Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 31, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NSA UPDATE....Three weeks ago the Bush administration announced that it was ending the NSA's domestic spying program and replacing it with a new, more restrictive program that had been approved by the FISA court. Today, Alberto Gonzales agreed to make both the administration's legal briefs and the court's order available to Congress:

The decision to hand over the documents, which Mr. Gonzales confirmed to reporters today, will allow members of the House and Senate intelligence committees -- as well as select congressional leaders -- to review that court order.

....Administration officials cautioned today that lawmakers would only receive documents related to the most recent FISA court orders, and should not expect documentation related to future wiretap requests.

Two comments. First, this puts the Democrats who see these documents under some genuine pressure. Will they meekly go along with the administration's plans or will they offer up some genuine criticism? I hope for the latter but fear for the former.

Second, if I'm reading this right, the only thing Congress will see is information about the new program. They still won't have any idea what the original program was all about. Apparently we're all going to stay in the dark about that.

Kevin Drum 6:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Kevin Drum

ANOTHER SHORT CAMPAIGN FOR JOE BIDEN?....Jason Horowitz writes today about a conversation with Joe Biden, "discussing his rivals over a bowl of tomato soup in the corner of a diner in Delaware." Turns out he thinks Hillary is doomed and Edwards is a lightweight:

Mr. Biden is equally skeptical -- albeit in a slightly more backhanded way -- about Mr. Obama. "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," he said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."

But -- and the "but" was clearly inevitable -- he doubts whether American voters are going to elect "a one-term, a guy who has served for four years in the Senate," and added: "I don't recall hearing a word from Barack about a plan or a tactic."

I've never really had the animus toward Biden that a lot of people do, but jeebus. He's just a gaffe machine waiting for someone to flip the power switch on. Back to the Senate, Joe.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall suggests that Biden's comment was transcribed poorly. Audio here confirms that he's right. It goes like this:

Biden: I mean, you got the first, sorta, mainstream African-American.

Horowitz: Yeah.

Biden: Who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.

I still think this comment indicates that Biden has a problem with his mouth (not something likely to provoke much argument, even from Biden), but he really didn't say what the original transcription seems to suggest.

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (264)

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By: Kevin Drum

WAR POWERS....For what it's worth, lots of people disagree with my belief that Congress has the power to fund and defund war, but doesn't have the operational authority to do things like set troop levels. Examples abound, but check out Fred Barbash here and Mark Kleiman here.

I'm not sure these arguments hold up, but obviously I'm no constitutional scholar and I may be off base. In any case, I suspect that we're all going to become a lot smarter -- or at least pseudo-smarter -- about this in the next few months.

Kevin Drum 1:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

REAGAN'S FINAL YEARS....In the course of a column advocating that President Bush create several new empire-building agencies, including a Department of Peace (!), Max Boot makes this claim in passing:

These ideas may sound overly ambitious for the final two years of an administration mired in major difficulties. But remember that in his second term, despite the Iran-Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan was able to simplify the tax code and streamline the military chain of command -- major reforms -- by working with a Democratic Congress.

This is not the biggest deal in the world, but for some reason this is a very common claim. Can we please put it to rest?

First: The "last two years" of a presidency surely don't start until, um, the last two years of a presidency. At its earliest, it starts after the sixth year midterm elections. For Reagan, this happened on November 4, 1986. Until then, he had a split Congress (Democratic House, Republican Senate).

Second: the 1986 Tax Reform Act was negotiated in 1985-86 and passed in October 1986. Ditto for the Goldwater-Nichols Act. None of this happened in Reagan's final two years.

Third: News of the arms-for-hostages deal was first reported in the Lebanese press on November 3. So neither of these two pieces of legislation were passed "despite the Iran-Contra scandal."

I'm not sure why this bugs me, but I see it often and it's just wrong. The fact is that Reagan accomplished very little domestically in his final two years, and largely for the same reasons Bush won't: Democrats won the midterms, after November he was mired in scandal, and seventh year presidents are widely considered lame ducks anyway.

That is all. You may now return to the 21st century.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE VEEPSTAKES....Tom Schaller suggests that Hillary Clinton is already eyeing Evan Bayh as her running mate:

If Hillary wants to knock Barack Obama on his heels, she could put Bayh (or better yet, Iowa's Tom Vilsack?) on the ticket by, say, July 1. Having a running mate during the primary allows her to balance the ticket from the start; doubles the principles (and spouses) who can raise money and campaign; would take some of the spotlight off her; and reduces her risks of burnout or becoming overexposed. Of course, if Obama beats her to the punch ...

I don't know if Bayh or Vilsack are the right guys, but this is an idea that's always intrigued me too. In recent history the vice presidency has been viewed as sort of a consolation prize for one of the losing presidential contenders (Edwards in 04, Bush in 80), but this perception is mostly a myth (Cheney and Lieberman in 2000, Kemp in 96, Gore in 92, Quayle and Bentsen in 88, Ferraro in 84, Mondale and Dole in 76). So why not balance the ticket early, get a second campaigning organization, and improve your fundraising from the start? What's the advantage of waiting?

In fact, since we're tossing off weird ideas here, how about announcing your top cabinet members during the convention? Let's say, State, Defense, and Treasury. It gives people an idea of what your administration would look like, it reduces policy competition on your team, and it provides a bigger dedicated campaigning staff for the general election.

There are downsides, of course. Choosing your team early reduces the number of people who stay in suck-up mode hoping for a cabinet appointment if you win. Your nominees will have enemies as well as friends. A bigger campaign group increases the odds of a fatal gaffe of some kind. And waiting can be helpful. Maybe the campaign itself will produce a new star?

Anyway, just a thought. I've always figured that someday some risk-taking candidate will go this route. Maybe not Hillary, but someone.

UPDATE: Kemp wasn't a losing contender in 1996. I've corrected the text accordingly. And in comments, JoshA says that announcing cabinet members prior to an election would violate anti-patronage laws. Seems silly, but there you have it.

Also in comments, Ken D. reminds me that someone already tried the early VP idea:

Reagan did name a VP (PA Gov. Sen. Schweiker) late in the 1976 campaign for exactly those reasons. It didn't work; Schweiker couldn't swing a single convention vote, iirc, and Ford won the nomination. Part of the problem is that it is hard to name people without their consent, which will be hard to come by unless they have already endorsed you, which drastically limits the pool. The accepted and conventional way of going about this, however imperfect, will be hard to shake.

Kevin Drum 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND THE WAR....Barack Obama introduced legislation on Tuesday to wind down the war in Iraq. Here's his description:

The legislation commences redeployment of U.S. forces no later than May 1, 2007 with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008....The plan allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain as basic force protection, to engage in counter-terrorism, and to continue the training of Iraqi security forces.

I'm glad to see Obama taking an aggressive stand on this, but after reading his entire description I'm left wondering if it's really as aggressive as he makes it sound.

Here's the thing: I know that there's a lot of chatter right now about exactly what Congress's war powers are, but I honestly think that everyone talking about this already knows the basic answer: Congress can declare war, it has certain military rulemaking powers, and it can fund and defund a war. But that's it. Like it or not, Congress simply doesn't have the power to manage specific operational aspects of a war. Big Tent Democrat made the case for this a couple of weeks ago, and I think it's pretty convincing.

Now, this is not a problem. Anyone who seriously wants us to withdraw from Iraq merely needs to introduce legislation defunding the war. Even Dick Cheney agrees that Congress can do this. But Obama's description of his legislation very carefully avoids any mention of funding other than to explicitly say that it "does not affect the funding for our troops in Iraq." (Italics mine.) Without that, he must know that his legislation is almost certainly futile.

I realize that in one sense this is all meaningless since George Bush will veto legislation of any kind that mandates an end to the war, whether it includes a funding cutoff or not. Still, I can't help but get the feeling that this bill is carefully crafted to sound a lot more agressive than it really is. If Obama is serious about getting us out of Iraq, why not include the one thing that everyone agrees is a bulletproof way of accomplishing his goal?

As you may recall, I had the same complaint about his healthcare speech last week. I hope this isn't a trend. Walter Mondale managed to crush Gary Hart pretty thoroughly in 1984 with his slogan "Where's the Beef," and I wonder if Obama is opening himself up to the same kind of attack this year. I'm starting to get a little antsy on this score.

POSTSCRIPT: The more I think about Obama's war legislation, the more I'm genuinely puzzled by it. Am I missing something obvious? Help me out.

Kevin Drum 12:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW ANTI-SEMITISM....Matt Yglesias reads a recently released essay about the "new anti-Semitism" -- it's new because now liberal Jews are supposedly fueling it too -- but concludes that he's not the real target after all:

When you think about it, things like this essay or Jonah Goldberg's little McCarthyite smears aren't really about convincing people that I'm an anti-semite, or that Tony Judt or Adrienne Rich or Tony Kushner is. The idea, basically, is to scare the goyim who figure that while liberal Jews can take the heat, they probably can't, and had best just avoid talking about the whole thing. And based on my observations of the blogosphere, it works pretty well as a tactic.

Yep. Seems to work pretty well on politicians too. But I thought that right-wingers were supposed to be opposed to race hustling?

M.J. Rosenberg has more here.

Kevin Drum 12:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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January 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE 50% SOLUTION....I'm afraid I pretty much agree with Mark Schmitt's criticism of Chuck Schumer's new book. As a policy goal, "let's reduce a bunch of random stuff by 50%" is ridiculous, and as a political message it's such an obvious gimmick that I can't believe it's going to have any traction at all with ordinary voters. Even your average couch potato is sophisticated enough to see through this.

Kevin Drum 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

CENTCOM FOLLIES....Spencer Ackerman reports from Capitol Hill:

I just got back from Admiral Bill Fallon's hearing to head Central Command, and I've never heard a military officer testify for nearly four hours and fail to exhibit an understanding of even one issue he's about to grapple with.

Here is Fallon's excuse:

"As you know, I've got a full-time job in Pacific Command, and I've tried to stay away from the detail of Central Command until such time as I might be confirmed," he said. "Then I intend to dive into it."

"I'm surprised that you don't have that understanding going in, frankly," said Senator Levin.

Spencer's promised followup post ought to be worth reading.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO RULES THE RULEMAKERS?....The most blogged story of the day (from liberals, anyway) is surely Robert Pear's report about President Bush's latest initiative to remove rulemaking from the realm of technical experts and place it increasingly under political control:

In an executive order published last week in the Federal Register, Mr. Bush said that each agency must have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to regulated industries. The White House will thus have a gatekeeper in each agency to analyze the costs and the benefits of new rules and to make sure the agencies carry out the president's priorities.

....Business groups hailed the initiative.

This move has prompted the usual withering scorn, most of it undoubtedly well deserved. But let's not stop at scorn, people. After all, Bill Clinton was no slouch at consolidating White House control of cabinet agencies himself. Bush has taken this to stratospheric heights -- mainly in a backdoor attempt to gut laws that are too popular to get repealed in a straight-up fight -- but it's hardly an exclusively Republican preserve. What's more, there's a pretty reasonable argument that an elected president should have greater policy control over the rulemakers in our farflung executive bureaucracy.

So let's find out. Are we really opposed to this? This is an executive order, after all, and that means the next president can rescind it at will. So let's get all the Democratic presidential candidates on the record: if you're elected, will you rescind this order? Who's up for this?

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

CEO PAY....The Wall Street Journal reports on Democratic plans to rein in skyrocketing executive pay packages:

The Senate's likely passage this week of legislation raising taxes on executive pay is just the beginning of a tough look by the new Democratic Congress at big corporate compensation packages.

....It would cap at $1 million a year the amount an employee could place in certain tax-deferred-compensation plans. Currently, there is no limit on how much compensation can be deferred into the plans, allowing executives to put off taxes for years on millions of dollars in pay.

The legislation also would limit the income-tax deductions companies can claim for high-paid executives who left the firm during the year.

I'm a consistent critic of outlandish CEO pay packages, but I doubt that this legislation is going to do much good. It will increase tax revenues a bit (about $100 million a year, according to estimates), but it's not really likely to have a serious impact on the size of executive compensation packages. It's like sticking your fingers in a dike: if you don't do something about the pressure on the other side, eventually you're going to run out of fingers and the dike is going to blow.

In this case, the pressure comes from stagnating wages for the working and middle classes, who have seen their bargaining position in the workplace deteriorate over the past several decades. The rest is just arithmetic: stagnating middle class wages in a growing economy translates to bulging corporate coffers, and that in turn translates to a gigantic pool of money available to bid for top executives. It's a lot like the sports world: Barry Bonds isn't a better athlete than Babe Ruth, but he lives in an era when TV and merchandising rights generate far more revenue than in the past -- and as long as this money is there, it's going to be used. In a free market, nothing can stop this. The same thing is true in the corporate world.

Unfortunately, this is a hard problem, and not one that Congress is anxious to tackle. But it's the core issue, of which growing income inequality and skyrocketing CEO pay is only a symptom. The question isn't how to put our fingers in this dike -- as long as the ocean of money is rising, we're always going to find that we don't have enough fingers to do any lasting good -- but how to increase the bargaining power of ordinary workers. This will increase middle income wages (the main thing we ought to be concerned about anyway) which in turn will lower the sea level of money sloshing around in corporate treasuries and automatically rein in CEO compensation. Unions can't really do this job anymore, and so far nothing has taken their place. Until we find something, though, all we have are fingers in the dike.

Kevin Drum 11:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BATTLE FOR NAJAF....The New York Times reports on the recent battle between Iraqi government forces and the previously obscure "Soldiers of Heaven" that took place in Najaf over the weekend:

Iraqi forces were surprised and nearly overwhelmed by the ferocity of an obscure renegade militia in a weekend battle near the holy city of Najaf and needed far more help from American forces than previously disclosed, American and Iraqi officials said Monday.

....Only a month ago, in an elaborate handover ceremony, the American command transferred security authority over Najaf to the Iraqis.

....Among the troubling questions raised is how hundreds of armed men were able to set up such an elaborate encampment, which Iraqi officials said included tunnels, trenches and a series of blockades, only 10 miles northeast of Najaf. After the fight was over, Iraqi officials said they discovered at least two antiaircraft weapons as well as 40 heavy machine guns.

Over at Outside the Beltway, Dave Schuler comments, "Aren't large pitched battles like this characteristic of insurgencies that believe they are on the upswing? Not particularly good news." I don't know if we can really draw that conclusion from this single action, but it's a thought worth pondering.

Kevin Drum 1:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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January 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE FUEL ECONOMY SHUFFLE....For reasons that escape me, Gregg Easterbrook has made it his life's work to insist that George Bush is a beacon of environmentalism who just can't catch a break from a liberal establishment that won't give him credit for his good works. I first wrote about this three years ago, and concluded that his misrepresentations and special pleadings on this subject were so egregious that nothing further he said about it should be trusted without independent verification.

Today Easterbrook is at it again, claiming that Bush's recent call for higher mileage standards has been unfairly ignored:

This should have been Page One headline material -- PRESIDENT CALLS FOR DRAMATIC MPG REGULATIONS. Instead, most news organizations pretended Bush's mpg proposal did not exist, or buried the story inside the paper, or made only cryptic references to it.

....Bush proposed that the CAFE standard grow 4 percent stricter per year....Improve on 21 mpg by 4 percent annually for 10 years, and the number rises to 31 mpg. If the actual fuel economy of new vehicles were 31 mpg, oil-consumption trends would reverse -- from more oil use to less.

Easterbrook is right: if corporate average fuel economy rose 4% a year for ten years, that would be a huge improvement and Bush would deserve enormous credit for making it happen. But as always with Bush, the devil is in the details, something that "most news organizations" are well aware of. For your edification, here are the details:

  • Bush is insisting that Congress get out of the CAFE business. Instead, the Bush administration itself will set future standards "based on cost/benefit analysis, using sound science, and without impacting safety." Pardon my cynicism, but this doesn't sound like a way of increasing CAFE standards. It sounds like a way of preempting a newly Democratic Congress from setting strict standards and instead allowing the administration to create toothless, industry-friendly rules with lots of loopholes. "Cost/benefit" and "sound science" are movement conservative buzzwords that are usually pretty reliable indicators that the con is on.

  • Bush's plan is to switch from average fuel economy standards to "attribute-based" standards. That is, instead of a firm overall target, car manufacturers will have flexible targets for different vehicle classes, along with the ability to trade "CAFE credits" if they don't feel like meeting even those.

  • That 4% per year increase in fuel economy? It's an "assumption," not a commitment. "The Secretary of Transportation will determine the actual standard and fuel savings in a flexible rulemaking process."

Look. We've been around the block on this kind of stuff before: great sounding promises from Bush followed by little in the way of serious rulemaking/funding/legislative action. I'm not sure why Easterbrook pretends not to know this, but the rest of us should keep our hands on our wallets until Bush unveils firm proposals that put some meat on these bones.

If Bush turns out to be sincere, then I'll be suitably astonished and I promise to eat a healthy helping of crow. But I'm not holding my breath. Even granting John Dingell's longtime aversion to increasing CAFE standards, I'm not willing to turn the CAFE keys over to Bush at just the time that we finally have a Democratic Congress that might turn out to show some spine on this issue. Because Easterbrook is absolutely right about one thing: "Nothing the United States can do in energy policy is more important than an mpg increase."

Kevin Drum 11:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE DEATH OF GLACIERS....For some reason, global warming skeptics are fond of claiming that glaciers aren't really shrinking. Usually they do this by cherry picking a single glacier somewhere that's been gaining mass, or by suggesting that the shrinkage is due to purely local problems. But it's not so. A broad look at glaciers throughout the world shows that not only are glaciers shrinking, but the shrinkage is accelerating:

The World Glacier Monitoring Service, which continuously studies a sample of 30 glaciers around the world, says the acceleration is down to climate change.

.... The latest survey, just released, shows accelerating decline. During 2005, this sample of 30 glaciers became, on average, 60-70cm thinner.

This figure is 1.6 times more than the average annual loss during the 1990s, and three times faster than in the 1980s.

More here on MoJo's new environment and health blog, Blue Marble.

Kevin Drum 9:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

"PLAME" vs. "WILSON"....I'm not going to blog obsessively about the Scooter Libby trial since so many other people are doing it far better than me, but here's a snippet from Marcy Wheeler's rough transcript of the prosecution's questioning of Ari Fleischer today:

P: Was anything discussed?

Fleischer: ....What I recall Libby saying to me, reiterated that VP did not send Wilson. Amabssador Wilson got sent by his wife, she works at CIA, works in CPD, I recall that he told me her name. This is hush hush this is on the QT.

....P: Her name, how did he describe her name?

Fleischer: I believe he said Valerie Plame.

This was on July 7, 2003. Four days later Robert Novak wrote a column in which he outed "Valerie Plame" as a CIA operative. Not "Valerie Wilson," the name she used socially, but "Valerie Plame," her maiden name and one that she used only on agency business. Novak says he used that name because he looked up Joe Wilson's biography in Who's Who, discovered Valerie's maiden name there, and for some reason decided to use that name in his column. This was despite the fact that the whole point of his column was that Wilson had been sent to Niger as part of some nepotistic boondoggle arranged by his wife.

I've never believed the Who's Who story because it makes no sense. Why deliberately use someone's maiden name when it's not the name she normally goes by? Rather, I've always figured that somebody in the Bush administration used the name Plame and gave it to Novak, but for some reason Novak doesn't want anyone to know that. And sure enough, Fleischer's testimony makes clear that the name "Plame" was the one known to people inside the White House. If that's the name Libby used, then it's the name everyone else used too.

You can ignore all this if you want. Novak's use of the name "Plame" has always been one of my pet obsessions in this story, and I continue to think it's the key to something. Maybe eventually we'll find out what. Maybe even today.

Kevin Drum 1:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

REVISITING THE SURGE....Remember how President Bush's supporters bitterly complained last month when critics claimed that the "surge" in Iraq was just a desperate ploy cooked up because both withdrawal and doing nothing were politically unacceptable? Remember how they claimed that in reality it was inspired not by political cynicism but by the sober military recommendations of Frederick Kagan and Gen. Jack Keane?

That was then. Here's Frederick Kagan now:

This is not our plan. The White House is not briefing our plan.

Back to political cynicism then? If neither the joint chiefs of staff nor the commanders on the ground in Iraq backed the plan, and if Kagan says Bush's plan isn't the one he and Keane proposed, then whose forehead did it spring from? Dick Cheney's?

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

CULINARY SLEUTHING....Who invented the hamburger? Apparently it's the bun that's the key to this question, not the meat. Josh Ozersky investigates, and Harold & Kumar will be delighted to learn who deserves the honor. The rest of us, not so much.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRANIAN APOCALYPSE UPDATE....So how is Iran coming on that nuclear bomb they're supposed to be building? Here's the Telegraph a few days ago:

A senior European defence official told The Daily Telegraph that North Korea had invited a team of Iranian nuclear scientists to study the results of last October's underground test to assist Teheran's preparations to conduct its own -- possibly by the end of this year.

....Intelligence estimates vary about how long it could take Teheran to produce a nuclear warhead. But defence officials monitoring the growing co-operation between North Korea and Iran believe the Iranians could be in a position to test fire a low-grade device -- less than half a kiloton -- within 12 months.

Sounds bad. But here's the Observer on Sunday:

Iran's efforts to produce highly enriched uranium, the material used to make nuclear bombs, are in chaos and the country is still years from mastering the required technology.

....The detailed descriptions of Iran's problems in enriching more than a few grams of uranium using high-speed centrifuges -- 50kg is required for two nuclear devices -- comes in stark contrast to the apocalyptic picture being painted of Iran's imminent acquisition of a nuclear weapon with which to attack Israel. Instead, say experts, the break-up of the nuclear smuggling organisation of the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadheer Khan has massively set back an Iran heavily dependent on his network.

So Iran is either going to test a bomb in a few months or a few years or maybe never. Take your pick.

Meanwhile, in Haaretz, Yossi Melman basically confirms the Observer's story, reporting that Iran has indeed made very little progress installing new centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant. However, he proposes two possible explanations:

One view is that Iran is having difficulty manufacturing, operating and controlling the enrichment process....But there is of course another possibility, whereby Iran clandestinely built another uranium enrichment facility in a secret location, where it has already installed the necessary number of centrifuges and verified that they work properly.

