, I managed three different stores in Orange County, and for the two or three of you who know what this means, here they are: 3179, 3181, and 3169.)

  2. Remember Norm Johnson, the field goal kicker who's the #4 all-time scorer in the NFL? We went to high school together! Sort of. I mean, he was two years behind me and we didn't actually know each other or anything, but still. We were at the same school. And I remember watching him kick, like, a 50-yard field goal in a game during my senior year and thinking, "Damn, that was a long field goal for a punk sophomore."

    BTW, the history page from my high school notes two other famous Mariners who I did know: Terry Kubicka, a U.S. champion ice skater who was in my graduating class (and the first man to do a legal backflip in competition), and Kevin Lauver, who eventually became a member of the Blue Angels. Kevin was an ambidextrous tennis player (served left handed, played right handed, as I recall) who once threatened to slug me if I didn't do my share of tennis team fund raising for the year. He didn't, though.

  3. Speaking of tennis, I was the #8 man on an 8-man varsity team in my junior year of high school. I went 3-21 during the first half of the year. In retrospect, my coach was surprisingly cool about this, though he did pretty much line up the entire JV team at the midway point and tell them that anyone who could beat me had a varsity slot for the rest of the year. Oddly, none of them could. I did much better my senior year.

  4. I'm very bad at distinguishing faces, something that makes watching movies a far more enigmatic experience than it's supposed to be. Basically, if a movie has, say, two guys with black hair and even roughly similar facial features, I have trouble telling them apart for the first half hour or so. I'm the same way with voices, which leads to periodic bouts of embarrassment on the phone.

    Oh, and ditto with names. Believe me, the combination of these three things is a gigantic pain in the ass, sociability wise.

  5. When I was seven years old I gave a testimony about the healing power of God to my local church. My text: God had cured my allergy to peaches. Unanimous reaction: That's adorable! Sadly, God did an incomplete job. I don't break out in hives or anything when I eat a peach these days, but they do make my mouth itch something crazy, and I generally avoid them.

Other fun facts that you might, or might not, already know: I dislike all green things that grow out of the ground except for avocados. My parents are the authors of the only English-language biography of famed Danish film director Carl Dreyer. I won fifth place in an 8th grade math contest in my school district. (Mathwise, it's all been downhill since then.) We once had a cat named Tippy, because she had a white tip at the end of her tail. We continued to call her that even after I slammed the door on her tail, forever lopping off its alabaster glory. In fourth grade we studied Greek gods and for dressup day I chose to come as Zeus, much to my mother's (continuing) surprise. What was a shy little boy like me doing as Zeus? According to family legend, my grandfather created the Pegasus logo for Mobil Oil. Family legend is wrong, though granddad's ad agency did handle the Mobil account for many years and might have been responsible for resurrecting the Pegasus logo after years of disuse. I had a darkroom in our garage when I was in high school. I met my wife at work thanks to matchmaking interference from her sister. Thanks, Ginny! I once wrote a program to automate dungeon mastering tasks for a TRS-80 Model 3. It worked pretty well, but the damn computer was just too big to make this a useful idea.

Speaking of TRS-80s, does anyone remember the old Decathlon game for the Model 1/3? Now that was a computer game! I wish someone would code an emulation for Windows. There are probably literally dozens of people who would buy it.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

ONE LAST PUSH....Guess what? Our commanders on the ground have met with their superiors and decided that we do need more troops in Iraq after all. They're now backing the "surge" plan:

Commanders have been skeptical of the value of increasing troops, and the decision represents a reversal for Casey, the highest-ranking officer in Iraq. Casey and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East who will step down in March, have long resisted adding troops in Iraq, arguing that it could delay the development of Iraqi security forces and increase anger at the United States in the Arab world.

....Those skeptical about the efficacy of an increase argue that any new troops must be given clear instructions. However, defense officials say the U.S. commanders in Iraq have not settled on what that mission should be, although they are expected to decide before calling up new units.

So we're not quite sure what we're going to do with them, but after meeting with the new SecDef we're suddenly quite sure we need them. Another courageous moment for our military leadership.

Still, honesty compels me to say that I'm glad this is going to happen. I know this makes me a bad person with no concern for human life etc. etc. (feel free to expand on this sentiment in comments), but at some point we have to come to a conclusion on this stuff. Conservatives long ago convinced themselves against all evidence that we could have won in Vietnam if we'd only added more troops or used more napalm or nuked Hanoi or whatever, and they're going to do the same thing in Iraq unless we allow them to play this out the way they want. If they don't get to play the game their way, they'll spend the next couple of decades trying to persuade the American public that there was nothing wrong with the idea of invading Iraq at all. We just never put the necessary resources into it.

Well, screw that. There's nothing we can do to stop them anyway, so give 'em the resources they want. Let 'em fight the war the way they want. If it works -- and after all, stranger things have happened -- then I'll eat some crow. But if it doesn't, there's a chance that the country will actually learn something from this.

I wish it were otherwise. But it isn't.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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December 22, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

LIE DOWN WITH DOGS....The Senate offers two months of severance pay to staff members who are let go. Nancy Pelosi recently offered to extend the same deal to House Republican staffers who will be losing their positions when Democrats take control in January:

But her offer was scuttled -- by Republican lawmakers, who complained they didn't have the opportunity to study the proposal and look at costs....One of the affected House staffers said his comrades are mystified that a plan that would benefit employees of Republicans would be killed by Republicans: "We hope the Democrats revisit it."

Merry Christmas, Republican staffers! Now you know how the rest of us feel.

Via Digby.

Kevin Drum 9:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WAR PARTY...."National power" and "military force" aren't the same thing. This is an old and banal distinction. And yet, it still eludes an awful lot of conservatives, who tacitly assume that unswerving support for every single one of America's various wars over the past few decades is the sine qua non for being thought serious about terrorism and national security.

This is, of course, nuts. Some wars are justified and some aren't. I'd be pretty suspicious of anyone who supported every war we've been in for the past 30 years, just as I'd be suspicious of anyone who had opposed every single one of them. Responding to Matthew Continetti's cover story in the current issue of the Weekly Standard, Spencer Ackerman elaborates:

If we're going to talk about military enthusiasms, Continetti owes it to his readers to spend some time grappling with the wisdom of GOP militarism. There are nearly 3,000 American consequences, and more to come, of this predilection. What has it gained America? What did it gain America to invade Lebanon in 1982? etc. Sometimes the exercise of military force is justified (Afghanistan, the Gulf War, we can debate the Balkans) and sometimes it isn't (Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq). Relying on military force all the time is a recipe for rapidly increasing the sphere of circumstances in which it becomes necessary. And in a democracy, that isn't even sustainable for the War Party -- if nothing else, ask a GOP congressman as he cleans out his office. Continetti implies that there's a patriotic rot in the sentiment that "American power is not always a force for good in the world." But of course it isn't always a force for good in the world; one should question the judgment of those who would issue such blandishments. For it's clear enough where they lead: to war, again and again and again.

My brain is already winding down for the holidays, so I don't have much to add to this. Aside from the fact that it is, you know, almost self-evidently correct. So why do so many people not get it?

Kevin Drum 1:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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By: Kevin Drum

NATIONAL INSECURITY....In a wonderful example of guerrilla op-ed writing, the New York Times went ahead and published a piece by Flynt Leverett today that the White House had tried to eviscerate on national security grounds. Will that get them in legal hot water? No. You see, they published it complete with black bars to represent the redactions the White House demanded.

This is delicious because people usually don't get a sense of just how heavy-handed the Bush White House (and other White Houses) are in using national security as an excuse to stamp "Top Secret" on documents that are merely inconvenient or embarrassing. In this case, the redactions make clear that Leverett was simply providing some detail about post-9/11 contacts with Iran that the Bush administration is anxious to keep concealed because it undermines their "no talks with terrorists" showboating. Embarrassing, maybe, but dangerous to national security? Not a chance. In a companion piece, Leverett even provides a complete set of links to demonstrate that every word he wrote had been previously reported.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE OVEREXAMINED LIFE?....As long as we're on the subject of Hillary Clinton -- and we are on the subject of Hillary Clinton, aren't we? -- Mother Jones has a long cover story by Jack Hitt this month on Hillary as Rorschach Test:

Not since Richard Nixon has the body politic been treated to so many variations on the same person. "The New New Nixon" was introduced with such frequency once upon a time that it became shorthand for a kind of political marketing joke. Hillary has assumed that cultural niche, always inventing a new look and more "humanized" self for each situation. And in turn, we've seized upon various elements of her changeling character to shape, a la Daniel Edwards, our own private Hillarys. She is a Cosmo quiz of an enigma, so let's cut right to the answer key in the back pages and find out what kind of Hillary you see.

The Martha Stewart Hillary....

The Tammy Wynette Hillary....

The Eleanor Roosevelt Hillary....

The Dianne Feinstein Hillary....

The Barbara Boxer Hillary....

The Lisa Simpson Hillary....

The Diana Prince Hillary....

The Lady Macbeth Hillary....

What does it all mean? Read the story to find out! I'll vote for "Eleanor Roosevelt Hillary" myself.

Kevin Drum 1:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLACK GOLD....An Interior Department report completed last year concluded that federal incentives for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico (a) funnel tens of billions of dollars to oil companies, (b) don't produce very much additional oil, and (c) the oil they do produce is more expensive than just buying the stuff on the open market. At least, that's what the report would have concluded a year ago if the Bush administration had been willing to release it:

After repeated requests, the department provided a copy to The New York Times with a "note to readers" that said the report did not show the "actual effects" of incentives. Indeed, Interior officials contended that the cost of the incentives would turn out to be far less than the study concluded.

They also said that the nation benefits from even small amounts of additional domestic fossil fuels.

But industry analysts who compare oil policies around the world said the United States was much more generous to oil companies than most other countries, demanding a smaller share of revenues than others that let private companies drill on public lands and in public waters. In addition, they said, the United States has sweetened some of its incentives in recent years, while dozens of other countries demanded a bigger share of revenue.

Goodness. I'm shocked that a Republican administration didn't want this information to become public. Just shocked.

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December 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

YET ANOTHER HOLIDAY....Happy Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere edition)! Tomorrow the daylight hours finally start getting longer again. Huzzah!

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HILLARY WATCH....Steve Benen digs around and finds an extremely compelling reason to support Hillary Clinton for president.

On a more serious note, M.J. Rosenberg notices something about Hillary that I've noticed too:

I just watched Hillary Clinton on "the View." And I realized something. Every time she lets go a little (like when she jogged into the room), she is very appealing. And every time she discusses things like engaging in "a national conversation" about whatever the hell it was, she is terrible.

Hillary Clinton can be very appealing. Surprisingly so, given her reputation. If she loosens up a little, I think an awful lot of people (i.e., non-political junkie people who haven't really seen her much since 2000) are going to be surprised by how much they like her.

But will she loosen up?

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MERRY CHRISTMAS, LIBERTARIANS!....Julian Sanchez weighs in on the question of whether Democrats ought to be more willing to play footsie with libertarians:

Since entitlements seem to be the sticking point here, I'll reiterate one more time: The explosion in Medicare and retirement spending is coming either way. You can play an oppositional game against a fusionist conservatism, framed in terms of "saving" or "eviscerating" the programs as they now exist, or you can use the breathing room that you'd get on this front from bringing libertarians on board to avert a long-term clusterfuck, seizing the opportunity to begin reforms without worrying about conceding problems that could be used against the very existence of those programs.

I'll confess up front that I don't understand this. In what way would bringing libertarians on board shield Democrats from having to "concede problems" that might be used to destroy Social Security and Medicare? I'm obviously missing something here.

That aside, I guess my question is this: if it's true that the "explosion" in Social Security and Medicare is coming no matter what -- and I suppose it is -- then why are libertarians so hung up on it? After all, as they themselves admit, this is the very issue on which Democrats are least likely to give ground. So why not just concede that we're going to spend a bunch more money on these programs because that's what the peepul demand, bless their greedy little hearts, and instead spend their energy trying to get Dems to move in their direction on other topics? Wouldn't that make more sense?

And while I'm at it, a quick word on the "explosion" Julian talks about. This is conventional wisdom, but it's worth a couple of quick words:

  • Social Security: In the worst case, if we do absolutely nothing, SS is projected to grow from about 4% of GDP to 6% of GDP and then level out. In other words, it means that over the next 30 years, total federal spending will rise from about 20% of GDP to 22% of GDP. This is just not that big a deal.

  • Medicare/Healthcare: Yeah, the cost of healthcare is going to increase. But it's going to increase no matter who pays for it. I know that libertarians hate taxes and government spending as a matter of principle, but seriously, is it really worse for the economy if the feds handle our rising healthcare costs vs. American corporations getting socked with the bill? Especially since evidence from other countries suggests that national systems can accomplish the same thing we accomplish at lower cost while still providing higher satisfaction, better outcomes, and equal quality -- and, apparently, without causing any noticable economic dislocations? I understand the principle involved here, but in practical terms what are we really afraid of?

Bottom line: Social Security isn't going away and it's not going to get cut back in any serious way no matter who's in charge. Ditto for Medicare. National healthcare may or may not happen, but if it does it will be due to the kind of public outcry that no one can ignore. (I mean, Dems have been flogging national healthcare for 70 years and we haven't gotten it yet, so obviously it's not going to happen based on our silver-tongued eloquence, right?)

So why not relax on those subjects and work with us on other stuff? Wouldn't that be a much more plausible strategy for gaining influence?

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A LEXICOLOGY LESSON....Quote of the day:

The precise definition of "shitbag" is unclear, but Complainant and Respondent agree that it is a derogatory term.

Glad we got that cleared up.

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SANDY BERGER UPDATE....Sandy Berger not only took documents from the National Archives and hid them in his sock, but stashed them under a construction trailer and later retrieved them? WTF? At the very least, you'd think the guy would have boned up on his tradecraft by reading some John LeCarre novels.

At this point, I'd be willing to commute his sentence and declare a moratorium on all further mockery if he'd just fess up and tell us what he was up to. I'm bursting with curiosity.

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December 20, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

THE IRAQ STRADDLE....Jonathan Singer reports that the "Up for Reelection in 2008/Change of Heart on Iraq" Caucus has a new member:

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said today after a two-day trip to Iraq that he would not support an increase in the number of soldiers in Baghdad.

....He suggested the Iraqis meet certain benchmarks within a timeframe, such as moving the Iraqi military to the frontlines. If those benchmarks aren't met, he said U.S. troops should accelerate pulling back -- but not withdrawing from the country -- and repositioning within Iraq.

This has got to be the most puerile position imaginable on Iraq. Withdrawal I understand. "One Last Push" I understand, even though I disagree with it. But just leaving things the way they are, even though they clearly aren't working, and then "repositioning"? The fence-sitting cynicism involved in this position is staggering.

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EXPANDING THE FRONTIERS OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE....Over at Slate, Daniel Engber has rounded up a few of the questions that his Explainer column didn't tackle this year. For example, this one:

What comes after 999 trillion?

OK, that's an easy one: 999 trillion and one. But here are a few others:

  • Why is smooth peanut butter cheaper than nutty?

  • How clean is bar soap in a public bathroom? Is it "self-cleaning," since it's soap? It seems like a health hazard to me.

  • Do dolphins actually save people? If so, why do they do this?

  • What is the richest religion? Scientology has a lot of Hollywood stars and I think they actually make their members give money, but Catholicism is a very old religion with its own country. Also, Islam has a lot of members but I don't know about their money situation.

  • Why is the No. 8 always the same combination (tamale, enchilada, rice, beans) in any Mexican restaurant I visit? This includes primarily the southeast United States but not obvious franchises.

Engber says he'll answer one of these questions in an upcoming column, but carefully doesn't promise to answer the one that gets the most votes. Smart man. Otherwise he'd probably get stuck trying to answer the one about the gnat. Or maybe the one about forced masturbation.

And my pick? The peanut butter question. I don't like peanut butter and never buy it, so I had no idea that smooth peanut butter was cheaper. Is that really true? And if so, why? Is it really that much easier to make? Or are nutty peanut butter lovers just willing to pay a higher price? I'll bet Tyler Cowen has a few theories.

