Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NEANDERTHALS UNITE!....Harvard alum Michael Winerip has been interviewing Harvard applicants for the past decade. In the New York Times on Sunday, he wrote a piece that perfectly mirrors something I've thought for a long time:

Meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today's fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant.

....What kind of kid doesn't get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

In 1975, I applied to Stanford, Caltech, and UC San Diego and was accepted by all three. This was no big surprise: I was an A student, scored 1420 on the SAT, attended an NSF math program the summer after my junior year, had two varsity letters, and was editor of the school paper. Not bad! But as near as I can tell, it would barely get me an interview at a place like Stanford or Harvard these days. I suppose I'd still make it into UCSD, but that's about it.

I dunno. Is this true? Would the Kevin Drum of 1975 be able to get into a top school in 2007? I suppose it's impossible to say. The SAT was renormed in 1995 and my old 1420 would be a 1490 today. I'd have a bunch of AP classes under my belt not because I was any smarter, but because suburban high schools all offer loads of AP classes these days. And I'd probably do outside volunteer work or something on weekends — not because I'm any more altruistic than I was then, but just because everyone knows that's what you need to do if you're trying to get into a top school.

So who knows. Maybe it's just a trick of the light. But all I can say from reading news reports is that the kids who get into elite universities today sure seem a damn sight more accomplished than me or anyone else I knew back in 1975. Like Winerip, I feel like a neanderthal.

On the other hand, we boomers still rule the world. Smarter or not, homo super-accomplishmentus will just have to wait their turns.

Kevin Drum 7:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (172)

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By: Kevin Drum

"BLINK"ING THE CANDIDATES....This is quite a fascinating little chart from the Pew Research Center. I feel like I ought to have something deep and meaningful to say about it, but I really don't. I do, however, have a few garden variety observations.

First: Hillary Clinton is viewed as more liberal than Barack Obama? Both Republicans and Democrats agree about this, and, needless to say, both Republicans and Democrats are very, very wrong on this score. Apparently the power of perception is hard to break down.

Second: For fans of the Downs Median Voter Theorem, it's worth noting that all of the major Republican candidates are viewed as closer to the middle than any of the major Democratic candidates. (This depends only slightly on how you define "middle." Pew uses a scale of 1 to 6, so the mathematical middle is 3.5. However, the self-identified middle is 3.4, as is the self-identified position of independents.) This is potentially bad news for Democrats.

Third: Over at Ezra's place, Neil points out that John Edwards, who is arguably the most progressive candidate, is viewed as the most centrist. This is potentially good news for both progressives and for John Edwards, since it means the candidate most likely to pursue a progressive agenda once he's in office is also the candidate who's most electable.

Other stuff: Democrats and Republicans rate the Republican candidates almost identically, but they differ quite strongly in their ratings of the Democratic candidates. I'm not quite sure what this means.

Finally, the average Republican rates herself farther from the middle than the average Democrat. The average Democrat, therefore, is ideologically fairly close to all the major Dem candidates, while the average Republican is quite distant from theirs. Again, I'm not quite sure how this will play out.

At any rate, it's good stuff for political junky types, and the full poll has some other, equally interesting findings. Judging from the questions about who's the strongest leader, who's the most inspiring, who's the most electable, etc., for example, the primaries shouldn't even be close. It'll be Clinton vs. Giuliani in a walk. We'll see.

Kevin Drum 3:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

TARNISHED HALO....Ana Marie Cox, back from spending some face time on the Straight Talk Express, explains how John McCain's willingness to talk to the press endlessly isn't buying him as much love as it did in 2004:

In the past, this tremendous access bred a certain amount of protectiveness among some journalists — you don't want to play "gotcha" with someone who gives all the time. The dynamic on this campaign is slightly different, and the coverage — including mine — shows it. Those new to covering him want to prove they won't fall for the old guy's charm. Those who covered him in 2000 want to prove they never did. Congratulations, blogosphere!