Again, take your pick. I think I can guess which one is likely to get more media attention.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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January 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE NOISE MACHINE....Today in the New York Times, David Kirkpatrick runs down the story behind the bogus report of Barack Obama's supposed early education in an Indonesian madrassa. It's mildly interesting (Insight magazine is no longer part of the Washington Times -- who knew?), but it turns out that it's mostly wasted. A single quote from Insight editor Jeffrey Kuhner pretty much tells the whole story:

"I said, 'That is a sexy story, if you can confirm it,' " Mr. Kuhner recalled. After Insight posted the article on Jan. 17, Mr. Kuhner said, he was disappointed to see that the Drudge Report did not link to it on its Web site as it has done with other Insight articles. So, as usual, he e-mailed the article to producers at Fox News and MSNBC.

And that was that. Your media machine at work.

Kevin Drum 11:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

ROGER!....I dunno. I used to think Roger Federer was the best tennis player on the planet, but I'm not so sure anymore. I think he may be the best tennis player in the galaxy.

Kevin Drum 3:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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January 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DO WE SAVE ENOUGH?....Do Americans save enough? Considering that the national savings rate has been declining for decades and is now actually negative, the answer seems pretty likely to be "no." Today, though, the New York Times reports that "a small band of economists" holds the contrarian view that Americans actually save too much. Shazam!

But what a peculiar article. If you read through it, it presents a grand total of three pieces of evidence for this view. Here they are:

  • A study of the generation born between 1931 and 1941 "revealed that at least 80 percent had accumulated more than enough wealth for retirement."

    This is absurd. This cohort is one of the most singular generations in American history: they were born during the Depression, had famously high savings rates, came of age during the go-go 60s, often had generous pensions, and had a very high Social Security payout compared to the taxes they paid in. Of course most of them had enough wealth for retirement. This is like studying the NBA and reporting back that Americans are taller than you think.

  • Another study found that "88 percent of retirees age 51 and older had adequate wealth."

    Again, this means nothing. Almost by definition, retirees between the age of 51 and 65 are those who have saved enough to retire comfortably. The ones who haven't (the vast majority) aren't retired yet and are automatically excluded from this study. As for the retirees over age 65, they're part of an older generation that we already know had high savings rates. [UPDATE: See below for a correction.]

  • Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University economics professor, thinks people save too much.

    Why? The article doesn't really say, except to tell us that Kotlikoff has invented his own retirement planning software that he's trying to market. His selling point is that his software produces different results than the calculators used by most financial planning firms.

So: two meaningless studies and one guy who's trying to sell a software package. What a ridiculous piece. It's possible that Kotlikoff is right, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if the retirement industry overstates the savings most people need. Still, the broad evidence suggests that the current generation of American workers doesn't save enough, and this article does nothing to suggest the broad evidence is wrong. Who let this through the copy desk?

UPDATE: The second study is here. It appears that the authors actually say not that 88% of retirees over age 51 have adequate wealth for retirement, but that 88% of all households with one member over age 51 have adequate wealth for eventual retirement. So my initial criticism doesn't apply. Their definition of "adequate wealth" can be challenged, of course, but that's a separate issue.

Kevin Drum 5:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FLEISCHER FILES....So why did Ari Fleischer agree to spill his guts in the Scooter Libby trial in return for immunity from prosecution? Slate's Seth Stevenson reports from the courtroom:

Turns out Fleischer saw a story in the Washington Post suggesting that anyone who revealed Valerie Plame's identity might be subject to the death penalty. And he freaked.

Which just goes to show: sometimes inaccurate reporting has its uses. Monday should be fun.

UPDATE: Swopa corrects the record here. Fleischer may have freaked, he says, but probably not over the prospect of getting the chair.

Kevin Drum 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LOBBY....Is New Republic editor-in-chief Marty Peretz one of the most grating writers on the planet? You bet. Is he a grating racist writer as well? It sure seems like it, but since I do my best to avoid reading anything he writes I'm not in the best position to say. However, if you're interested in further opinions on this subject check out Chait, Yglesias, Greenwald, and Klein. And Ogged, who says:

Yglesias deserves a ton of credit for taking on Peretz and people who are quick to charge anti-semitism. Only a smart, tough Jew could have done it, and Yglesias has been up to the task.

Right. But this is kid stuff. Discussing Marty Peretz's personal demons is certainly entertaining for us onlookers, but what started this whole fracas was Matt's original column, which defended Wesley Clark's belief that war with Iran is becoming increasingly inevitable because, even though the broad Jewish community is divided on the issue, "there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers." Matt concurs that the Jewish community is divided, and goes on to back Clark on the issue of rich money men as well:

It's also true that most major American Jewish organizations cater to the views of extremely wealthy major donors whose political views are well to the right of the bulk of American Jews, one of the most liberal ethnic groups in the country. Furthermore, it's true that major Jewish organizations are trying to push the country into war.

But is it? It sure seems like a topic that deserves more than some casual drive-by character assassination (e.g., "no offense, but you remind me of Charles Lindbergh," which is very close to a Godwin's Law violation from Jonah Goldberg). If this is really the topic at hand, then let's hear the arguments from all sides. 5,000 words from all contestants by Monday, please.

POSTSCRIPT: I also have a related question. When Clark talked about pressure being channeled to "office seekers," I assume he was making a claim about pressure on Democratic office seekers, who might otherwise be expected to form a stronger counterweight to hawkish Republican policy. Is this everyone else's assumption too?

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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January 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NO, YOU ARE NOT TRYING OUT FOR A FEDEX COMMERCIAL....This is one of my pet peeves too. At least, it used to be back when I had a job where I got lots of voice mail. Today, not so much. But still.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....When I stopped doing weekly catblogging a couple of years ago, the truth is that it was because I had gotten bored of taking new cat pictures every week. That will probably happen again fairly shortly, but in the meantime catblogging is back!

Inkblot and Domino are getting along swimmingly. "Swimmingly" meaning only that they don't go into hysterics at the sight of each other, of course. They now eat dinner together, stare at each other in a curious cat-like way (see picture on left), but otherwise leave each other alone. Inkblot occasionally takes an odd little swipe at Domino, which she treats with a casual hiss and the contempt it deserves (which is exactly how Jasmine treated it too). It's sort of comical, really. Not only does Inkblot outweigh her by ten pounds, but it turns out that Domino's previous owners had her declawed. Inkblot could crown himself king of the household if he wanted, but luckily his little walnut brain isn't up to the task and peace reigns.

A few days after we got her Domino took to sleeping in the crack between two of the cushions on our sofa, which left no place for me to sit. So I went to the store and for ten bucks I bought a little oval cat bed that I put smack in the middle cushion. My goal was to train her to sleep there instead. Cats aren't famously suitable for such training, but in this case it worked out spectacularly well. In fact, now that she's settled in we can barely get her to move from her newfound bed. Last night, though, she apparently became convinced that something was under the bed and knocked it to the ground. Now she's treating it with suspicion. Only temporary, I hope.

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By: Kevin Drum

KOSOVO....James Joyner comments on the latest from the Balkans:

Fifteen years ago, when then-Yugoslavia was falling apart in a series of ethic civil wars, those of us who opposed American military intervention argued that no significant threat was posed to U.S. vital interests. The caveat was always that, if things got out of hand in Kosovo, we'd have little choice but to jump in to prevent it becoming a regional crisis.

When that did indeed come to pass, the idea that Kosovo's independence would eventually follow would have seemed incredible. Now it's buried on A10 of the Post.

It's more "independence-lite" than actual independence at the moment, and it's not yet a completely done deal: Serbia (obviously) is opposed, Russia is holding out for concessions, and even Spain is nervous about the whole thing. Still, it looks increasingly likely that Kosovo is on track to become an independent country in the near future. More background here.

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By: Kevin Drum

PSYCHOLOGY AND TORTURE....Here in America, doctors are officially opposed to torture. So are psychiatrists. But psychologists? Not so much. Arthur Levine reports in the current issue of the Monthly:

At around six-foot-eight and clad in combat fatigues, Kevin Kiley, the army surgeon general, cut an imposing figure. It was August 2006, and Kiley was in New Orleans to address the governing council of the American Psychological Association (APA) on the subject of psychology in the war on terror. It was Kiley's job to convince them not to bail out on interrogations.

....Ultimately, APA's governing council passed a blandly worded resolution that, most critically, left the definition of the phrase "cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment" up to current government interpretations.

This wasn't the first time the APA had declined to take a firm position against the administration's interrogation policies. After reports first surfaced in 2004 of psychologists participating in interrogation procedures, many of the APA's more progressive members demanded that the organization take a stand. In response, APA convened a task force to draw up guidelines for members but rejected efforts to ensure that they were specific and enforceable.

Why, then, was the leadership of the APA, an organization representing one of the most liberal professions imaginable, so willing to essentially acquiesce with a conservative administration's efforts to torture prisoners? The answer is that it fell into a classic Washington trade-group dilemma: It became so enmeshed in the gears of the federal machine that it could be influenced by a determined administration and ended up supporting policies that many of its own members opposed.

More at the link.

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By: Kevin Drum

ESCALATION....The Bush administration has decided to take off the gloves in its fight with Iranian operatives working in Iraq. Our old policy was called "catch and release," but last year it was replaced with a tougher policy:

The new "kill or capture" program was authorized by President Bush in a meeting of his most senior advisers last fall, along with other measures meant to curtail Iranian influence from Kabul to Beirut

Advocates of the new policy -- some of whom are in the NSC, the vice president's office, the Pentagon and the State Department -- said that only direct and aggressive efforts can shatter Iran's growing influence. A less confident Iran, with fewer cards, may be more willing to cut the kind of deal the Bush administration is hoping for on its nuclear program. "The Iranians respond to the international community only when they are under pressure, not when they are feeling strong," one official said.

The twisted logic of escalation and threats is timeless. It virtually never causes anyone to back down, but it's timeless nonetheless. Aviation Week reports:

Iran has converted one of its most powerful ballistic missile into a satellite launch vehicle....The Iranian space launcher has recently been assembled and "will liftoff soon" with an Iranian satellite, according to Alaoddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

....Although designed as a technology demonstrator, the planned satellite launch would be a potent political and emotional weapon in the Middle East.

So what's Plan B?

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By: Kevin Drum

PHASE II....November's election victory seems to have given a newfound spine to Senate Intelligence Committee chair Jay Rockefeller:

Vice President Dick Cheney exerted "constant" pressure on the Republican former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to stall an investigation into the Bush administration's use of flawed intelligence on Iraq, the panel's Democratic chairman charged Thursday.

...."It was just constant," Rockefeller said of Cheney's alleged interference. He added that he knew that the vice president attended regular policy meetings in which he conveyed White House directions to Republican staffers.

And how's that Phase II investigation going now that Democrats are in charge of the committee? "The administration needs to be held accountable," Rockefeller says. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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January 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE WAR....Chuck Schumer:

I think Iraq will not be as strong an issue in the 2008 elections. I think the surge will fail and the president will have no choice but to begin removing troops.

Atrios responds:

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Iraq will certainly be the central issue of the 2008 election.

Please. Explain. This. To. Them.

To which I can only add: And Iran too. Be prepared.

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS ONLINE....Micah Sifry has taken a look at online activism and says that Democratic presidential candidates are way ahead of their Republican counterparts. Part of the reason, he thinks, is that Republicans are clueless about the net:

By and large, none of the Republican presidential candidates appear to be making a serious effort to garner support online through MySpace or Facebook; nor do they appear to have much outreach to blogs going; nor do any of them have a clue about Flickr. In fact, while several of the Democratic sites have front page links to many of those sites (and others), I don't think I saw one on any Republican site. Is entrepreneurial behavior dead in the Republican party?

But even this doesn't explain the massive online imbalance in favor of Democrats. Sifry's conclusion? "The Republican field just isn't generating as much enthusiasm online as the Democrats."

That sounds right to me. Aside from the obvious fact that Democrats are hungrier than Republicans because they've been out of office since 2000, the Republican field is remarkably weak this cycle. Compared to Democrats, who have half a dozen genuinely strong contenders, John McCain is really the only high-profile candidate they've got, and even he's hardly setting the world on fire. It's pretty amazing, really. From being on top of the world a mere two years ago, Republicans are having trouble just treading water these days.

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By: Kevin Drum

CAMPAIGN RHETORIC....Is soaring campaign rhetoric enough? Atrios says this:

Yes, I'd like to know that Barack Obama was truly committed to a health care plan which matched his rhetoric on the subject, but presidential campaigns, especially this far out, aren't won on policy documents.

I agree completely, but I still think there's an important distinction to be made here between cheap campaign rhetoric and serious campaign rhetoric. Among Republicans, cheap campaign rhetoric includes things like attacks on activist judges or support for a culture of life. Among Democrats it includes paeans to the importance of education or a commitment to keeping Social Security safe.

There's nothing wrong with stuff like this, but it's a freebie. It doesn't really tell you anything beyond the party ID of the speaker. Conversely, serious campaign rhetoric commits you to something. "No child should go without healthcare" is cheap rhetoric, something nobody disagrees with. "I think everyone over the age of 55 should be covered by Medicare" is serious rhetoric. It's not a 300-page white paper, but it clearly delineates a policy priority that not everyone else shares. "I think every man, woman, and child in the country should be covered by Medicare regardless of age" is really serious rhetoric.

This was my complaint about Obama's speech (here). The cheap rhetoric was fine. I'm all for it. And if he didn't want to get into details right now, that's no problem. But as it happens, he did get into details, and his details turned out to be pretty timid. They didn't distinguish him in any way from any other Democratic candidate who's ever mounted a podium. In fact, they made me less prone to view him as someone who's likely to stake out a genuinely aggressive position on healthcare in the future.

To repeat myself: I'm not trying to slag Obama here. A speech is just a speech, and he may very well have more to say about healthcare later when more people are listening. Maybe that's the smart way to play it. I'm just not sure he deserves any special brownie points for what he said today, that's all.

And now to literally repeat myself: I know that endorsing a serious universal healthcare plan is politically difficult, and maybe Obama is just working up to it slowly. That's fine. But high-profile candidates have a special obligation here. Dennis Kucinich can yell "Medicare for All" until he turns blue, and nobody's going to listen. That's not fair, but it's reality. High-profile candidates like Obama, Clinton, and Edwards can change that. If they commit to a genuinely bold healthcare initiative, it becomes a legitimate topic overnight. Until they do, though, it stays on the fringe.

Ezra Klein has a complaint similar to mine here. Mark Kleiman has a different complaint here. If you have a complaint, comments are open.

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By: Kevin Drum

HAIFA STREET....When I read McClatchy's story last night about our latest effort to retake Haifa Street in Baghdad, I was left -- how should I put it? Not encouraged, certainly, but not completely depressed either. Today the New York Times takes care of that:

As the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own. When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns.

.... Many of the Iraqi units that showed up late never seemed to take the task seriously, searching haphazardly, breaking dishes and rifling through personal CD collections in the apartments. Eventually the Americans realized that the Iraqis were searching no more than half of the apartments; at one point the Iraqis completely disappeared, leaving the American unit working with them flabbergasted.

"Where did they go?" yelled Sgt. Jeri A. Gillett. Another soldier suggested, "I say we just let them go and we do this ourselves."

Petraeus sure has his work cut out for him.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SUNNI-SHIA WAR....Over at Marc Lynch's site, Gregory Gause has a guest post analyzing the likelihood of a genuine Sunni-Shia confrontation in the Middle East. Long story short, he believes that (a) the U.S. and its Mideastern allies are concerned about Iran, not Shia, but (b) governments in Sunni-dominated countries find it easier to whip up anti-Shia sentiment than anti-Iran sentiment, so that's the tack they're taking. Bottom line: the "Shia threat" is overblown and has probably peaked anyway, and the anti-Iran alliance is based mostly on balance-of-power considerations and will be difficult to maintain.

Read the whole thing for more. Marc says he'll respond later.

Kevin Drum 3:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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By: Kevin Drum

HALFWAY MEASURES....I don't want to jump all over Barack Obama before he has a chance to present his ideas in a serious way, but can I just say that I found his healthcare speech today distinctly underwhelming? He starts out with his trademark high-flown rhetoric ("Plans that tinker and halfway measures now belong to yesterday") but then we get to this:

If we brought our entire health care system online, something everyone from Ted Kennedy to Newt Gingrich believes we should do, we'd already be saving over $600 million a year on health care costs. The federal government should be leading the way here.

....Another, more controversial area we need to look at is how much of our health care spending is going toward the record-breaking profits earned by the drug and health care industry.

....We also have to ask if the employer-based system of health care itself is still the best for providing insurance to all Americans. We have to ask what we can do to provide more Americans with preventative care, which would mean fewer doctor's visits and less cost down the road. We should make sure that every single child who's eligible is signed up for the children's health insurance program, and the federal government should make sure that our states have the money to make that happen. And we have to start looking at some of the interesting ideas on comprehensive reform that are coming out of states like Maine and Illinois and California, to see what we can replicate on a national scale and what will move us toward that goal of universal coverage for all.

Like I said, I'll wait for more. But this sure sounds like tinkering and halfway measures to me. After declaring in no uncertain terms that "affordable, universal health care for every single American must not be a question of whether, it must be a question of how," we get a few lines about better use of technology, some tsk-tsking about insurance industry profits, and a bit of musing about whether employer-based healthcare is still the best idea out there. That's....not very bold. After all, the link between employment and healthcare has been the fundamental issue underlying the universal healthcare debate for the past century, and I'd expect Obama to have a few thoughts about it by now.

We'll see. Maybe he's just setting the stage. Maybe in a little while he'll give a major speech in which he really does endorse universal healthcare rather than fiddling around the edges of the debate. We'll see.

UPDATE: Just to be clear: I'm not looking for a 300-page white paper. But I'd like to know that Obama is committed to genuine universal healthcare, not just a bunch of band-aids on our current system. This speech simply doesn't give me the warm fuzzies on that front.

I know that endorsing a serious universal healthcare plan is politically difficult, and maybe Obama is just working up to it slowly. That's fine. But high-profile candidates have a special obligation here. Dennis Kucinich can yell "Medicare for All" until he turns blue, and nobody's going to listen. That's not fair, but it's reality. High-profile candidates like Obama, Clinton, and Edwards can change that. If they commit to a genuinely bold healthcare initiative, it becomes a legitimate topic overnight. Until they do, though, it stays on the fringe.

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By: Kevin Drum

KICKING THE HABIT....The LA Times reports that high gasoline prices have changed driving habits:

To the surprise of many economists, U.S. motorists changed their ways enough to cut the nation's per-driver mileage by 0.4% in 2005, ending a string of increases dating back to 1980, government data show....It's a small but important shift for a nation that many believed was impervious to rising gas prices because drivers were unable or unwilling to rein in their gas-guzzling ways.

This really is good news. Still, there's never been any question that higher gasoline prices lead to lower gasoline consumption. It's a standard commodity, after all, and its demand curve slopes downward.

Instead, the real question is: How big a price increase does it take to reduce gasoline consumption? And here the news is pretty dispiriting. After all, from early 2005 to mid-2006, the average price of gasoline increased more than 60%. (Data here.) And what did this get us? As the accompanying chart show, during that period total miles driven flattened out and per-driver mileage decreased only slightly. That's not a very elastic demand curve.

Plus there's this: gasoline prices peaked in July-August of last year and have since dropped by nearly a quarter. So what happened?

"The gasoline consumed since that August peak in gasoline prices is up nearly 2.5% versus the comparable time period a year ago," said [David] Portalatin, the NPD researcher. "What it means is that consumers have a short memory."

This shows that if we're serious about wanting to cut gasoline usage -- to fight global warming, reduce oil imports, cut down on smog, or whatever -- half measures just aren't going to do it. In the space of 18 months the price of gasoline went up by more than a dollar per gallon and its impact on driving behavior was barely noticeable. A gas tax of the same amount would likely have a bigger effect over time, but it would still probably be modest.

This is why I favor (among other things) higher CAFE fuel standards. A gasoline tax is a fine idea for a variety of reasons, but by itself it's highly unlikely to seriously affect gasoline usage. If that's our goal, we need to do far, far more.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN....In an unforgivable act of Golden State treason, Ezra Klein comes out against an earlier primary date for California:

There's no way, within the context of the early-primary rush, for Democrats to seriously, thoughtfully, or comprehensively campaign within it. All they can do is spend money and rely on name recognition making it a competition between the famed and the funded. And that doesn't mean we'll just have a primary entrenching the likeliest outcomes: It means we're going to ensure those outcomes. Any minor candidate seeking to remain even marginally competitive will exhaust their coffers in the first ad run through the Los Angeles media market.

He's got a point, of course. On the other hand, consider this: there's really no such thing as a dark horse candidate any more. Modern campaigns begin a minimum of a year before the first primary, and by the time California (or any other state) rolls around anyone who hasn't been able to raise $30-40 million is plainly not someone who's competitive. Maybe it would be better to figure that out earlier than later?

Like it or not, modern presidential campaigns are all about raising money and using the media, and I suspect we're better off setting up a system that's most likely to choose a candidate who can win a modern election. That means someone who's demonstrated the ability to win in a big, impersonal state like California, not someone who's demonstrated the ability to hold the most coffee klatsches in a single day.

Plus, maybe it would reduce the number of idiotic vanity candidates clogging up the early debates. Or am I just dreaming?

UPDATE: Atrios points out that an early big state primary also forces candidates to build big volunteer organizations, and it would be nice to find out who's good at that.

I should add that all joking about California aside, I'd be fine with having any largish state early on. It doesn't have to be the very largest. Maybe Michigan or New Jersey or Massachusetts or something like that.

Kevin Drum 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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January 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE RUSH STARTS....A reliable source tells me that within minutes of John Kerry's announcement that he won't run for president again in 2008, the Barack Obama campaign was already trying to recruit at least one member of Kerry's "Boston Mafia" to work for them. No surprise there, and I imagine Kerry's entire team is going to be in high demand pretty shortly. It'll be interesting to who his people gravitate toward. Stay tuned.

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By: Kevin Drum

DECONSTRUCTING THE BUSH HEALTHCARE PLAN....Two people who are smarter than me explain why Bush's healthcare proposal isn't a starting point for compromise, but instead an invitation to step off a cliff. First, Paul Krugman:

Now here's the thing: in the name of consumer-directed health care theory, Bush is proposing changes that would essentially encourage people to move into the individual market -- which wastes a lot of money, and doesn't and can't work for those most in need -- while undermining the employer-based system, which isn't wonderful but is still essential. In particular, healthy high-income people would be encouraged to drop out of employment-based plans, leaving behind a sicker risk pool, driving up rates, and pushing employer-based care in the direction of an adverse selection death spiral. [Bush's plan] doesn't sound big enough to have catastrophic effects, but it's a step in the wrong direction.

And Jonathan Cohn, whose book on the American healthcare system I'm eagerly awaiting:

At least on health care, the speech I saw was not an invitation to bipartisan cooperation. On the contrary, for all of the evening's rhetoric on bipartisanship, the policy grist was strikingly similar to what he's said in past State of the Union speeches -- an effort to remake medical care along the lines of conservative ideology.