UPDATE: My bad. As Josh points out in comments, Engber actually says, "The question that gets the most reader votes will be addressed in an upcoming Explainer column." So vote early and often!

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FINALLY HE CAN TELL US WHAT HE REALLY THINKS....Congratulations to Chad Orzel, who is now a tenured professor of physics at a small liberal arts college. So no more nonsense about how blogging hurts the tenure chances of junior faculty, OK?

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A SURVEY....True or false: Persistent exposure to zealous lefty ideologues causes centrists to sympathize more strongly with conservatism than they normally would. Conversely, persistent exposure to zealous righty ideologues causes centrists to sympathize more with liberalism.

Follow-up question: If this is true, what lesson should we draw from it?

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MOVE OVER, FIDO....Did 9/11 really change everything? Not quite:

Securities regulators charged Morgan Stanley DW Inc. with failing to hand over millions of e-mail messages to investigators and plaintiffs by falsely saying that the documents had been lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, according to a complaint filed yesterday.

The NASD alleged that the retail brokerage destroyed nearly 8 million electronic messages between September 2001 and March 2005, a period when documents preserved on backup tapes and on the computers of individual employees were deleted during the normal course of business.

It's a floor wax and a dessert topping! 9/11 is the perfect excuse for all occasions.

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SELF-PARODY WATCH....Stanley Kurtz is one of the guys on my permanent "ignore" list, but today's contribution to the public discourse is so obliviously unglued that it's worth passing along for its slapstick value alone. Several bloggers linked to this earlier, but I didn't really believe he had said what they said he said (did you follow that?) until I actually read it myself. Here it is:

Conservative distrust of the media's very real bias has inclined us to dismiss reports about problems in Iraq that are real.

In the end, I think the media bears fundamental responsibility for this. Had they been less biased -- had they reported acts of heroism and the many good things we have done in Iraq -- I think conservatives would actually have taken their reporting of the problems in Iraq more seriously. In effect, the media's consistent liberal bias discredits even its valid reports.

....It's a terrible shame that we've come to the point where our ability to believe news reports hinges on a those rare cases where the record shows freedom from liberal bias. The media has discredited themselves, making it tough to take them seriously even when they are right, and that has hurt us all.

So sad. The media's consistent refusal to pay more attention to repainted schoolhouses and instead focus on stuff like insurgent attacks, ethnic rivalries, collapsing infrastructure, ineffective government, and corrupt police forces has fooled us all. How were we to know that they hadn't just made all that stuff up? After all, didn't that Koran flushing incident turn out to be wrong?

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ACCOUNTABILITY....Robert Farley notes a sudden conservative enthusiasm for arguments that our men and women in Iraq have been hamstrung by rules of engagement that are too strict:

Why is this suddenly so popular? The argument carries a lot of wingnut water. First, it emphasizes that the problem in Iraq is that we've been too soft, and suggests that a more hard-line, brutal approach would put the natives in line. Second, it places implicit blame for the problem not on the people who actually designed the rules (the Army, Marine Corps, DOD, and the Bush Administration), but on those who we already know are soft and weak and don't care about American soldiers. Thus, the problem is defined as "Politically Correct Rules of Engagement", suggesting that the villains are likely liberals, Clintonistas, UN-niks, etc. Third, it allows wingnuts to express concern for the well being of the troops in the field, while ignoring the fact that the troops would be much, much safer if they weren't in Iraq, regardless of the ROE.

Sounds about right. One way or another, conservatives are going to find a way to blame the Iraq disaster on liberals. I imagine they'll keep floating one theory after another until they finally find one that sticks.

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December 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

OFF CENTER?....Last year, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote an influential and widely-read book called Off Center. It argued that the Republican Party had moved dramatically to the right of the American public, something that would normally spell electoral doom, but was getting away with this thanks to a broad and remarkably robust set of institutional controls it had put in place over the past decade. These controls hid the GOP's true aims, allowed moderates to fly under the radar when they supported hard-right legislation, and provided "backlash insurance" for incumbents when they voted for highly unpopular bills. (Quick summary here.)

At the time, Hacker and Pierson (kinda, sorta) argued that this was likely to last a long time. A year later, we know it didn't. The center reasserted itself in fine fashion. In the New Republic today, they take a stab at explaining what happened:

While the machine they built was capable of withstanding a Category Three storm, what hit Republicans this year was more like a Category Five -- mainly thanks to Iraq.

Jeez, guys, that's it? A whole book about the GOP's institutional hegemony, and now you say that all it took for this stuff to break down was for Iraq to get a little worse than it was last year? Hmmph.

Still, while they might have skipped a little too lightly over this explanation, they do have an interesting point to make: with Democrats now in control, most (though not all) of the Republican Party's institutional advantages are gone, and this means that in the future they're going to find it far more difficult to paper over the extreme rightward tilt of their caucus:

Now, Republicans are in serious trouble. Not only is their pay-to-play alliance with K Street in ruins, but they can no longer use their majority power to obscure their radicalism....After all, the GOP took its heaviest losses within its moderate ranks. In an even more conservative Republican caucus, there will be a powerful faction that blames defeat on insufficient clarity and urges a further pull to the right.

Democrats should give this faction the clarity it wants. In pursuing their own agenda, they need to put the GOP between the rock of its intense base and the hard place of swing voters on every key issue--from basic kitchen-table concerns (like health care and college tuition), to reform issues (like reestablishing pay-as-you-go budget rules and ensuring electoral fairness), to less controversial social issues (like stem-cell research).

Most people -- including a lot of rank-and file Republicans, I think -- simply don't realize just how radical the modern, Texified GOP is. But with majority control Democrats now have the institutional power to expose this at every turn, and Republicans have far less ability to hide it. If they're smart, Dems will use this newfound power at every opportunity.

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DEMS AND THE WAR....Over at Tapped, a conversation about the war:

Ackerman: If Democrats press too hard on withdrawal from Iraq, the end result will probably be a rerun of the Vietnam myth: we could have won in Iraq, but feckless liberals snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and precipitated a national humiliation. "Over the next fifteen years, this becomes accepted wisdom. A younger generation of liberals, tired of being bludgeoned with the charge, more or less accepts it themselves. Another Republican gets elected, and sets to work combating Iraq Fatigue. We get another war."

Farley: Word. Things might turn out a little better this time since Iraq is a purely Republican war, but maybe not. After all, "Millions of moderate to conservative Americans who had come to support a withdrawal from Vietnam by 1972 found it very easy to convince themselves, by 1980, that the war had been a noble struggle undermined by the malfeasance of counter-culture activists and Congressional Democrats."

Lemieux: Bollocks. "The problem is, the blame-the-war's-opponents narrative will be trotted out and may hold no matter what the Democrats do." Besides, Congress isn't going to defund the war anyway, so this is all just a round of wankerism.

I'm in a quandary. I find all three of these gentlemen compelling.

UPDATE: Just for the record, I'm in favor of withdrawing our troops from Iraq on a fairly aggressive schedule. However, I assume I don't have to repeat this in every single post I write about the war, since I've written it about a hundred times already.

The question here isn't so much about withdrawal, which I believe Ackerman, Farley, and Lemieux all support, but about how to handle withdrawal politically in order to minimize damage to the Democratic Party. My read is that Ackerman says we should be concerned about this, Farley agrees but thinks there are ways to handle it, and Lemieux says it doesn't matter because Republicans are going to smear us no matter what we do. It's on this issue that I'm in a quandary.

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BEST IN THE WORLD, BABY, BEST IN THE WORLD....From John Derbyshire over at The Corner:

CHRISTMAS PRESENT [John Derbyshire]
My health insurer has just notified me, in a brief form letter, that my monthly premiums are to rise from $472.33 to $857.00 on January 1st. That's an increase of 81 percent. ***E*I*G*H*T*Y*-*O*N*E* *P*E*R*C*E*N*T*** Can they do that? I called them. They sound pretty confident they can. Ye gods!

A conservative reader emailed this item to me with the following comment: "I've heard people say a conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged. Then maybe a liberal is just a conservative who suddenly got this in the mail."

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THE YOUTH VOTE....A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the youth vote in 2006. This led to a few emails back and forth with the folks at CIRCLE, who track this stuff, and a few days ago they released a report about turnout in midterm elections.

Basic historical data about youth turnout is shown in the graph on the right (taken from this report). The long-term trend is downward, but CIRCLE believes that youth turnout rose in 2006 for the first time in 20 years. Final numbers won't be available until spring, but they estimate youth turnout at 24% in the 2006 midterms.

Even better, youth support for Democratic congressional candidates has increased dramatically. The chart below shows the story: From 1992-2002 it hovered around 48%, but in 2004 it jumped and in 2006 it jumped again. Youth support for Dem candidates reached 58% in 2006.

So those are the basic figures. If the final number crunching bears them out, George Bush has apparently motivated young voters to vote in higher numbers and to vote for Democrats in way higher numbers. Quite an accomplishment.

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THE SURGE....The Washington Post reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously oppose the idea of "surging" 15-30 thousand troops into Iraq in a last ditch effort to stabilize the country. Why? Because they think the White House is just casting around for plausible-sounding ideas and has no real plan for how to use the additional soldiers:

The Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military.

....The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

....Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.

If the Chiefs stand their ground, it will be very difficult for Bush to buck them. But if he gives up on the surge, what possible alternative can he offer that even remotely seems like a serious change of direction? Rock, meet hard place.

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THE REAL AMERICA....E.J. Dionne writes about the heartland:

It wasn't all that long ago that Democrats and liberals were said to be out of touch with "the real America," which was defined as encompassing the states that voted for President Bush in 2004, including the entire South. Democrats seemed to accept this definition of reality, and they struggled -- often looking ridiculous in the process -- to become fluent in NASCAR talk and to discuss religion with the inflections of a white Southern evangelicalism foreign to so many of them.

Now the conventional wisdom sees Republicans in danger of becoming merely a Southern regional party. Isn't it amazing how quickly the supposedly "real America" was transformed into a besieged conservative enclave out of touch with the rest of the country?

Preach it, brother. If the 2006 election did nothing else, I hope it convinced the chattering classes that Iowa is no more the "real America" than California is. We'll see.

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THE DECLINE AND FALL....Martha Bayles has long been troubled by the modern debasement of American popular culture (rap lyrics, video games, R-rated movies; you know the drill), but a few days ago she seemingly jumped on the Dinesh D'Souza bandwagon in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute. The decline of American culture is no longer merely a domestic issue, she says, it's something that may be helping us lose the war on terror:

Human beings everywhere are drawn to the freedoms enjoyed in this country. Yet they are also repulsed by what they perceive as our abuse of freedom. This is true of ordinary mortals, not just fanatics. When people, especially young people, in rapidly modernizing societies look at America through the lens of our no-holds-barred popular culture, what they see most glaringly is a passion for personal liberation from tradition, religion, family, and restraint of all kinds. They might be forgiven for missing the part about self-governance.

In the past (at least in the pieces I've read), Bayles has limited herself to fairly standard traditionalist critiques of modern culture. Now, though, she seems perilously close to suggesting that we can hardly blame budding terrorists for hating America. After all, we continue to shove their faces in (what they perceive as!) our "abuse of freedom." No wonder they approve of their compatriots blowing up our skyscrapers.

I wonder if this is a budding new meme in the conservo-sphere? It seems tailor-made for Newt Gingrich, though I don't think he's taken it up. (Yet.) (But keep your eye on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page.)

Of course, conservative cultural critics condemning the modern degeneracy of gangsta rap and Grand Theft Auto might want to remember that their critique should sound familiar: it's exactly the same one that Sayyid Qutb made when he sampled middle-American folkways back in 1949 -- the precise point in time that Bayles views as a high point of American popular culture. (Qutb held a rather, um, dimmer view of jazz than Bayles does.) Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Via Marc Lynch.

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December 18, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE....Just so everyone knows, we're in the process of upgrading the software that powers the blog, so there are likely to be occasional glitches for a while until we get everything working right. If you have trouble accessing the site or posting comments, that's probably why.

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GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY REVISITED....The George Packer article that I mentioned yesterday is now available online. It focuses on an Australian anthropologist and counterinsurgency expert, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, who believes that our fundamental approach to the war on terror is wrong. In fact, as many other people have pointed out, he believes the problem starts with the very phrase, "war on terror":

A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to "disaggregate" insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan's tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren't mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, "Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war -- something that has been lacking to date." As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad.

....Crumpton, Kilcullen's boss, told me that American foreign policy traditionally operates on two levels, the global and the national; today, however, the battlefields are also regional and local, where the U.S. government has less knowledge and where it is not institutionally organized to act. In half a dozen critical regions, Crumpton has organized meetings among American diplomats, intelligence officials, and combat commanders, so that information about cross-border terrorist threats is shared. "It's really important that we define the enemy in narrow terms," Crumpton said. "The thing we should not do is let our fears grow and then inflate the threat. The threat is big enough without us having to exaggerate it."

....At the counterinsurgency conference in Washington, the tone among the uniformed officers, civilian officials, and various experts was urgent, almost desperate. James Kunder, a former marine and the acting deputy of the U.S. Agency for International Development, pointed out that in Iraq and Afghanistan "the civilian agencies have received 1.4 per cent of the total money," whereas classical counterinsurgency doctrine says that eighty per cent of the effort should be nonmilitary.

The entire article is worth reading, though it's inevitably a little fuzzy on details. The biggest takeaway, though, is Kilcullen's belief that we're trying to force a hundred little propaganda wars, each of which requires a media and intelligence strategy all its own, into the more familiar straitjacket of a single broad-based military war (the "war on terror," "Islamofascism"). But that broader war is a chimera, and refusing to acknowledge this in a serious way is just making things worse.

I want to digest this a bit before I decide what I think about it. In the meantime, it's a worthwhile piece to read in full.

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IRANIAN ELECTIONS....The results of Iran's midterm elections are rolling in:

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of Iran faced electoral embarrassment today after the apparent failure of his supporters to win control of key local councils and block the political comeback of his most powerful opponent.

Early results from last Friday's election suggested that his Sweet Scent of Service coalition had won just three out of 15 seats on the symbolically important Tehran city council, foiling Mr Ahmadinejad's plan to oust the mayor and replace him with an ally.

I guess last week's Holocaust denial conference, an obvious attempt to rally his base, didn't work. I hear that strategy has been having lots of trouble lately.

UPDATE: More here. Read all the way to the bottom.

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WATCHING THE WATCHMEN....A couple of years ago Seymour Hersh reported that President Bush had signed an executive order authorizing the Pentagon to conduct covert operations overseas. Why? Partly because he and Donald Rumsfeld no longer trusted the CIA, but also because CIA operations have to be authorized by the president and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. Pentagon operations can be done with no oversight at all.

So how's that working out? Greg Miller of the LA Times reports:

The spy missions are part of a highly classified program that officials say has better positioned the United States to track terrorist networks and capture or kill enemy operatives....But the initiative has also led to several embarrassing incidents for the United States, including a shootout in Paraguay and the exposure of a sensitive intelligence operation in East Africa, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. And to date, the effort has not led to the capture of a significant terrorism suspect.

But not to worry: despite these "coordination problems," things are getting better. According to the CIA's new military liaison, "the agency and the Pentagon [are] developing a more rigorous system for screening proposed military intelligence operations." I wonder if that includes informing Congress?

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December 17, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL COUNTERINSURGENCY....Shockingly, I think I pretty much agree with Glenn Reynolds on something related to national security:

We like to treat this [i.e., the broad war on terror] as a military problem because (1) we're good at those; and (2) that seems to produce simple questions, like "more troops, or not?" Trouble is, those probably aren't the right questions.

Our Army size was entirely adequate for crushing Saddam's forces in short order. It's probably adequate to doing the same to Iran's forces. It's not up to fully policing a big country once we've done that. Do we want a military that is?

Good question. Do we? In any case, this is related to something I've mentioned before, the idea of the GWOT as large-scale counterinsurgency rather than conventional war, a theme that George Packer writes about in the current issue of the New Yorker. His piece isn't online, but here's the summary:

Packer talks to a remarkable theorist named David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist who is also a lieutenant colonel in his countrys Army and the chief strategist in the U.S. State Departments Office of the Cordinator for Counterterrorism. Kilcullen, who is on loan to the U.S. government, claims that the notion of a global war on terror is fundamentally misguided, and argues that America is in fact facing a global counterinsurgency.