Sounds about right to me, though there's hardly any need to bend over backwards here. If McCain merely gets the coverage he deserves, he's doomed.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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PROBLEMS WITH THE METRIC SYSTEM....Megan complains today about the rigidity of TSA regulations for carrying small bottles of liquid onto airplanes. That's nothing. A reader who works as a TSA screener emailed me a couple of weeks ago to say that he has had "easily dozens of run-ins with passengers (and other screeners)" about whether it's legal to carry on a 100 gram bottle. You see, 100 grams is 3.52 ounces by weight (just over the limit!). But, by volume, 100 grams of water = 100 milliliters, and 100 ml is 3.38 fluid ounces (just under the limit!). So that 100 gram bottle probably contains 3.38 fluid ounces of stuff, but 3.52 avoirdupois ounces. What to do?

Just thought you'd all like to know.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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ROUGH DRAFT....George Tenet explains the Downing Street Memos. Read it and weep.

Kevin Drum 12:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE....Niall Ferguson thinks Wall Street isn't taking the Iraq War seriously enough:

It took a long time for American investors to acknowledge that there might be an economic as well as a strategic downside to failure in Vietnam. The Dow hit 1051.70 on Jan. 11, 1973. By Dec. 6, 1974, it had fallen by nearly half.

[....]

If McCain is right and the Middle East does blow up some time after an American exit from Iraq, oil could end up at $100 a barrel. Then what? Well, how about higher inflation, a dollar slide and a stock market sell-off?

We're supposed to stay in Iraq because it's helping prop up the stock market? That's some seriously warped thinking. And what makes it even weirder is the part I left out, in which Ferguson admits that Vietnam had little or nothing to do with the 1973-74 stock market selloff. This gets him points for honesty, I guess, but for some reason it still didn't stop him from charging ahead with his fears that leaving Iraq might bring the American economy to its knees.

In any case, I suspect Ferguson has it exactly backwards. Spare pumping capacity is so low right now that any serious disruption in oil supply could indeed send prices skyrocketing — and unfortunately, there are plenty of possible disruption scenarios. But while some of these scenarios are either unrelated to Iraq or related to our departure, even more of them, I think, are related to our staying. For some reason, though, hawks always forget about those kinds of scenarios.

Perhaps the question Ferguson should have asked himself is this: If LBJ had exited Vietnam in 1968, after four years of fruitless escalation, how would the American economy have done in the 70s? Probably better, and certainly no worse. What lesson does this hold for four years of fruitless escalation in Iraq?

Kevin Drum 11:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

MISDIAGNOSIS?....In our current issue, Phil Longman reviews Sick, Jon Cohn's new book about the dysfunctional American healthcare system. But he thinks Cohn has misdiagnosed the disease. Money can't really be our core problem, he says, since the evidence indicates that the more you spend, the worse your treatment is likely to be:

According to a recent RAND study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, uninsured patients receive only 53.7 percent of the care experts believe they should get — that is, appropriate, evidence-based treatment. But according to the same study, patients with private, fee-for-service insurance are even less likely to receive the proper care. Indeed, among Americans receiving acute care, those who lack insurance stand a slightly better chance of receiving proper treatment than patients covered by Medicaid, Medicare, or any form of private insurance.

....[Dr. Elliot Fisher] found that in America's highest-spending hospitals, only 74.8 percent of heart attack victims receive aspirin upon discharge from the hospital, as opposed to 83.5 percent in lower-budget competitors. This may be one reason why survival rates for heart attack victims are actually higher in low-spending hospitals than in high-spending hospitals.

What's more, these spendthrift hospitals often skip other routine preventative care such as flu vaccines, Pap smears, and mammograms. This general lack of attention to prevention and follow-up care in high-spending hospitals helps to explain why not only heart attack victims but also patients suffering from colon cancer and hip fractures stand a better chance of living longer if they stay away from "elite" hospitals and choose a lower-cost provider instead. Given this reality, it is perhaps not surprising that patient satisfaction also declines as a hospital's spending per patient rises.

So what does Longman think the answer is? Click the link to find out. Or buy his new book. Or buy 'em both.

Kevin Drum 2:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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April 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RAMADI....Both the LA Times (here) and the New York Times (here) have features in today's papers about American success in the city of Ramadi, which has become this year's version of Tall Afar: the shining success story that everyone in the Army wants to show off. So which account should you read? Answer: If you want the feel-good version of the story, read the LA Times, but if you want at least a hint at the context of what's really going on, read the New York Times:

Many Sunni tribal leaders, once openly hostile to the American presence, have formed a united front with American and Iraqi government forces against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

....Some American officials readily acknowledge that they have entered an uncertain marriage of convenience with the tribes, some of whom were themselves involved in the insurgency, to one extent or another....These sudden changes have raised questions about the ultimate loyalties of the United States' new allies.