....Yes, the Bush administration put itself on record as supporting a tax increase -- and that was part of what made the proposal seem like such a breath of fresh air....But then the rest of the details started to come into focus -- chief among them the fact that, in encouraging the demise of employer-sponsored insurance, the administration had no plans to create a suitable alternative in its place. After all, a lot of people are going to have a hard time finding insurance in the individual market. Not only do costs run higher there, because the administrative overhead is higher, but insurers offer coverage and adjust premiums based on health condition--to the point where people with preexisting medical problems simply can't get decent coverage at all.

....Serious proposals to improve access to health care generally take this problem head-on....The administration plan--as fully fleshed out tonight -- offered nothing along these lines....[It] is classic conservative ideology, which insists that private insurance is always preferable to public -- even though public insurance is actually more efficient and, particularly when it comes to the financially and medically needy, the only reliable option.

Read 'em both to get a better idea of what's really going on here.

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By: Kevin Drum

STEALTH CONSERVATISM UPDATE....One of the favorite tricks of the Bush administration is to enact policies that have moderate effects today but substantial effects in the future. These future effects develop at a barely noticable pace, but the long-term goal is to set the stage for the eventual emergence of movement conservative "solutions" like school vouchers, Social Security privatization, and "consumer directed" healthcare. Some examples are here.

In the New York Times' account of President Bush's new healthcare proposal this weekend, I noticed this sentence:

The cap would rise with some measure of overall inflation, but would not necessarily keep pace with the costs of medical care and health insurance.

The "cap" (actually a tax deduction) is $15,000 per family. Above that level, employees would have to declare the value of the insurance they receive from their employer as income and pay taxes on it. Today this has only a small effect since very few health plans are worth more than $15,000 per family. But medical costs are growing faster than overall costs, so eventually this will have a big impact. Brad DeLong explains:

The deduction would indeed worsen the finances of only 20% of those with employer-sponsored coverage in 2009. But it would worsen the finances of about 50% of those with employer-sponsored coverage in 2019. And 90% of those with employer-sponsored coverage by 2030.

In a sense, this doesn't matter because congressional Democrats are unlikely to spend much time on Bush's plan. It's DOA. But it does give you some insight into what Bush is really after. If his goals were what he says they are, he'd propose indexing the cap to the rise in medical costs. It's a healthcare plan, after all, and there's no reason to index a healthcare plan to the overall CPI. The fact that he didn't demonstrates that what he really wants to do is make it less and less attractive over time for employers to offer decent healthcare plans to their employees. It slowly but surely reinforces the already growing trend for employers to cut back or eliminate their healthcare plans and replace them with cheaper conservative nostrums like HSAs and high-deductability policies.

And you'll hardly even notice it's happening. Which is, of course, the whole idea.

UPDATE: Changes made to the fourth paragraph to (hopefully) make things clearer.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC OPINION IN IRAN....PIPA/WPO has conducted a new poll of Iranian public opinion:

An overwhelming 84 percent of Iranians say it is very important for Iran to have the capacity to enrich uranium, despite the fact that the UN Security Council has called for Iran to cease uranium enrichment....However, two-thirds of Iranians (66%) endorse Iran's participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty even when reminded that it prohibits Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Only 15 percent want Iran to withdraw from the treaty.

....Fifty-four percent think that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- the UN organization charged with enforcing the NPT -- is having a mostly positive influence in the world (10% view it negatively).

Iranians are also generally in favor of strengthening ties with the U.S., but only barely. There's more at the link, and the news is thoroughly mixed. Not as bad as it could be, but not all that great either.

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By: Kevin Drum

HOUSING BUBBLE UPDATE....The housing market in Southern California continues to deteriorate:

Default notices jumped 145% in the last three months of 2006, accelerating a trend that began in late 2005 as home sales started to cool. It was the largest number of default notices in any three-month period since 1998.

...."So far, this isn't alarming," said John Karevoll, chief analyst at DataQuick Information Systems, which compiled the data. But if default notices "keep going up at this rate, it could get nasty fast," he added.

I dunno. Foreclosures are now running at the same rate as the early 90s, when our last real estate bubble burst, and are increasing at a much faster rate. That seems fairly alarming to me. And if I had purchased a home in the past few years using some weird negative interest mortgage, or whatever it was the loan wizards were touting in 2005, I'd be very alarmed. I guess it depends on your point of view.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

IT'S THE POLICY, STUPID....Ruth Marcus on the Bush health plan:

If George W. Bush proposes something, it must be bad. Such is the knee-jerk state of partisan suspiciousness that when the president actually endorses a tax increase -- a tax increase that would primarily hit the well-off, no less -- Democrats still howl.

....Listening to Democratic reaction to Bush's new health insurance proposal, you get the sense that if Bush picked a plank right out of the Democratic platform -- if he introduced Hillarycare itself -- and stuck it in his State of the Union address, Democrats would churn out press releases denouncing it.

Now, Marcus concedes that Bush has no one but himself to blame for this state of affairs. But at the same time, she also seems flatly unwilling to believe that opposition to Bush's plan might actually be based not on liberal temper tantrums but on the fact that it's a bad plan.

Which it is. It's true that if you look at Bush's proposal solely though the prism of tax policy, it seems fairly progressive: increased taxes on well-off people who have gold-plated health insurance combined with tax breaks for middle-income folks with private insurance. And Republicans have trained us so thoroughly to view everything as part of their long-running war on taxes that this is apparently the only way pundits are now able to see things.

That's a mistake. This is a healthcare plan, after all, and it should be looked at through the prism of health policy. And from that perspective it's a lousy plan. As Marcus herself points out, it increases the risk that "the already-teetering employer-based system will collapse as healthy individuals use their tax deduction to buy cheaper, private insurance, leaving employers with the older and the sicker."

But here's the thing: as far as movement conservatives are concerned, that's a feature, not a bug. It's a feature of the "ownership society." It was a feature of last year's HSA expansion. It's been a feature of every healthcare proposal Bush has ever offered. He wants to push the country toward "consumer directed healthcare," a euphemism for gutting the current insurance system, in which third parties pay for most medical costs, and replacing it with a system in which consumers pay directly for healthcare and insurance only kicks in if you suffer some kind of major disaster.

If you think this is a good idea, Bush's plan is a good first step toward getting there, and using it as the starting point for a compromise is a fine idea. But most liberals don't think it's a good idea or even a good direction. We want to expand routine health coverage, not shrink it. And that's why we oppose Bush's proposal: because we think it's bad policy with bad consequences. Believe it or not, that's still what motivates some of us.

UPDATE: Max Sawicky agrees but offers a small correction:

Kevin misfocuses a tad by putting the choice as between third-party payment and consumer purchase. The real distinction is group versus individual. The Bushists want to destroy group coverage in both the employer-provided sector and the public sector.

I think it's both things, actually, but this is a worthwhile distinction to understand regardless, especially since the whole conservative campaign to find ways to destroy group insurance pools is subtle and not much understood. More at the link.

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January 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

STATE OF THE UNION LIVEBLOGGING....For the first time in five years I won't be liveblogging the State of the Union address tonight. In fact, I won't even be watching it. Instead, I'm taking my wife to dinner to celebrate her birthday. Seems like a pretty good trade to me.

But that doesn't mean the rest of you can't snark at it. Comments are open.

Kevin Drum 9:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (209)

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By: Kevin Drum

BORAT....Borat has won an Oscar nomination in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. I'm confused. What was it adapted from?

UPDATE: In comments, several people suggest it's adapted from the Ali G Show. OK, but where does the screenplay come from? Answer: according to FMguru, "About half the movie is material from the TV show." Really? I never saw the show, so I don't know. But it's a different character and I thought the movie bits were unscripted anyway. I'm still confused, but I guess slightly less confused than before.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE LIBBY....Hoisted from comments, this is from a reader who says he's practiced law in the areas of criminal defense and governmental misconduct/civil rights for twenty years. Here's what he wrote about prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's opening statement:

I know, and have friends who know, people that both work in Fitzgerald's office in Illinois and that have tried cases against Fitzgerald. The book on him (and this is not new, I just want to reaffirm it) is that he is meticulous, reserved and that he NEVER makes claims in opening statements that he cannot absolutely prove up to a jury.

....Given the statements and allegations Fitzgerald has made in his opening statement, and given his reputation for always backing up his statements, if I were Cheney's attorney, I would absolutely find some way, somehow, whatever it took, to keep him off the stand. It is crystal clear that Fitzgerald is convinced, and I mean strongly convinced, that this whole imbroglio is Cheney's personal doing....Don't get me wrong, I would be prepping him to testify, and stating to the world that he looked forward to it; but I guarantee that I would simultaneously be working day and night to find a way to keep him off the stand and away from the trial.

More from Digby:

Norah O'Donnell is asking Andy Card and Leon Panetta if the president is going to have to ask Dick Cheney to resign as a result of what's being alleged at the Libby Trial. (They both punted.)

Hmmm. This could restore my faith in a just and benevolent God. But it's probably too good to be true.

Kevin Drum 5:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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By: Kevin Drum

UTOPIAN HEALTHCARE....Tyler Cowen, after calling a desire for national healthcare "political irrationality," says private insurance is still our best bet:

The goal is to get (virtually) everyone insured and keep them insured for as long as possible, and yes I know that eventually means health care at 20 percent of gdp and lots of people getting screwed out of just claims for reimbursement. It is simply the best we can do, and for that reason I don't want to tax private health plans.

The ambitious long-run program should be to restructure the insurance industry --through a judicious mix of regulation and deregulation -- to encourage competition across service quality rather than competition across cost-shifting. Frankly I have no idea how to do that but no one has ever convinced me it is impossible or utopian.

I don't even know how you can respond to something like this. It's the best we can do? Even though the world is full of countries that demonstrably do much better than this? We should encourage insurance companies to compete on service quality? In an industry more structurally resistant to this than nearly any other industry I can think of? The amount of government regulation this would take would make national healthcare seem like a libertarian dream. Finally, "I have no idea how to do that," from a scary smart guy who surely knows every conceivable proposal for accomplishing this? What does that tell you?

I apologize for the snark. I know it's annoying. But color me confused. If we snapped our fingers and covered every person in the country today with Medicare, it would cost us way less than 20% of GDP. We might get there eventually, but that will happen regardless of who funds healthcare in the United States. And along the way nobody would be getting screwed out of just claims for reimbursement.

The usual complaint about national healthcare from conservatives and libertarians is that it would stifle innovation. But would it? There are plenty of therapies today that are used almost exclusively by the elderly and are therefore funded almost exclusively by Medicare. They seem to be doing fine. The VA system, which is more centralized than even Medicare, is a gem. What's more, surely designing a government program that's friendly to innovation is less challenging than the Herculean task of somehow forcing the private insurance industry to cover everyone and cover them fairly. I know which challenge I'd rather take on.

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBBY MUST DIE SO ROVE CAN LIVE....I admit it: I thought the Scooter Libby trial was going to turn out to be a bit of a snoozer. I figured it would get lots of hype but, in the end, not dish much dirt. Looks like I was wrong:

[Defense lawyer Ted Wells] told the jury that the White House went all out to defend [Karl] Rove against accusations he revealed Mrs. Wilson's identity, but did not protect Libby in the same way, leading Libby to suspect that he was being singled out for blame in the matter. "[Mr. Libby] was concerned about being the scapegoat," Wells said. "Mr. Libby said to the vice president, 'People in the White House are trying to set me up, people in the White House are trying to make me a scapegoat.' People in the White House are trying to protect a man named Karl Rove, the president's right-hand man," Wells said.

Wells said he will present a note written by Dick Cheney himself about a conversation with Libby. In part, the note says, "not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others." Wells continued: "The person to be protected was Karl Rove...Karl Rove was President Bush's right-hand person. His fate was important to the Republican party if they were going to stay in office. He had to be protected...the person to be sacrificed was Scooter Libby."

This is heating up nicely, isn't it?

UPDATE: More here.

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WELCOME BACK....Ezra Klein had a momentary lapse yesterday and gave the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt over its new healthcare proposal. Today he reports that he's learned the folly of his ways.

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By: Kevin Drum

WAR FRENZY....The LA Times says that George Bush is expected to claim during tonight's State of the Union address that Iran is deeply involved in Iraq's civil war:

For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol.

The lack of publicly disclosed evidence has led to questions about whether the administration is overstating its case.

Golly. Overstating its case? The Bush administration?

This is ridiculous. I don't doubt that Iran is meddling in Iraq -- they're neighbors, after all -- but we've been watching them intensively for the past five years, we have 150,000 troops next door in Iraq, we've conducted uncounted raids on Iraqi insurgents, and the CIA and military intelligence have hundreds of analysts assigned to figuring out Iran's intentions and capabilities. And yet we've found very little. This suggests that Iranian meddling is fairly modest.

Iran is hardly a friend. They've been designated the top state sponsor of terrorism for years. They stone gays to death and support suicide attacks by Hezbollah. Their leaders support a repellant ideology of anti-semitism. It's a loathsome regime.

But that doesn't mean we ought to be at war with them, and we certainly shouldn't be at war over wildly exaggerated claims from an administration that's demonstrated conclusively that it can't be trusted with such claims. It's time for everyone to settle down.

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WAR, WAR, WAR!....Liz Cheney writes an op-ed in the Washington Post today. Josh Marshall responds:

Is it just me or does this column read like it was written by someone in junior high?

I'm glad I'm not the only one who had that reaction. Although, honestly, what it really sounded like was a parody of a conservative warblog circa late 2002. Aside from being embarrassing, it was kind of eerie.

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX WONKERY SPECIAL EDITION....Mark Schmitt has a very nice, readable article in the current issue of the Monthly about the current state of play on taxes. He believes that just as Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of the tax revolt 30 years ago, there's evidence that the aging of America combined with the fiscal recklessness of George Bush is bringing it to a close:

The truth is that we are heading down a path toward fiscal crisis that will inevitably require a major increase in revenues. In case that sounds like a euphemism, I'll say it plainly: Taxes must go up.

....If the tax reformers of the future are to make good on the promise of lower rates, as well as surrendering the revenues from the AMT, as well as paying for an aging population, they will have to go well beyond the boundaries of the income tax. And here is where the greatest opportunities for an entirely new political configuration may be found. Conservatives have always been interested in taxing consumption as a way of encouraging savings and investment, and liberals in need of revenue will have no alternative but to reconsider their historical aversion to consumption taxes as regressive.

....While consumption taxes are inherently less fair than a progressive tax on income, there are ways to moderate its unfairness, and if a consumption tax were directly linked to a positive social good -- such as a VAT that pays for universal health care -- the entire package, taken together, would be enormously progressive.

Sounds good. And as long as we're thinking big, I'll toss out one of my favorite outlandish suggestions: why not abolish the corporate income tax as part of this grand bargain? After all, it doesn't raise all that much money any more (less than 2% of GDP); it's by far the biggest source of tax complexity we have; it mostly gets passed on to consumers anyway; and it's the foundation of all corporate welfare. Take away the corporate income tax, and presto! No more tax breaks for special interests. K Street would be decimated.

Consider this deal: The corporate income tax goes away. It's replaced by a VAT plus an increase in capital gains and dividend taxes to the same level as the tax on income. (Added bonus: the whole "double taxation" argument goes away since corporate profits aren't taxed in the first place.) And the whole thing is used to fund national healthcare (along with the payroll taxes and general fund revenues that are already dedicated to healthcare). States could be encouraged to follow suit by agreeing to pick up the Medicaid costs of any state that kills its own corporate income tax.

Big business ought to love it. Their income taxes go away, and with it whole platoons of their accounting departments. No more relocating corporate headquarters to Aruba! Healthcare also goes away, which promises to save them both money and hassle. The replacement tax, a VAT, is easy to administer and is directly passed on to customers, much like a sales tax. Every business would be on a level playing field, regardless of size or industry.

Of course, corporate executives wouldn't much like the idea of higher taxes on investment income. But they'd go along because they make lobbying decisions based on what's good for the corporation, not what's good for their own bank accounts, right?


POSTSCRIPT: Since no one else that I know of has ever proposed a deal like this, I assume it's a dumb idea. But I'd be curious to learn why it's a dumb idea. If the corporate income tax were responsible for a significant part of the federal budget, I could see why we'd need to keep it. But in fact it's responsible for no more than a tenth of all federal receipts. So why not kill it and replace it with something better?

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (114)

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January 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

AT ARMS LENGTH....I'm always amused at this annual ritual:

''Our challenge is to make sure that science serves the cause of humanity instead of the other way around,'' the president said in a telephone call piped over loudspeakers to a Washington rally of opponents of abortion rights.

....Bush calls the rally each year, usually from distant locations. This year, he extended his weekend stay at the Camp David presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains to phone the participants from there.

Reagan did the same thing, didn't he? These guys are so terrified of having their picture taken in the actual presence of people they supposedly support that they extend their vacations in order to generate some marginally plausible excuse for not showing up in person. Or is it something else they're terrified of? I've never been quite sure.

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PAYGO....Amitai Etzioni, after recounting the recent history of Democratic fiscal responsibility followed by Republican splurges, asks:

Does it make sense for the Democrats to "act responsibly" only to provide funds to be expended by the next Republican administrations on its constituencies?

That is a very, very hard question. The best answer I can summon up at the moment is "maybe not."

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOG FOR CHOICE DAY....Over at Unfogged, LizardBreath writes about an abortion she had a decade ago:

Continuing that pregnancy wouldn't have been an epic tragedy for me; any proposal for abortion rights that requires abortion to be permissible only when the only alternative would be starving on the streets would leave me right outside.

But man, did I not want to be pregnant. I did not want to be locked into a minimum eighteen-year relationship with someone I'd been dating for a couple of months. I did not want to be responsible forever for someone who didn't exist yet. I didn't want to be physically pregnant. I had no idea of where I was going professionally -- I was a temp receptionist, thinking about maybe taking the LSATs -- or of how I would support myself or a child, and had no idea of how I'd find my way into a career with a new baby. The only thing being able to get an abortion did for me was give me some control over the course of the entire rest of my life.

So, politically useful as it is, I get a little edgy about rhetoric that stipulates that abortion is always a strongly morally weighted decision. I don't think it is, and if it were I'm not certain that my reasons for not wanting to continue a pregnancy at the time qualify as sufficient to do a wrong thing -- if abortion is an evil, it's not clear to me what evil would have been the lesser under those circumstances. But I am thankful every day of my life that I had the option to end that pregnancy back in 1995.

I agree. Paying obeisance to the view that abortion is an overwhelming emotional and moral decision is politically useful, and as such it may be helpful in keeping abortion legal. For that reason, I understand why many pro-choice politicians -- who obviously don't believe that early and mid-term fetuses are human lives that deserve legal protection -- treat it that way.

But as LizardBreath points out, there's also a real downside to the constant repetition of this kind of rhetoric since it serves to confirm that abortion should be an emotional rollercoaster, which in turn suggests that unborn fetuses really do have a morally ambiguous status. Pro-choice politicians ought to keep this in mind too. After all, what's politically useful today might not be quite so politically useful tomorrow. In the long run, the pro-choice movement would probably be a lot better off if we laid off the guilt and simply acknowledged instead that early and mid-term fetuses aren't sentient and women should be able to freely choose whether they want to bring theirs to term. The world would be a better place.

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OLD DOG, OLD TRICKS....Breaking news: Michael Fumento is a prick. I especially like this part:

In short, I was doing you a great favor and you spat in my face. Well, the wind has changed and the spit has gone back into your face. Goodbye and good riddance.

He has a real way with words, doesn't he?

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DUELING RESOLUTIONS....John Warner, former Republican chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, plans to introduce a resolution opposing President Bush's "surge" in Iraq. Steve Benen wonders if this is helpful to the cause:

Warner is considered an elder statesman of the Senate GOP caucus, in addition to being a credible, experienced voice on foreign policy and national security issues. If Warner steps away from the White House, he takes some Republican colleagues with him.

....That said, it's a complicated political dynamic, and Warner's new resolution, while certainly bad news for the White House, isn't necessarily great news for the Senate's efforts to criticize the president. War critics had been moving towards backing the bi-partisan Biden-Hagel-Levin resolution, unveiled last week. Though I have not yet seen the language, it appears that Warner's measure will include weaker, less-forceful language.

A nonbinding resolution is a purely political document that has no effect on actual policy, so the only test of the language is what effect it has on public opinion. Given that, which is better: a stronger statement that clearly differentiates war supporters and war opponents, or a weaker statement that gets more votes? Like Steve, I'll wait to see what Warner's actual language is. But I'm inclined to agree that stronger language is better. If Warner's resolution is more than slightly watered down from the Biden-Hagel-Levin language, it does more harm than good.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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McCAIN AND CASEY....On Sunday, after accusing Gen. George Casey of presiding over "a failed policy" in Iraq, John McCain suggested that he might not support kicking Casey upstairs to become Army chief of staff. Matt Yglesias is unimpressed:

I have no particular brief for Casey, who obviously did not bring this country fabulous successes in Iraq and who carried more than his share of water for George W. Bush over the years. Nevertheless, this is a raw deal in the extreme.

....The larger political game, however, is perfectly clear -- we're supposed to believe that there was nothing wrong with the war except the bungling of the fool Casey and that the Great Leader Petraeus will save us all.

I find myself in the unaccustomed position of partially defending McCain. Matt is certainly right about the political game at work here, but:

  1. Casey has opposed a military buildup in Iraq for some time. Now, I think this is right, but obviously McCain doesn't -- and this is something McCain has been pretty consistent about. So, given that he genuinely thinks Casey has pursued bad policies, it's hard to blame him for not being very excited about Casey's promotion.

  2. My own impression is that Casey has been pretty lukewarm toward the kind of counterinsurgency tactics that might have proven successful if he'd pushed them harder when he took over the Iraq job a couple of years ago. This strikes me as a pretty severe case of bad judgment, and a bit of tough questioning at his confirmation hearing seems like the very least that Casey ought to expect over this.

I feel like there's sometimes a reluctance to criticize our military leadership because (a) it opens up liberals to charges of "not supporting the troops," and (b) it implicitly reduces the responsibility of our civilian leaders for the debacle in the Iraq. I'm hugely sympathetic to both concerns, especially the second one, but I still think we ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their neocon enablers certainly deserve the vast bulk of the blame for our failure in Iraq, but the military brass deserves a share too.

Besides, a little bit of tough questioning from Congress sends a salutary message to the general staff: after Vietnam you guys said you'd never again stay silent in the face of disastrous Pentagon policies. So what happened?