....Packer writes that the Bush Administration has also failed to recognize that America is losing the propaganda war in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan....Americas information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly: a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory, but no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway). In Iraq, Kilcullen says, Weve arguably done O.K. on the ground in some places, but were totally losing the domestic information battle. In Afghanistan, it still could go either way. Packer notes that however careful Kilcullen is not to criticize Administration policy, his argument amounts to a thoroughgoing critique. He writes, As a foreigner who is not a career official in the U.S. government, he has more distance and freedom to discuss the war on jihadism frankly, and in ways that his American counterparts rarely can.

Food for thought. I confess that I'm not entirely sure (a) exactly what a "global counterinsurgency" would entail, although a few of its features are fairly clear, and (b) whether we ought to create a branch of the military dedicated to occupation and peacekeeping (since it seems unlikely to me that our existing Army can do both that and fight conventional wars). I lean toward believing that we should, because even though I'd like to see us fight many fewer wars than we do, it's inevitable that we're going to fight at least few. As long as that's the case, we better learn how to fight them successfully.

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NEWT....Every week, OxBlog's David Adesnik watches the Sunday morning chat shows and then grades the participants. Newt Gingrich was on Meet the Press today, and fellow OxBlogger Taylor Owen wonders how David is going to grade his performance:

Newt (the new, mild mannered iteration) is one of those guys who sounds reasonable 95% of the time and then says something truly off the wall....Meet the Press this morning was a case in point. He even had some good ideas on Iraq, but then, without changing tone and without warning, he would drop a bizzare bomb of a comment. He wasn't called on any of them though. Interested in David's grading of him. Does he get penalised for four or five really stupid statements amongst a relatively benign 30 minute interview?

I think this shows just how debased our treatment of conservatives has become. Taylor believes that Newt made "four or five really stupid statements" (!) in the space of a mere half hour (!!), but is still genuinely curious if a conservative fellow blogger will even notice. Apparently Tim Russert didn't. We seem to have gotten to the point where guys like Newt can literally say anything, no matter how demented, and it just whistles into the ether because, you know, it's just Newt being Newt. Insanity is part of the package.

Remember when this guy was the future of American politics? I don't know about the rest of you, but in my book November 1994 was when the Republican Party became officially unhinged from reality. It's all been downhill from there.

POSTSCRIPT: Did anyone see the show? I didn't. I'm just taking Taylor's word for it that Newt fired off a series of crackpot suggestions. What did he say?

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

TALKING TO THE ENEMY....Should the United States open talks with Syria and Iran? The LA Times has a couple of good pieces on the subject today that are worth a look (here and here). Although they're ostensibly paired as a Yes vs. No debate, they both offer essentially the same message: negotiation can be a good idea as long as you're careful, have clear goals, and understand the limitations of what you can accomplish.

I don't have any big comments to offer about the pieces. I'm just recommending them as decent reading. One thing that I did take away, though, is a renewed sense that the United States could do itself some good by adopting a routine policy of always being willing to talk. Not only would it give us the moral high ground, but it also reduces the inflated expectations that sometimes cause negotiations to run aground (or worse). If the U.S. had a standard policy of showing up at all tables, foreign powers could hardly misread our intentions in specific cases (such as Iraq) as a show of weakness, and domestic audiences likewise couldn't misread them as a welcome change of heart that promises immediate results. It would just be the United States doing what the United States always does.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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December 16, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

LIFE'S LITTLE MYSTERIES, #874 IN A CONTINUING SERIES....I see that President Bush devoted his radio address today to a denunciation of the evils of congressional earmarks. It's funny that this subject never seemed to exercise him very much back when Republicans were in charge, isn't it?

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By: Kevin Drum

LIFE'S LITTLE MYSTERIES, #873 IN A CONTINUING SERIES....The number of "enemy initiated attacks" in Iraq for the months of September, October, and November is classified? Seriously?

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By: Kevin Drum

WINGNUT WATCH....Newt "Savior of Western Civilization" Gingrich has decided that free speech is for pansies:

Gingrich cited last month's ejection of six Muslim scholars from a plane in Minneapolis for suspicious behavior, which included reports they prayed before the flight and had sat in the same seats as the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"Those six people should have been arrested and prosecuted for pretending to be terrorists," Gingrich said. "And the crew of the U.S. airplane should have been invited to the White House and congratulated for being correct in the protection of citizens."

....In an interview, Gingrich said it is possible to distinguish between terrorists and others when looking to fight threatening expression.

"If you give me any signal in the age of terrorism that you're a terrorist, I'd say the burden of proof was on you," Gingrich said.

If I were a better man I'd write a thousand-word op-ed about this and try to place it somewhere. If I were a better man. But I'm not, at least not today, so additional snark is left as an exercise for you, dear readers. Don't let me down.

Via Greg Sargent.

Kevin Drum 6:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Kevin Drum

DA DA DA DUM....Today is Beethoven's birthday. Go listen to a symphony!

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By: Kevin Drum

LEARNING FROM THE PAST....Dan Drezner has an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post outlining the search for a new foreign policy "grand strategy" that's a worthy heir to George Kennan's theory of containment, the overarching policy that guided the U.S. during the Cold War. You can read the various contenders here, none of which Dan sounds all that thrilled about. That being the case, I'm going to ignore the topic at hand and complain instead about his offhand mention of one of my foreign policy pet peeves. It comes up in his desultory discussion of John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter's proposal:

To their credit, the two make explicit a point that others have not: Kennan had it easy. In his time, the United States faced only one obvious threat, the Soviet Union. In contrast, Ikenberry and Slaughter argue that "ours is a world lacking a single organizing principle for foreign policy," with "many present dangers, several long-term challenges and countless opportunities.

This drives me crazy. Everybody always thinks that things were simpler in the past, and as near as I can tell this is based on little more than the fact that the past has already happened and we know how it turned out.

But is it really true that the post-WWII national security environment was simpler and less dangerous than today's? Color me unconvinced. After all, back in the 40s and 50s, in addition to the Soviet Union, we had to deal with China, the nonaligned movement, the dissolution of the British empire, the rebuilding of Europe, Nasser and pan-Arabism, and the supposedly terminal decline of scientific acumen among our youth (hooray for the New Math!). And that's just to name a few.

It's true that the Soviet Union provided an organizing principle for dealing with most of this stuff sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly but militant Islamic jihadism does the same today again, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. What's more, the Soviet Union had something that today's jihadists don't: lots and lots and lots of nuclear bombs. Not just the vague possibility of acquiring a nuclear weapon or two, but actual nuclear weapons in frightening numbers. And while we might engage in rosy reminiscing today about how Soviet leaders were really conservative, deterrable, and not so very dangerous after all, that sure wasn't how we thought about them at the time. In October 1962 nobody was talking about how reasonable and conservative Nikita Krushchev was.

The present always seems more complex and scary than the past because, as Yogi Berra pointed out, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." But if you had told George Kennan in 1947 that liberal democracy would reign triumphant in the 21st century and our biggest threat would come from a small band of religious fanatics hiding in caves and supported only by some of the most backward economies on the planet, I'll bet he would have laughed in our faces. In fact, the Kennan of 1947 might have said, "You guys have it easy."

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (176)

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By: Kevin Drum

NOTHING TO LOSE BUT YOUR CHAINS....Did Ralph Nader really send a letter to NBA commissioner David Stern complaining about the league's new basketball, on the grounds that he is "an advocate for all workers, no matter their salary"? Yes he did.

Priorities, dude, priorities. You need to work on your priorities.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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December 15, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PRIORITIES....National Journal asked a bunch of congressmembers, "On a scale of 0 to 10, rate the likelihood that the 110th Congress will send legislation to President Bush in the following areas." Here are the results:

(I assume minimum wage legislation isn't on the list because it's universally considered a slam dunk.)

Generally speaking, Dems are more confident of their ability to get legislation passed than Republicans are, which I suppose is to be expected. Still, there's a fair amount of agreement here, with one big exception: prescription drug legislation. Democrats are almost giddy about its prospects while Republicans give it little more than a 50-50 chance of success.

Why? Are they cynical about whether this was anything more than a campaign issue for Democrats? Do they think it will fail in the Senate, and thus not make it to the president's desk? Or, after a decade of not getting much done, are they just convinced that this particular piece of legislation will be harder to pass than Democrats think?

More generally, whose opinion do you think is more likely to be accurate here? Dems or Republicans? Dems have an advantage because they know their own priorities better, but Republicans may have the advantage of being able to assess things a little more dispassionately.

Interestingly, the only issue that Republicans are more optimistic about is immigration. It's hardly credible that they think Dems are going to allow passage of a hardline immigration bill, so this must mean that a fair number of Republicans are hopeful of passing a comprehensive McCain-Kennedy style bill. Or is there another plausible explanation?

Kevin Drum 5:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

EARLY DAYS....Steve Benen surveys the newly emerging field of Barack Obama smear-ology and finds the wingnuts falling down on the job:

Im sure GOP attack dogs will dig up plenty of dirt on Obama, and if they dont, theyll make stuff up. But in the meantime, were left with a progressive, church-going Democrat with big ears. Cmon, right-wing machine, what kind of smear-job is this?

Better idiots, please.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (120)

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By: Kevin Drum

VICTIMOLOGY....Did CNN military analyst Don Shepherd really just say that Don Rumsfeld is "a victim of the way the war is going"? Really? A victim?

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By: Kevin Drum

JAW JAW....This isn't really anything new, but it's still freshly astounding whenever I hear it:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected a bipartisan panel's recommendation that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the "compensation" required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq.

"If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway," Rice said in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporters and editors.

This is, basically, an argument for never negotiating with anyone. After all, why bother if states will simply do what they want to do regardless? (cf. President Bush's belief that Syria already "knows my position.")

Conservatives often accuse liberals of elevating negotiation into an end in itself. It's a fatuous charge, but its mirror image isn't: as a matter of principle, contemporary conservatives really do seem to have broadly rejected even the concept of negotiating with our enemies. I guess you could armchair psychoanalyze this belief forever, but I imagine it's mostly caused by a fear that they might actually succeed. Take a look at Iraq: in the end, it acquiesced to every American demand in 2002 and 2003, and that just made it harder to gain support for the invasion we wanted.

It's no wonder Bush hates the idea. He's probably afraid the same thing might happen with Syria.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (160)

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By: Kevin Drum

BREAKING THE ARMY....The Army's warnings are getting louder and louder:

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, issued his most dire assessment yet of the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the nation's main ground force. At one point, he banged his hand on a House committee-room table, saying the continuation of today's Pentagon policies is "not right."

....The burden on the Army's 507,000 active-duty soldiers who now spend more time at war than at home is simply too great, he said. "At this pace, without recurrent access to the reserve components, through remobilization, we will break the active component," he said, drawing murmurs around the hearing room.

I'd be more sympathetic toward Schoomaker's pleas for more soldiers if the Army had a credible plan for using them to turn things around in Iraq. But I haven't heard one yet. He's putting the cart before the horse.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman points out something else: this isn't what Schoomaker was saying a year ago:

Schoomaker deserves no praise for the warning he issued yesterday. The question he needs to face up to every morning while he shaves, in fact is why he didn't stand up for his soldiers against Rumsfeld.

That's another reason my sympathy is limited. How do we know what he's leaving unsaid this time around?

Kevin Drum 2:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (232)

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December 14, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

CONSPIRACY THEORIES....Today's big news:

A report into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, rebuked murder "conspiracy theories" put forward by Mohamed Fayed and said the 1997 crash was caused by her drunken chauffeur.

Now, I'm pretty willing to accept this, but it does raise a question: has there ever been an official report that actually confirmed a conspiracy theory? I'm talking about government sponsored reports from one of your basic Western democracies here, not stuff from communist dictatorships, Muammar Qadafi, or whatnot.

And of course I want genuine wacko conspiracy stuff, not just evidence of garden variety wrongdoing. Maybe the Church report? Anybody got any better examples?

Kevin Drum 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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By: Kevin Drum

BAKER STRIKES OUT....Question: has a hotly anticipated blue ribbon report ever fallen into irrelevance so quickly? The Baker-Hamilton report was released only a week ago, and as near as I can tell it's now a dead letter. Within days, both left and right slagged it viciously, President Bush made it clear that he didn't think much of it, and virtually no one other than David Broder had anything nice to say about it.

(I mean that literally. Has anyone stood up for the report? I can't really think of anyone who's had any sustained praise for it.)

And now? The worst fate of all: it's completely off the radar screen. Its language was so vague as to be meaningless, and within a few days its insignificance was so obvious that no one was even giving it the dignity of arguing about how misguided it was. Chattering classes-wise, it's disappeared down a black hole.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Kevin Drum 5:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOFT PARTITION?....The London Times provides more detail on the ongoing division of Baghdad along sectarian lines:

More and more, Baghdad is splintering into Shia and Sunni enclaves that are increasingly no-go areas for anyone from outside....The result is that since February, when Sunnis bombed the golden-domed mosque in Samarra, a Shia shrine, 146,322 individuals have been displaced in Baghdad, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The pattern is so pronounced that the US military has drawn up a new map of Baghdad to reflect its ethno-sectarian fault lines. Published here for the first time, it lists the mixed neighbourhoods considered to be most explosive. Four of the five are on the western bank of the Tigris, called Karkh, where mixed neighbourhoods are still prevalent. Predominently Shia Kadhamiya and the largely Sunni areas of Qadisiya, Amariya and Ghazaliya have become the deadliest battlegrounds, according to US forces.

Nadezhda has more over at American Footprints about the growing refugee crisis, and concludes "Soft partition may start looking like a better and better option."

The U.S. military map is below, and it demonstrates the de facto separation that's happening right now. Keep it handy in case Jeff Stein calls you for an interview.

Kevin Drum 2:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

TIM JOHNSON....Healthcare pro Blue Girl, Red State explains what happened to Tim Johnson yesterday and suggests the chances of full recovery are quite good. Go read if you want more detail on what this is all about.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Paul Glastris

OFF THEIR ROCKERS... Most people know Taylor Branch, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, as the author of the magisterial three part biography of Martin Luther King, the last volume of which, At Canaan's Edge, came out earlier this year. But did you know that he's also a rock & roll star? Well, maybe not a star, but he and a couple of his old college band buddies have recorded a charming CD of Beatles covers. You can listen to previews and buy the CD here.

Taylor Branch, Renaissance man.

Paul Glastris 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEXT UP: LEX LUTHOR vs. THE JOKER....What a nightmare! I just imagined that we had spent the previous week in a puerile debate over who was worse: Augusto Pinochet or Fidel Castro. Thank goodness I woke up before I injured myself thrashing around in my sleep.

Oh, wait....

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (296)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLL UPDATE....A new poll shows Americans practically begging Democrats to take the policymaking initiative away from President Bush:

By 59% to 21%, Americans say Congress rather than Mr. Bush should take the lead in setting policy for the nation.

....At the same time, items on the Democrats' opening agenda for Congress enjoy strong initial backing. More than seven in 10 Americans support raising the minimum wage on which Mr. Bush has indicated flexibility and forcing the federal government to negotiate lower Medicare drug prices with pharmaceuticals companies which Mr. Bush opposes.

The president faces a steeper challenge resisting Democratic initiatives on other economic issues. On energy, 80% favor forcing auto makers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles even if that raises prices; 59% back eliminating tax cuts for oil companies.

Things are so bad for Bush that 59% of the country would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if he or she had merely served in Bush's cabinet. I hope Condi is serious when she says she doesn't plan to run for president.

Kevin Drum 1:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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December 13, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FAMILY HISTORY UPDATE....In the 1950 National Debate Tournament, my father outscored future Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter 969-964. Who knew? He also outscored famed future public policy guru James Q. Wilson, though Wilson came back to kick some serious butt the next two years running.

Fascinating, no? I wonder if either of these guys remembers him?

Kevin Drum 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Christina Larson

GET WELL SOON ... Sen. Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, age 59, has been hospitalized with an apparent stroke. As Reuters notes:

South Dakota's governor, Michael Rounds, who would appoint any successor if there is a vacancy, is a Republican.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has a more detailed account. Johnson first became disoriented during a midday phone call with reporters, then walked back to the his office, still feeling poorly. The Capitol physician recommended he go to the hospital for evaluation by a stroke team.