....The turnabout began last September, when a federation of tribes in the Ramadi area came together as the Anbar Salvation Council to oppose the fundamentalist militants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia....For all the sheiks' hostility toward the Americans, they realized that they had a bigger enemy, or at least one that needed to be fought first, as a matter of survival.

Italics mine. Ramadi really is a success story (as was Tall Afar), and it's heartening to see that U.S. forces are smart enough to find wedges where they can and exploit them. At the same time, even in Ramadi, the insurgency is far from gone. Once al-Qaeda has been safely dispatched, how long will it be until the rest of the Sunni factions decide to turn their attention back to an American occupying force that looks like it's planning to stay forever?

Conversely, how would that dynamic change if we provided the sheiks with credible assurances that American troops would begin withdrawing in the forseeable future? Without that, our success in Ramadi is likely to be short lived.

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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GO AWAY....Michael Finnegan writes in the LA Times today that the current political landscape for Republicans is so toxic that the party is having trouble finding good candidates to contest even winnable House seats in 2008. That's not really all that surprising. But here's the best part of Finnegan's piece:

And in New Hampshire, nonpartisan pollster Dick Bennett said the atmosphere is so sour that he is having a tough time getting Republicans to participate in surveys. The war, high gas prices and unhappiness with the Bush administration all have dampened their interest sharing opinions, he said.

Republicans are too depressed to even answer poll questions? That's toxic.

Kevin Drum 12:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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April 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S THERE TO TALK ABOUT?....George Tenet says no one in the White House ever had a serious conversation about whether invading Iraq was a good idea. Dan Bartlett says they had plenty of them. James Fallows isn't buying:

I say plainly: that is a lie. To be precise about it, no account of the Administration's deliberations, by anyone other than Bartlett just now, offers even the slightest evidence that this claim is true. Innumerable accounts offer ample evidence that it is false. I have asked this direct question to many interviewees who were in a position to know: was there ever such a meeting or discussion? The answer was always, No. The followup challenge to Bartlett should be: show us a memo, show us a policy paper, show us a scheduled meeting, show us notes taken at the time to substantiate the idea that the Administration ever seriously considered what the nation would gain or lose by invading Iraq, and what the alternatives might be. What the Administration actually considered, according to all known evidence, is how it would invade Iraq, and when.

Goodness. So shrill. Come on, Jim, it was only a trifling little Mideast war. Wouldn't a "memo," as you so quaintly call it, have been rather a lot of overkill?

Kevin Drum 4:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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IT'S HALLEY'S COMET!....Why did the White House conduct those pre-election "informational briefings" for federal agencies that just happened to include extensive information about which vulnerable Republicans were most urgently in need of help? White House spokeswoman Dana Perino didn't have any plausible answers at hand yesterday, so apparently she just pulled out Excuse #23 from the permanent file: Clinton did it too!

She was wrong, but who can blame her for trying? It usually works fine.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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NO LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL....Is it a surge or an escalation?

The Bush administration will not try to assess whether the troop increase in Iraq is producing signs of political progress or greater security until September, and many of Mr. Bush's top advisers now anticipate that any gains by then will be limited, according to senior administration officials.

In interviews over the past week, the officials made clear that the White House is gradually scaling back its expectations for the government of President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. The timelines they are now discussing suggest that the White House may maintain the increased numbers of American troops in Iraq well into next year.

Translation: Maliki has no authority whatsoever; the Iraqi troops we've been training for the past three years are still useless; there's no political progress in sight; and in the meantime we're stalling for dear life, hoping against hope that something good magically happens. In Republican leadership circles, this is called a "foreign policy." The rest of us have a different name for it.

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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April 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TERRORISM UPDATE....This year's report on global terrorism will show a 25% increase in terror attacks between 2005 and 2006, "almost all of it due to incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan" according to McClatchy. Then there's this:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top aides had considered postponing or downplaying the release of this year's edition, due to the extreme political sensitivities, several officials said. But ultimately, they decided to issue the report on or about the congressionally mandated deadline of Tuesday, the officials said.