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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January 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE TRIVIA....Apparently the big new healthcare proposal in Tuesday's State of the Union address is going to be a tax increase aimed at (some) people who already have employer-provided health insurance combined with a tax deduction aimed at (some) people who have to buy individual health insurance. Yippee. The New York Times has the details here.

The amazing thing about this isn't whether it's a good idea or not. It's the fact that healthcare is supposed to be one of the big issues in this year's SOTU but this puny little proposal is all Bush has to offer. To call it laughable would be giving it too much credit.

The good news is that this will go nowhere in Congress. The bad news is that Bush will probably want to make up for the lameness of his healthcare plan with some brand new mega-hawkery about Iran. Otherwise, no headlines. I can hardly wait.

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January 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BEYOND SOPHISTRY....Every once in a while I fail to blog about some remark or other because it seems like every blog in the world has already posted about it. But sometimes I forget that not everyone who reads this blog reads every other blog in the world. So just in case you missed it, here is your Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday:

GONZALES: There is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There is a prohibition against taking it away. But it's never been the case, and I'm not a Supreme --

SPECTER: Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. The constitution says you can't take it away, except in the case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn't that mean you have the right of habeas corpus, unless there is an invasion or rebellion?

GONZALES: I meant by that comment, the Constitution doesn't say, "Every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas." It doesn't say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except by --

SPECTER: You may be treading on your interdiction and violating common sense, Mr. Attorney General.


"Um" indeed. Jim Henley has the right comment:

There is indeed no bottom to this Administration's sophistry. So here's something to wonder about. Amendment IV to the US Constitution says "no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." It doesn't explicitly say only the courts can issue warrants. Nor does Article III say "only courts can issue warrants" in so many words. The word warrant does not appear in the main text of the constitution. I assume this is because we inherited a common-law practice from England that nobody thought needed to be written down. But I don't see why the Gonzales-Yoo school would not declare at some point that the executive branch can issue "warrants" too. Presto! Instant Fourth Amendment compliance! Of a kind.

I never thought the day would come when I'd miss John Ashcroft as Attorney General, but that day has come. These guys are just beyond belief.

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DISASTER POLITICS....Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown turns on his erstwhile colleagues:

"Unbeknownst to me, certain people in the White House were thinking, 'We had to federalize Louisiana because she's a white, female Democratic governor, and we have a chance to rub her nose in it,'" he said, without naming names. "'We can't do it to Haley (Barbour) because Haley's a white male Republican governor. And we can't do a thing to him. So we're just gonna federalize Louisiana.'"

Needless to say, the White House denies it.

Via Sullivan.

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CALIFORNIA OR BUST....California legislators have announced plans to move California's 2008 primary to February 5, just two weeks after the New Hampshire primary. Both parties are in favor, as is Arnold, so it seemingly has a pretty good chance of happening.

I'm all in favor for purely selfish reasons. In 30 years I haven't cast a single primary vote that mattered, and for once in my life I'd like to have a say. Since I don't plan to relocate to New Hampshire or South Carolina anytime soon, moving the California primary up is my only chance.

And since Hillary's announcement is the big news today, it's probably worth mentioning that this would be pretty helpful to her cause, right? Not only is she pretty popular among the fundraising set here, but she's one of the few candidates with enough money to seriously contest California and still run decent campaigns in the other early states.

At least, that's my initial reaction. Am I missing something obvious?

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HILLARY FOR PRESIDENT?....So Hillary's in. John Podhoretz must be breaking out in a cold sweat right about now. Her decision to make the announcement on her website on a Saturday, rather than at a traditional press event on a weekday, was interesting, wasn't it? In a way, it goes to show just how much clout she has: she doesn't need the extra fillip of attention that a news conference would get her.

Now, keeping in mind that back in 2003 I thought John Kerry was the weakest of the major candidates -- an almost Shrum-like prognosticating ability -- I think Podhoretz's nightmares are well founded. I've always figured she'd run, and that if she ran she'd probably win. Here's why:

  • She has a lot of strength in the black community. This isn't exactly a secret or anything, but I think it gets underestimated sometimes.

  • She will raise insane amounts of money.

  • She has nowhere to go but up. Seriously. Every nasty thing that can possibly be said about her has already been said. Her negatives may be high, but that's mostly among Republicans who won't influence her primary chances and wouldn't vote for a Democrat in the general election anyway. Rush Limbaugh will spew his usual swill to the dittoheads, but for the most part all the old attacks will seem, well, old. (And this is one area where the iron laws of the press corps will work in her favor. Old scandals are almost never deemed worthy of revival in a presidential campaign. You have to dig up fresh dirt to get their attention.)

  • A lot of people outside of New York will soon be getting their first real look at Hillary since 2000. I think they're going to be surprised. Many of them probably have vague, Limbaugh-fueled recollections of her as a dragon lady of some kind, but when they actually see her for the first time on Larry King or Oprah or whatever, she's going to seem much more engaging than they remember.

Oh, and Barack Obama will be her vice president. Or, who knows? Maybe Wes Clark.

For more pro and con, check out our July 2005 issue. Carl Cannon made the case for why Hillary can win while Amy Sullivan made the case against her. Ryan Lizza's TNR piece from last year, "Welcome to Hillaryland," is also worth a read.

Kevin Drum 11:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (230)

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January 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TALKS WITH IRAN?....From Juan Cole:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani revealed that during his visit to Tehran last month, Iranian authorities evinced their willingness to engage in talks with the Americans in order arrive at a mutual understanding that both sides would be pleased with -- and which would stretch from Afghanistan to Lebanon. Talabani explained the circumstances that caused both meetings that he attempted to arrange between the two to collapse.

That's quite a tease. I wonder if Prof. Cole or some other Arabic reader could let us know what Talabani said? I assume it's nothing very cataclysmic, but I'd still be interested in adding to my seemingly endless collection of reasons why talks between the United States and Iran are never advisable "at this time."

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....Everybody wants a new cat update, right? Of course you do.

First things first: after days of dithering, we finally have a name: Domino, in honor of the white spot on her forehead.

Second: how's she doing? Very nicely, thank you. She was disturbingly lethargic for the first day or two, even for a cat, but apparently she just needed to acclimate herself. She's now perky and normal (i.e., sleeping only the recommended 18-20 hours a day) and has explored the entire house. Our vet says she's fine, and now that she's discovered the second story bedroom she's decided that she really, really likes having a couple of humans to sleep with at night. This means that Inkblot is sleeping downstairs for the time being. Which brings us to....

Third: how's Inkblot doing? He was initially unhappy over the whole state of affairs, but I've been measuring his progress in feet. On the first day, he started hissing when he got within about ten feet of Domino. The next day it was eight. Then six. Then five. Today, as you can see, he's agreed to an uneasy truce a mere two or three feet away (as long as he's given his own blanket). This is actually fairly gentlemanly of him, since the red blanket that Domino has commandeered has always been his. But he allowed Domino to colonize the bedroom while he was downstairs sulking, and that's what happens. He seems to be making the best of it.

So that's the latest. All things considered, it's been a remarkably trouble-free integration. Next up: we take on peace in the Middle East.

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By: Kevin Drum

WE DON'T NEED NO STINKING REGISTRATION....Is Harry Reid pushing a provision in the Senate ethics bill that would require bloggers to register with the government? This is a story that's been making the rounds on conservative blogs, but fellow conservative Stephen Bainbridge says it's bunk:

The vast bulk of the section is definitional. When you parse out the operative language [it says that] someone who engages in grassroots lobbying is not required to register or file reports under section 220. Someone who engages in paid grassroots lobbying is not required to register or file reports under section 220. Only someone who is retained by a client and either earns or spends $25,000 or more per quarter is covered.

There have been times when bloggers were hired by either political or issue campaigns to blog on their behalf. Such a blogger might be covered by this statute if they make more than $25,000 per quarter for doing so. But how many bloggers does that include?

Answer: virtually none. And if you do fall into this category, I'm not sure why the particular technical method you use (i.e., blogging) should exempt you from the rules everyone else has to follow anyway. This may or may not be a good provision (I'm agnostic because I don't know enough about it), but it doesn't look like the blogosphere has anything in particular to fear from it.

UPDATE: It turns out that an amendment by Bob Bennett (R-Utah) to strip the grassroots provision from the ethics bill was approved on Thursday, so this is a moot point. The grassroots provision was not in the final version of the ethics bill that was passed on Friday.

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HOT PURSUIT....Border incidents in Afghanistan are up 300%. This is largely a result of the peace deal that the Pakistani government reached with tribal leaders in Waziristan last September, but as I recall there was some talk that we accepted this deal because it also gave U.S. troops the right of hot pursuit during firefights in the area. If that's true, we've paid a pretty high price. I wonder how it's working out?

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FUNNY MONEY NOT SO FUNNY AFTER ALL....I'm pleased to pass along the news that you will no longer be viewed with suspicion if you happen to get a Canadian coin in your change:

Reversing itself, the Defense Department says an espionage report it produced that warned about Canadian coins with tiny radio frequency transmitters was not true.

The Defense Security Service said it never could substantiate its own published claims about the mysterious coins. It has begun an internal review to determine how the false information was included in a 29-page report about espionage concerns.

I guess that's one less thing to worry about, and a serious black mark erased from the security record of our friends up north. However, we do still have to worry about "hacker attacks, eavesdropping with miniature pen recorders and the case of a female foreign spy who seduced her American boyfriend to steal his computer passwords." So don't let your guard down.

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By: Kevin Drum

EAVESDROPPING....In the New York Times today, Adam Liptak makes a point about the NSA's domestic spying program that I meant to make myself yesterday: namely that negotiating a voluntary end to the program conveniently allows the White House to avoid settling the main issue the program raises:

The details remained sketchy yesterday, but critics of the administration said they suspected that one goal of the new arrangements was to derail lawsuits challenging the program in conventional federal courts.

"It's another clear example," said Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, "of the government playing a shell game to avoid accountability and judicial scrutiny."

....The announcement about the surveillance program came two weeks before a federal appeals court in Cincinnati was to hear the first appellate argument about the lawfulness of the program. Government lawyers now say that case is moot, but their claim is open to question.

It's nice that this specific program has been brought under the oversight of the FISA court, but what's more important is the broader question of whether the president has the authority to eavesdrop on American citizens without a warrant. He still claims that he does, and that's a claim that deserved to be litigated in the Supreme Court. It still does.

Kevin Drum 1:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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January 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IMN AWARD OF THE WEEK....I know that highlighting idiotic media narratives is Bob Somerby's beat, not mine, but Howard Fineman's latest in Newsweek has to be seen to be believed. If I were writing a parody of the genre, I wouldn't change a word.

And a note to Fineman: please don't try to make up for this by writing a companion piece about the Republican primary field. It won't be any better just because you're taking on people I don't like.

Kevin Drum 6:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE END OF THE INHOFE ERA....I was going to link to this post from Grist's David Roberts (recommended by Bob Somerby), but when I got back from lunch I had an email from David asking me to link to two other posts of his. The first one is about the state of play of climate legislation in the Senate (now that climate wingnut extraordinaire James Inhofe is no longer in charge of the Environment and Public Works Committee) and the second one is about the state of play of climate legislation in the House. If you're interested in climate legislation -- and you should be -- read them both. They're short and informative.

Actually, read all three posts. I may come back to the first one later.

Kevin Drum 5:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPORT FROM EGYPT....The growing regional hostility in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni has been getting a lot of play lately, and Marc Lynch says it's for real. Here's his report after spending a week in Cairo:

Anti-Shia stuff is really spreading rapidly, and seems to have the Egyptian government's approval (at a minimum). Sensational-looking books about the Shia are all over the bookstands, along with stories in the tabloids and scare-mongering editorials....Even Egyptian TV has been hosting some pretty nasty anti-Shia rhetoric.

....Why all this anti-Shia discourse now? One popular theory is that the Egyptian government, backed by the US, wants to prepare the ground for confrontation with Iran. By this theory, the government is stoking hatred of the Shia as a pre-emptive move to shape the political space in such a way as to make it hard for Iran to appeal to Egyptian (and Arab) public opinion in the event of a war -- and to prevent a repeat of anything like the outpouring of popular support for Hassan Nasrullah last summer.

....Whatever the case, I've seen a lot more anti-Shia discourse than I expected or have ever seen before, and it alarms me.

Read the whole thing for additional observations. Among other things, he reports that "everyone here seems keenly aware that the United States has backed off of democracy promotion." No surprise there.

UPDATE: Of course, "anti-Shia" is more or less synonymous with "anti-Iran." Laura Rozen has more on the subject here.

Kevin Drum 3:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN UPDATE....Steve Benen has updated his John McCain Flip-Flop Index. His latest turnabout comes on campaign finance reform, an issue that was once near and dear to his heart, and brings the number of McCain flip-flops to 15. That's pretty impressive.

And Josh Marshall points out the obvious corollary: McCain's strength has always been among independents, but independents don't like panderers. Is it any wonder that his poll numbers have collapsed?

Kevin Drum 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

STUDENT LOANS....In an uninspiring move, House Democrats have voted in favor of only a small reduction in interest rates for loans to college students. I wish they'd done more, but over at Tapped Janna Goodrich notes the inherent paradox of subsidizing a university education, even for the poor:

Education is one of the best engines for upward mobility and poor students cannot afford to pay for higher education on their own. Their families don't have the physical collateral to borrow money in the private financial markets nor the savings to pay for the tuition outright....But if we gave poorer students mostly grant-based aid we'd be asking for the rest of the society to subsidize those who are one day going to be wealthier than the average citizen. Two different concepts of fairness or equality are at play here and I'm not sure if both of them could be achieved at the same time.

There's no question that this contradiction is real, but I come down pretty firmly on the side of making college education more affordable for poor and middle class families. Not only do I find the social mobility argument overwhelmingly persuasive, but it makes sense for society as well. We need as many educated workers as we can get, and at all levels we should be trying to get as many qualified students as possible to start and finish a university education.

In fact, I'd combine this with something else to make it even better. A few years ago I read a Century Foundation study that made a very compelling case that we ought to replace all (or most) race-based affirmative action with income-based affirmative action. (Full report here.) The study found that if it's implemented well, (a) income-based affirmative action produces nearly as much racial diversity as race-based affirmative action, (b) it promotes economic diversity as well, and (c) it actually produces higher graduation rates than either a pure merit-based system (test scores and high school GPAs) or a traditional affirmative action program. What's more, it's an approach that most of the public finds inherently fair.

So: I'd favor increased financial aid to poor and middle-class students and income-based affirmative action to help them gain admission to the best university they're likely to do well at. It's good for the kids, it's good for the country, it would increase graduation rates, and if it's done right it might even allow us to make more sensible choices about just how many students ought to attempt a university degree vs. a community college degree. And it provides an effective substitute (i.e., one that genuinely helps minority students) for race-based affirmative action, a program that's overwhelmingly unpopular among the American public and therefore, in the long run, probably not sustainable. This would be a pretty good alternative.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Zachary Roth

HOLDING BAD PUNDITS ACCOUNTABLE PART 671...From today's Washington Post:

Senate Republicans scuttled broad legislation last night to curtail lobbyists' influence and tighten congressional ethics rules, refusing to let the bill pass without a vote on an unrelated measure that would give President Bush virtual line-item-veto power.
The guiding force behind this cynical gambit? New GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell.

It's not exactly a surpise that McConnell is turning out to be a bare-knuckled partisan in his new job. In our October issue, Cliff Schecter and I took a look at McConnell's record in the Senate: his shameless support for the pet causes of the GOP's largest corporate contributors, his unbending opposition to efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics, and his willingness to put legislative trickery in the service of narrow partisan advantage, just as he did last night. "In uniting around Mitch McConnell," we concluded, "Republicans are, in effect, doubling down on the governing style that got them, and us, into this mess in the first place."

David Broder had a different take. In a December Washington Post column, the dean of the Beltway press corps led with the heartwarming news that McConnell had named two Democrats -- Mike Mansfield and George Mitchell -- as role models for how he hopes to operate as GOP leader. Broder went on to make much of McConnell's assurance that "divided government...need not produce gridlock," even noting that McConnell had named ethics reform as an area of potential agreement. The Kentuckian, Broder felt, could turn out to be a bipartisan dealmaker in the Mansfield-Mitchell mould.

Yeah, not so much, judging by last night. I suppose it's conceivable that McConnell could, over the next two years, metamorphose into the constructive and high-minded legislative partner of David Broder's fantasies. But it seems unlikely. Not that Broder will point that out.

Zachary Roth 10:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

STRAIGHT TALK....Shorter Nouri al-Maliki: Just give us all your guns and then get out. We'll take care of the rest.

Kevin Drum 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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January 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

LATEST POLL DATA....Public support for the war has pretty much cratered:

As he seeks to chart a new course in Iraq, Bush also faces pervasive resistance and skepticism toward the U.S. commitment -- more than three-fifths [62%] of those surveyed said the war was not worth fighting.

....Asked about Bush's recent announcement that he would dispatch another 21,500 troops to Iraq, three-fifths [60%] said they opposed the move, while just over one-third [36%] backed it.

....A narrow majority -- 51% -- want Congress to try to block Bush from sending more troops to Iraq.

....Americans divide in similar proportions when asked whether Congress should attempt to require Bush "to begin withdrawing the troops already in Iraq."

Exactly half said Congress should take steps to begin removing troops (42% opposed such an effort).

Somebody remind me. How long did it take before public opinion turned this sharply against the Vietnam War?

(Answer: It's a trick question. Opposition reached 61% in 1971 but never exceeded that number. The Iraq war is now more unpopular than the Vietnam War ever was.)

Kevin Drum 7:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (105)

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By: Kevin Drum

2008 A BIGGER ROUT THAN 2006?....Political Wire provides an excerpt from the latest Evans-Novak Political Report:

The gloom pervading the Republican Party cannot be exaggerated. The long-range GOP outlook for 2008 is grim....A nationally prominent Republican pollster reported confidentially on Capitol Hill after the President's speech that if U.S. boots are still on the ground in Iraq and U.S. blood is still being spilled there at the end of the year, the GOP disaster in 2008 will eclipse 2006.

I'm not sure how seriously to take this. Robert Novak is obviously pretty plugged into Republican politics, but he's also a longtime war opponent and may simply be cherry picking the gloomiest pronouncements making the rounds.

Still, it's pretty ironic. As we reported several months ago ("A Higher Power"), the whole point of James Baker's Iraq Study Group was to avert the looming self-immolation of the Republican Party by providing George Bush with a plausible, bipartisan plan to get out of Iraq:

"Baker is primarily motivated by his desire to avoid a war at home--that things will fall apart not on the battlefield but at home. So he wants a ceasefire in American politics," a member of one of the commission's working groups told me. Specifically, he said, if the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, they would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war, setting the stage for a potential Republican electoral disaster in 2008. "I guess there are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming, and they've called in Baker to try to reroute the train."

So given this chance of an honorable exit, what does Bush do? He furiously dismisses Baker's report as "a flaming turd" and instead insists on pursuing a strategy that virtually nobody thinks will work. The damage this is doing to our country is obviously the most depressing aspect of all this, but if there's any kind of silver lining it's the fact that Bush's tantrum-based foreign policy is apparently taking down his entire party with him. It couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

Kevin Drum 5:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (103)

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By: Kevin Drum

FISA AND THE NSA....Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that the NSA's domestic spying program is now being conducted under orders approved by the FISA court:

In the spring of 2005...the Administration began exploring options seeking such FISA court approval....These orders are innovative, they are complex, and it took considerable time and work for the Government to develop the approach that was proposed to the Court and for the Judge on the FISC to consider and approve these orders.

First, I just have to ask: does anybody really believe that the Bush administration has been studiously beavering away on this for two years, and it's just a coincidence that they finally made this concession a mere few days after Democrats took control of Congress? Any takers on that?

Of course, if Gonzales is telling the truth, that's even worse for Bush because it's a clear sign that the previous program was patently illegal. In fact, so illegal that it took two solid years to finally develop an alternative that a judge deemed acceptable. If the program merely needed a few tweaks here and there, it would have taken a month for a judge to approve it, not two years.

Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

OPPOSING THE SURGE....It appears that at least some Democrats are getting serious about opposing the surge with more than just a nonbinding resolution:

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) announced legislation today capping the number of troops in Iraq at roughly 130,000, saying that lawmakers should take an up-or-down vote on President Bush's plan to send additional troops to the country and not settle for the non-binding resolution several Senate leaders prefer.

....Dodd released his legislation on a day when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), in a series of interviews on morning television, endorsed troop limits and a possible cutoff of funds to the Iraqi government if it fails to meet security benchmarks.

....Clinton, in her television interviews, said she wanted to cap the number of troops and also cut funding to the Iraqi government -- "for the training of their military, for the protection of the leaders, for economic reconstruction assistance" -- unless it makes progress on rebuilding its security forces and policing the country.

"I am opposed to this escalation," Clinton said on CBS News's "The Early Show."

I'm opposed to the escalation too, but these moves by Dodd and Clinton actually strike me as the worst of all possible worlds. Legislation to get us out of Iraq would be a fine idea. Legislation to reinstitute the draft and send 200,000 more troops to Iraq would be a horrible idea, but would at least have some internal consistency. But legislation that essentially locks in place the status quo? That really makes no sense at all. If there's anything we can be absolutely sure of, it's the fact that the status quo isn't working.

Democrats should either go the political route and pass a nonbinding resolution, or they should pull up their socks and support legislation that defunds the war and sets a timetable for withdrawal. There's really no way to triangulate out of this.

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

SACRIFICE....George Bush talks to Jim Lehrer about sacrifice and the Iraq war:

LEHRER: Let me ask you a bottom-line question, Mr. President. If it is as important as you've just said -- and you've said it many times -- as all of this is, particularly the struggle in Iraq, if it's that important to all of us and to the future of our country, if not the world, why have you not, as president of the United States, asked more Americans and more American interests to sacrifice something?....

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.

Jeebus. Is Bush getting even worse with every passing day? I swear, he can hardly open his mouth these days without saying something so dumb and tin-eared it just makes your jaw drop. It's like reading the second half of "Flowers for Algernon."

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (225)

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By: Kevin Drum

IKE OR NIXON?....Harold Meyerson on whether war-weary Republicans will eventually embrace the conciliatory politics of Dwight Eisenhower or the scorched-earth politics of Richard Nixon:

The guy to watch in all this is the pooh-bah of Fox News, Roger Ailes. Nixon's onetime aide guides a TV network that is Nixonian to its bones -- Fox's raison d'etre is to bash liberals, real or imagined. But Ailes can't be insensible to the war's effects on Republican electoral prospects. If Fox News were to break with Bush on Iraq, that would be proof positive that even the Nixonians believe there's no way, politically, they can salvage this miserable war.