Also, Steve Benen has been tracking details of South Dakota law. If there were a vacancy -- a premature "if" -- it seems the governor would be required to call for a special election, but would name a replacement in the short term. Christina Larson 5:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

"ONE LAST PUSH" UPDATE....More troops to Iraq? That's what the LA Times reports:

The size of the troop increase the Pentagon will recommend is unclear. One officer suggested an increase of about 40,000 forces would be required, but other officials said such a number was unrealistic.

....The problem with any sort of surge is that it would require an eventual drop-off in 2008, unless the president was willing to take the politically unpopular move of remobilizing the National Guard and sending reserve combat units back to Iraq.

According to the Washington Post, that's exactly what the military brass is planning to ask for:

The Army will press hard for "full access" to the 346,000-strong Army National Guard and the 196,000-strong Army Reserves by asking [incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates] to take the politically sensitive step of easing the Pentagon restrictions on the frequency and duration of involuntary call-ups for reservists, according to two senior Army officials.

George Bush has always said that he gives his generals everything they ask for. At the same time, he's shown himself consistently unwilling to expand the military in any way that would be truly unpopular. It looks like that particular rubber is about to hit the road.

Kevin Drum 4:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

HAIR-TRIGGER INSTINCTS....Jeff Greenfield protests that his comparison of Barack Obama's fashion sense to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was just a joke. Well, we've all screwed up a joke now and then, haven't we? Explanation accepted. But then he takes a stab at fleshing out why so many people reacted so harshly to his original piece:

Most of what happened here, I think, is a demonstration of the hair-trigger instincts that have grown up among some of the bloggers....In a political world where partisans routinely assume the worst about their adversaries and where conspiracy theories stretch from Bill Clinton as a drug ring- and murder-enabler to Bush as planner of 9/11 there's a tendency to find malice aforethought.

That's several miles off, I think. Bloggers do tend to have hair-trigger instincts, but they're largely aimed at the media, not their adversaries. Greenfield deliberately illustrated his point with a couple of conspiracy theories that didn't get much play in the mainstream media, but the last decade has produced a hundred others that never would have crawled out from under their rocks if it weren't for CNN, the New York Times, and other traditional mainstays promoting them. I'm no Bob Somerby, but even I flinch pretty hard when Greenfield tries to whitewash the media's own culpability in producing the hair-trigger instincts he derides. Bloggers may overreact to this stuff sometimes, but there's a reason for that. Maybe CNN ought to do a special about it?

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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By: Kevin Drum

AMBIGUITY....On Monday, in response to a question on German TV, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said, "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?" Stop the presses! The Israeli PM admitted that Israel has nuclear weapons!

Everyone has gone nuts over this, because Olmert's slip of the tongue (or was it?!?) supposedly marks the end of Israel's policy of "ambiguity" over whether it really has nuclear weapons. The LA Times runs down the reaction today, but as usual with stories like this it doesn't really explain why the Israelis think this policy is so important. As best I can tell, it originated 40 years ago due to U.S. pressure, but since then it's continued for no particularly compelling reason. In theory, it prevents Arab states from using Israel's nuclear stockpile as an excuse to build one of their own, but since Israel's nuclear arms are common knowledge and Arab states (and Iran) refer to them constantly, that hardly seems like a credible excuse. It's not stopping a thing.

It's one thing to have a policy of ambiguity over, say, what the U.S. would do if China attacked Taiwan. That policy actually serves a purpose: we'd almost certainly defend Taiwan if China invaded, but refraining from saying so keeps China mollified and sends a message to Taiwan that they should be prepared to take the consequences if they do something gratuitously provocative. (At least, that's the theory.)

But Israel's nuclear program? I don't get it. I suppose you can always make the case that "now is not the right time to inflame things" by fessing up, but that's not especially convincing. So what's the deal?

UPDATE: Via TTop in comments, Richard Beeson explains ambiguity this way in the London Times:

First, [Israel] wanted its enemies in the region to know that it had nuclear capability if threatened.

But it also wanted to keep the existence secret so that it did not fall foul of international action designed to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly strict US laws which could have jeopardised billions of dollars in annual aid.

Well, OK. But hasn't our deal with India made that problem nonoperative?

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Rachel Morris

BYE BYE BONILLA... Yesterday's news that Henry Bonilla lost his runoff in TX-23 to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez was surprising in one sense -- Bonilla had a couple of million dollars at his disposal, while Rodriguez has never inspired much confidence among Dems as a campaigner. But apart from Bonilla's sizeable financial advatange, all the other signs indicated that he was in real trouble.

One problem for Bonilla was that he was a major beneficiary of Tom DeLay's redistricting scheme, which moved Latino voters out of Bonilla's district to make way for more white ones. (Although Bonilla was the GOP's only Mexican-American representative, it's rarely noted that he's never actually commanded real Hispanic support.) The Supreme Court didn't like that idea, and ordered Texas courts to put the Latino voters back. Before the election, it seemed that Bonilla's hard line on illegal immigration -- he equated it with terrorism -- might have cost him with his newly restored (and already irritated) Hispanic constituents. Today, Hotline concludes that stance is probably what finished Bonilla off.

Rachel Morris 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Kevin Drum

RIDDLES, MYSTERIES, AND ENIGMAS....So I'm reading today's New York Times story about the latest happenings in Saudi Arabia and I'm trying to figure out what it means. But I can't. And it's late and my brain cells are starting to fade.

But go ahead and read it anyway. It feels important, and there are a hell of a lot of moving pieces under its surface. Maybe in the morning we can have a go at trying to peel the onion and figure out what's going on.

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By: Kevin Drum

A DAY IN THE LIFE....A few days ago, McClatchy's Hannah Allam and Laith Hammoudi visited Muqtada al-Sadr's headquarters for western Baghdad and sat down for a chat with the head of the office. Birds were singing, favors were being doled out, and things were calm:

But calm is always fleeting in Baghdad. At midday, about 50 gunmen stormed the courtyard and ordered everyone inside to stay put and to stay silent.

Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen responded immediately, drawing automatic rifles and pistols from under their winter coats and gathering in a cluster to face the unidentified gunmen. The assailants closed ranks, brandishing shiny revolvers and battered machine guns.

The groups walked toward each other as if in a high-noon duel. A voice from the crowd called for blessings in the name of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Sadr's soldiers began to shout age-old prayers for the prophet and his descendants, then added the Sadr camp's innovation: "Bring salvation soon, and damn their enemies!"

The reporters wisely decided to cut their interview short and fled the Kadhemiya neighborhood office, but checked back later to see how things had turned out:

In a phone call later that night, he dismissed the showdown as "a tribal matter" and emphasized that no one was injured. Kadhemiya was still safe.

"It was a private matter," he said, and offered no further explanation.

I imagine this actually counts as a good day in western Baghdad these days.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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December 12, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

DEMS WIN ANOTHER HOUSE SEAT....Good news! Democrat Ciro Rodriguez came from behind to handily beat Henry Bonilla in the Texas-23 congressional race tonight. And you know what that means, don't you?

That's right: it means the final tally from the midterm election is a Democratic pickup of 30 House seats and 6 Senate seats. And that means that the preliminary results of our election pool need to be updated. Zack and Bob G. came mighty close, but the official final winner is Camus, who correctly picked the right totals on October 25. Congratulations, Camus!

Kevin Drum 11:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLEASE MAKE HIM GO AWAY....Tom DeLay, terminal moron. Steve Benen has the latest.

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By: Kevin Drum

"ONE LAST PUSH"....The latest from Fox News: President Bush is "leaning toward" sending more troops to Iraq. I guess that must have been the message the Saudis delivered to Dick Cheney on his flyby to Riyadh a couple of weeks ago.

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By: Kevin Drum

POP FASHION DEMAGOGUERY....CNN's Jeff Greenfield recently made the bizarre suggestion that Barack Obama's favored jacket-and-no-tie look is a "sartorial time bomb" because it reminds him of wait for it Iranian President (and famed Holocaust skeptic) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Clearly Greenfield has been watching too much CNN.

Still, it's hardly unusual for reporters to obsess over politicians' clothing. Bob Somerby comments:

During Campaign 2000, this same priesthood conducted an endless discussion of the two Democrats dueling wardrobes. Bill Bradleys unfashionable neckties and 25-year-old shoes showed his admirable authenticity; Al Gores earth tones/cowboy boots/polo shirts/three-button suits showed his deeply troubling character. (His cowboy boots showed that he was a phony. His polo shirts showed he was targeting women. His three-button suits showed that he was a sex fiend. His earth tones showed he didnt know who he was. When he wore casual clothes some days and formal clothes on some others, that showed he was all mixed up too. We wont even waste our time directing you to all the archives. Our liberal leaders are deeply committed to not knowing what has occurred.)

Jimmy Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy "Armani Suit" Pelosi can all sympathize. (And yes, as near as I can tell, "Armani Suit" must be Pelosi's middle name or something. Not a profile goes by that doesn't mention her attachment to Armani.)

Question: Does this demonstrate the moral frivolousness of the modern press corps, as Bob believes? Or is this mostly a reflection of human culture, which has been obsessed with demeanor and appearance ever since clothing was invented? Did the Roman press mock the subtle ecru highlights in Cato's robes?

The latter, surely, but 24-hour cable news has turned it into the former. When fashion description was confined to occasional sentences in news stories, there was only a limited amount of damage it could do. But when cable news took over, with its addiction to images and its voracious appetite for something anything to fill up its 1,440 minutes per day, pop fashion demagoguery suddenly became a big deal indeed. That's how you end up with deeply weird stuff like Greenfield's take on Obama. Even Maureen Dowd would probably think twice before saying something like that in a print column, but in the cable news era thoughts that once would have been limited to the water cooler are now tossed out on prime time with abandon.

Channeling our inner idiot 24 hours a day hardly makes our lives richer. There's a reason God gave us prefrontal cortexes, after all. But at this point I'd settle for just a modest helping of common sense.

UPDATE: Digby's headline is better than mine.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Christina Larson

RESTLESS IN SUGAR LAND ... Testing F. Scott Fitzgerald's thesis about second acts in American lives, Tom DeLay has just launched a blog.

The bio page is of course well-scrubbed. Silly me to think only Newt Gingrich had a penchant for writing alternative history. Christina Larson 1:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

PERFORMANCE DEBATE....Since I'm the son of two champion college debaters it's where my USC roots come from I feel morally obligated to link to today's LA Times article about "performance debate," the latest wrinkle in an old craft:

At a recent Malibu contest, Brett Beeler of Cal State Fullerton stopped mid-sentence in a debate and asked teammate Caitlin Gray for a document.

As she rummaged around, Beeler impatiently left the podium and whispered heatedly at her. The tiff escalated, and suddenly he slapped her.

The judge of the debate came unglued. "You need to leave right now!" he shouted at Beeler.

But the slap was an act a way to breathe life into the otherwise dry debate topic, a court case involving domestic violence.

"I really did believe it was an incident of domestic abuse," said the judge, Orion Steele, a professor at the University of Redlands. "It took me a good half-hour to cool down." Then he awarded the victory to Fullerton.

The Times also reports that the performance debate movement has "led to replacing scholarly evidence with quotes from 'organic intellectuals' such as rap singers." The "organic" part I get. The "intellectual" part I'm not so sure about. But at least today's kids will be better suited for a career on Fox News than the debaters of my parents' generation.

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By: Kevin Drum

EARMARKS....Congressional Democrats have announced that they aren't sure it's even worth trying to construct new spending bills after having the old ones delayed for so long by Republicans speeding for the exits after their midterm election loss. So they're not going to, instead leaving the federal government on autopilot for the rest of the fiscal year.

I don't know if this is a good idea or not. But I like this:

The announcement was made last night by the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, who also said they would impose a moratorium on new congressional earmarks, targeted appropriations for special projects in members' home districts. None would be part of the proposed funding resolution, killing hundreds that are pending in the unfinished spending bills.

Italics mine. Since most of the earmarks are probably slated for Republican districts, this is both good policy and good politics. With any luck, they'll follow this up with some real earmark reform when January rolls around.

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Paul Glastris

THIS IS GOOD NEWS, RIGHT?... Yesterday, the website Right Wing News announced the winners of its fifth annual Warbloggers Awards, and I'm happy (I think) to report that The Washington Monthly won first place in the "Favorite Left-of-Center Blogger" category. Congrats, Kevin.

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By: Kevin Drum

KINSLEY v. CARTER....Michael Kinsley writes a very strange column today about Jimmy Carter's new book:

Comes now former president Jimmy Carter with a new best-selling book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." It's not clear what he means by using the loaded word "apartheid," since the book makes no attempt to explain it, but the only reasonable interpretation is that Carter is comparing Israel to the former white racist government of South Africa.

Kinsley tries to back this up with several strained paragraphs about the technical underpinnings of South African apartheid, but he so studiously ignores the everyday definition of the word that his effort comes off as little more than disingenous smart aleckiness. What's more, he seems not to have read the book Carter says he wrote. Here's Carter:

And let me get to the word "apartheid." Apartheid doesn't imply at all, as I made plain in my book, anything that relates to Israel, to the nation. It doesn't imply anything that relates to racism. This apartheid, which is prevalent throughout the occupied territories, the subjection of the Palestinians to horrible abuse, is caused by a minority of Israelis. We're not talking about racism, but talking about their desire to acquire, to occupy, to confiscate, and then to colonize Palestinian land.

And this:

The alternative to peace is apartheid, not inside Israel, to repeat myself, but in the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Palestinian territory. And there, apartheid exists in its more despicable forms, that Palestinians are deprived of basic human rights. Their land has been occupied and then confiscated and then colonized by the Israeli settlers.

Now, you can agree or disagree with this, but that's what Carter says he wrote and his meaning seems fairly clear. And in fact, Carter's book does say this (p. 189):

The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa not racism, but the acquisition of land. There has been a determined and remarkably effective effort to isolate settlers from Palestinians, so that a Jewish family can commute from Jerusalem to their highly subsidized home deep in the West Bank on roads from which others are excluded, without ever coming in contact with any facet of Arab life.

Again, you can agree or disagree with this. But why does Kinsley pretend he doesn't understand it?

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December 11, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

INSIDE THE BUBBLE....The Washington Post reports that President Bush met on Monday with a group of experts who told him they didn't think much of last week's recommendations from the ISG:

The three retired generals and two academics disagreed in particular with the study group's plans to reduce the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq and to reach out for help to Iran and Syria, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

Golly, what a shocker: Bush decided to meet with a bunch of guys who just happen to already agree with him. That should sure provoke some fresh thinking about Iraq, shouldn't it?

This is all part of Bush's weeklong "search for new ideas," which bears a striking resemblance to OJ's search for the real killer. I suspect they'll both end up with the same results.

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FOREIGN POLICY WATCH....Taylor Owen watches a gaggle of foreign policy worthies on Sunday's Meet the Press and comes back depressed. The highlight, courtesy of Richard Haass, is The Incompetence Dodge 2.0. Here is Taylor's summary:

To paraphrase Haas: The Iraq war is all but lost. There is a very limited chance of success. This has to be admitted. The purpose of American foreign policy over the next year must therefore be to shift the perception that the problem lies not with US staying power or bad foreign policy decisions, but rather with the Iraqis. This shifting of blame is essential, says Haas, in order to ensure the perception of America military superiority; the worst case scenario being chaos in the Middle East, and America being blamed and deemed incompetent.

Well, there you have it. This is the realist version of the neocon's incompetence dodge foreign policy free from moral constraints. This is the Incompetence Dodge 2.0.

The rest of Taylor's post is a decent rundown of the current thinking behind the various schools of serious beltway foreign policy thinking these days (where "serious" = no lefties need apply). To summarize:

Haas wants to blame Iraqis, Adelman wants to blame the administration, Cohen wants to cross his fingers and hope things work out, and Ricks thinks we (Iraq, region and US foreign policy) are in an ever tightening downward spiral.

Personally, I prefer to sleep in on Sundays. This is why.