Say what? They considered postponing a congressionally mandated report because it might be inconvenient for the president's war policy? Is there some kind of "political sensitivities" exemption in the law?

Kevin Drum 5:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....If I'd been on the ball, I would have taken pictures of the cats playing with the catnip plants in our garden yesterday. But I wasn't. So instead you get whatever they were doing this morning, which isn't much. However, since the action shot of Inkblot last week was so popular, here's another one. What passes for action around these parts, anyway.

Kevin Drum 2:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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BLASTING THE BRASS....Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, one of the officers responsible for the Army's success in Tall Afar last year, has penned a blistering attack in the Armed Forces Journal aimed at our current military brass:

Despite paying lip service to "transformation" throughout the 1990s, America's armed forces failed to change in significant ways after the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War....Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America's generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq....Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as "Fiasco" and "Cobra II." However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.

....In 1997, the U.S. Central Command exercise "Desert Crossing" demonstrated that many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results, CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

....After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America's generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency....After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America's general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public....The intellectual and moral failures common to America's general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship.

Phil Carter, who returned last year from a tour in Iraq, is impressed:

This is an incisive and brilliant article — it is precisely the kind of ruthless self-examination which is so necessary for an army at war. Unfortunately, Lt. Col. Yingling is one of the few officers with the moral courage to make this point so far. Although I've heard this argument made (in somewhat less sophisticated fashion) by a number of military friends and colleagues, I have not seen it made publicly and on-the-record by many. That speaks to a moral decline within the American military, and perhaps to the triumph of careerism over integrity. Perhaps I'm exaggerating here, but given the scope of these failures, I'm disappointed to see so few officers speaking out like this.

Here's a question: Careerism probably explains why criticism like this is so rare among military officers, but why is it also so rare even among civilians? I suspect there are several dynamics at work. First, criticizing the brass seems a little too close to criticizing the troops, and no one wants to be caught anywhere even colorably close to that. Second, especially among liberals, no one wants to take the heat off the Bush administration, and sharp criticism of the military leadership inevitably suggests that the White House might not be entirely to blame for the Iraq debacle. And third, there's a legitimate question of how strongly general officers should push back against their civilian leadership. There's a line where that pushback morphs into bureaucratic resistance to presidential will (Bill Clinton ran into this more than once, where military leaders essentially manufactured scenarios that made presidential action impossible), and no one is quite sure where that line is.

These are understandable concerns, but they're hardly compelling reasons for silence. Among other things, Iraq has made clear not just that our military isn't equipped to effectively fight non-conventional wars, but that even now it continues to be largely uninterested in fighting non-conventional wars. It would rather have its toys, and in this it's aided and abetted as it always has been by a Congress more interested in military pork for constituents and contributors than it is in figuring out what our military really ought to look like ten years from now. Yingling's article is a wakeup call.

Kevin Drum 1:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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By: Kevin Drum

A WEE PROPOSAL....I've got a deal to propose. Here it is: Debate moderators agree to stop asking moronic questions and presidential candidates agree to actually answer the questions they do ask. Wouldn't that be great?

And now, back to reality.....

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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MORE TENET....The New York Times has a copy of George Tenet's new book ("purchased at retail price in advance of publication"!), and it sounds like it must be a snoozer. Here's about the best thing they could find to excerpt from it:

Mr. Tenet hints at some score-settling in the book. He describes in particular the extraordinary tension between him and Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, in internal debate over how the president came to say erroneously in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.

He describes an episode in 2003, shortly after he issued a statement taking partial responsibility for that error. He said he was invited over for a Sunday afternoon, back-patio lemonade by Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state. Mr. Powell described what Mr. Tenet called "a lively debate" on Air Force One a few days before about whether the White House should continue to support Mr. Tenet as C.I.A. director.

"In the end, the president said yes, and said so publicly," Mr. Tenet wrote. "But Colin let me know that other officials, particularly the vice president, had quite another view."

What else? Tenet now says that the pre-war CIA assessment of Iraqi WMD was "one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure." He thinks maybe he shouldn't have accepted his Presidential Medal of Freedom. And he says a small group of insane hawks inside the administration were obsessed with Iraq almost from the moment the Twin Towers fell. None of this is exactly breaking news.