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By: Kevin Drum

WAR FOLLOWUP....Going back and forth on the war is probably a mug's game at this point, but I guess I really need to follow up on my earlier post about the left and the war. It must have been written pretty poorly for so many people to misconstrue it so badly. I suppose that's the danger of blogging while sick. So a few points:

  • There were lots of reasons to oppose the Iraq war and I agree with most of them. There's no argument there.

  • I said in the earlier post that I didn't remember the precise arguments made by the most prominent war critics back in 2002, and that's just the simple truth. It would take a tremendous amount of work to try to research this question and summarize the main strands of thought fairly, and since I can't do that I figured it was better to just admit that I didn't remember and leave it at that.

    (However, it turns out the archives for Kos and Tapped are still available. I didn't know that when I wrote the original post. Kos's war posts are here and Tapped's archives are here [in the right hand column]).

  • I agree that people who got the war wrong ought to do some soul searching. I agree that anti-war voices who got it right ought to be more prominent in the media. People who get big questions right deserve respect.

  • However, I also made a specific comment about preventive war: namely that the failure in Iraq doesn't especially vindicate the argument that preventive war is almost always wrong. It is almost always wrong, and the fact that Iraq was a preventive war was a good reason to oppose it. But the specific quagmire that we find ourselves in now has very little to do with the fact that the Iraq war was preventive.

On that last point, I'd welcome argument. Maybe I'm off base. Would the war have gone better if it hadn't been preventive? Maybe so, though everyone seems to think we would have been screwed in 1991 if we'd gone all the way to Baghdad in the Gulf War, and that wasn't a preventive war. But I'm wide open to argument on this point.

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (150)

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January 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

INSURGENCIES REVISITED....I've observed in the past that the post-WWII record of major military powers fighting overseas insurgencies is almost uniformly dismal: the French failed in Algeria, the United States failed in Vietnam, and the Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan. The only sizable exception is the British in Malaysia, and even that lesson is of limited use. The British used techniques in Malaysia that simply aren't acceptable to world opinion any longer, and even at that it took them a very long time to beat the communist insurgency there.

But is the record of insurgencies really that bad? The blogger formerly known as Praktike, emailing from his new perch as web editor of ForeignPolicy.com, says I should check out a piece by Donald Stoker on exactly this subject. Stoker says the surge in Iraq might work and points to history to make his case:

History is not without genuine insurgent successes....But the list of failed insurgencies is longer: Malayan Communists, Greek Communists, Filipino Huks, Nicaraguan Contras, Communists in El Salvador, Che Guevara in Bolivia, the Boers in South Africa (twice), Savimbi in Angola, and Sindero Luminoso in Peru, to name just a few.

Unfortunately, this really doesn't have much analytic power. Aside from Malaysia, only two of these insurgencies directly involved a big foreign power (South Africa and the Philippines) and they took place 50 and 100 years ago respectively. The others are all insurgencies that were defeated by local governments. Those governments may have had help from outside, but they did the primary fighting themselves.

Basically, since 1960, not a single major military power has had any success fighting directly against an overseas insurgency. Maybe, as Stoker says, this is just coincidence. But big military powers are 0 for 3 in the past 50 years, and Iraq is darn close to making it 0 for 4. (Afghanistan is still up in the air.) That's a helluva coincidence.

Kevin Drum 11:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIRING SPREE....The Bush White House is apparently on a firing spree: Josh Marshall reports that at least seven U.S. Attorneys -- some of them currently engaged in corruption investigations against Republicans -- have been replaced mid-term with new appointees who don't need Senate approval. Josh has the story here and here.

Kevin Drum 7:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LEFT AND THE WAR....If anti-war liberals were right about the war from the start, how come they don't get more respect? Here's the nickel version of the answer from liberal hawks: It's because they don't deserve it. Sure, the war has gone badly, but not for the reasons the doves warned of.

Is this true? I wish my memory were more detailed about what anti-war liberals were saying back in 2002, but it's not. I once thought about browsing through old archives to at least see what the high-traffic liberal blogs were saying back then, but that turned out to be easier said than done. Matt, Josh, and I all supported the war for a while, so we don't count. Kos and Tapped seem to have lost their archives from that far back. C&L, Firedoglake, Aravosis, Greenwald, and the Huffington Post didn't exist back then. Atrios still has his archives, but he didn't post obsessively about the war and didn't write the kind of essays where he explained his position in detail anyway.

So: I don't know. I know why I turned against the war after initially supporting it (WMD flakiness combined with the mounting evidence that Bush wasn't serious about postwar reconstruction), but I don't know about anyone else. So I can't really play the game.

On the other hand, I think there's a problem with Atrios's response to Max Sawicky, who had chastised the early war opponents because he thought they had latched onto the wrong criticisms of the war. Here's Atrios:

I'm sure all of these criticisms were made by many on blogs including mine, but they were just extra criticisms thrown in there in various ways in an attempt to engage the dominant discourse of the times.

....But nonetheless most people rejected the concept of "pre-emptive war" and rejected the notion that even if WMD claims were all correct Saddam was an actual threat in any way to this country. That was the point that I remember most of us desperately trying to communicate, even if other arguments were used to try to further the general cause of stopping the goddamn war.

Question: If this really was the primary critique among the anti-war left, has the Iraq war vindicated them?

I'm not sure I see it. The fact that Iraq is a clusterfuck doesn't demonstrate that preemptive war is wrong any more than WWII demonstrated that wars using Sherman tanks are right. It's the wrong unit of analysis. After all, Iraq didn't fail because it was preemptive (though that didn't help); it failed either because George Bush is incompetent or because militarized nation building in the 21st century is doomed to failure no matter who does it. Preemption per se had very little to do with it, and the argument against preemptive war, which is as much moral as pragmatic, is pretty much the same today as it was in 2002.

Now, you can argue that non-preemptive wars are more likely to get broad international support, and that this in turn is more likely to lead to success. But this just gets back to Max's original point: does this mean that anti-war liberals think the war would have been OK if only the UN had authorized it?

Maybe so. That actually comes perilously close to my own view. But it's not an argument I've heard much of lately.

PEDANTIC UPDATE: I've used the term "preemptive war" throughout this post, but it's worth noting that this is yet another case in which the Bush administration has twisted broadly-accepted language for its own use. A preemptive war is one in which an attack is imminent and you decide to strike first rather than wait for a certain invasion. A preventive war is one in which you invade in order to prevent a possible but uncertain future attack. Iraq was a preventive war.

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By: Kevin Drum

TODAY'S HEALTHCARE POST....DELAYED BY ACTUAL HEALTHCARE!....Sorry for the light posting today. I was feeling a little under the weather this morning, and after after typing desultorily at a healthcare post for a while I suddenly decided to call my dentist about a tooth I've been having trouble with. To my surprise, they told me to come right over. So I did. Turns out there was nothing wrong with the tooth, but they weren't busy so they suggested I just hang around and get my regular checkup and cleaning. Since it usually takes two or three months to get an appointment with these guys, I took them up on their offer.

This was all routine work and it cost me nothing thanks to the fact that I have dental insurance. The woman sitting next to me was not so lucky. She apparently needed to get a couple of crowns, and the office administrator was pushing hard to get her to buy some fabulous Captek crowns at $1200 each. Without insurance, though, that was pretty steep. There was still some resistance even after describing the inferior qualities of the alternatives and providing dire warnings of possible future root canals, so the admin person says, maybe we can do something on the price. Maybe $750. Let me ask the office manager.

I felt like I was in a used car dealership. I half expected some closer with a bad suit and blow-dried hair to sail in and start doing a hard sell on the Capteks. But no. The administrator came back in a few minutes and said they could do it for $750. Another successful sale.

So instead of the meandering healthcare post I was working on this morning, this is today's replacement healthcare post. The earlier post was a response to Arnold Kling, who thinks the healthcare biz need less insurance and more free market capitalism in order to drive down costs and force people to buy only the care they need. I doubt it. More likely it would result in what I saw today: medical offices becoming more like Turkish bazaars (or used car dealerships), filled with distraught patients trying to decide whether they can afford a crown today or if they should wait and run the risk of needing a root canal later. No thanks.

For more cogent and comprehensive responses to Kling, check out Matthew Holt and Jonathan Cohn. They both hit most of the high points.

And my earlier post? Basically it boiled down to this: libertarians would sure be a lot more interesting if they'd deal with the real world a little more than they do. Proposing a healthcare system that increases the risk of not being able to afford the care you need has as much chance of gaining public support as a proposal to give away fleets of Cadillacs to welfare recipients, so why bother? The rest was just fluff.

Kevin Drum 3:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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By: Kevin Drum

ISRAEL AND SYRIA....Has Israel been holding secret peace talks with Syria? Sort of. Haaretz reports that for two years between 2004 and 2006 discussions at an "academic level" were carried out "with the knowledge of senior officials in the government of former prime minister Ariel Sharon." The meetings broke off last year after Syria asked for the negotiations to become formal:

The contacts ended after the Syrians demanded an end to meetings on an unofficial level and called for a secret meeting at the level of deputy minister, on the Syrian side, with an Israeli official at the rank of a ministry's director general, including the participation of a senior American official. Israel did not agree to this Syrian request.

It's hard to say if this is meaningful. These were essentially private conversations with no direct participation by Israel, but the Haaretz article makes it sound as if Syria was prepared to make quite a few concessions regarding the Golan Heights, sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas, and its influence in Iraq. This probably isn't going anywhere, but it's an interesting tidbit anyway. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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January 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HISTORY COMES ALIVE!....The latest news from Bizarro World:

On September 10 1956, Guy Mollet, the then French prime minister, came to London to discuss the possibility of a merger between the two countries with his British counterpart, Sir Anthony Eden, according to declassified papers from the National Archives, uncovered by the BBC.

....When Mr Mollet's request for a union failed, he quickly responded with another plan -- that France be allowed to join the British commonwealth -- which was said to have been met more warmly by Sir Anthony.

Apparently Eden really did go ahead and recommend that France be admitted to the British Commonwealth. Mollet, for his part, Mollet told Eden that France would have no trouble accepting the Queen as titular head of state and would welcome common citizenship "on the Irish basis." Astonishing.

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By: Kevin Drum

PAYING FOR THE WAR....Nicholas von Hoffman, in passing, reports something I didn't know: at some point during the Iraq War the military named one of its sweeps through Mosul "Operation Giuliani."

Why there should be an Operation Giuliani but not one named after other noncombatant, civilian heroes is a puzzle. Perhaps with the new, contemplated "surge" there may be an Operation Iron Rumsfeld, Operation Rifle Rice or an Operation Cheney Sweep.

Actually, if the military is willing to name their operations after actual living people, I'm surprised they haven't offered up sponsorships as a way of defraying the cost of the war. Maybe it could be the next step up after becoming a Bush Super Ranger. I'll bet the Wyly brothers would pony up.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

IS HE LYING OR IS HE DELUSIONAL?....For some reason, the local CBS affiliate in Los Angeles didn't air 60 Minutes last night, so I didn't get to see Scott Pelley's interview with George Bush. However, cruising around the internets this morning I found these two excerpts from Rosenfeld and Ackerman. Sounds like it was classic Bush.

UPDATE: More from Clara Jeffery and Elizabeth Gettelman. Apparently I missed a lulu. All for the best, perhaps.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOSING BY WINNING?....Fareed Zakaria argues that the most worrisome possibility of George Bush's surge is not that it might fail, but that it might work:

If the 20,000 additional American troops being sent to the Iraqi capital focus primarily on Sunni insurgents, there's a chance the Shiite militias might get bolder. Colonel Duke puts it bluntly: "[The Mahdi Army] is sitting on the 50-yard line eating popcorn, watching us do their work for them."

So what will happen if Bush's new plan "succeeds" militarily over the next six months? Sunnis will become more insecure as their militias are dismantled. Shiite militias will lower their profile on the streets and remain as they are now, ensconced within the Iraqi Army and police. That will surely make Sunnis less likely to support the new Iraq. Shiite political leaders, on the other hand, will be emboldened.

....The greatest danger of Bush's new strategy, then, isn't that it won't work but that it will -- and thereby push the country one step further along the road to all-out civil war....The U.S. Army will be actively aiding and assisting in the largest program of ethnic cleansing since Bosnia. Is that the model Bush wanted for the Middle East?

The New York Times has more on why this might -- or might not -- happen.

Kevin Drum 1:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

A QUESTION FOR BILL KRISTOL....Bill Kristol, speaking to an imaginary congressman, says we ought to give President Bush's new strategy in Iraq a chance:

Last fall you called for replacing Rumsfeld. You've complained that there weren't enough troops. What's more, you've heard good things about General David Petraeus from colleagues with military expertise. So now Bush has fired Rumsfeld, put Petraeus in command, and sent in more troops. Maybe this new approach deserves a chance to work?

For anyone who had only those three complaints about our strategy in Iraq, it's a good point. For the rest of us, not so much.

But let's turn the question around. Kristol himself is one of the people who have called for firing Rumsfeld, sending more troops to Baghdad, and putting a guy like Petraeus in command. Now Bush has done it. So if it doesn't work, Bill, what are you going to do? Will you admit that the strategy you endorsed was wrong? Or will you just regroup and blithely insist that it was never implemented the way you wanted?

I'm taking bets.

Kevin Drum 1:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

TALKING ABOUT THE SURGE....Glenn Reynolds links approvingly to this exchange today on Reliable Sources:

HOWARD KURTZ: Pam Hess, has the sending of 20,000 additional troops gotten a fair hearing in the media or has it gotten caught up in this wrenching, emotional debate about whether the war itself was a mistake?

PAM HESS: I think it's gotten caught up....What we need to be asking is, what happens if we lose? And no one will answer that question. If we lose, how are we going to mitigate the consequences of this?

It's so much easier for us to cover this as a political horse race. It's on the cover of "The New York Times" today, what this means for the '08 election. But we're not asking the central national security question, because it seems that if as a reporter you do ask the national security question, all of a sudden you're carrying Bush's water. There are national security questions at stake, and we're ignoring them and the country is getting screwed.

I'm genuinely stumped here. I don't know for sure what Chris Matthews and the rest of the bobbleheads have been saying, but the vast, vast majority of the coverage I've seen has been precisely the opposite of what Pam Hess says. Sure, there's been some political analysis of the surge, but it's been dwarfed by acres and acres of newsprint given over to substantive analysis of whether the surge can work, what the military justification is, whether the Maliki government will cooperate, and what the consequences are likely to be for the surrounding region. It's true that there hasn't been a lot of conversation about what we should do when the surge fails, but it's laughable to suggest that this is because doing so would be seen as taking George Bush's side. It's mostly because people don't want to be tarred as defeatists by people like Pam Hess and Glenn Reynolds.

That said, I agree completely with Hess about one thing: there are national security questions involved here, and I wish the national media would spend more time seriously talking about them. The big one is: once we leave Iraq -- as we will -- and decide that invading other countries is not generally the right way to fight jihadist terrorism, what strategy will take its place? Conservatives really, really don't want to talk about what a non-war-based foreign policy would look like, and it seems to scare off all but the hardiest mainstream pundits too. It just seems so dovish, doesn't it? But it's time to start anyway.

Kevin Drum 1:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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January 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF CAT BLOGGING....So why the light blogging today, you ask? Answer: cat shopping!

Today we went down to the shelter where we got Inkblot eight years ago and spent some quality time in their visitor room. At first we had no luck: there was a nice siamese cat who was a little older than we wanted, a fluffy gray cat who was a little too fluffy and a litty too diva-ish, a twitchy black cat who was afraid of her own shadow, and a pear-shaped black cat who was great for a few minutes but then started hissing at us. Then, after we'd almost given up, Marian said, "Let's look at one more."

You can see the result below. No name yet, so we're taking suggestions. She's three years old, makes a beeline for any open lap, and has already established herself as queen of the household. It took Inkblot a while to even figure out that anything had happened, and when he finally came downstairs he let loose with a few pro forma hisses -- which were blithely ignored -- and then retreated upstairs. He's safe there for now, but it won't last. This cat is going to be queen of the entire house before long.

So we're once again a two-cat household, and for the time being everything is quiet. We'll see if it lasts.

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By: Kevin Drum

GLOBAL WARMING....I don't know if this represents wishful thinking on the part of Tony Blair or a genuine change of heart from George Bush, but the Guardian says that Bush is about to get religion on global warming:

George Bush is preparing to make a historic shift in his position on global warming when he makes his State of the Union speech later this month, say senior Downing Street officials.

....Bush and Blair held private talks on climate change before Christmas, and there is a feeling that the US President will now agree a cap on emissions in the US, meaning that, for the first time, American industry and consumers would be expected to start conserving energy and curbing pollution.

Color me massively skeptical. Remember how last year we were addicted to oil? Remember the sweeping changes Bush proposed to deal with that? Me neither.

Still, it's an interesting tidbit and I thought I'd pass it along.

Kevin Drum 1:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (200)

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January 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PEACE BY AUGUST?....In the middle of a good story about the bipartisan opposition to President Bush's surge plan, the Washington Post tells us that Bush hopes violence in Baghdad can be tamped down soon:

If that happens, the White House hopes the troop buildup then will succeed in bringing enough stability to Baghdad by August that U.S. forces can withdraw to the city outskirts. And officials said it must be sustained. "By the end of the year, Baghdad's got to look significantly different," said a National Security Council official not authorized to speak on the record.

It's absurd to think that Bush's new strategy is going to stabilize Baghdad so quickly and thoroughly that we can get our troops out by August. If that's truly what he thinks, then Bush is either (a) even more deluded than I thought or (b) even more cynical than I thought. Maybe both.

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By: Kevin Drum

BCS QUERY....I'm just curious: does anyone know when the final BCS rankings are released? Is there some big weekend show where they unveil them or something? The championship game was played five days ago, but the official rankings still show Ohio State as #1. What's up?

UPDATE: The consensus in comments is that the reason I can't find the final BCS rankings is because there are no final BCS rankings. They're updated during the regular season in order to figure out who plays in which bowls, and that's it. After the championship game, the voters in the coach's poll are obligated to vote the winner #1, but the other BCS components aren't updated and the overall rankings don't change.

As far as I'm concerned, this is yet another reason to think the BCS sucks.

Kevin Drum 1:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE BENCHMARKS....I want to highlight something from the previous post. Regardless of whether you believe that Bush's "benchmarks" in Iraq are serious or not, Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified that we'd know if Maliki was meeting them "probably within a couple of months."

That was on January 12. A couple of months takes us to March 12. We should expect to see Gates back in front of the Armed Services Committee on that date.

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By: Kevin Drum

BENCHMARK WATCH....The following version of the story has disappeared from the Washington Post website, but here's what Gen. Peter Pace and SecDef Robert Gates told Congress about the surge on Friday:

[Pace] and Gates suggested that their deployment could be curtailed if the Iraqis fail to meet their commitments.

....In response to skeptical questioning by the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), Gates said the United States would "know fairly early in this process whether the Iraqis are in fact prepared to fulfill the commitments that they've made to us," such as sending more Iraqi brigades into Baghdad, permitting them to crack down on Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents and refraining from political interference in military operations. This would be known "probably within a couple of months," Gates said.

"If at that time we conclude that at a government level and on a broad level they have not fulfilled their commitments, then I think we have to reevaluate our strategy," the Pentagon chief said.

So one day after Bush's big speech, what was the Iraqi government's very first action toward "fulfilling their commitments"? Here's the LA Times:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has filled the top military job in Baghdad with a virtually unknown officer chosen over the objections of U.S. and Iraqi military commanders, officials from both governments said.

....Maliki's decision to push through his own choice for one of the country's most sensitive military posts -- and to reject another officer who was considered more qualified by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey -- has renewed questions about the prime minister's intentions.

I'll bet it has. Apparently no one knows a thing about this guy, including, most crucially, whether he has any ties to Shiite military or political parties. I think we can all guess what that means.

So what does this say about the benchmarks Bush talked about on Thursday? As the Post admits, "Gates and Pace said that they think they have assurances from the Iraqi government, but that there is no specific deadline for success or clear benchmarks for progress." Needless to say, this makes no sense. As a way of bringing pressure to bear in a situation like this, benchmarks are nearly meaningless unless they're clear and public, and the fact that ours are neither is an umistakable sign that no one is taking them very seriously. Obviously Maliki knows this.

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January 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NO NEED FOR A REAL TRIAL, THE SHOW VERSION SHOULD DO JUST FINE....Shorter Cully Stimson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs: Patriotic American CEOs should withdraw their business from any traitorous law firm that defends Gitmo detainees. In fact, let me read off their names on the radio just to get the ball rolling.

Via Volokh.

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By: Kevin Drum

CREATING AN INCIDENT....Are we hoping to provoke Iran into some kind of overt military action that we can use as an excuse to go after them? Maybe, maybe not. But we certainly considered doing it in Iraq, so it's hardly out of the question. Jonathan Schwarz runs through the history lesson.

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By: Kevin Drum

"CHENEY'S DEAD-ENDERS"....A few month ago rumors were rife that Dick Cheney's star had fallen, victim to an endless war in Iraq that had led to stunning Republican losses in the midterm election. Even Laura had supposedly turned against him.

But with all the recent talk about going after Iran, it's pretty obvious that Dick Cheney hasn't lost any of his mojo. And there's a pretty good reason for that: Dick Cheney isn't so much a person as he is a virtual brand name within the Bush administration:

He has long surrounded himself with impeccably loyal aides who both share his worldview of a powerful presidency unchecked by the legislative branch, and who have also installed like-minded allies throughout the government. Such allies provide crucial intelligence of inter-departmental debates, enabling Cheney to make end-runs around the bureaucracy and head off opposing views at key meetings. Call it Cheney's state within the state.

That's from "Cheney's Dead-Enders," a piece by Laura Rozen in the current issue of the Monthly. Check it out. These are the people running your government.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE IRAN....So are we planning to go mano-a-mano with Iran? Everyone seems to think so, but Jim Webb decided to ask. During a hearing with Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, he asked if the president thinks he has the authority to launch an attack against Iran "in the absence of a direct threat without congressional approval." Rice declined to answer:

Senator, I'm really loathe to get into questions of the president's authorities without a rather more clear understanding of what we are actually talking about. So let me answer you, in fact, in writing. I think that would be the best thing to do.