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CUPCAKE MANIA....The Washington Post reports today about a brewing parental backlash against schools that try to ban birthday cupcakes. An expert explains what's behind it:

The cupcake-as-symbol-of-childhood is powerful: It's wrapped in the cultural definition of what it means to be a good mother, something that's a moving target in this society, said Kathryn Oths, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama who studies food and culture.

...."Think about it. Banning cupcakes is almost like an assault on the national identity," Oths said. "It comes at a time when there are fears of terrorism and the immigration brouhaha that they're 'watering down' our traditional American culture meaning middle-class white America that's slipping out of our grasp."

Um, OK. But what I really want to know is where this cupcake mania came from in the first place. Do modern parents really bring in cupcakes for every single birthday? That must be 20 or 30 cupcake days a year. Seriously?

Question: has this changed over the years, or was Orange County just a cupcake-less wasteland during the 60s? I don't recall even celebrating birthdays in school when I was growing up, let alone being fed trays of cupcakes on a regular basis. And believe me, if cupcakes really are a celebration of middle-class, white, better-dead-than-red Americana, Orange Country would have been leading the pack in cupcake feedings.

So when did this start? Is it a regional thing? Did I miss out? I know I have plenty of teachers who read this blog. Help me out in comments.

UPDATE: Responses are all over the map. Some people remember vast feeding frenzies of youthful cupcakes, other went entirely cupcake-less like me. Best comment comes from Chicago Liberal:

You have no idea.

You try to raise a non-obese, relatively healthy kid and you do okay until they hit kindergarten. Between the cupcake days, the party days, and the "specials" (teacher's day, Arbor Day, whatever) there's hardly a day that isn't loaded with extra artificial food coloring, high fructose corn syrup and fat. And then we wonder why the kids all misbehave. Blue, tattooed "froot" leather does not occur anywhere in nature! But try to tell that to most parents.

Seriously, parents will get near violent with you when you suggest at an average suburban school that maybe we should just have one cupcake/candy/sweet treats day a month, or otherwise limit sweets. So, you can tell your kid that she can sit in the corner and eat her grapes and carrots while her friend passes out the sponge bob froot snacks. You can harp on the teacher. Or you can take it to the [PTA] where they will roll their eyes at you.

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JOHN McCAIN UPDATE....A few days ago John McCain hired Terry Nelson as his campaign manager for the 2008 election. Nelson is the guy responsible for the "bimbo" ad in the Tennessee Senate race this year, but as Ari Berman points out, that's hardly the end of his resume:

Nelson's palate is not simply limited to racist ads. He was an unindicted co-conspirator in the effort spearheaded by Tom DeLay to illegally funnel corporate cash to Texas legislature candidates in 2002. He oversaw the guy who was convicted of improperly jamming Democratic Party phones in New Hampshire in 2002.

It's more than a little ironic that McCain, Mr. Straight Talk Express, has chosen a campaign manager whose career represents a laundry list of scandal. It begs the question: Is McCain a hypocrite, a fraud, or both?

Decisions, decisions.....

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KOFI ANNAN....Kofi Annan is giving his last major speech today before he turns over the reins of the UN to South Korea's Ban Ki-moon on January 1. So how does Annan's tenure measure up? In a review of The Best Intentions, James Traub's recently released profile of Annan and the modern UN, Foreign Policy managing editor William Dobson showers Annan with faint praise: "If Annan had served just one term, he might have been remembered as [Dag] Hammarskjlds reincarnation. But he didnt, and the last five years have been among the most grueling in the institutions six decades."

So what happened in Annan's second five years? In a word, George Bush:

For the United Nations today, there is no greater challenge than that posed by American unilateralism in a world where the United States is so wholly dominant. The showdown between the world body and its most powerful member came to a head, of course, in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. The Bush administrations National Security Strategy, published a week after the attacks of 9/11, declared the United States right to what amounted to unilateral preemption. International law had long recognized a states right to defend itself from an imminent attack, but a preventive attack against a mounting threat could only be legitimate if sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council. In seeking the United Nations acquiescence to its war plans for Iraq, President Bush could not have been more pointed than when he asked the General Assembly, Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?

Dobson suggests that in the end, it may be the UN that has the last laugh, but in the meantime Annan leaves office "pained, weary, and somewhat absent." Read the whole thing for a paradoxical valedictory of a paradoxical man.

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WE ARE ALL NAZIS NOW....Matt Yglesias comments on conservative apologetics for the murderous thug Augusto Pinochet:

See here and here on [LGM] for the contemporary right's continuing praise of Pinochet. I think this is the context in which you have to understand American conservatism's generally blas attitude toward the Bush administration's more modest ventures into the fields of arbitrary detention, corruption, and torture. Years of apologizing for the deployment of such tactics by America's proxies abroad naturally desensitizes the political culture to the re-importation of these methods to the center.

Meanwhile, a reader of the Toledo Blade comments on the success of nanny state liberals in passing anti-smoking laws:

But sadly, in a corrupt state run by a convicted governor, "Smoke Nazis" came to power once again, rallying against tobacco....My main concern as I get older and near retirement is people will live longer and as Social Security fails, what will be the Smoke Nazis' final solution to that problem?

So that's that, I guess. It turns out we all want police states of one kind or another, we just want them in pursuit of different goals. A sad state of affairs indeed. But the libertarians did try to warn us, didn't they?

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THE WORST CASE....As Matt Yglesias points out, for the past few months I've been periodically pointing out that the worst possible outcome of staying in Iraq is not simply that success continues to elude us. The worst possible outcome is that our presence continues to make things even worse. But worse in what way? Suzanne Nossel picks up the ball today and describes six separate ways in which events in Iraq and the greater Middle East could get far more violent and far less controllable than they are now. You can read them here.

My guess is that almost all of her worst-case scenarios are more likely if we stay than if we withdraw. In fact, there's only one thing left that I think we might be able to do to improve the situation before we leave, and it's something that appalled me when I first read it. In a Foreign Affairs roundtable piece last July (scroll down), Chaim Kaufmann recommended that we should accept a de facto partition of Iraq's population at the neighborhood level and work actively to relocate Shiites and Sunnis who live in the "wrong" neighborhoods into safe ones. As he points out, "Some might say that this policy will legitimate ethnic cleansing," and he's right. That's why I initially found it appalling. I still do. And yet, it might be the only option left to us that ameliorates the inevitable. I'm still not sure what I think of this proposal Is it reprehensible to even consider it? Is it cowardly not to? but at the very least it ought to be part of the conversation.

Kaufmann's recommendation is based on his research into four famous cases of 20th century partition. His paper, "When All Else Fails: Population Separation as a Remedy for Ethnic Conflicts," concludes that "In all four cases separation of the warring groups was successful in reducing violence." And since I happen to be reading about this subject at the moment, I might add that at least some of Europe's post-WWII stability can be attributed to the very substantial population movements that were forcibly carried out both during and immediately after the war.

It's depressing stuff. But we might not have any choice but to face up to it.

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December 10, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

NEW FRONTIERS IN SCIENCE....Further evidence for the veracity of the cube-square law here. Complete with diagrams! Also: cats have brains the size of a walnut.

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MISCELLANY....So, how'd that Republican Revolution go?

"It's a mixed bag," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the architect of the 1994 revolution. "In a three-year period, we changed things fairly dramatically. We, candidly, then failed."

Translation: things went great while I was in charge, and then failed utterly after I was kicked out for egregious ethical violations. Vote for me for president.

Attaboy Newt! Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the Baker-Hamilton report, which was supposed to provide political cover for the Republican Party so that they didn't go into yet another election with Iraq dragging them down to defeat, may have had exactly the opposite effect:

A document that many in Washington had hoped would pave the way for a bipartisan compromise on Iraq instead drew sharp condemnation from the right, with hawks saying it was a wasted effort that advocated a shameful American retreat.

....The divisions could make it more difficult for Republicans to coalesce on national security policy and avoid a bitter intraparty fight going into the 2008 campaign.

That's sad, isn't it? And yet so richly deserved.

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December 9, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

2006 BOOK PICKS....I'd sort of forgotten about this, but a reader emailed today to ask if I was going to post a list of book recommendations, as I did last year. Well, why not?

So here it is, my nonfiction Top Ten list for the year. Note that this is not a list of books published in 2006, just a list of the best books I happen to have read in the past 12 months. It's in no special order.

  • The One Percent Doctrine, by Ron Suskind
    This is a terrific piece of reporting about the Bush White House and its inability to adapt as the contours of the war on terror became clearer after the initial shock of the 9/11 attacks. It relies heavily on sources from the intelligence community, but that's mostly a strength rather than a weakness as long as you keep Suskind's sympathies in mind. I posted about the book here.

  • Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt
    I'm cheating a bit since I'm only about a third of the way through this book, but so far it's a great read: detailed, authoritative, insightful, and well written. A lot of people who have read the whole thing agree. An interview with Judt is here.

  • The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis
    A slim, accessible volume backed by a lifetime of scholarship. Gaddis has a point of view that you may or may not share, but this is a worthwhile and readable survey regardless. I posted about it here.

  • The Perfect Thing, by Steven Levy
    Is Apple's iPod really the perfect thing? Levy thinks so. This is less a book than a collection of essays, but the essays are both fun and thought provoking, and Levy does a good job of digging into the iPod subculture. My review for the Monthly is here.

  • Blocking the Courthouse Door, by Stephanie Mencimer
    Demonizing trial lawyers is a twofer for the Republican Party: it's a popular cause with the corporate interests that bankroll them, and it helps destroy a key funding source for the Democratic Party. But the GOP's tort reform crusade is mostly built on myths about out-of-control lawsuits and skyrocketing legal costs that Mencimer punctures methodically and relentlessly. Well worth reading. I'll have a review of the book in the January issue of the Monthly. Mencimer's tort reform blog, The Tortellini, is here.

  • Five Days in Philadelphia, by Charles Peters
    Peters believes that the Republican Party's nomination of Wendell Willkie in 1940 was the key event that allowed FDR to eventually lead the nation into WWII. I'm not sure I buy this, but it doesn't matter: this is a very accessible book that brings its subject to life in a way that few works of history do. Whether you agree or disagree with Peters, this is outstanding narrative history written by a man who grew up during the events he's writing about. Paul Glastris's review for the Monthly is here.

  • The Primacy of Politics, by Sheri Berman
    This is a bit of an outlier for this list, more a scholarly monograph than a popular history. But the subject at hand is the rise of social democracy in Europe during the 20th century, and this turns out to contain a lot of interesting lessons (or warnings) for American liberalism in the 21st century. It's also unusually lucid and clearly written. The Crooked Timber book event for Primacy of Politics is here.

  • Talking Right, by Geoffrey Nunberg
    This is a terrific, fun, and well-researched book about how conservatives have honed the use of language in politics over the past few decades. It features good writing and engaging insights, and manages to avoid the tendentious psychoanalyzing common to the genre. Even if you know the drill on Republicans and language, you'll learn some new things from this book. I reviewed it for Mother Jones here.

  • Prisoner of Trebekistan, by Bob Harris
    This is a fun book written by a friend of mine. Bob has appeared on Jeopardy! five times and uses his experiences there to frame a book about life, the universe, and everything. But the answer isn't 42. Or even the question. I posted about the book here. Bob's blog is here.

  • The Great Risk Shift, by Jacob Hacker
    Everybody talks about income inequality (as they should), but in this book Jacob Hacker talks about something that may be equally important: the growing amount of risk borne by average families in America. Incomes are far more volatile than in the past, pensions and healthcare are more precarious, and many more people lead lives that can be ruined by a single stroke of bad luck. It's important stuff, and this is the first book-length treatment of it. I posted about it here, and Jacob responded in a series of posts for the blog during October. You can find them by scrolling down here.

If a book doesn't show up on this list, you may be wondering if it's because it didn't make the top ten or because I just didn't happen to read it. Probably the latter, but if you want to make sure, my complete reading list for the year is below the fold.

Non-Fiction

  1. Impostor, by Bruce Bartlett

  2. American Theocracy, by Kevin Phillips

  3. Killer Instinct, by Jane Hamsher

  4. The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan

  5. Five Days in Philadelphia, by Charles Peters

  6. Hiding in the Mirror, by Lawrence Krauss

  7. Lusitania, by Diana Preston

  8. The Cold War, by John Lewis Gaddis

  9. White Flight, by Kevin Kruse

  10. No Two Alike, by Judith Rich Harris

  11. An Army of Davids, by Glenn Reynolds

  12. The Good Fight, by Peter Beinart

  13. With All Our Might, edited by Will Marshall

  14. Lapdogs, by Eric Boehlert

  15. The Broken Branch, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein

  16. Whose Freedom?, by George Lakoff

  17. Talking Right, by Geoffrey Nunberg

  18. The Primacy of Politics, by Sheri Berman

  19. The One Percent Doctrine, by Ron Suskind

  20. The Perfect Thing, by Steven Levy

  21. Altered States, by Jeremy Black

  22. Prisoner of Trebekistan, by Bob Harris

  23. The Best of I.F. Stone, edited by Peter Osnos

  24. The Great Risk Shift, by Jacob Hacker

  25. The John W. Campbell Letters, edited by Perry Chapdelaine et. al.

  26. The Truth About Conservative Christians, by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout

  27. Blocking the Courthouse Door, by Stephanie Mencimer

  28. The Best American Political Writing 2006, edited by Royce Flippin

  29. Postwar, by Tony Judt

Fiction

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

  2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

  3. A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby

  4. Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson

  5. Silverlock, by John Myers Myers

  6. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

  7. Accelerando, by Charles Stross

  8. Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod

  9. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

  10. Ranbows End, by Vernor Vinge

  11. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

  12. The Algebraist, by Iain Banks

  13. When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger

  14. Red Lightning, by John Varley

  15. The Man Who Fought Alone, by Stephen Donaldson

  16. More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon

Kevin Drum 7:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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THE YOUTUBE REVOLUTION....After reviewing the effect of YouTube (on the Montana and Virginia Senate races) and text messaging (in the Mark Foley scandal), Raul Fernandez says that politics has been changed forever:

In modern American political history, perhaps only the coming of the television age has had as big an impact on our national elections as the Internet has. But the effect of the Internet may be better for the long-term health of our democracy. For while TV emphasizes perception, control and centralization, Internet-driven politics is about transparency, distribution of effort and, most important, empowerment and participation at whatever level of engagement the consumer wants.

It's unclear what the impact of technology on elections will be over the next 12 years. But one lesson should already be clear to politicians: In a world where cellphones are cameras and video recorders, every word that you utter (or text), and every nap you take, can and will be used against you on YouTube.

That's true, but there's a downside to this that's been in the back of my mind for a while. Thanks to the growth of television and the ubiquitious use of media training among politicians, it's already almost impossible to get candid statements out of anyone these days. Most politicians stick to their well honed scripts with an almost Stepford-like consistency.

Question: will this now become even worse? Knowing that they might be on video at literally any time, will politicians clam up even more? Are we creating an era in which politicians treat every waking moment as if they're on stage?

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DON'T KNOW MUCH....If Jeff Stein isn't careful, no one is ever going to talk to him again. He's breaking some serious beltway conventions here.

On the other hand, if you were to ask a bunch of congress critters whether, say, Italy was fascist or communist during World War II, I wonder how many would beg off with jokes about not paying attention during high school history? How many would stare at the ceiling in chagrin if Stein asked them whether the IRA was Catholic or Protestant? How many would throw him out of their offices if he asked whether Wahhabis were good guys or bad?

Of course, the last one is a trick question. Best to stick to questions about how many people in their districts have been employed by earmarked pork.

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HARRY S BUSH....George Bush met with some Democratic leaders on Friday to review the recommendations of the ISG report and discuss the way forward in Iraq. However, they report back that he wasn't too interested in talking about this:

Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."

We still have two more years left of this guy. Jeebus.