And George Bush? He is "portrayed personally in a largely positive light." Sounds like Tenet still hasn't quite figured out that the cossacks report to the czar.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY TEACHERS QUIT....Ken Futernick of the Center for Teacher Quality at Cal State Sacramento recently conducted a study of why teachers drop out of teaching. The study itself seems so poorly designed as to be worthless, but his conclusion still has the ring of plausibility:

"When teaching and learning conditions are poor, we discovered that many teachers see their compensation as inadequate. When these teaching and learning conditions are good, not only do teachers tend to stay, they actually view their compensation as a reason for staying."

The findings suggest that when teachers unions advocate primarily for salary, they have it somewhat wrong. On the other hand, Futernick said, administrators are clearly misguided when they focus single-mindedly on getting rid of "bad teachers."

....At high-minority and high-poverty schools, teacher turnover typically runs at 10% annually. "If this churning is going on, you can be sure you have a dysfunctional school," Futernick said. "As long as we think of these schools as combat zones, we'll never solve the retention problem and we'll never close the achievement gap" between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers.

That sounds about right. But complaining about low salaries and bad teachers is a lot easier than focusing on the seemingly intractable problem of dysfunctional communities creating dysfunctional schools. So that's what we do.

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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OFF WITH HER HEAD....I'm curious: what do people think about the MIT dean story? MIT officials recently discovered that Marilee Jones, their dean of admissions, lied on her resume 28 years ago and does not, in fact, have a college degree. So they fired her:"There are some mistakes people can make for which 'I'm sorry' can be accepted, but this is one of those matters where the lack of integrity is sufficient all by itself," [Chancellor Phillip] Clay said. "This is a very sad situation for her and for the institution. We have obviously placed a lot of trust in her."Needless to say, point taken. But isn't there also a point here about credentialism run amok? Everything I've read about this case suggests that Jones was not just a good dean of admissions, but something of a superstar dean of admissions. Given that, is the fact that she lied about her credentials three decades ago for an entry-level job really that big a deal?

Not being an academic myself, maybe I just don't realize how serious this situation is. But from my perch outside the academy, it's hard not to think that this didn't necessarily require the death penalty. Surely there was something MIT could have done to demonstrate it took this seriously without also losing a valued and high performing member of its administration?

UPDATE: Reaction in comments is virtually unanimous: I'm wrong. In fact, firing might have been too good for her....

Kevin Drum 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (233)

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DREAMS FROM MY FATHER....Alexander Konetzki is a liberal who decided to start his journalism career as an assistant editor at The American Conservative. It was an odd choice, to be sure, but apparently he made a pretty good go of it until a couple of months ago when the magazine finally published a piece that pushed him over the edge: a review of Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father written by noted race obsessive Steve Sailer. Konetzki tells his story in our current issue:

Even before I read the piece I knew I wouldn't like it. TAC's editor, who was pleased with Sailer's work, had told me as much. But I found the piece so offensive when I first read it that I jumped out of my chair and rushed into the managing editor's office to try to kill it on the spot. She and the editor promptly dismissed my objections. The piece is provocative, they said — it's edgy. It's racist, I said — and the magazine will be regarded as such for publishing it.

....The weekend after Kara and Scott dismissed my objections to Sailer's essay, I read Dreams From My Father....I arrived at the office on Monday....And when I went to her office with Obama's book in hand, asking again whether we could discuss things, she called across the hall to Scott, who said, "Yeah, look, Alexander, this matter has already been decided. The piece is being published as it is." I pointed out that I had read the book, and Sailer's characterization of Obama was factually incorrect. "I have too many other things to worry about," Scott said coldly. "Steve Sailer is a longtime friend of the magazine, and if you and he read a book differently, well, I'll take his reading over yours any day."

This got me curious. I had gotten a copy of Dreams From My Father for Christmas, so I sat down to read it. Then I read Sailer's essay, "Obama's Identity Crisis." So who's right?

In a word, Konetzki. Basically, Sailer argues that far from being a man who "transcends race," Obama, at least up through 1995, when Dreams was published, "found solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against his mother's race" — i.e., white people. "Why was Obama so insistent upon rejecting the white race?" he asks.

This is, to put it mildly, a crock. Sailer tries to back up his thesis with a few carefully cherry-picked quotes, but even taken at face value all he shows is that Obama was occasionally either annoyed or angry with some of the actions of his white friend and relatives. And it's true. He was. But it's absurd to suggest that this demonstrates some kind of deep-seated animosity. I imagine a dark-skinned man growing up in America would have to be a saint to go through life without ever feeling that way.