There's probably less here than meets the eye. Matt Yglesias points out that "most recent administrations have claimed the authority to launch military actions without specific congressional authorization," but I'd go further. As far as I can tell, every single administration in American history has basically claimed the right to launch attacks on other countries without congressional approval. The War Powers Act has done precisely nothing to change this, and to be honest, I don't think Congress wants to change it. They'd just as soon not take the heat for this kind of stuff.

Of course, Congress can certainly try to pass legislation denying funding for operations in Iran if it wants to. And it might even be worth doing, if only as a shot across the bow -- though it's worth considering the downside of introducing a resolution that would not only fail, but would probably be opposed even by a fair number of Democrats. Still, maybe it's worth getting everyone on the record. And I suppose a narrowly worded resolution a la the Boland Amendment might have a chance of passage.

Kevin Drum 12:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

ACT OF WAR....The big buzz today is that war with Syria and Iran is all but imminent. Over at The Corner, Andy McCarthy seems to be pretty happy about this:

With that in mind, the raid on the Iranian consulate in Iraq's Kurdish region has to be welcome news. We would certainly regard that as an act of war if the tables were turned.

Points for honesty, I guess. But what if it doesn't work? What provocation will we dream up next to ensure that we get the war conservatives so desperately want?

UPDATE: Nope, it turns out it wasn't a consulate. I guess we'll have to try something else after all.

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By: Kevin Drum

A HEALTHCARE QUESTION....Tyler Cowen has a question for us advocates of universal healthcare:

Let's rate "the paper clip industry" as a 9 out of 10. Paper clips are pretty cheap and usually they work. Let's rate the better federal agencies as a 6.5 out of 10. Let's rate HUD as a 2.5 out of ten.

How will national health insurance do, keeping in mind that U.S. doctors do not wish to have their wages cut, Americans want the right to choose their doctors, and the U.S. is a huge, messy, decentralized, federalistic country with lots of cheats and massive, hard-to-eradicate inequalities at many different levels.

I give it about a 3. How about you?

Let me take a stab at this. Under Medicare, doctors are paid pretty decently, patients get to choose their doctors, and the system currently operates in the United States, messiness and all. So the short answer is that we don't really have to guess at this: national healthcare ought to work at least well as Medicare. And surveys indicate that the group of people who are most satisfied with the healthcare system in the United States are.....

The elderly. Who all use Medicare.

I don't know exactly what number to put to this, but a system that provides good quality care, gets high marks from its customers, covers everyone, and operates at a cost no higher than private healthcare seems like a pretty good deal. Maybe not as good as the paper clip industry, but surely at least a 6 out of 10.

And now a reverse question: how would Tyler rate the patchwork system we have today?

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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January 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EXTENDED DUTY....Well, now we know where Bush is getting the troops for his surge:

The Pentagon has abandoned its limit on the time a citizen-soldier can be required to serve on active duty, officials said Thursday, a major change that reflects an Army stretched thin by longer-than-expected combat in Iraq.

....Until now, the Pentagon's policy on the Guard or Reserve was that members' cumulative time on active duty for the Iraq or Afghan wars could not exceed 24 months. That cumulative limit is now lifted; the remaining limit is on the length of any single mobilization, which may not exceed 24 consecutive months, Pace said.

In other words, a citizen-soldier could be mobilized for a 24-month stretch in Iraq or
Afghanistan, then demobilized and allowed to return to civilian life, only to be mobilized a second time for as much as an additional 24 months. In practice, Pace said, the Pentagon intends to limit all future mobilizations to 12 months.

This should go over well....

Kevin Drum 6:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

WOMEN IN CONGRESS....A couple of days ago I linked to "Queens of the Hill," an article in our current issue about the rise of Democratic women in the 110th Congress. That prompted an email from a longtime reader who has looked at the outcomes of the November midterms and writes to say that the results were actually pretty dismal this year for Democratic women running for House seats. I haven't verified his numbers independently, but here's what he told me:

  • Of the 63 most competitive House races with either a Republican incumbent or a Republican-held open seat, 4 of the 20 Dem female candidates won and 25 of the 43 men won.

  • Of the 19 races in the original DCCC Red-to-Blue program (not counting the at-risk incumbents on the list), one of the nine women won and eight of the 10 men won.

  • Women came up short in the close races. In Republican seats where a Democrat got at least 48% of the vote, 18/26 men won but only 3/12 women. If we move it up to 49%, it's 18/22 for men and 3/10 for women.

A more sophisticated statistical analysis that controls for such things as incumbency, fundraising, and the partisanship of the district, indicates that this isn't a fluke: Democratic women really did do significantly worse than Democratic men. This is despite the fact that (a) women historically do about the same as men and (b) this year women were better funded than men on average.

So why did Democratic women do so poorly this year? Is it just a coincidence? Did they get bad campaign advice? Did Republicans run differently against women than against men? Were women more likely to run in certain kinds of districts than men? (What kind? And why did it backfire?) Did the Iraq war backdrop hurt women?

The raw data is intriguing and a bit disturbing, but it's not clear what conclusions to draw from it. Any thoughts?

Kevin Drum 6:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

ESCALATION BLUES....The Washington Post reports on an overnight poll conducted after last night's speech:

The findings of the survey, conducted after Bush's primetime speech, represent an initial rebuke to the White House goal of generating additional public support for the mission in Iraq. The poll found that 61 percent of Americans oppose sending more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, with 52 percent saying they strongly oppose the plan. Just 36 percent said they back the president's new proposal.

No surprise there. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if his speech actually increased the number of people who oppose a surge. It was that bad.

In other results, "53 percent of Americans support Democrats' efforts to cut off funds for additional troops, with 44 percent opposed." Now, Republicans might block a funding cutoff in the Senate, and Bush would veto it even if they didn't, but what's the argument for not trying it? As far as I can tell, it's almost entirely political, a fear that trying to cut off funding would be unpopular with the public. And yet, it's not, is it? So what's the argument again?

Kevin Drum 4:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE TROOPS?....Jonah Goldberg today:

Here we have a president forthrightly trying to win a war, and the opposition -- which not long ago was in favor of increasing troops, when Bush was against that -- won't say what it wants....Kerry, Pelosi and other Democrats were in favor of more troops before they were against it.

I guess it's Golden Oldies Day on the right. Or, more likely, desperation time. But we need to put this canard to bed before it catches on.

For the record: Many Democrats, along with plenty of conservatives, have noted that the initial invasion of Iraq didn't have enough troops to successfully occupy the country. And they might be right. However, that's quite a different thing from advocating that we send more U.S. troops to Baghdad now, something that I don't recall either Kerry or Pelosi ever advocating.

In fact, if by "not long ago" Goldberg means sometime in the past year, then he'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful of Democrats -- Pelosi and Kerry certainly not among them -- who have even come close to suggesting we send more troops to Iraq. The Reed-Levin amendment, calling for a phased withdrawal to begin in 2006, garnered the support of 38 out of 44 Democratic senators when it was put to a vote last June. In the House, I don't think the Republican leadership ever allowed a vote on a similar resolution, but on the resolution they did allow a vote on, three-quarters of House Democrats supported a phased withdrawal even though the resolution was worded to make virtual traitors out of anyone who voted that way. (Technically, Dems voted against a resolution opposing a withdrawal timeline. That also meant they had to vote against all the related boilerplate praising our men and women in uniform.)

It's certainly true that Democrats have not all been of one mind about the Iraq war. But "in favor of increasing troops"? Please.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (214)

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By: Kevin Drum

WATCHING THOSE WE CHOSE....Blue Girl, Red State, a frequent commenter here, has started up a new blog called Watching Those We Chose. The name speaks for itself, I think, but basically it's a group blog dedicated to keeping an eye on the folks we elected a couple of months ago. Check it out.

And if you're interested in being a watcher for your state, you can contact BGRS here.

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By: Kevin Drum

SPEECH FOLLOWUPS....Some miscellaneous followups to Bush's speech last night:

  • My wife's reaction: "He didn't seem like he was asking for my support. He was just telling me what he was going to do."

  • AP reports that "Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to crack down on fighters controlled by his most powerful political ally, Muqtada al-Sadr." If that's right, it means we are indeed declaring war on Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

  • We invaded the Iranian consulate in Irbil yesterday. This, combined with our recent naval maneuvers and Bush's threats last night, seems likely to strain relations with Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and SCIRI.

  • Of course, we're also continuing to target the Sunni insurgents. Put this all together, and outside of Kurdistan it means we're fighting everyone: the Sunnis and both of the main Shiite factions, plus Syria and Iran. And all with shiny new rules of engagement that take the gloves off. I don't care what they call this, it sure doesn't sound like counterinsurgency to me. Exactly what population is left to win the hearts and minds of?

  • I see that I'm not the only one who noticed Bush's plan to "deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies." Like me, Brian Ulrich is confused about this.

That's all for now. More later.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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January 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NOTHING NEW....There were a number of things worth commenting on in Bush's speech tonight, but I guess the biggest thing that leapt out at me is also the simplest: he really didn't make even a cursory effort to pretend that he was doing anything truly new. There was nothing about new military tactics, just an assertion that more troops would help us clear and hold neighborhoods. There was nothing very serious about reducing sectarian tension, just a laundry list of proposed Iraqi legislation accompanied by some platitudes about Prime Minister Maliki accepting responsibility for his own country. And there was nothing substantial about broader regional initiatives, just the usual pro forma warnings delivered to Iran and Syria.

It took me a couple of minutes to digest this, but there's nothing even remotely new here at all. Almost to the letter, it's the same stuff we've been trying for the past three years, except with about 10% more troops than before. Does Bush really think the American public is going to find any of this very convincing?

UPDATE: There's a little more detail here, but frankly, there's still not much new.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW STRATEGY....From the president's speech tonight:

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have.

....In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods. And Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

Am I reading this right? I assume the primary "neighborhood" in question is Sadr City -- which is actually about half of Baghdad -- and that the plan is to send American troops into Sadr City with new rules of engagement that place fewer "restrictions" on what they can do. In other words, conduct a full-on war against Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army.

Color me profoundly skeptical. If that's the plan, it sure doesn't sound like a renewed commitment to counterinsurgency to me. Nor does it sound to me like something Maliki can even begin to genuinely support. In fact, I imagine that the life of his government can be measured in hours from the moment there's any significant troop surge into Sadr City.

But maybe I'm reading this wrong. Comments?

UPDATE: Noah Shachtman suggests my reading might be 180 degrees backwards.

Kevin Drum 9:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE SURGE....So what's the president's plan for the "surge"? Here's Newsweek on the "real plan":

The White House expects all the new troops to be deployed in Iraq. But they won't go until the Iraqis have met several conditions -- or benchmarks -- to get the extra help they say they need....The White House expects that could take as long as six months, making the ramp-up of troops more of a stagger than a surge.

Really? Benchmarks first, then troops? Here's the LA Times:

Interviewed this morning on CBS' "The Early Show," [Dan] Bartlett said Bush would emphasize that "America's commitment is not open-ended, that benchmarks have to be met ... both on the security side but, just as importantly, on the political side and the economic side.

....The Associated Press reported today that Bush plans to commit 17,500 U.S. troops to Baghdad, with the first of five brigades arriving by Monday. The next wave would land by Feb. 15 and the rest would be sent incrementally every 30 days.

Hmmm. Sounds like the same old schtick after all: troops first, and then benchmarks. And we really, really mean it this time. If the benchmarks aren't met, we'll....um....we'll....set some new benchmarks! That'll show 'em we mean business.

Wake me up when the speech is over, OK?

Kevin Drum 2:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (136)

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By: Kevin Drum

COMMUNITY RATING....One of the arguments in favor of limited universal healthcare proposals -- like the one Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled on Tuesday for California -- is that it's the best we can realistically hope for. Sure, an honest-to-goodness single-payer system might be superior, but special interests will never allow it to happen. Better to mollify the special interests and take what we can get.

Over at TNR, Jonathan Cohn suggests that it's not that simple. In fact, his guess is that special interests will fight just as hard to kill any plan, no matter what we do to try to get them on board:

This is one reason that, paradoxically, plans like Schwarzenegger's -- which seek to graft universal coverage onto the existing private insurance system, rather than create a single-payer plan that would supplant private insurance altogether -- may actually be as hard, if not harder, to accomplish politically. Any plan for universal health care is bound to offend at least some special interests. And these special interests will fight hard. So while trying to soften their opposition with a less radical plan helps, it may be more important to craft an alternative that captures voters' imaginations and rallies support behind it -- even if that means proposing even more sweeping changes.

The same thing is true nationally. Although Schwarzenegger would surely resist the comparison, his plan has more than a few elements in common with the Clinton health-care plan. The architects of that scheme tried very hard to come up with something that would please various stakeholders. That's a big reason that they, like Schwarzenegger, rejected calls for a single-payer system and settled instead on a proposal in which most people would continue to get insurance through the private sector. Yet, to their dismay, few of those stakeholders became enthusiastic supporters of the Clinton health-care plan. In fact, quite a few attacked it, pretty much sealing its defeat. It's easy to imagine a similar scenario playing out here.

This is the reason I swing back and forth on whether it's worth supporting half-hearted plans like Schwarzenegger's.

On the pro side: (1) It's better than nothing. If it helps people even a little bit, that's better than letting them suffer while we all wait for nirvana. (2) Liberals have gotten burned more times than I can count by not accepting half measures when they were offered. Inevitably, a decade later, we wish we'd accepted the compromise and then worked to improve it. (3) It might work. Stranger things have happened.

On the con side: (1) Cohn is right. You need public support to overcome special interest inertia, and the only way to get that is with a simple plan that people understand. Compromises just don't generate the requisite enthusiasm. (2) Compromise plans sometimes lock weird incentives into place forever. Just take a look at how the United States ended up with employer-based healthcare in the first place. (3) One of the whole points of single-payer healthcare is that it saves a lot of money by reducing administrative costs. Compromise plans don't. Without the cost savings, it's possible that we'll end up with a system that's even worse than what we have now.

In the end, the reason I support Schwarzenegger's plan is because it includes insurance company regulation, and in particular because it enforces community rating (i.e., a requirement that insurers accept all comers at the same price, regardless of age, occupation, or medical history). And while I can't back this up with a solid argument, my gut tells me that community rating will eventually put private healthcare insurers out of business. Even with universal coverage, there are just too many contradictions in trying to run a profit-making insurance company while being forced to insure even people that you know for an absolute fact you're going to lose money on.

I might be wrong about that. Insurance company managers are clever folks, after all, and might very well figure out how to game the system just well enough to stay around. But there's at least a chance that Schwarzenegger's plan will lead to their eventual demise, and thence to a more efficient, more rational healthcare system. For now, that prospect is enough to get me on board.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

STAB IN THE BACK....Credit where it's due. Max Boot might be one of those crazy neocons, but he's not completely delusional. After surveying the conservative landscape and concluding that "a myth is likely to develop in which America's valiant fighting men and women were stabbed in the back by unpatriotic, even treasonous, reporters," he steps back and lists -- by name -- some of the reporters in Iraq who have done top notch work there:

If you wanted to figure out what was happening over the last four years, you would have been infinitely better off paying attention to their writing than to what the president or his top generals were saying. If we fail to achieve our goals in Iraq -- which the administration defines as a "unified, stable, democratic and secure nation" -- it won't be the fault of the ink-stained wretches or even their blow-dried TV counterparts. To argue otherwise deflects blame from those who deserve it, in the upper echelons of the administration and the armed forces. Perhaps that's the point.

Yep, that's the point all right. Conservative bloggers, who are being cynically used to spread this meme, should take note.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Zachary Roth

THAT WAS QUICK...On Monday, we released our new cover story, which argues that for Democrats, embracing public financing of congressional elections would be not just good policy, but good politics too, since it would level the financial playing field that currently favors the GOP. Then yesterday, not 30 hours later, Senate number two Dick Durbin called public financing the next logical step after ethics and lobbying reform, and announced that he'd be introducing a bill in the coming weeks. You can't say we don't get results.

In all seriousness, Durbin has been working on this for some time, and he understands that convincing the rest of the leadership, and the caucus as a whole, to get behind public financing will be a long-term project -- a senior Senate aide told me there aren't 25 votes in the Senate for public financing right now. But there's no doubt that having a member of the leadership team pushing the issue makes a big difference.

Zachary Roth 9:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SURGE....From a Washington Post story about the surge:

Pentagon insiders say members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have long opposed the increase in troops and are only grudgingly going along with the plan because they have been promised that the military escalation will be matched by renewed political and economic efforts in Iraq.

Maybe the Chiefs' reluctance comes from talking to troops on the ground who are trying to train the Iraqi army:

Five days with American trainers assigned to Muqdadiyah found the Iraqi army there divided, sectarian, underfunded, cold and hungry. It lacks equipment, motivation and a common belief in its mission. The old guard is suspicious of the American Army, which defeated them and now trains them. The young guard is suspicious of the old guard.

....The American trainers said teaching counterinsurgency doctrine had become secondary to more basic pursuits, such as how to load a weapon, take care of equipment and even find basic supplies: food, water and bullets. In U.S commanders' sparse offices and barracks, piles of books on counterinsurgency tactics sit unused behind desks.

Those "renewed political and economic efforts in Iraq" better be good....

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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January 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

QUESTION OF THE DAY....Assertion: Roughly speaking, when it comes to questions of military force and foreign military interventions, Bill Kristol is about as far to the extreme right as Noam Chomsky is to the extreme left. What's more, they both have about the same affect (sober and clinical), they have clear ideologies that they follow consistently and predictably, and they both dress nicely. In fact, they are pretty close to being mirror images.

Question: Is this correct? Why or why not?

Kevin Drum 4:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (195)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SURGE....Newsweek interviews Leon Panetta, a member of the Iraq Study Group, about the surge:

When your bipartisan panel came to the conclusion that relying on Iraqi forces and embedding U.S. advisors was the right course of action, rather than a surge, did you think that you were reflecting the consensus of the U.S. military at the time?
Yes. We sat down with military commanders there and here, and none of them said that additional troops would solve the fundamental cause of violence, which was the absence of national reconciliation. We always asked if additional troops were needed. We asked the question of [Gen. George] Casey and others, we asked it of Marine commanders in Anbar. Do you need additional troops? They all said the same thing: we don't need additional troops at this point; we need to get the Iraqis to assume the responsibility they're supposed to assume...

Did you interview Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who's about to take over command of multinational forces in Iraq? What did he recommend? He is now said to be a supporter of the surge.
At that time he was talking about the need to train and embed U.S. forces in the Iraqi army. (laughs)

Basically, Panetta says that virtually no one they interviewed, including members of the Bush administration, favored a troop escalation six months ago. They just didn't think it would work.

So what's changed since then? Serious thinking? Or a heaping helping of cynicism?

Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

"QUEENS OF THE HILL"....Ryan Lizza's New York Times piece this weekend, "The Invasion of the Alpha Male Democrat," has prompted a number of responses, including this from Chris Bowers:

In a political culture where being serious and being macho are construed as one and the same thing, is it any wonder that Democratic women struggled so greatly on November 7th? In both the top tier and lower tier of House races, Democratic women (the most feminine and unserious sort of person of all) suffered narrow setbacks.

Hmmm. It may be true that several Democratic women lost close races in November, but as Clara Bingham points out in "Queens of the Hill" in the current issue of the Monthly, it's also true that nearly a dozen Democratic women won new seats this November. In fact, women now account for nearly a quarter of the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate. And there's this:

What truly marks the 2006 midterms as a watershed for women in politics is the astounding degree to which women in both the House and Senate are now moving up into positions of power, in the leadership and at the head of key committees and subcommittees. Democratic women appear finally to have broken through what Pelosi calls the "marble ceiling." Women will not just be represented in the new Congress -- to a remarkable extent, they will be running the place.

....The 2006 election inspired 244 women to run for Congress, the second largest number of women to do so since the 1992 election. But for those who won their races, the environment they're entering is very different from that encountered by the class of '93. Women are no longer novelty acts, but, in the Democratic caucus at least, have acquired real political clout. In the House, of course, Pelosi is the first woman Speaker.

Slaughter leads the Rules committee, arguably the most powerful in the chamber: No bill will reach the floor for a vote without her approval. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) co-chairs the Democratic Steering Committee, which formulates policy for the caucus, and Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) serves as her vice chair. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have joined the nine-member team of chief deputy whips.

As Bingham points out, this makes a real difference: "Many so-called 'women's issues' of the 1990s -- health care, child care, education, and the minimum wage -- have become mainstream Democratic concerns in the intervening years. Causes that protect women's economic and social equality -- championed by old-timer feminists like Schroeder since the 1970s -- will no longer be pigeonholed as special interests."

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

AFGHANISTAN....According to the Baltimore Sun, "a U.S. Army infantry battalion fighting in a critical area of eastern Afghanistan is due to be withdrawn within weeks in order to deploy to Iraq." Apparently this battalion is about to become a key part of President Bush's surge strategy. However, the results in Afghanistan could be dire:

According to Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata and other senior U.S. commanders here, that will happen just as the Taliban is expected to unleash a major campaign to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar. The official said the Taliban intend to seize Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the place where the group was organized in the 1990s.

...."It is bleak," said Col. Chris Haas, commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

"The gains we have made over the past few years are mostly gone," said a bearded Special Operations officer, fresh in from advising Afghan army units in battle with 600 to 700 well-equipped Taliban fighters.

More troops in Iraq will almost certainly not make any noticable difference there. More troops in Afghanistan might, but they aren't available because of Iraq. It's worth keeping in mind that Bush's resistance to withdrawal in Iraq is likely to lead to the United States losing not just one war, but two. I'm not sure if any American president has done that before.

Via American Footprints.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

KLEIN AND THE SURGE....Note to Time's Joe Klein: when you've dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.

Let's recap. Or try to, anyway. Yesterday Klein wrote that although Democrats are right about the "surge" (i.e., it won't work), they'll never be taken seriously on the subject until they do their homework properly. You see, he says the motivating force behind Bush's planned surge isn't the usual cast of neocons (who Klein admits have been wrong about Iraq) but "a significant number of military intellectuals who have favored a labor-intensive counterinsurgency strategy in Baghdad for the past three years." And Dems need to take these guys seriously.

Of course, counterinsurgency isn't the question at hand and Klein is being disingenuous by pretending there's some argument about this. The question at hand is whether a surge now would improve our counterinsurgency prospects, and there's been a ton of reporting in the past month that suggests that both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military commanders on the ground in Iraq don't think so. Klein knows this perfectly well, just as he knows that the "motivating force" behind the surge almost certainly doesn't come from "military intellectuals" anyway. It comes from George Bush and Dick Cheney, who are casting around for something -- anything -- to fend off calls for withdrawal, and are desperately latching on to the tiny number of people who believe (or claim to believe) that a surge will work while ignoring the much larger number who don't.