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December 8, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

KERRY '08....I've never trashed John Kerry for his losing effort in 2004. He ran, he lost, let's move on, etc. Still, I do wonder how he's managed to retain the notion that perhaps he ought to run again in 2008. Today, Garance Franke-Ruta suggests that it's because some self-interested parties have been whispering sweet nothings in his ear:

The problem, as it was recently described to me by a young local politico, is that both of Massachusetts' senators have been so long-serving....Secure incumbency at the top has created stasis throughout the entire system, leaving young ambitious would-be pols to either wait for someone to retire or try to knock off long-time incumbents just to get to the statehouse. If Kerry would just move on, by trying to move up again himself, then Barney Frank, Ed Markey, Marty Meehan, and Steve Lynch could all potentially contend for his seat, and a domino effect could be unleashed across the system. For that to happen, though, the first domino has to fall, and Kerry has to run for president again.

So if you wonder who on earth is encouraging Kerry to take another crack at it, the answer has to include: Massachusetts politicians.

So they don't want him to run and win. They want him to run and lose. I guess I'll buy that since I can't think of any other reason anyone would be encouraging him in this quixotic quest.

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POPULISM....Via David Sirota, here's an excerpt from a short Mother Jones interview with incoming Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown:

MJ: Any interest in being Vice President?

SB: No. But anybody that runs for the president will have to go through Ohio, literally and figuratively. The Democrats need to nominate somebody that will be an economic populist, that will stand up for the middle class, that doesn't just want to increase the minimum wage but somebody that will work to put the government on the side of working families. And that means different trade policy, standing up to the drug industry, taking on the oil industry. It means showing that the Democratic Party is a progressive, populist party.

That sounded very much like a gauntlet being thrown down in front of....Hillary Clinton? Is she listening?

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BLAMING THE VICTIMS....Matt Yglesias rounds up some recent liberal hawk commentary and complains that too many people are evading the central issue of whether or not we should withdraw from Iraq. He's right. But he also says this:

Peter Beinart complains that "across ideological lines, American politicians and pundits are finally coming to a consensus on Iraq: It's the Iraqis' fault" and concludes that "If we need to leave; we need to leave. But let's not pretend the defeat is anyone else's but our own."

....On the issue Beinart raises, I agree with him. The "blame the Iraqis" account of the war is somewhat offensive and factually misguided. That said, it's a lot less misguided than continuing the war.

That's also right, but it leaves out an important piece of the story: the reason we need to leave Iraq. As Matt himself pointed out a year ago in "The Incompetence Dodge," the main argument for withdrawal is a simple acknowledgment that the U.S. military can't solve Iraq's problems and never could. As he put it, "No simple application of more outside force can make conflicting parties agree in any meaningful way or conjure up social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance where they dont exist or are too weak to prevail."

Now, there's unquestionably a thin line between acknowledging the reality that the "social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance" are weak to nonexistent in Iraq, and blaming the Iraqis for this lack. But the fact remains that it's this very intractability that explains why the U.S. should be so cautious about using military force to try to solve problems in the Middle East. If it were otherwise, even an incompetent intervention wouldn't have produced quite the disastrous results that we're trying to extricate ourselves from today.

Make no mistake: what's happening in Iraq is the fault of the United States. We just shouldn't allow that plain truth to obscure other truths that are equally plain. Otherwise we'll end up making the same blunders all over again a few years from now.

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DEEPWATER....What happens when you combine "fast track" procurement, minimal oversight, pork-based contracting, and a comprehensive lack of responsibility for results? Well, you get the Bush administration, of course. More specifically, you get the Coast Guard's disastrous Deepwater program. Nadezhda runs through the grim details.

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND THE MOUNTAIN WEST....A few months ago Christina Larson wrote an article for the Monthly suggesting that hunters and fishers, historically a pretty conservative constituency, were starting to break with the Republican Party over its support for drilling and mining on public land and its relentless denial of global warming, which is starting to ruin streams, wetlands, and breeding grounds across the country. Others have made similar observations, including David Sirota, based on his campaign work for guys like Brian Schweitzer and Jon Tester. (David wrote a piece for us in 2004, "Top Billings," about Schweitzer's victory that year in the Montana governor's race.)

Given all this, it was interesting to see the Washington Post pick up on this theme a few days ago:

At the same time, Democrats consolidated gains from 2004, picking up the governorship in Colorado, a Senate seat in Montana and two House seats in Arizona. Democrats already controlled governor's seats in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.

Perhaps more significant, Democratic and Republican politicians from New Mexico to Montana have found common ground with hunters and anglers in opposing widespread energy development on wild public lands, halting drilling in several areas where the public felt that wildlife and scenic values trumped economic consideration. In the past year, bipartisan grass-roots opposition has also killed off a number of proposals to sell federal land and use the revenue to pay for governmental operations.

As the Post notes, locals in the Mountain West states are a lot less hostile to liberal "newcomers" these days, instead teaming up with them on environmental issues in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. This is clearly a dynamic to keep our eyes on. The Mountain West could turn out to be the next major electoral battleground.

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

GODWIN'S LAW....Quote of the Day:

I do think Godwin's rule needs to be amended somewhat in the age of Cheney and Bush.

Actually, I suspect Godwin's Law is even more important in the age of Cheney and Bush, but I appreciate the sentiment anyway.

Kevin Drum 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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WAGES UP....FED IS WORRIED....Good news! Wages for ordinary workers are finally going up after six years of stagnation:

With energy prices now sharply lower than a few months ago and the improving job market forcing employers to offer higher raises, the buying power of American workers is now rising at the fastest rate since the economic boom of the late 1990s.

The average hourly wage for workers below management level everyone from school bus drivers to stockbrokers rose 2.8 percent from October 2005 to October of this year, after being adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only a year ago, it was falling by 1.5 percent.

Boy, I sure hope the Fed doesn't do anything to put the kibosh on this. Workers could use a break. But I'm sure Ben Bernanke realizes....um, realizes that what? He said what? Oh, this:

Wages have risen so swiftly that some economists worry that they could push inflation up on their own, by forcing companies to raise prices. Last week, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, warned that the central bank might have to raise interest rates again. One factor that we are watching carefully is labor costs, he said.

Ah yes. "Labor costs." We can't have those rising, can we? Not only does it get the workers all uppity, but it drains corporate treasuries and puts a crimp in CEO pay increases. That would be a disaster.

Kevin Drum 1:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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December 7, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

BENCHMARKING THE BENCHMARKS....As part of All-ISG-All-The-Time Day here at the Washington Monthly, here's a handy reference chart of the main recommendations made in the ISG report. I haven't included every single recommendation here, but most of them are listed along with my guess about whether there's any chance of George Bush taking them seriously:

Rec #s

Subject

Bush's Likely Reaction

1-12

"New Diplomatic Offensive." Talk to Syria and Iran. Hold a conference of all regional players.

Bush has already said he won't talk to Syria and Iran. The regional conference is a possibility, but without Syria and Iran it's probably little more than fig leaf.

13-17

Restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Bush has never shown any interest in this.

19-39

Set various milestones for the Iraqi government. Push hard on national reconciliation.

Bush will probably say that these things are already being pursued. However, if Zalmay Khalilzad couldn't get them done, who can? It's unlikely that Bush will appoint anyone who can make serious progress on this.

40-45

Increase U.S. advisory role in Iraqi military units. Withdraw combat troops by 2008.

Nonstarter. Bush will never agree to this.

50-61

Transfer the Iraqi National Police and the Border Police to the Ministry of Defense. Various suggestions for U.S. training of Iraqi police.

Hard to say what Bush thinks about this. Most likely he doesn't care much. More to the point, though, it's not clear that the United States has the influence or authority to make this happen.

62-71

Increase U.S. economic assistance. Include more international participation.

He might push for this. Hard to say for sure, though, and also hard to say if Congress has much stomach for it unless there's some reason to think it will be more effective than past reconstruction efforts.

Obviously these are just guesses on my part, though Bush himself has already given short shrift to the idea of talks with Syria and Iran, as well as the recommendation to begin withdrawing combat troops. In any case, regardless of whether the ISG's recommendations have any chance of working, it strikes me that Bush will be unwilling to take very many of them seriously. Expect lots of weasel words but not much serious action.

Kevin Drum 8:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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COMPLEX FORCES....The Washington Post reports that Iraqis are unanimously unhappy with the recommendations of the ISG:

They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes....Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.

"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician.

Fine. So what are these complexities the ISG failed to discern? What do the Iraqis themselves think we ought to do?

Nothing, apparently. If you click the link you will not find one single Iraqi making a constructive suggestion. You will find only Sunnis alarmed at the proposals that seem to favor Shiites, and Shiites alarmed at the proposals that seem to favor Sunnis. Something tells me the ISG commissioners understood this dynamic pretty well.

Kevin Drum 7:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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DEMOCRACY....By the way, did anyone notice that the ISG report doesn't say a single word about promoting democracy either in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East? Well, it doesn't.

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KICKING THE CAN....William Arkin is unimpressed with the ISG's proposals and the likely new plan that will emerge from them:

Here's how I see Iraq playing out in the short term: The president makes an announcement within a month about his "new" plan. Washington is ever so pleased with a new approach. But the a la carte plan is seen by the Iraqis for what it is; it is not a U.S. timetable for withdrawal. It is not an unequivocal pledge not to establish permanent bases. It is sovereignty and authority in name only for Iraq with continued American control behind the scenes. I can't see [how] any of this equivocation will deflate the insurgency or stem the hatred for America that is fueled by our presence.

The "plan," in other words, is neither what the American people nor the Iraqi people want.

Arkin also makes the salutary point that this plan "merely kicks the day of reckoning further down the road." He's right: Every extra day that we spend in Iraq merely makes our eventual disengagement harder and bloodier. Always remember: things can get even worse than they are now. They have for each of the previous three years, after all.

Kevin Drum 2:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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DISSENSION IN THE RANKS....Michael Gordon reports that the ISG's military advisors think the ISG's primary military recommendation embedding U.S. advisors with Iraqi units and then withdrawing U.S. combat troops within a year is a nonstarter:

Jack Keane, the retired acting Army chief of staff who served on the groups panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. Based on where we are now we cant get there, General Keane said in an interview, adding that the reports conclusions say more about the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq.

....The groups final military recommendations were not discussed with the retired officers who serve on the groups Military Senior Adviser Panel before publication, several of those officers said.

Say what? I'm perfectly open to the idea that civilians sometimes have military insights that the military itself is unable to come to terms with. But did the commission really not even discuss its military recommendations with its own military advisory panel? That sure seems like a fast way to ensure that its proposals will be tossed into the ash heap without any hesitation.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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WHO'S THE TROUBLEMAKER?....David Broder, in the middle of a paean to the comity and bipartisanship of the ISG commission members yesterday, let slip a rare discordant note:

Despite all the goodwill, several of the members recounted that toward the end of their deliberations, one commissioner not someone who had served in Congress, they noted said he would not sign the report if one part was not removed.

James A. Baker III, the former Republican secretary of state, glanced at his co-chairman, former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton, and calmly said to the dissenter, "Okay, don't."

A little later, others recalled, the dissenting member asked to return to the disputed passage and, in short order, agreed to slightly modified language.

Hell, man, what kind of a tease is this? Who was the deviationist? What was the objection? What trivial wording change managed to shame him into coming back into the fold? Name some names!

The five candidates are William Perry, Sandra Day O'Connor, William Meese, Vernon Jordan, and Lawrence Eagleburger. O'Connor isn't a "he," and this doesn't sound like Vernon Jordan's style. Nor does Meese seem like a guy who'd throw down an ultimatum to his old Reagan-era buddy James Baker. So my guess is that it was either Perry or Eagleburger.

But which section of the report was so foul that it prompted this outrageous breach of bipartisan bonhomie? Inquiring minds want to know.

UPDATE: Aha. The Washington Post identifies the source of the tension:

The Iraq Study Group was starting final deliberations last month when the issue threatened to disrupt the careful consensus its members had tried to forge. Former defense secretary William J. Perry had drafted a proposal calling for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops, according to accounts by insiders. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III resisted a firm date, wanting to leave that to the president.

"I'm not going to sign anything that is going to paper over the problem," Perry said.

"Well, if that's the case, that's the case," Baker replied.

That actually makes sense, since the report obviously calls for a timeline for withdrawal but doesn't say it's calling for a timeline for withdrawal. The result is the kind of mush you'd expect from two members trying to fudge a fundamental disagreement: "In the end, though, Baker and Perry walked off together to settle their differences rather than let them split the commission. With suggestions from other members, they crafted careful language that they both could support, a recommendation to pull out nearly all U.S. combat units by early 2008 a goal, not a timetable, but a date nonetheless."

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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THE NEW DIPLOMATIC OFFENSIVE....In an aside about the ISG report, Suzanne Nossel remarks:

In arguing for a "diplomatic offensive" (personally I would leave out the offensive part)....

The official name of this part of the report's recommendations is "New Diplomatic Offensive," in caps, and I'll bet the word "offensive" was chosen with utmost care. It's a way of recommending squishy, dovish negotiations without sounding squishy and dovish. The message is: these are going to manly negotiations, practically a continuation of the war itself. They will be negotiations even a man from Texas can embrace.

Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if they hired Frank Luntz to focus group the phrase. Somebody ought to ask him.

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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December 6, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

WILL WITHDRAWALS BEGIN NEXT MONTH?....Lazy sack that I am, it's taken until now for me to read through the entire ISG report. Now that I have, I find that their assessment of our military role in Iraq is one of the most interesting parts of the document. Here's what they say about "Operation Together Forward II," a recent attempt stabilize Baghdad:

The results of Operation Together Forward II are disheartening....U.S. forces can clear any neighborhood, but there are neither enough U.S. troops present nor enough support from Iraqi security forces to hold neighborhoods so cleared. The same holds true for the rest of Iraq. Because none of the operations conducted by U.S. and Iraqi military forces are fundamentally changing the conditions encouraging the sectarian violence, U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end.

Italics mine. That's admirably clear, and their recommendation is that we halt futile operations like this and instead limit ourselves to assisting Iraq troops:

One of the most important elements of our support would be the imbedding of substantially more U.S. military personnel in all Iraqi Army battalions and brigades, as well as within Iraqi companies....Such a mission could involve 10,000 to 20,000 American troops instead of the 3,000 to 4,000 now in this role....By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq.

It's maddeningly unclear how many troops they think would still be left in Iraq at the end of this drawdown, since in addition to the embeds they suggest we would also maintain rapid-reaction forces, special operations forces, intelligence units, search-and-rescue units, transportation, air support, logistics support, and force protection units. But certainly it would be a small number compared to the 150,000 troops we have now, probably no more than 50-80,000 or so.

So here's the thing: the report clearly states that U.S. combat operations aren't doing any good, and that therefore we should withdraw somewhere around 70-100,000 troops by the beginning of 2008. But my understanding is that force protection issues would compel an operation of this size to take at least 12 months. That means they're recommending that we begin substantial withdrawals of combat units by the first quarter of 2007. That's next month or perhaps two or three months from now at the latest.

Is that really what they're suggesting? Are they just being coy by not saying this outright in the report, even though the arithmetic is inescapable? And did they made this clear to President Bush when they briefed him a couple of days ago?

Kevin Drum 10:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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A QUESTION OF CHARACTER....Via Steve Benen, the Wall Street Journal reports on the continuing pettiness of the outgoing Republican Congress, which refuses to pass spending bills for a fiscal year that's already more than two months old. And it's all out of pique:

Like a retreating army, Republicans are tearing up railroad track and planting legislative land mines to make it harder for Democrats to govern when they take power in Congress next month.

....With Congress turning off the lights this week, there seems no chance of saving the appropriations process. Instead, most of the government will remain on a stopgap bill through Feb. 15, and in kicking this can down the road, the Republican leadership has no idea where it will stop rolling.

"It's a demonstration of the irresponsibility of Republicans that they would leave this country with this mess," said the next House speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.). "But we won, we will deal with it."

It's astonishing that this hasn't gotten more attention. Do you remember all those stories that made the rounds after the 2000 election about outgoing Clinton officials trashing Air Force One and the White House before skipping town? There was nothing to it, of course: a few pranks here and there, but otherwise just the normal wear and tear typical of previous transitions, according the General Services Administration, which had (naturally) been called in to do a scorched-earth investigation. Finally, after weeks of anonymous leaks accusing the Clintonites of major vandalism, the director of the White House Office of Administration was forced to admit that he couldn't document any damage or repairs.