None of which is to say that Obama wasn't confused and uncomfortable with his racial identity for much of his first three decades. In fact, that's the whole point of the book. What's more — and this is the part of Dreams I found most peculiar — it's never really clear why. In language that's often florid and overwrought, but also oddly artificial, he tells us how he feels, but the circumstances of his life are never drawn starkly enough to make it clear why he feels the way he does.

I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm white. Maybe African-American readers understand Obama's feelings without the need for lengthy explanation. Either way, though, the book makes it clear that Obama's racial angst mostly takes the form of trying to construct a workable black identity for himself. He's fascinated, as anyone would be, by the Kenyan father he met only once and the extended Kenyan family he's never met at all (his eventual trip to Kenya to meet them forms the final section of the book), and Sailer wants us to believe that this act of black identification automatically suggests a rejection of Obama's white heritage. Unfortunately, this says more about Sailer's state of mind than Obama's. There's simply nothing in the book to seriously back it up.

And then there's Sailer's conclusion, in which he hints that if Obama becomes president his youthful racial confusion might return, morphing him into an African-style "big man" dedicated to doling out goodies to the Urban League instead of governing as the levelheaded wonk we all think he is. This is almost a parody of Sailer's usual race obsession, and one that literally comes out of nowhere. Like the rest of the essay, Sailer would have been better off letting Konetzki take a very thick blue pencil to it.

Kevin Drum 1:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (110)

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April 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

"SLAM DUNK"....George Tenet says he's pissed off at whoever it was who leaked his "slam dunk" comment to Bob Woodward:

The phrase "slam dunk" didn't refer to whether Saddam Hussein actually had WMDs, says Tenet; the CIA thought he did. He says he was talking about what information could be used to make that case when he uttered those words. "We can put a better case together for a public case. That's what I meant," explains Tenet.

....He says he doesn't know who leaked it but says there were only a handful of people in the room.

"It's the most despicable thing that ever happened to me," Tenet says. "You don't do this. You don't throw somebody overboard just because it's a deflection. Is that honorable? It's not honorable to me."

Well....color me unconvinced. Given a couple of years to think it over, that's probably the kind of story I'd come up with too, but I think I'd try to make it more believable. Frankly, the table-pounding declaration that something is a "slam dunk" doesn't really sound like the kind of thing you'd say if you were merely agreeing that your PowerPoint presentation could use some sprucing up, does it?

But who knows. Maybe that really is the way Tenet talks. As for his belated discovery that the Bush White House doesn't always behave in honorable ways, all I can say is: I hope Tenet's take on foreign leaders was more insightful than his take on his own boss. The fact that loyalty is a one-way street with Bush the Younger is not exactly the news of the century.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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PRETTY FOR THE CAMERAS....Jim Henley vents a bit about the John Edwards haircut fiasco:

You know, if we had reporters in this country, they could actually find out the hair-care costs for all the candidates rather than just assuming that the one barbering bill that has come to light is unusual. If reporters want to huff that such work is beneath them, I'll have to demand that they give me a break, by taking hostages if necessary. Not only is nothing beneath them, as they have repeatedly shown, it's absurd to argue implicitly that candidate hair care costs are a big deal if the story happens to fall into your lap, but not a big enough deal to do actual work on.

Well, I don't have the energy to do anything that close to real reporting, but I do know how much George Bush paid to have his face made up for TV appearances during the 2000 campaign. Or, rather, Stephanie Mencimer knows. Details here.

Kevin Drum 5:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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BANANA REPUBLICANS....CONTINUED....The Washington Post reports today that White House political officials conducted "20 private briefings on Republican electoral prospects in the last midterm election for senior officials in at least 15 government agencies." The only one of these briefings we know anything about is one given at the GSA last year:

In the GSA briefing — conducted like all the others by a deputy to chief White House political adviser Karl Rove — two slides were presented showing 20 House Democrats targeted for defeat and several dozen vulnerable Republicans.