Why Klein pretends otherwise I don't know. Today, though, he goes from merely incoherent to completely flipped out. Unhappy at being criticized, and apparently unable to marshal any further arguments for his case, he lashes out:

And so a challenge to those who slagged me in their comments. Can you honestly say the following:

Even though I disagree with this escalation, I am hoping that General Petraeus succeeds in calming down Baghdad.

Does the thought even cross your mind?

I'd like to respond with some kind of snappy comment here, but words fail me. I suspect Klein would be better off if words failed him too.

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE IN CALIFORNIA....Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled his universal healthcare plan for California on Monday and it looks....okay. Just. But I'd say that about any plan that keeps insurance companies in the healthcare business, so take it with a grain of salt. Given the political realities of California and the nation, it's probably about as good a plan as we could hope for.

(So does that mean I support it? I think so. Frankly, I go back and forth on whether cobbled-together plans like this one actually help things much, or whether they should all be opposed in favor of an eventual big bang. I may change my mind tomorrow, but for now I figure that a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction. I'll take it.)

Overall, the plan is about what you'd expect. Basically, it's an individual mandate (i.e., everyone is required to buy health insurance, the same way everyone who drives is required to buy auto insurance) with state subsidies for those too poor to afford coverage. There's a new tax on doctors and hospitals, and small employers are required to either provide insurance for their employees or else pay a 4% payroll tax. Insurance companies, for their part, are required to offer insurance to everyone, regardless of medical history, age, or occupation (aka "community rating," meaning everyone in a particular community gets the same rate.)

Problems? Sure. California Republicans are already lining up to oppose it, and this matters since tax and budget issues require a two-thirds majority to pass. (Apparently some Democratic supporters are claiming the plan needs only majority support, but this seems pretty iffy to me.) Steve Burd, the CEO of Safeway, points out that the 4% payroll tax is too low a figure to provide a level playing field, since healthcare sets back the average company about 7% of payroll. That may actually encourage companies to stop offering health insurance and instead simply pay the tax. Finally, although I haven't seen an independent analysis of the numbers, my gut tells me they look lowballed. I have a feeling the plan is going to cost more than Schwarzenegger is fessing up to.

Overall, I'm not a big fan of individual mandates. On the other hand, I am a big fan of community rating, and the whole plan might be worth passing simply to get that enshrined into law. Once community rating becomes established, I suspect there's no going back, and that might eventually lead to a more rational system all by itself.

So two-and-a-half cheers for Arnold's plan. It's not perfect, but few things in life are. For now, it's probably about as good as we're likely to get.

Kevin Drum 1:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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January 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TRACKING THE WINGNUTOSPHERE....As near as I can tell, the right-wing blogosphere was so thrilled over its takedown of Dan Rather in 2004 that it's spent the entire time since then desperately digging around for similar triumphs. Unfortunately, they keep getting it wrong. Steve Benen has the rundown. (And while you're at it, check out Greg Sargent's rundown of the "Lonely Kerry" story too.)

On the positive side, they don't use a lot of four-letter words. "Wrong but well mannered" seems to be their motto.

Kevin Drum 6:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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By: Kevin Drum

"ENEMY OF THE STATE"....Parody is going to become a lost art if the blowhard brigade keeps trying to top itself with stuff like this. I mean, what could I possibly write that was any more ridiculous than the thing itself?

And a note to Alan Colmes: I know Fox pays you a lot of money, but at some point it's time to reclaim your dignity. Now would probably be a good time.

Kevin Drum 6:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

DIPLOMACY IN IRAQ....In the LA Times today, Yitzhak Nakash argues that Iraq is important enough to deserve one final attempt at a political reconciliation that would help avert a full-scale civil war:

Because of the heavy human and material cost that would be exacted in the event of a war that leads to partition, the U.S. ought to make a last-ditch effort to bring Iraqis to the table to hold their country together.

To preserve Iraq's unity, the U.S. military needs to secure Baghdad -- a precondition for any attempt to revive the political process. The administration also needs to engage Iraq's neighbors in an effort to quell the fighting in Iraq and reintegrate the country into the Arab world.

This is a common refrain, and I'm certainly not opposed to regional diplomacy. At the same time, it's never been obvious to me that Iraq's neighbors -- primarily Iran and Saudi Arabia -- have enough influence to stop the violence in Baghdad even if they were fully committed to trying. Can anyone point me to a well-informed piece that makes the case that they do?

For a different take on this, check out Robert Collier's piece in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle. It's too detailed to summarize briefly, but I'm going to do it anyway:

  • The only possible path for success in Iraq involves serious negotiation with its most radical players: the Sunni-led insurgents and their archenemies, the Shiite militias.

  • The United States wants to marginalize these players, not negotiate with them, and interviews suggest that the extremists are pretty unlikely negotiation partners in any case.

In other words, the one thing we need to do to succeed is the one thing we aren't willing to do. And even if we were, it probably wouldn't work.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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By: Kevin Drum

SALTY AND COLORFUL....Is the lefty blogosphere shrill and angry? Matt Yglesias comments:

It's obviously true that the blogosphere (and especially its progressive arm) involves a degree of vulgarity that wouldn't pass muster on television or in print, but the actual significance of this tends to escape me. Nevertheless, a lot of MSM types seem to enjoy pointing to this arbitrary stylistic difference between bloggers and "real" writers as a means of pre-empting consideration of criticism.

This seems both correct and disingenuous at the same time. I mean, the significance of relentless vulgarity is pretty well established in our society, isn't it? As we all know perfectly well, it's a common signal of anger and ill temper, so it's hardly a surprise that a lot of people interpret us four-word-loving bloggers as angry and ill tempered.

At the same time, we are adults here. Or we're supposed to be, anyway. But Olivier himself would be proud of the metaphorical smelling salts that blog critics regularly pretend to reach for whenever they read an actual swear word or two in a blog post. Buck up, folks!

Anyway, I have an idea. Nobody seems to mind when, say, soldiers or longshoremen cuss. It's usually described as "salty" or "colorful." So why can't bloggers be described as salty and colorful too? Journalists, please take note.

Kevin Drum 11:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC CAMPAIGN FINANCING....Over the past couple of decades, the Republican Party has focused a lot of its attention not merely on getting conservative legislation passed, but on creating a long-term conservative majority by making structural changes to the political system that permanently erode the Democratic Party's ability to win elections. Examples include an increased interest in gerrymandering, union busting, voter ID laws, and the K Street Project, a party-wide program aimed at persuading lobbying firms to hire only Republicans.

Democrats have mostly played catch-up when it comes to structural changes, but in the current issue of the Monthly Zachary Roth argues that it's time for this to change. The biggest structural advantage Republicans have over Democrats is their ability to raise huge amounts of corporate cash for election campaigns, and this is where Democrats ought to attack:

It's no accident that the rise of conservative power in Washington that began in 1980 and accelerated after 1994 coincided with an exponential increase in the cost of political campaigns. Any system that uses corporate dollars to fund candidates' bids for office will, almost by definition, advantage the party that hews closest to corporate interests. Over the last 12 years, Republicans have figured out how to exploit that dynamic to build a political machine with which they have dominated their opponents. Now that Democrats are back in power, they have a choice: They can try to adapt to that system by going all out to get their share of the spoils. Or they can destroy it altogether by cutting off the money on which it depends.

I'll confess to some weariness about campaign finance reform -- partly because past efforts have achieved so little, and partly because success seems so far away. I was strongly in favor of California's Proposition 89 last year, a public finance initiative that was modeled on Arizona's Clean Money law, but it managed to garner only 25% of the vote. A measure to release all Class 1 sex offenders immediately and buy them each their own suburban tract homes probably would have gotten more votes.

But cynicism is for suckers, and Zack is right: lobbying reform is a fine idea, but how much real-world impact will it have if the corporate cash funnel that currently feeds American politics remains in place? Democrats may feel like they've made considerable strides in tapping that corporate cash machine in recent years, but they still haven't caught up to Republicans and probably never will. What's more, there's also this:

In recent years, the party has at times failed to stay united on major economic votes like the bankruptcy bill of 2005, in part because some members have caved to their corporate backers. If Democrats hope to fix the Medicare drug plan or repeal some of the Bush tax cuts, they'll need to reduce these defections. Ending the link between corporate money and elections will make it easier for Democrats to side with their constituents, not their contributors. And creating a record of legislative accomplishment is perhaps the most effective way for Democrats to boost their political prospects.

Read the whole thing. Zack traces out a plausible strategy that sets the stage for public finance reform following the 2008 election, and also outlines the lay of the land right now: who's for it, who's against it, and what the obstacles are. It's worth reading.

POSTSCRIPT: See also Ed Kilgore on the same subject: "The key thing for progressives is not to give up, for even a moment, on public campaign financing as a goal. It may take a while to get there, but leadership requires, well, leadership, and succumbing to the current crazy and corruption-feeding system is not acceptable. This is something on which progressives who disagree on many other topics ought to be able to unite."

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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January 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TERM LIMITS....When Newt Gingrich engineered the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, one of the changes he made was to limit the terms of House committee chairs. Instead of allowing them to run independent fiefdoms that lasted essentially forever, Gingrich put the chairs under the control of the House leadership and limited their terms to six years. Democrats have decided to keep this reform in place, and Nicholas Beaudrot wants to know why:

Okay, goo-goos, explain this one to me: why are term limits for committee chairs a good thing? Senators and Congressmen are busy people, and it can take a good 3-5 years to build up a lot of expertise in certain areas. I'm not sure if it was caused by term limits or seniority, but Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was moved from some Health related committee to the Intelligence committee, and it's been ... challenging for him [though he seemed to get his footing in the months before the midterms]. And I'm sure the various Cali bloggers (Ezra, Kevin, et al.), as well as those from Colorado and perhaps other states, can attest to the damage term limits have caused in their state legislatures.

("Cali" again? Sheesh.)

There's not much question in my mind that term limits have been a disaster for the California legislature. Nicholas is right: six years is simply too short a time to build up expertise, and the net result has been to give lobbyists and permanent staffers even more influence than they had in the past. After all, if you don't know your brief that well, who else are you going to turn to for advice?

But that doesn't mean I'm opposed to term limits. The old-style barons who ruled their committees for decades at a time are hardly a model to emulate. What puzzles me, though, is the length of most term limits: six years. Why does that seem to be such a popular figure? For my money, it takes three or four years for a committee chair (or legislator) to get good at their job, and they ought to then have seven or eight years to ply their trade. In other words, why not term limits of 10-12 years? It would prevent people from making careers out of their seats, but it would still allow them time to learn how to do their jobs effectively.

For my money, that's what Nancy Pelosi should have pushed for: keeping the term limits in place but extending them to ten years or so. And needless to say, the time to do it is now, not in 2012....

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUNDAY CAT BLOGGING....Many, many thanks to all of you who either left comments or sent email about Jasmine. They are very much appreciated. I also got a few questions along with the condolences, so for all you cataholics out there, here are your questions answered:

What happened?
I don't know. However, a vet (in comments) tells me that cats don't get heart attacks and that Jasmine most likely suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. More details here.

How is Inkblot doing?
We're keeping an eye on him, of course, but the short answer seems to be: fine. In fact, we're learning the upside of having a doofus cat who never really cared much for company in the first place. As near as I can tell, Inkblot barely even notices that Jasmine is gone. As far as he's concerned, she just nipped out to the store for a can of cat food a couple of days ago and hasn't gotten back yet.

This morning he was on the fence watching the Orange County marathon runners go by our house. You can see him in his usual majestic pose below, in a picture taken a couple of hours ago.

Are you going to get another cat?
Yes indeed. Inkblot thinks that he's plenty of cat all by himself, but we're accustomed to being a two cat family. We haven't decided whether to get a kitten or a grown cat yet, but we'll start looking around soon.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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January 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SURGE UPDATE....Whither the surge? The LA Times quotes a "senior Republican leadership aide":

For any kind of a surge, they would have to show that the surge itself was limited. It would have to be six months or a year, tops.

Compare and contrast with Sen. John McCain:

The worst of all worlds would be a short, small surge of U.S. forces. This troop surge [must be] significant and sustained; otherwise, don't do it.

Right. Meanwhile, AP reports that even Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is skeptical about the surge. I would be too if I had read this:

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said this past week that any new effort to stabilize Baghdad would likely involve traditional, large-scale U.S. operations as well as nighttime raids by smaller, more mobile forces.

That should work well. After all, "traditional, large-scale U.S. operations" have been such a resounding success in the past. Crikey.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (146)

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January 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PLAN Z....Here's Joe Biden on Thursday:

I have reached the tentative conclusion that a significant portion of this administration, maybe even including the vice president, believes Iraq is lost. They have no answer to deal with how badly they have screwed it up. I am not being facetious now. Therefore, the best thing to do is keep it from totally collapsing on your watch and hand it off to the next guy -- literally, not figuratively.

Is Biden right? Beats me. I simply have no idea what Bush and Cheney genuinely think these days, and I certainly wouldn't discount the possibility that they continue to live in an alternate reality in which they truly believe that "victory" is still possible in Iraq.

But even if Biden is right, I suspect there's a bit more to it. As we're all aware, "population transfers" are the order of business right now in Baghdad (and in the rest of the country as well, though slightly less dramatically). Eventually, regardless of any action one way or the other from the United States, the Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd populations will be almost entirely separated. This was the prerequisite for our "success" in Kosovo, and in a similar way it's possible that once Iraq's ethnic cleansing is mostly complete their civil war will start to die down of its own accord and the U.S. will finally be able to prop up a government of sorts. It won't be much of a government, but it might be enough for Bush to convince himself that his steadfastness kept Iraq together after all. I suspect that both Bush and Cheney may be counting on this.

And if even that doesn't happen? Then, as Biden said, it's the next president's problem. I guess that's Plan Z.

Kevin Drum 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

NET NEUTRALITY UPDATE....Is net neutrality primed for a comeback? AT&T chief Edward Whitacre, a determined foe of neutrality, recently backed down in the face of opposition from Democratic members of the FCC:

As head of the muscular new AT&T Inc. -- SBC took the name when it acquired the venerable long-distance giant -- Whitacre surprisingly agreed last week that his company would not sell premium delivery of Web content for the next two years. His decision could spur Congress to extend the prohibition to all Internet providers.

....Key congressional supporters of network neutrality plan to reintroduce their legislation soon, hoping AT&T's decision elevates the policy into law. And AT&T's pledge not to discriminate among Internet content, contained largely in a two-sentence paragraph, may rob neutrality opponents of one of their most effective arguments: that the issue is too vague to be precisely defined.

"You have a single paragraph that has a rule that a fifth-grader can understand: Treat people the same," said Timothy Wu, a Columbia University law professor who has faced that argument when testifying to Congress in favor of network neutrality. "This will set a baseline and a standard."

Unlike a lot of liberal bloggers, I don't think net neutrality is quite the bombshell issue it's sometimes treated as, but I still think this is good news. The internet has prospered under a regime of net neutrality for several decades, and ordinary prudence suggests we should be pretty cautious before abandoning it. After all, we have a pretty good idea that even in the worst case a net neutral regime isn't going to do any enormous harm, and I suspect -- mirable dictu! -- that the phone companies will somehow figure out a way to offer new high-speed services just fine even if they aren't allowed to set up toll lanes.

And if they don't? Then the law can be changed. But I'd rather see it changed in response to demonstrable problems, not a mere insistence from the telecom industry that they're doomed if we don't do what they want. We've heard that Chicken Little song just a few too many times before.

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

MEET THE NEW BOSS?....Faced with a shortage of commanders who believe that a surge escalation in Iraq is a good idea, President Bush has decided on some wholesale changes in his Middle East Team. Lt. Gen. David Petraeus will replace George Casey as commander in Iraq; Adm. William Fallon will replace John Abizaid as Centcom commander; Ryan Crocker will replace Zalmay Khalilzad as amabassador; and of course Robert Gates has already replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Juan Cole is surprisingly upbeat:

The professionals take charge....These are competent professionals who know what they are doing. Gates is clear-sighted enough to tell Congress that the US is not winning in Iraq, unlike his smooth-talking, arrogant and flighty predecessor. Petraeus is among the real experts on counter-insurgency, and did a fine job of making friends and mending fences when he was in charge of Mosul. Crocker has been ambassador to Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan, and knows the region intimately (as does Khalilzad).

As Cole later implies, the odds at this point are pretty strongly against these guys no matter how good they are, but adds, "If the US in Iraq can possibly have a soft landing, these are the individuals who can pull it off."

Good luck to them, though I'm not as optimistic as Cole. I hope no one ruins their career over this.

Kevin Drum 10:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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January 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FINAL CAT BLOGGING....I have some sad news. About an hour ago Jasmine was sitting on my desk (keeping an eye on me, as usual) when she went into a violent spasm and fell to the ground. She died within a minute.

I don't know what happened, but it was probably a heart attack. She's had a heart murmur ever since we first got her, and it probably finally caught up to her. She was nine years old.

The picture on the right is the last one taken of her. It was snapped on December 30 while she watched us prepare a Virginia ham sent to us by a reader. The ham turned out perfectly, thanks no doubt to her careful supervision.

This will be the first night in years that she won't curl up between our pillows at night and then methodically take over Marian's pillow completely as the night progresses. It always helped us sleep better. If there's a cat heaven, I hope Jasmine is there, eternally chasing fat, lazy mice and snacking on spicy tuna. Rest in Peace, sweetie.

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (378)

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By: Kevin Drum

LAW? WHAT LAW?....It is, of course, illegal to fire someone for trying to organize a union at their workplace. So how's that law working out?

We find a steep rise in the 2000s relative to the last half of the 1990s in illegal firings of pro-union workers. By 2005, pro-union workers involved in union election campaigns faced about a 1.8 percent chance of being illegally fired during the course of the campaign....If we assume that employers target union organizers and activists, and that union organizers and activists make up about 10 percent of pro-union workers, our estimates suggest that almost one-in-five union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign.

Italics mine. This is from a new study by John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer of CEPR. And just so you can't say I don't provide good news along with the bad, the authors report that although illegal firings have risen dramatically under the Bush administration, things still aren't quite as bad as they were during the Reagan administration. So count your blessings.

Via Brad Plumer.

Kevin Drum 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

MINIMUM WAGE FOLLIES....I promised myself I wasn't going to read George Will's column today about abolishing the minimum wage, but unfortunately a reader sent me the link and I clicked on it before I knew what it was. Weak man that I am, I then went ahead and plowed through it.

It's mostly just a data dump of half facts and cherry picked numbers, and the only assertion of any importance comes at the end:

The minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities' prices.

This, in a nutshell, is the core problem with conservative economics: it views workers as commodities. Naturally it follows from this that we should be free to treat workers like commodities, rather than as human beings. (See here for a recent example.)

Most conservatives are careful not to state this belief quite so baldly, but Will must have slipped up this morning. But don't blame him. He's just saying out loud what all the rest of them usually say only under their breaths.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth noting that Will is mistaken in two different ways. First, as a matter of empirical economics, workers aren't commodities. Unlike pig iron ingots, they respond to incentives, they can be trained to operate more efficiently, they put their paychecks back into circulation, etc. As Will is undoubtedly aware, there's an entire branch of economics dedicated to exactly these issues, and it reaches conclusions considerably more complicated than those in the Micro 101 class he took half a century ago.

Second, he's mistaken in a moral sense. A rich society really has no excuse for not setting bare minimum levels of decency for all human interactions, including those between employer and employee. Virtually everyone in America accepts this today, which is why increasing the minimum wage garners support of 70-80% in most polls. But apparently it's still a controversial concept in some quarters.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (347)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS FOR HEALTHCARE....The latest news from California:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will propose that all Californian children, including those in the state illegally, be guaranteed medical insurance as part of the healthcare overhaul he intends to unveil next week, according to officials familiar with the plan.

....If enacted by the Legislature, his proposal would affect about 763,000 children who now lack insurance....That would be a small piece of Schwarzenegger's stated goal: to ensure medical coverage for all of the 6.5 million Californians who now have none.

Details are murky so far, but I don't think the mechanics of Schwarzenegger's plan is what's important anyway. What's important is that two of the Republican Party's highest-profile governors have now publicly endorsed the idea of universal health coverage for their states. In other words, some kind of universal, or semi-universal, healthcare has now been established as the rightmost bound of the healthcare debate.

Democrats should understand what this means: (a) universal healthcare is no longer some lefty fringe notion, and (b) the plans from Schwarzenegger and Massachussetts' Mitt Romney are now the starting point for any serious healthcare proposal. Any proposal coming out of a Democratic policy shop should be, at a minimum, considerably more ambitious than what's on offer from these two Republicans.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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January 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CRACKING DOWN ON CONTRACTORS....Over at Defense Tech, P.W. Singer makes an interesting observation:

Not one contractor of the entire military industry in Iraq has been charged with any crime over the last 3 and a half years, let alone prosecuted or punished. Given the raw numbers of contractors, let alone the incidents we know about, it boggles the mind.

The problem, Singer says, is that contractors are the human equivalent of Guantanamo Bay: they aren't subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but prosecutors back in the states aren't really interested in spending time bringing civilian cases against them. So they fall between the cracks, able to do just about anything without fear of being held to account.

But that's all about to change:

Amidst all the add-ins, pork spending, and excitement of the budget process, it has now come out that a tiny clause was slipped into the Pentagon's fiscal year 2007 budget legislation. The one sentence section...[states that the UCMJ] "is amended by striking 'war' and inserting 'declared war or a contingency operation'." The measure passed without much notice or any debate.

....With the addition of just five words in the law, contractors now can fall under the purview of the military justice system. This means that if contractors violate the rules of engagement in a warzone or commit crimes during a contingency operation like Iraq, they can now be court-martialed.

As Singer says, this change is long overdue. Like it or not, Congress doesn't formally declare war anymore, and recognizing that contractors should be subject to the UCMJ even in the non-wars we fight nowadays is just common sense. The vast majority of military contractors may be honest and hardworking, but the military needs a fair and consistent way of dealing with the ones who aren't.

Kevin Drum 8:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

CEO PAY UPDATE....Charles Munger, Warren Buffett's partner at Berkshire Hathaway, talks to the LA Times about the insane levels of CEO compensation these days:

What makes CEO pay so difficult is that only a few of the people who are earning these huge amounts are actually worth it....I like the idea of high pay for people who are really worth it. The problem is that most of them are not. Every mediocre employee who rises through the ranks to become CEO thinks he should retire rich. It's crazy.

Do you think this might be what Munger is talking about?