But the stories! There were hundreds of them, all agog over the news that a few staffers had removed the W keys from their keyboards. So immature! So childish!

But Republican legislators punting on half a trillion dollars worth of spending bills because they're "tired" and they want to gum up the works for the incoming Democrats? It's barely worth a yawn. Some priorities, eh?

Kevin Drum 5:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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THE COURAGE OF THEIR CONVICTIONS....Taegan Goddard reprints the following from the Evans-Novak Political Report:

Important Bush Administration officials are ready to leave the government rather than undergo two years of hell from Democratic committee chairmen in Congress. Leading the exodus are officials of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), fearing investigation by two chairmen, Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI).

Golly. I wonder what they're so afraid of?

Kevin Drum 2:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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PRO FORMA REMARKS ON THE BAKER COMMISSION REPORT.....I can't very well say nothing about the Baker-Hamilton report, can I? On the other hand, I'm sort of shaking my head trying to figure out anything I ought to say about it. But let's take a look anyway.

It calls for a five-fold increase in trainers for the Iraqi military and police, which sounds like a reasonable proposal except for one thing: it's too obvious. If this is such a good idea, why hasn't the military already done it? Or at least planned to do it?

Baker is claiming that the report doesn't set out a timeline, but the report itself is replete with references to "milestones" that have to be met if the Iraqi government wants the U.S. to stay engaged. What's more, the report says all combat brigades should be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008. What am I missing? In what way isn't this a timeline?

And what's this about keeping 70,000 non-combat troops in Iraq pretty much forever? That got a unanimous blessing from the commission members? I think that tells you more about who was eligible for the commission than it does about whether this is a good idea.

And then there's this:

Iran should stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq, respect Iraqs sovereignty and territorial integrity, and use its influence over Iraqi Shia groups to encourage national reconciliation....Syria should control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents, and terrorists in and out of Iraq.

Yes, I suppose Iran and Syria should do these things. And I should probably lose 30 pounds too. But what's going to make it happen? There's not even a hint that there's anything the United States should offer in return for this help.

Etc. I'll continue reading and listening, and I guess I'll concede that the report is more reality-based than the Bush administration, which represents at least a little bit of progress. Though I suspect James Joyner is pretty much right when he says resignedly that nobody is likely to take the recommendations very seriously: "It used to be said that politics ended at the waters edge; it has been many years since that was a reflection of reality. Both sides will use the Report to seek political cover for what they want to do but I suspect they will continue to bludgeon their opponents over the war."

UPDATE: Greg Djerejian emails to suggest I'm being unfairly dismissive about the report's diplomatic section, especially as it relates to Syria and Iran. He has a point. On page 51, the report does mention a few concrete carrots, including WTO accession, diplomatic relations, and a generally friendlier U.S. policy toward Iran (i.e., one that doesn't emphasize regime change and bombing missions). And God knows I'm not opposed to a serious diplomatic approach in the Middle East. On the other hand, there's this:

Our limited contacts with Irans government lead us to believe that its leaders are likely to say they will not participate in diplomatic efforts to support stability in Iraq. They attribute this reluctance to their belief that the United States seeks regime change in Iran.

Nevertheless, as one of Iraqs neighbors Iran should be asked to assume its responsibility to participate in the Support Group. An Iranian refusal to do so would demonstrate to Iraq and the rest of the world Irans rejectionist attitude and approach, which could lead to its isolation. Further, Irans refusal to cooperate on this matter would diminish its prospects of engaging with the United States in the broader dialogue it seeks.

Maybe this is just a realistic assessment. But it suggests to me more a pro forma approach designed to isolate Iran than a serious diplomatic offensive that truly aims to win their cooperation.

But I could be wrong.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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SOME SENSIBLE ADVICE....Andrew Tobias reprints some excellent, practical advice today on securing your personal financial information. Here's one piece that I was completely unaware of:

6. When you check out of a hotel that uses cards for keys (and they all seem to do that now), do not turn the "keys" in. Take them with you and destroy them. Those little cards have on them all of the information you gave the hotel, including address and credit card numbers and expiration dates. Someone with a card reader, or employee of the hotel, can access all that information with no problem whatsoever.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The consensus in comments is that the hotel keycard thing is BS, nothing more than an urban legend. I guess that's why I'd never heard it before. However, the rest of the advice at the link really does seem pretty sensible and straightforward. And not a lot of work, either.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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REALITY CHECK....Yes, it was refreshing to hear Robert Gates acknowledge the plain truth yesterday that we're losing the war in Iraq. And John Judis points out that he appears to hold sane positions on the wisdom of attacking either Iran or Syria. What's more, I basically believe presidents should have pretty wide latitude to select their own cabinet. So I don't have any big problem with Gates's appointment as Secretary of Defense.

Still, it would be nice to turn down the hallelujah chorus just a notch. Everyone knows perfectly well that it's easy to be critical of policies that you yourself aren't responsible for, and I didn't hear anything in particular to make me think Gates will be any more flexible than Donald Rumsfeld once he's in office and has to deal with failures on his own watch. He might be, but nothing in his testimony was particularly persuasive on that score.

So, sure, Gates appears to be at least nominally reality based. That's great. But it's a pretty low bar for getting excited about a cabinet nomination, no?

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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CIVIL WAR WATCH....Maj. General William Caldwell, the military's chief spokesman in Iraq, writes in the Washington Post today that he doesn't see civil war in Iraq. He sees hope. He sees vigorous debate. And this:

I see a representative government exercising control over the sole legitimate armed authority in Iraq, the Iraqi Security Force.

Is this some kind of joke? Everything I've read suggests that even the best units of the ISF are barely competent. That Shiites would refuse orders to fight Shiites and Sunnis would refuse orders to fight Sunnis, assuming any government were foolish enough to give them the order in the first place. That the entire province of Anbar is essentially under the control of insurgents. That the Badr Organization and the Mahdi Army operate openly as free roving death squads. That the number of bombings is up, the number of kidnappings is up, the number of civilian deaths is now over a hundred per day, and entire sections of Baghad are virtual free fire zones.

But this isn't a civil war because it doesn't involve neat lines of uniformed soldiers taking hills and defending trenches? Where does this stuff come from?

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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LOSING THE BATTLE....Here's some cheerful news:

Worldwide spam volumes have doubled from last year, according to Ironport, a spam filtering firm, and unsolicited junk mail now accounts for more than 9 of every 10 e-mail messages sent over the Internet.

Much of that flood is made up of a nettlesome new breed of junk e-mail called image spam, in which the words of the advertisement are part of a picture, often fooling traditional spam detectors that look for telltale phrases. Image spam increased fourfold from last year and now represents 25 to 45 percent of all junk e-mail, depending on the day, Ironport says.

The internet is arguably the apex of human technological development, the most complex and paradigm-changing invention so far in the history of homo sapiens. And what do we mostly use it for? Porn, Justin Timberlake downloads, and penny stock scams. Makes you proud, doesn't it?

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JOHN McCAIN FINDS AN ALLY....OK, let me get this straight. Even though she clearly knows her brief and was the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Jane Harman was passed over for the committee chairmanship because she had supported the war and was just generally a little too hawkish on national security matters. Instead Nancy Pelosi chose Silvestre Reyes. Here's what Reyes had to say on Tuesday:

In a surprise twist in the debate over Iraq, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the soon-to-be chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he wants to see an increase of 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops as part of a stepped up effort to "dismantle the militias."

....Reyes added that he was "very clear" about his position to Pelosi when she chose him over two rivals Rep. Jane Harman of California and Rep. Alcee Hastings to head the critical intelligence post.

That's just great. Which is better: someone who got it right in the beginning but has since lost his way, or someone who originally made a mistake but seems to have learned something since then? I think I'd pick door #2.

Kevin Drum 12:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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December 5, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

MILITARY TRIBUNAL UPDATE....The Bush administration wants to build a $125 million courthouse complex at Guantanamo Bay? That sure sounds like a great use of taxpayer dollars, doesn't it?

You will be unsurprised, I'm sure, to learn that the Pentagon plans to do this without congressional approval. You see, they've identified "offsets" to pay for it though they aren't really offsets since they expect Congress to restore them to full funding in the near future. Even Republicans who are used to rubber stamping anything with the words "national security" attached to it apparently think this is a rather cavalier treatment of Congress's spending authority.

The Miami Herald has the full story here. The ACLU objects here.

Kevin Drum 5:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

SOLVING THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS....I've been waiting impatiently for Instapundit's promised "symposium" on Iraq, an ambitious attempt to see if the blogosphere can come up with better ideas than all those tired mainstream analysts. As it turns out, response was so overwhelming that we'll be getting multiple installments. Here are some of the suggestions from Part 1:

  • "Regime change. More of it."

  • Stop worrying about deeply held religious beliefs: "When we give those who follow this or that imam a bigger voice by doing things this way, we get in the way of what we need to be promoting: secularization."

  • Get Russia to put pressure on Iran. Somehow.

  • Better yet: put Iran's oil fields out of commission! (Does this mean bombing their oil facilities? Maybe, maybe not. The delicate phrase used here is that we should "disrupt Iranian oil export capacity.")

  • But don't forget Syria! If we draw down our forces in Iraq to a "30,000 or so ground troop advisory effort, we'd again have the forces for outright war with Syria."

  • Etc.

There are also a few pro forma proposals for redeploying troops, adopting a more effective counterinsurgency strategy, sharing oil wealth, and other versions of rearranging the deck chairs, but the main thread is pretty clear: the only problem with our Iraq strategy is that we haven't declared war on enough people. It's bracing stuff. Maybe they should write an official white paper to compete with the Baker-Hamilton report. I'll bet Bill Kristol would publish it.

UPDATE: A reader points out that the 5,000-word "Jacksonian Plan," which is linked at the bottom of the post and described neutrally as "rather involved," is, in fact, batshit insane. Basically, we take out Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and then create a "Unity Council" to oversee Mecca and Medina. It's terrific stuff. I can certainly see why Glenn linked it.

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BACK TO THE MOON....The latest from NASA:

NASA announced plans on Monday for a permanent base on the Moon, to be started soon after astronauts return there around 2020.

....Scott Horowitz, NASAs associate administrator for exploration, said crews of four astronauts would make weeklong missions to the Moon starting around 2020....NASA gave no cost estimate for the program and no design details for the base.

No design details. I can live with that. On the other hand, I would like to have some clue about why NASA wants to go to the moon, something that's conspicuously missing from the New York Times account.

Not completely missing, though. There's this:

A site near the lunar South Pole, like the Shackleton Crater, would provide enough sunlight for power generation. It is also near possible deposits of valuable minerals.

From this site, Mr. Cooke said, other nations could add scientific laboratories or observatories, and commercial concerns might want to process rocket fuel and other products from water and other materials that might be found in the ground nearby.

Valuable minerals? Manufacturing of rocket fuel and "other materials"? Scientific laboratories? Did they crib this stuff out of a science fiction novel from the 50s? The scientific community seems barely able to think up anything useful to do with the International Space Station, and that even has zero gee as a selling point.

I love the space program, but if we're going to spend a few hundred billion dollars on this program shouldn't they at least pretend that they're going to accomplish something?

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SAY WHAT?....Shorter Raymond Ibrahim: Muslims are hypocrites because they refuse to give Turkey back to the Christians but nonetheless keep demanding that Israel give the West Bank back to the Palestinians.

Seriously, that's what he seems to be saying. It's like reading something written by a ten-year-old. What is this doing on the op-ed page of a major newspaper?

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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December 4, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALTARIANS....Cato VP Brink Lindsey takes to the pages of the New Republic today to mourn the loss of the libertarian-conservative alliance of the past and ask if a new coalition between libertarians and liberals is possible. I almost didn't bother reading it, but then I changed my mind because I happen to be in a bad mood at the moment and I figured he'd give me a chance to whack away at some of my pet peeves about libertarians. Ducks in a barrel and all that.

But surprise: Lindsey's piece is a pretty clear-eyed look at whether liberals and libertarians can get along. He avoids pretending that there's a huge pool of libertarians just waiting to be tapped (though he makes a nod in that direction by claiming that 13% of the population is "libertarian-leaning"). He doesn't pretend that anyone who believes in individual rights is automatically a libertarian, even admitting that most of the social policies favored by libertarians were originally "championed by the political left." And he forthrightly admits that social policies don't matter that much anyway: it's in the economic sphere where the libertarian rubber meets the liberal road.

Of course, that's also where the "liberaltarian" dream dies a nasty and horrible death:

Allow me to hazard a few more specific suggestions about what a liberal-libertarian entente on economics might look like. Let's start with the comparatively easy stuff: farm subsidies and other corporate welfare.

....Tax reform also offers the possibility of win-win bargains. The basic idea is simple: Shift taxes away from things we want more of and onto things we want less of. Specifically, cut taxes on savings and investment, cut payroll taxes on labor, and make up the shortfall with increased taxation of consumption.

....Entitlement reform is probably the most difficult problem facing would-be fusionists....One possible path toward constructive compromise lies in taking the concept of social insurance seriously....Social Security and Medicare as currently administered are not social insurance in any meaningful sense, because reaching retirement age and having health care expenses in old age are not risky, insurable events. On the contrary, in our affluent society, they are near certainties....We need to move from the current pay-as-you-go approach to a system in which private savings would provide primary funding for the costs of old age.

It's a nice try, I guess, but this just has nowhere to go. Liberals are never going to give up on the idea of progressive taxation, and our overall tax system is only barely progressive as it is. Making it even flatter or even plainly regressive by cutting investment taxes and increasing consumption taxes is a nonstarter.

Ditto on entitlements. Universal pensions and universal healthcare are bedrock parts of the social safety net, and it's simply not conceivable that liberals will give ground on these. Nor should we. 13% of the country may be libertarian leaning, but something around 100% of the country likes Social Security and a pretty sizable majority like Medicare too. Universal healthcare will be equally popular eventually, and will also be far more efficient than the pseudo-free market alternative we have now.

And don't even get me started on growing income inequality. I sometimes wonder if there's any level of income inequality that conservatives and libertarians would consider high enough to merit an arched eyebrow.

Bottom line: I just don't see it. Lindsey is better than most at diagnosing where the real differences lie, but those difference are core to the identities of both groups. It's hard to see the point of even trying to compromise on this stuff.

Kevin Drum 10:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (203)

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By: Kevin Drum

NOT ENOUGH TROOPS....Newsweek reports that George Bush "continues to believe in" Iraqi prime minister Kamal al-Maliki, but says that feeling is far from universal:

The American military is fed up with Maliki. The ground commanders in Iraq felt betrayed by him this summer when he undermined a push to get control of the streets of Baghdad. The Iraqis failed to deliver on a promise to put enough troops on the ground. A four-star general who declined to be identified discussing a confidential conversation told of this encounter with Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who was in charge of day-to-day ground operations. "Do you have enough forces? Enough to clear an area and stay there to secure it 24/7?" Chiarelli replied, "Of course not." The four-star recalls replying, "It's going to fail, it's absolutely going to fail." The Americans never had enough forces to sweep even half the city, much less secure it.

....It's not clear whether the military made its frustrations known to the White House.

I can't quite tell from this passage whether Chiarelli and the anonymous four-star are speaking strictly about a lack of Iraqi forces or whether this is also a comment about the number of U.S. troops. It sounds to me like a bit of both. But in any case, one thing is crystal clear: regardless of which forces they're talking about, the military brass knows perfectly well they don't have the troop strength to stabilize Iraq. In fact, they're not even close.

There is no question that the overall blame for this situation belongs squarely with the civilian leadership: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their aides. Nonetheless, I would sure like to know the answer to that final question: has the military made it clear to Bush that they don't have enough troops in Iraq to do the job? There are really only two options: (a) they have said this and Bush has been lying all along when he said the generals were getting everything they had asked for, or (b) they haven't said this and they've been monumentally derelict in their duty. Which is it?

Via Rich Lowry, who posted this without comment.

Kevin Drum 1:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (235)

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By: Kevin Drum

A MYSTERY REVEALED....Who shot this picture? Taken seven months after the fall of the Shah in 1979, it shows the execution of a dozen men in Kurdish Iran and won a Pulitzer Prize the next year, awarded to "an unnamed photographer of United Press International." It is the only Pulitzer ever given to an anonymous author.