At its completion, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked how GSA projects could be used to help "our candidates," according to half a dozen witnesses. The briefer, J. Scott Jennings, said that topic should be discussed "off-line," the witnesses said. Doan then replied, "Oh, good, at least as long as we are going to follow up," according to an account given by former GSA chief acquisition officer Emily Murphy to House investigators, according to a copy of the transcript.

And what about all the other briefings? The Post reports the Stepford-like answer: "By the end of yesterday afternoon, all of those describing the briefings on the record had adopted a uniform phrase in response to a reporter's inquiries: They were, each official said, 'informational briefings about the political landscape.'"

Informational briefings! With specific information about, among other things, which particular Republicans in which particular districts in which particular states were in the most trouble. Right before an election. You betcha.

But you never know. Maybe it's just a wild coincidence that the only meeting we actually know anything about included conversations about how to help "our candidates." Maybe the rest of them really were just "informational." And maybe OJ really is innocent.

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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AL-QAEDA IN IRAQ....Andrew Sullivan makes the prosaic point this morning that we are "occupying a sovereign Muslim country indefinitely, against the wishes of a clear majority of Iraqis," a project with little chance of success and considerable chance of creating ever more problems as long as it continues. Then he makes a followup argument that gets surprisingly little air time:

So we should leave. Soon. Let the Shia and tribal leaders and the Kurds confront al Qaeda. It's about time they did. And they have as good a reason as we do and far better knowledge of the enemy and the terrain. Until they own this war against Islamist terror, it won't be won. And by continuing to stay, we postpone the day when they have to fight for their own country and their own religion — and win the war we cannot win for them.

Does anyone really doubt this? Putting aside questions about whether al-Qaeda in Iraq is really al-Qaeda — or merely a new name for the most extreme fringe of a nationalist insurgency — surely the best way to crush them is to leave. They are unloved by practically everybody, they draw their strength mainly from our continuing presence, and Iraqi security forces would likely decimate them if they were left to their own devices.

Yes, AQI's demise would come only at the end of a lengthy and brutal war, but how much worse is that than coming at the end of an even lengthier war run by the United States? Or perhaps not coming at all because this isn't the kind of war the United States military can fight effectively? Isn't it time to face up to this?

Kevin Drum 11:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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IRAN UPDATE....Via Dan Drezner, Time's Tony Karon reports some modestly encouraging news on the Iran front:

A senior former Iranian diplomat was reported Tuesday as revealing that [Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali] Larijani had been given "authority for compromise" by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Iran's leaders reportedly grow increasingly concerned about a confrontation with the U.S. and subjecting their troubled economy to the added pressure of sanctions, the search for a formula that would allow both sides to stand down has become more urgent.

....The U.S. had originally insisted that Iran could not be allowed to keep any enrichment facilities on its own soil, but it is now being reported that Solana may offer a deal in which Iran would keep its current small-scale enrichment research facility, although not actually run it, for now. Reports suggest that the U.S. will push for the Natanz facility to revert to "cold standby," i.e. turning off but not dismantling the centrifuges, whereas Iran would counter that they be kept spinning, although empty of uranium.

The very fact that the negotiations are focused on such details of a mutually acceptable formula for defining what is meant by "suspension" of Iran's activities suggests that the current trend in the nuclear talks is towards compromise, rather than confrontation.

Stay tuned. This sounds fairly speculative, but still better than anything we've heard before. Maybe a deal can be struck after all.

Kevin Drum 11:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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April 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WINNING THE WAR....In a recent PIPA poll of four majority-Muslim countries (Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia), 10% of the respondents said they approved of terrorist attacks on civilian targets. Question: is this good news or bad? 10% is a pretty small number, all things considered, but at the same time, it's way more than enough to keep al-Qaeda supplied with foot soldiers for a long, long time.

These other results, however, are unreservedly bad news:

  • 75% have an unfavorable view of the U.S. government.

  • 79% think one of the goals of U.S. foreign policy is to weaken and divide the Islamic world.

  • Only 16% think the primary goal of the war on terror is to protect the U.S. from attack.

  • Only 24% think the U.S. is committed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

  • Only 23% believe al-Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Here's the problem: At best, we're never going to manage to do more than tread water in the war on terror/jihad/extremism/whatever as long as the Muslim public so overwhelmingly holds these beliefs. Unfortunately, although the Muslim attachment to a deeply illiberal culture is real and needs to be faced squarely, changing Islamic public opinion isn't a matter of merely overcoming some kind of mass delusion. After all, with the exception of the last bullet, these are all pretty defensible beliefs.