Embattled Home Depot Chief Executive Robert L. Nardelli, under fire from stockholders for earning hundreds of millions at the same time the company's stock fell and market share dropped, resigned suddenly today and will walk away with a severance package of $210 million, the company announced....During his tenure, Nardelli earned $240 million in salary, bonuses and stock options.

....During his leadership of the nation's second largest retail chain after Wal-Mart, Home Depot lost market share to home-improvement rival Lowe's Cos. and its stock price declined almost 8 percent.

Let's get out our calculators. $450 million for six years of service comes to....about $75 million per year. And this is for reducing Home Depot's value and losing market share to its main rival.

I wonder what Nardelli would have been paid if he had actually increased Home Depot's value? Would there be enough money in the world?

Kevin Drum 3:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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By: Kevin Drum

MALIKI ON IRAQ....The Wall Street Journal interviews Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki:

WSJ: Will you accept a second term if it's offered to you?

Mr. Maliki: Impossible. I wish I could be done with it even before the end of this term. I would like to serve my people from outside the circle of senior officials, maybe through the parliament, or through working directly with the people.

Maliki goes on to say that he has a "strong hope" that there will be peace in Iraq in his lifetime, but it sure doesn't sound like he has much hope, does it? Unless this is some kind of Arab cultural thing I'm not familiar with, it sounds like we have a prime minister in Iraq who's not only ineffectual, but one who knows it perfectly well and doesn't even want the job. That's bad juju.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

ELLISON AND THE KORAN....What do you do if you're a newly-elected Muslim congressman who's been criticized for taking the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Bible? You do what Keith Ellison is planning to do. As the Washington Post reports, Ellison won't be using just any old copy of the Koran:

We've learned that the new congressman -- in a savvy bit of political symbolism -- will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson....Jefferson's copy is an English translation by George Sale published in the 1750s; it survived the 1851 fire that destroyed most of Jefferson's collection and has his customary initialing on the pages.

Good for Ellison. Sounds like he's a pretty smart cookie.

As long as we're on the subject, I have to say that this is one of the least explicable "controversies" I've had the pleasure to encounter in the past couple of months. If you had asked me before this episode erupted what book Muslims use to take the oath of office, I would have immediately answered that they'd use a Koran. A Jew? Probably a copy of the Hebrew Bible or the Torah. A Catholic? A copy of the Catholic Bible. Etc. It wouldn't even have occurred to me that they should use anything other than the holy book of their own faith.

But it sure occurred to a few other people who are permanently tuned into the outrage machine. The fever swamp may be small, but it's mighty deep, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE EXECUTION OF SADDAM....I didn't get a chance to blog about the execution of Saddam Hussein last week, but Christopher Hitchens revived the subject yesterday in his usual state of high dudgeon:

Did our envoys and representatives ask for any sort of assurances before turning over a prisoner who was being held under the Geneva Conventions? According to the New York Times, there do seem to have been a few insipid misgivings about the timing and the haste, but these appear to have been dissolved soon enough and replaced by a fatalistic passivity that amounts, in theory and practice, to acquiescence in a crude Shiite coup d'etat.

....The timing -- isn't anyone in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad paid to notice this kind of thing? -- was explicitly designed to rub every kind of humiliation into Iraqi Sunnis. It profaned their observance of the Eid ul-Adha holiday, while gratifying the Shiite fundamentalists whose ceremonies begin one day later. To have made the butcher Saddam into a martyr, to have gratified one sect, and to have cheated millions of Iraqis and Kurds of the chance for a full accounting -- what a fine day's work!

Was Saddam's execution a miscarriage of justice? I suppose so, but on the cosmic scale of miscarriages of justice I find myself underwhelmed by this particular example. What did we expect, after all?

More to the point, what did Hitchens expect? I'm pretty willing to criticize just about anything the Bush administration does in Iraq, but did Hitchens seriously expect the United States to refuse to turn over Saddam to the supposedly sovereign government of Iraq after a trial and verdict that we ourselves had condoned? On what grounds? Because of a suspicion that they might not conduct the execution with the same attention to legal niceties that are observed in, say, the great state of Texas? That would have gone over well, wouldn't it?

Hitchens knows -- or should know -- exactly what Iraq is like today. The Shiites are in control, and there's not much we can do to stop them from working their will. The United States has very little leverage or control over events on the ground, and virtually no influence over the sectarian violence, something that our acquiesence in the tawdry execution of Saddam merely confirms. I can't say whether Hitchens is genuinely surprised by this or just feigning it, but it's rather spectacularly unconvincing either way.

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (291)

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By: Kevin Drum

I'M BACK....Happy New Year! Many, many thanks to Steve Benen for filling in for the past week. His blogging has been great, and if you know what's good for you you'll bookmark his regular site and visit it daily. He blogs at The Carpetbagger Report (http://www.thecarpetbaggerreport.com).

Regular blogging will start up on Wednesday morning after I have a chance to catch up on the news. I understand that a new Congress will be in session shortly. Along with a new speaker? Nancy somebody, I think. I imagine that will be worth a blog post or three.

POSTSCRIPT: An emailer reminds me that since I was off for the past week, I didn't get a chance to gloat about USC's trouncing of the "We Deserve a Rematch" Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. I'm a little saddened that anyone thinks I'd gloat over such a thing, but I guess that's the world we live in. So let me just take this chance to extend my sincere condolences to Michigan fans around the country. I imagine things are pretty chilly in Ann Arbor right about now.

Kevin Drum 12:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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January 2, 2007

IRAQI REFUGEES.... According to a dejecting piece in today's New York Times, the Bush administration had planned to resettle just 500 Iraqi refugees this year, while reality shows tens of thousands of Iraqis who are now believed to be fleeing their country each month. "Until recently," the Times reported, "the administration did not appear to understand the gravity of the problem."

If only I had a nickel for every time I've seen that sentence.

"We're not even meeting our basic obligation to the Iraqis who've been imperiled because they worked for the U.S. government," said Kirk Johnson, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Falluja in 2005. "We could not have functioned without their hard work, and it's shameful that we've nothing to offer them in their bleakest hour."

Alas, there's a political implication. To acknowledge a refugee crisis would be to acknowledge yet another degree of failure. As Lavinia Limon, president of the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nongovernmental refugee resettlement agency, put it, "I don't know of anyone inside the administration who sees this as a priority area. If you think you're winning, you think they're going to go back soon."

As it happens, the crisis is for the desk of Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Sauerbrey, of course, was given the job despite literally no background in responding to refugee crises, setting up camps, delivering emergency supplies, and/or mobilizing international responses to humanitarian crises. Her only "qualification" for the job seemed to be that she was a Republican activist looking for a job in the administration. (Sauerbrey is a former member of the Republican National Committee and was Bush's Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000.)

Indeed, the moment Bush nominated Sauerbrey for the post, advocates for refugees balked. Tapping Sauerbrey to lead an agency with a $700-million annual budget, responsible for coordinating the nation's response to refugee crises during natural disasters and wars, despite no relevant job experience, seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), rather politely at her confirmation hearing, told Sauerbrey, "I think the concern here is just that the issues of refugee relief are a very specific and extraordinarily difficult task, and it doesn't appear that this is an area where you have specific experience."

Senate Republicans, true to form, approved her nomination anyway. Now she's being asked to step up in a big way.

If the refugee crisis worsens, as it's likely to do, keep an eye on Sauerbrey. We may have another "Brownie"/FEMA story unfolding.

Steve Benen 8:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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CASEY UP TO BAT.... The New York Times' front-page account of the Bush administration's unraveling policy in Iraq is easily today's must-read, for more reasons than one.

The article, on its face, is fairly devastating. At every key moment in the conflict, the Bush gang has been a couple of steps behind where they should have been. It includes too many familiar phrases, such as administration officials being "taken by surprise" and failing "to take warnings seriously."

That said, Josh Marshall is right to scratch just below the surface of the article, and explain that the article subtly identifies a scapegoat for the White House's problems. It's about playing the blame game, and Gen. George Casey is losing.

According to the White House, the person to blame for Iraq is Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., the top American commander in the country. And Casey's so bad that President Bush is probably going to can him before his current tour concludes this summer. Probably as soon as next month.

In so many words, Casey's policy (which, reading between the lines, it's pretty clear Casey thought was Bush's desired policy) was maintain current troop levels and 'standing down as the Iraqis stand up'. You may have thought that was the Bush policy. But apparently not. "Over the past 12 months," the Times now tells us, "as optimism collided with reality, Mr. Bush increasingly found himself uneasy with General Casey's strategy."

In fact, the Casey policy left the White House so wrong footed that they were "constantly lagging a step or two behind events on the ground."

This isn't entirely new; just two months ago, then-House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said "generals on the ground" were to blame for conditions in Iraq, not Rumsfeld, and certainly not the president.

Still, this New York Times article is a more blatant example of throwing Casey under the bus. From the article: "[A]s Baghdad spun further out of control ... Bush grew concerned that General Casey, among others, had become more fixated on withdrawal than victory."

Ah yes, the subtle smear the White House favors most. Either you're for an ambiguous, impossible-to-define "victory" or you're against it.

But if "Casey's plan" fell out of favor, and there was too much "fixation" on withdrawal, why not overhaul the policy sooner? According to the Times, the White House couldn't -- because there were "political calculations" to worry about.

Many of Mr. Bush's advisers say their timetable for completing an Iraq review had been based in part on a judgment that for Mr. Bush to have voiced doubts about his strategy before the midterm elections in November would have been politically catastrophic.

It's good to know the Bush gang never lost sight of its priorities. Better to worry about a political catastrophe than an actual catastrophe, right?

Steve Benen 5:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (138)

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GIULIANI'S PLAYBOOK.... Somebody's getting fired.

It's clearly laid out in 140 pages of printed text, handwriting and spreadsheets: The top-secret plan for Rudy Giuliani's bid for the White House.

The remarkably detailed dossier sets out the budgets, schedules and fund-raising plans that will underpin the former New York mayor's presidential campaign - as well as his aides' worries that personal and political baggage could scuttle his run.

At the center of his efforts: a massive fund-raising push to bring in at least $100 million this year, with a scramble for at least $25 million in the next three months alone.

The loss of the battle plan is a remarkable breach in the high-stakes game of presidential politics and a potentially disastrous blunder for Giuliani in the early stages of his campaign.

That's probably a little overstated, but it's certainly not good to have such a sensitive internal document -- basically the entire early campaign strategy laid out over 140 pages -- leaked to a reporter. It's hardly the kind of move that tells the political world, "We're ready to run the White House."

Frankly, as a substantive matter, there's nothing jaw-dropping in the report. Apparently, Team Giuliani hopes to pry away some McCain donors and is all-too-aware of their candidate's flaws (divorces and extra-marital affairs, the connection to Bernie Kerik, his left-leaning positions on social issues). This shouldn't come as too big a surprise to anyone.

Still, as James Joyner noted, "[I]f your chief selling point is executive competence, such stumbles aren't good."

As for how the New York Daily News obtained the Giuliani playbook, the document was leaked by "a source sympathetic to one of Giuliani's rivals for the White House."

The backstabbing between these guys is likely to get pretty serious, isn't it?

Steve Benen 4:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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A MISGUIDED VICTIM COMPLEX.... To add a bookend to the previous post, Justin Rood noted that the 110th Congress hasn't even officially begun, but several House Republicans have already started feeling sorry for themselves.

In a "Dear Colleague" letter circulated to fellow Republicans, three House GOPers are trying to push a "Minority Bill of Rights" -- based on a two-year-old proposal by then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). You can read the letter here.

"Unfortunately, as you are well aware, the Democrats' forty-year reign over the House was plagued by consistent, systematic efforts to usurp the rights and privileges of the Republican minority," write Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Tom Price (R-GA).

I'm afraid on the hypocrisy-o-meter, these three just buried the needle.

Two years ago, Nancy Pelosi and other House Dems proposed some modest measures that would improve the democratic process on the Hill: bills would only come to the floor after open committee hearings, lawmakers would be able to offer amendments to bills, and members would have at least 24 hours to actually look at legislation before being asked to vote on it.

What happened in response to Pelosi's written request? Dennis Hastert blew it off and refused to even acknowledge the correspondence.

Now, all of a sudden, the same ideas have been repackaged as a Republican-backed "Minority Bill of Rights." For reasons that escape me, McHenry, Cantor, and Price seem to believe "their" idea should be taken seriously.

As for their argument about abuses that may have existed before 1994, Kevin thoroughly debunked the Dems-were-just-as-bad notion a couple of years ago.

When it comes to abuses of power, modern Republicans are in a league of their own. And now that they're in the minority again, worried about abuses that haven't actually happened, we're apparently supposed to feel sorry for them. Please.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES.... Just last week, the New York Times ran a lengthy item about how much better Congress, and particularly the House, will function under the new Democratic majority. It all sounded quite pleasant -- no more middle-of-the-night votes on key bills, no more restrictions on the minority offering amendments, no more single-party conference committees.

It's a new day in a new Congress, and Democrats are poised to run the place as it should be run. That is, just as soon as Dems check a few items off their to-do list.

As they prepare to take control of Congress this week and face up to campaign pledges to restore bipartisanship and openness, Democrats are planning to largely sideline Republicans from the first burst of lawmaking.

House Democrats intend to pass a raft of popular measures as part of their well-publicized plan for the first 100 hours. They include tightening ethics rules for lawmakers, raising the minimum wage, allowing more research on stem cells and cutting interest rates on student loans.

But instead of allowing Republicans to fully participate in deliberations, as promised after the Democratic victory in the Nov. 7 midterm elections, Democrats now say they will use House rules to prevent the opposition from offering alternative measures, assuring speedy passage of the bills and allowing their party to trumpet early victories.

The context of the 100-hour rules matters. Dems spent the better part of the 2006 campaign cycle promising to anyone who would listen that they'd pass a modest-but-popular legislative agenda at the outset of the 110th Congress. The bills on the agenda aren't exactly new -- they've been part of the policy debate on the Hill literally for years. It's not as if the new Democratic majority was going to overhaul the national health care system without any committee hearings; the 100-hour agenda items have already been part of the legislative process.

There's obviously a bit of a conflict. House Dems promised to use certain procedural rules, and they promised to pass certain bills. In the very short term, they can't do both, so they decided to pass the policy agenda first. I can't say I blame them.

Also keep in mind, the 1,500-word front-page piece in the Post was noteworthy for what it didn't include: a single complaint from a congressional Republican. Some conservative blogs aren't happy, and maybe the Post reporters didn't try hard enough, but not one GOP lawmaker was quoted expressing outrage at the Democrats' plan to push through a relatively modest 100-hour agenda. I'm not surprised -- House Republicans no doubt expected this, and for that matter, they can't very well complain about Dems using the rules temporarily exactly the way Republicans used them permanently.

Ultimately, as the GOP said quite a bit over the last six years, elections really do have consequences.

Steve Benen 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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NOTE TO GOODE: STOP DIGGING.... Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) appeared to have weathered the storm. Last week, Goode made headlines for a blatantly bigoted letter to supporters in which he insisted Muslims represent a threat to "traditional" values, which is why, he said, we should pass massive immigration reform in order to keep more Muslims out of the country.

After his written remarks sparked widespread criticism, Goode refused to apologize. Indeed, he appeared on Fox News arguing, " I wish more people would take a stand and stand up for the principles on which this country was founded," though he did not elaborate on exactly which "principles" he was referring to.

Fortunately for Goode, interest in his comments died down. Unfortunately for Goode, he renewed interest in his anti-Muslim animus this morning with a USA Today op-ed. (via TP)

Let us remember that we were not attacked by a nation on 9/11; we were attacked by extremists who acted in the name of the Islamic religion. I believe that if we do not stop illegal immigration totally, reduce legal immigration and end diversity visas, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion, rather than working within the Judeo-Christian principles that have made us a beacon for freedom-loving persons around the world.

The context of all of this -- the controversy and the USAT op-ed -- is Goode's concern about Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn), Congress' first Muslim, and his decision to use a Koran in his ceremonial swearing-in photo-op.

From this, Goode believes Americans should be concered about "infiltration"? Goode does know that Ellison's family has been in this country for over 200 years, right?

Remember, Republicans, he's one of yours.

Steve Benen 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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IF A MILITARY TIMES POLL FALLS IN A FOREST.... Following up on an item from the weekend, the Military Times newspapers published a massive new poll after questioning 6,000 randomly selected active-duty members of the Armed Forces. The results ran counter to much of the conventional wisdom -- barely one in three service members approve of the way the president is handling the war; a majority believe it was wrong to go into Iraq in the first place; and a plurality reject the notion of sending additional troops into the war.

For reasons that are unclear, the media seems to have missed the poll entirely.

Greg Sargent noted on Saturday the dearth of news coverage of this story, and I followed up this morning by doing a Nexis search to see just how many outlets reported on the story. Given the results of the poll and the importance of the troops' opinions, I was surprised at just how little coverage the Military Times survey received.

In terms of newspapers, the San Jose Mercury News and the Seattle Times were the only U.S. papers to run stories of their own. Reuters and UPI mentioned the poll in wire stories, which were not widely picked up. That's it. That's all the print coverage the poll received.

Broadcast outlets were a bit better, with CNN and ABC mentioning the poll on the air, but that's still not exactly widespread coverage.

It's common for outlets to downplay poll results from rival news sources; papers and networks don't want to give free publicity to competing news organizations. I get that. But the Military Times newspapers aren't rivals to the major dailies. So why not mention a poll that highlights the fact that many troops disapprove of Bush, don't support an escalation, don't see Iraq as part of the war on terror, and don't believe that success in Iraq is likely?

It sounds kind of newsworthy.

Steve Benen 10:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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READY OR NOT, HERE ESCALATION COMES.... For about a month, Bush administration officials have maintained the fiction that the president had not come to any conclusions about whether to send thousands of additional troops to Iraq, and that while a change in policy was in the works, Bush hasn't decided what that change would be. The claims always seemed far-fetched -- every source and leak kept whispering that an escalation was on the way.

In case there was any lingering doubt, the whispers are getting louder.

White House officials say a troop "surge" almost certainly will be the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's new strategy for Iraq to be unveiled mid-month. But while administration officials have gone to great lengths to emphasize that the extra troops will be in Iraq only temporarily, there is no clear definition of how long that might be.

Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers who endorsed the increase say they want the extra troops in Iraq for just three to six months. Senior military commanders believe the extra forces can be sustained in Iraq for only six to 12 months before logistical and manpower strains become untenable. Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, has told associates that 12 months is needed to ensure a substantive effect.

Echoing Gen. Schoomaker's concerns that Iraq's militias would simply wait out a three- or six-month surge and then resume their violence, a report by military historian Frederick Kagan argues that the troops should be in Iraq for at least 18 months. The U.S. has about 140,000 troops in Iraq, and the additional forces could total as many as 20,000.

Similarly, the BBC reports today that, in a speech to be delivered in the middle of next week, Bush will "reveal a plan to send more US troops to Iraq to focus on ways of bringing greater security, rather than training Iraqi forces."

The next question, of course, is whether anyone in the U.S. will approve of such a move.

The troops don't seem to care for the idea. Neither does the public. The Joint Chiefs aren't enthralled with the proposal, and new Defense Secretary Robert Gates apparently has some concerns of his own.

On the Hill, while congressional Democrats are nearly universal in their opposition to escalation, the list of high-profile Republican opponents, or at least skeptics, has grown considerably in just the last three days. Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Chuck Lugar (R-Ind.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) are all expressing doubts, if not outright opposition.

It's hard to characterize this has a partisan, ideological fight when so many Republicans are joining the vast majority of Democrats in criticizing the president's approach.

For what it's worth, AEI resident scholar Frederick Kagan, a leading proponent of escalation, told the WSJ, "If we surge and it doesn't work, it's hard to imagine what we do after that. But we're already in a very bad spot, and if we don't do anything defeat is imminent."

Does this mean he'll support withdrawal if this new escalation does as poorly as the last one?

Steve Benen 8:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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January 1, 2007

SAFIRE IN DENIAL.... I was just catching up on yesterday's Meet the Press and was struck by just how far gone William Safire is. Tim Russert asked his journalist roundtable, for example, to name the biggest story of 2006. Safire wasn't alone in mentioning the war in Iraq, but his response was, shall we say, unique.

"The Iraq story is obviously the big story of the year. And I look at the Trumanesque quality in the White House now. You have a president who is facing all this bad news coming out of Iraq and the casualties and the brink of civil war. And he's hanging in there and he's not admitting defeat, he's not embracing defeatism. And he's coming up with another approach, and who knows, he may turn it around."

It prompted Kate O'Beirne, of all people, to counter Safire, saying, "In 2004, being steadfast like that served him well. The contrast was John Kerry is a flip-flopper and George Bush is steadfast. But by 2006, that was no longer an asset. What they considered steadfast, I think, looked stubborn and out of touch."

When O'Beirne has to intervene with a dose of reality, you know Safire has reached a breathtaking state of denial.

On a related note, Russert reminded Safire (and all of us) that the former Times columnist predicted in 2005 that by the end of 2006, we'd see evidence of victory in Iraq, a troop withdrawal would have begun, and a civil war would fail to develop. Asked to respond, Safire said he remains "optimistic," and added, "One of these days I'm going to be right."

Maybe someone could explain to me why Safire keeps getting invited back to Sunday morning public affairs shows. Even among the conservative punditocracy, Meet the Press has to be able to do better than this.

Steve Benen 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (165)

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IF KRISTOF'S WISHES WERE HORSES.... Kevin frowns upon highlighting items behind the New York Times' pay wall, but Nick Kristof's year-end piece, published yesterday, was a sight to behold.

Kristof noticed that President Bush's legacy "doesn't look good right now," and imagined a future obituary that described Bush leaving office "vilified and disgraced." Kristof proceeded to offer 10 suggestions for the president to pursue in 2007 that might help him "rescue" his legacy." It's quite a list.

* Negotiate with Iran and Syria, and "renounce permanent military bases in Iraq."

* Start working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

* Confront the genocide in Darfur.

* Dump Dick Cheney and get a new VP.

* Expand the government's efforts to combat AIDS.

* Address climate change.

* Give up on the idea of attacking Iran.

* Give up on privatization and embrace a Clinton-like approach to Social Security reform.

* Address our disgraceful inequities in health care and pursue Carter's idea of comprehensive coverage for children up to age 5.

* "Steal [policy ideas] from your critics and rivals."

It's enough to make me wonder if Kristof has been watching the same president as the rest of us the last six years. As Matt Yglesias put it: "I agree with Nick Kristof -- George W. Bush would be a pretty good president if he reversed, um, all of his ideas about public policy and started governing like a liberal Democrat."

I suspect this isn't going to happen. Call it a hunch.

Steve Benen 9:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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