Until now. Today the Wall Street Journal tells the story of Jahangir Razmi and his Nikon, anonymous no more. The story also includes a slide show of the entire sequence of photos that Razmi took that day. Another mystery solved.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Zachary Roth

NUCLEAR WASTE...The Washington Post reported over the weekend that plans for a new nuclear weapons program will continue, despite the finding that existing stockpiles will remain reliable for almost the next century.

One of the reasons that the program--known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program--looks set to move ahead, even though it doesn't actually appear to be, you know, necessary, is that Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M) chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees our weapons labs. Two of those labs--including the largest, Los Alamos--happen to be in New Mexico, so every new program going to those labs means federal dollars for Domenici's state. Unsurprisingly, Domenici has already applauded the decision to go ahead with the RRW program.

But as I reported in the March 2006 issue of The Washington Monthly, the problem
goes deeper. Since we stopped building new weapons in the early 1990s, the weapons labs, run by the Department of Energy, have had little to do. Thanks to the efforts of pork-obsessed members of Congress like Domenici, they've continued to receive billions of federal dollars, often for projects that have nothing to do with nuclear weapons. And for much the same reason, we continue to operate eight costly sites, even though some of them literally do little more than move radioactive nuclear material from one spot to another.

Now that Domenici will no longer be calling the shots on the committee, there may be an opportunity to rationalize our weapons complex, by consolidating the various sites into one or two locations, and cutting some of the extraneous programs that serve as little more than federal jobs projects for red states. And here's an idea: If the new Congress wanted to think really big, it could have DOE use the money and resources it saved to spearhead our efforts on energy independence.

Zachary Roth 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

BCS UPDATE....Since college football is fundamentally a conference-based system, with most teams playing only three non-league games each year, I've always figured the BCS should match the two best teams from different conferences. So putting USC's last minute meltdown to one side, the BCS turned out just the way it should have this year, matching Ohio State against Florida rather than mounting an all-Big 10 rematch. It's the only way we'll ever know if Ohio State and the Big 10 are really as good as everyone thinks.

Besides, there are two coaches this decade who have been so outlandishly successful that they seem like they must have inked a deal with the devil sometime around 2001: Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer. If Carroll has to miss the BCS game this year, there's no one I'd rather see get a shot at it than Meyer. I want to see if the devil is an honest man.

Besides, this result also gives us USC-Michigan in the Rose Bowl, which is yet another chance to see if the Big 10 is as good as our friends in the heartland think it is. And another chance to see how honest the devil is.....

Kevin Drum 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQI ARMY UPDATE....The LA Times reports on a recent operation in Baghdad that was conducted with the Iraqi army's 9th Mechanized Division, the most highly regarded Iraqi unit in the country:

The offensive was initially billed by U.S. officials in Baghdad as an Iraqi-led success and a case study in support of the Pentagon's increasing reliance on using American troops as military advisors as a way to shift security responsibilities to Iraqi soldiers.

....But interviews at their joint Rustamiya base with U.S. advisors and Iraqi soldiers involved in Friday's battle revealed a different story. The operation was hastily prepared and badly executed, they said, and plans to let the Iraqis take the lead in the battle were quickly scrapped.

"It started out that way," [Staff Sgt. Michael] Baxter said. "But five minutes into it, we had to take over."

Read the rest for the whole dismal story, and then understand that this was actually the best case: the 9th Division is primarily Shiite, and they were unable/unwilling to perform decently even in a battle against a Sunni stronghold. But at least they went into battle. What if they had been ordered into battle against Shiites? According to the Times, "U.S. and Iraqi officers said they doubted the troops would obey if ordered to fight in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad such as Sadr City."

I can't wait to see what the Baker Commission recommends we do about this.

Kevin Drum 1:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMICS vs. PHYSICS CAGE MATCH....Robin Hanson complains about the media's treatment of the economics profession:

Consider how differently the public treats physics and economics. Physicists can say that this week they think the universe has eleven dimensions, three of which are purple, and two of which are twisted clockwise, and reporters will quote them unskeptically, saying "Isn't that cool!" But if economists say, as they have for centuries, that a minimum wage raises unemployment, reporters treat them skeptically and feel they need to find a contrary quote to "balance" their story.

I wonder why he thinks this? Every article I've ever read about cutting edge physics (like superstring theory) includes loads of quotes from skeptics, as well as paragraph upon paragraph of musing about whether any of this stuff has any practical significance. It seems factually incorrect to suggest that reporters simply write about this stuff unquestioningly.

On the economic front, it's true that most news reporting about the efficacy of the minimum wage is fairly balanced, but that's because there's solid economic evidence on both sides of the question. The overall effect of modest increases in the minimum wage is simply not a settled question among economists, which means that reporters should present both sides. And they do.

More generally, physics has a small number of moving parts and therefore tends to have more precise and unanimous answers on a broad array of topics. Economics is much more difficult and doesn't have the same precision. What's worse, economics deals with questions that often have important non-economic dimensions, which means that even when economists do agree on a "correct" answer, people may legitimately disagree with them for reasons of social justice, practicality, personal preference, or a hundred other things.

We all know the old joke about how many opinions you get if you put ten economists in a room. All things considered, it seems to me they get treated reasonably well (if not always very accurately) by the media.

Kevin Drum 1:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (160)

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December 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

I DO NOT THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS....I generally don't post about New York Times columns from behind their paywall, but via Ann Althouse, Nick Kristof's column today contains one of the most astonishing paragraphs I've read in a long time. He's complaining about militant atheist Richard Dawkins and ends with this:

Now that the Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars, lets hope that the Atheist Left doesnt revive them. Weve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance.

The Christian Right has largely retreated from the culture wars? What planet was this written from?

Kevin Drum 7:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (181)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LIBERAL HAWK GAME....Here's a fun game: who was the person most responsible for selling the war to centrists and liberal hawks? Glenn Greenwald nominates Tom Friedman. Jim Henley says Greenwald is all wet: it was actually Colin Powell. Personally, I think I might plump for Ken Pollack.

Vote in comments! Was it Tom, Colin, or Ken? Or do you have a dark horse candidate? Maybe Tony Blair?

Kevin Drum 3:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (283)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN THE MAVERICK....Newsweek reports that John McCain's advisors think his proposal to send 20,000 more troops to Iraq could actually end up being a plus in the 2008 campaign:

Some members of McCain's inner circle are convinced the position could actually work to his advantage reminding independents of the maverick they fell in love with in 2000. In a 2008 campaign, aides say, the senator would accentuate his differences with the Bush administration over management of the Iraq occupation, stressing his early criticism of ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the persistent call for more troops. The hope, the campaign adviser says, is that even antiwar voters will gradually come to accept the position as "a long-term stand based on principle."

McCain's people seem to be confusing "maverick" with "popular." When McCain broke with his party to support campaign finance reform or a patients' bill of rights, he was backing positions that were popular with the electorate. Ditto for fuel efficiency standards and an end to torture. In fact, nearly all of McCain's "maverick" positions have been carefully crafted to appeal to the broad middle of the country.

In other words, they weren't maverick positions at all. They only seemed that way when the comparison point was the right wing of the Republican Party. Conversely, doubling down in Iraq is a very different beast: it's unpopular, it exudes stubbornness rather than fresh thinking, and it looks opportunistic rather than independent.

McCain's straight-talk schtick has always been a twofer: the press eats it up because it loves politicians who break with their party occasionally, and the public loves it because McCain is taking positions most of them agree with. But Iraq is going to be different: this time McCain is taking a position more extreme than the rest of the Republican Party. He's going to lose the press because his position seems increasingly bull-headed instead of brave, and he's going to lose the public because he's taking a stand they don't agree with.

For once, McCain is being a genuine maverick. I think he's about to find out that that was never really what people admired about him in the first place.

Kevin Drum 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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December 2, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD ON IRAQ....A couple of days before he got fired, it turns out that Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo outlining a bunch of possible options for the war in Iraq. The full text is here.

"In my view it is time for a major adjustment," the memo says, before listing a wide range of possible changes that are mostly notable either for the surprising fact that we're not already doing them or for the less surprising fact that they're pretty much unattainable. What's more interesting, I think, comes at the end: a list of options Rumsfeld considers "less attractive." These include:

  • Move a large fraction of all U.S. Forces into Baghdad to attempt to control it.

  • Increase Brigade Combat Teams and U.S. forces in Iraq substantially.

  • Set a firm withdrawal date to leave. Declare that with Saddam gone and Iraq a sovereign nation, the Iraqi people can govern themselves. Tell Iran and Syria to stay out.

  • Assist in accelerating an aggressive federalism plan, moving towards three separate states Sunni, Shia, and Kurd.

  • Try a Dayton-like process.

In other words, the options Rumsfeld isn't open to are the ones most frequently mentioned by outside analysts: Increasing the number of troops, concentrating on Baghdad, withdrawing, splitting Iraq into three mini-states, and negotiating with Syria and Iran. He doesn't like any of 'em.

I'll bet this reflects the thinking of Bush and Cheney pretty accurately. The bottom line then, is: maybe some small changes, maybe a change in rhetoric, but nothing serious. On the bright side, at least Rumsfeld recognizes that things aren't going well. I wonder if Bush even acknowledges that much?

Kevin Drum 6:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (214)

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By: Kevin Drum

OPEN FOOTBALL THREAD....For those with a moneymaking bent, I note that the point spread on the USC-UCLA game seems to have been narrowing over the past few days, with at least a couple of sites now quoting a spread of only 11 points. Sadly, I'm not a betting man, because that seems like a steal to me. Take USC and the points and you should be a few dollars richer this evening.

HALFTIME UPDATE: Hmmm. Maybe it's a good thing I'm not a betting man. But I think I'll still take the points.

FINAL UPDATE: It's really a good thing I'm not a betting man. That sucked. But all props to UCLA's defense, which was terrific.

Kevin Drum 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUNDIT DISEASE....Responding to the Lexington column that I linked to yesterday, Matt Yglesias says it's absurd to believe the Republican Party is about to shrink into regional irrelevance:

Realistically, I think this is all more-or-less hysteria and nobody is going to become merely regional things will just sort of swing back and forth, with the Democrats maintaining a semi-permanent reservoir of strength in the Urban Archipelago and the GOP having a similar bastion in the South.

For the record, I agree completely. My post yesterday was mostly just an excuse to riff on the "Texification" of the GOP and to resurrect my old post about the Texas Republican Party platform, a document that really can't be linked to often enough.

As for the question, "What the hell is wrong with Lexington?" my guess is that he's suffering from a variety of pundit disease that doesn't get much attention because it's usually overshadowed by other more spectacular disorders: namely that columnists are required to say something provocative every week, even if there's nothing all that provocative to be said. This is, for example, why the media spent two solid weeks after the election insisting on a wide variety of demographic lessons from the GOP defeat even though the data pretty clearly suggested there were very few specific lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, writing a column saying the GOP got spanked because people were tired of corruption and the war, and that's pretty much it, just isn't exciting enough.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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December 1, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

YOU ARE BEING WATCHED....You swat down one data mining project and it turns out there's another one waiting right behind it. Say hello to ATS:

The Associated Press reported Thursday that Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department's computerized Automated Targeting System, or ATS.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years. Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions. Courts and even some private contractors can obtain some of the data under certain circumstances.

....Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

What kind of meal they ordered? Note to Muslims: don't order special meals anymore. Or, if you do, order the kosher meal. That'll mess with their heads.

Patrick Leahy claims to be outraged by the whole thing, and I confess I'm curious about whether this is really the first that Congress has heard of it. Probably not. On the other hand, what Leahy is mostly outraged about is the fact that (a) the feds seem to be sharing this information pretty promiscuously and (b) nobody is allowed to know their own terror score. If yours is high, you'll never learn about it and you can never appeal it. You'll just get hassled a lot every time you travel.

Did Congress know about that? Probably not. So bring on the hearings.

Kevin Drum 9:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Kevin Drum

TEXIFICATION....Via Jonathan Singer, the Economist's Lexington notes a delicious irony. A few short years ago it was the Democratic Party that was supposedly in danger of shrinking into a merely regional party, but today it's the GOP that looks to be headed for that fate:

The extent of the southernisation of the Republican Party is astonishing....The problem for the Republicans is that a regional stronghold can become a prison. The South has one of the most distinctive cultures in the United Statesfar more jingoistic than the rest of the country and far more religious.

....But for every non-southerner who waxes lyrical about southern charm there are many more who associate the South with racial bigotry and cultural backwardness. The 2006 electionwhich saw social conservatives such as Rick Santorum and Kenneth Blackwell go down to humiliating defeatsuggests that non-southerners have grown particularly impatient with the South's brand of in-your-face religiosity.

Kevin Phillips calls this the "Texification" of the Republican Party, and I actually prefer that term. I explained why several years ago:

The heart and soul of Republican grass roots activism can be found pretty easily: it's in Texas. The New Model radical right took over the Texas Republican party a decade ago and elected George Bush governor. They have since taken over the entire state and propelled one of their own to the presidency and another to leadership of the House of Representatives. They bring a messianic fervor to their task, and after successfully taking over the second biggest state in the union their sights are now set on the entire country. This is not a fringe group. It is the biggest, most active, most energetic, and most determined segment of the Republican party today.

Click the link to read a summary of the Texas State Republican platform for 2000, the one they passed after six years with George Bush at the helm. Like so many revolutionaries before them, they're perfectly happy to proselytize their plan to the world openly with no hemming or hawing. You don't have to guess what their goals are, you just have to read what they themselves say they are.

The South has always been with us, but it's the Texas strain of militant conservativism that's made the South so toxic in recent years. If the country is finally starting to tire of their messianic insistence that you're not a real American unless you worship at their churches, watch their sports, and raise your family the way they tell you, it's not a moment too soon.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAN Z....Which options for Iraq are under active consideration by the Bush administration? Laura Rozen provides a reader's guide to the leaked Hadley memo.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

REYES TO HEAD INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE....Nancy Pelosi has chosen Silvestre Reyes to head the House Intelligence Committee. All things considered, that seems like a reasonable compromise, and I'm glad Pelosi made the decision sooner rather than later. The whole Harman/Hastings/Reyes/Holt dustup seemed like a huge distraction that wasn't really doing anyone any good.

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

E-VOTING UPDATE....Some good news on the e-voting front:

Paperless electronic voting machines used throughout the Washington region and much of the country "cannot be made secure," according to draft recommendations issued this week by a federal agency that advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

....In a report hailed by critics of electronic voting, NIST said that voting systems should allow election officials to recount ballots independently from a voting machine's software. The recommendations endorse "optical-scan" systems in which voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer and electronic systems that print a paper summary of each ballot, which voters review and elections officials save for recounts.

I've come around on this question. In the past, I favored the optical scan approach as the simplest and most foolproof, but there are considerable advantages to an electronic device with a secure paper trail: they work better for the disabled community, they're faster and more flexible, and in the long run they ought to be cheaper than paper (although I don't know if that's true in practice). What's more, even optical scan ballots can produce unclear results if people don't mark the bubbles correctly (or mark the wrong bubble or mark two bubbles or....). E-voting machines get around all these problems, and a secure paper trail provides an extremely reliable recount mechanism.

But, frankly, either method is OK with me. It's good to see NIST getting on board.

Kevin Drum 12:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAKING SIDES....As always, the Bush administration is a day late and a dollar short. Here's the latest on the slow motion train wreck that is Iraq:

The Bush administration is deliberating whether to abandon U.S. reconciliation efforts with Sunni insurgents and instead give priority to Shiites and Kurds, who won elections and now dominate the government, according to U.S. officials.

....Some insiders call the proposal the "80 percent" solution, a term that makes other parties to the White House policy review cringe. Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.

It's hard to believe that anyone is taking this seriously. If reconciliation with the Sunni minority is impossible and it probably is then we should withdraw and let the Shiite majority take over. The result would be bloody, but at least we wouldn't be involved. The alternative being mooted here would put us directly on the Shiite side, and we'd be viewed as actively cooperating with a massacre of the Sunni minority no matter how hard we protested otherwise. It's hard to imagine a more disastrous end to a disastrous war.

For that reason, I suspect this proposal will be adopted.

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (301)

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