So here are some questions for every one of the 2008 presidential candidates: Do you care about Muslim public opinion? Do you think it impacts U.S. national security? Which aspects of American foreign policy do you think contribute to these attitudes? What concrete steps would you take to change these parts of our foreign policy? Aside from making jokes about bombing Iran, that is. There will be an open book test on January 20, 2009.

Marc Lynch has more here ("the al-Qaeda worldview — of a world divided between clashing civilizations and Islam under a comprehensive assault from the West — seems widely spread and increasingly entrenched"). The full PIPA report is here.

Kevin Drum 6:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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BLIND QUOTES....David Ignatius calls for a mission into the heart of darkness:

If you want to hear despair in Washington these days, talk to Republicans...."This is the most incompetent White House I've seen since I came to Washington," said one GOP senator.

[Etc. etc.]

When a presidency is as severely damaged as this one, the normal drill is to empower a strong and politically adept White House chief of staff to make the necessary changes....The current White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, needs to mount a similar salvage mission, argue several prominent Republicans. They question whether he's politically adept enough. But most of all, they question whether Bolten or anyone else can break through Bush's tight, tough shell and tell him the truth. What's starting to crack isn't the obdurate Bush, but the country.

Politically adept? Bush may have lots of problems with the Hill, as Ignatius documents, but let's face it: this is all about Iraq, and there's no chief of staff in the world who's going to change Bush's mind on that. Until Republicans themselves stop hiding behind blind quotes and start going public with the plain truth themselves, there's no point in pretending that Josh Bolten can do it for them.

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GOODLING GETS IMMUNITY....Excellent. I see that the House Judiciary Committee has voted to grant immunity to Monica "Fifth Amendment" Goodling so that she can testify under oath about Purgegate. Even a majority of the Republicans on the committee voted in favor.

Good for them. Goodling's refusal to testify has never seemed to be so much about genuine Fifth Amendment concerns as it was about the fact that she simply didn't think she should have to face tough questioning from a hostile panel. Unfortunately, the law doesn't say anything about that. It's time to get her under oath.

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BUYING THE WAR....PBS's Bill Moyers Journal is returning to the air tonight with a 90-minute broadcast called "Buying the War." It sounds well worth watching, and I especially want to highlight this:

Among the few heroes of this devastating film are reporters with the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau in D.C. Tragically late, Walter Isaacson, who headed CNN, observes, "The people at Knight Ridder were calling the colonels and the lieutenants and the people in the CIA and finding out, you know, that the intelligence is not very good. We should've all been doing that."

This is something that's common knowledge in the blogosphere, where Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) has been a daily must-read for years. Their DC and Baghdad bureaus don't have the breadth of coverage of, say, the New York Times, but the stuff they do cover is almost always top notch. And their coverage of Iraq has been easily the most acute and prescient of any news organization. They well deserve being singled out on tonight's show.

You can check local showtimes for "Buying the War" here. Definitely worth a look.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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LETTING RUDY WIN....Yesterday Rudy Giuliani said the country would be safer if it elects a Republican in 2008 — especially if that Republican is him:

"If any Republican is elected president — and I think obviously I would be the best at this — we will remain on offense....I listen a little to the Democrats and if one of them gets elected, we are going on defense," Giuliani continued. "We will wave the white flag on Iraq. We will cut back on the Patriot Act, electronic surveillance, interrogation and we will be back to our pre-Sept. 11 attitude of defense."

He added: "The Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us."

My reaction: Yawn. Of course Rudy thinks the country would be safer with a Republican in charge. Presumably he also thinks the economy will do better, crime will come down, and everyone will have whiter teeth. If he didn't, he wouldn't be a Republican.

So I was curious: how would the Dem candidates respond? With the usual whining? Or with something smart? Greg Sargent has today's responses from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton over at his site and the verdict is in: more whining. Obama: "Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low blah blah blah." Clinton: "One of the great tragedies of this Administration is that the President failed to keep this country unified after 9/11 yada yada yada."

Unbelievable. Neither one of them took the chance to do what Rudy did: explain in a few short sentences why the country would be safer with a Democrat in the Oval Office. Is it really that hard? Giuliani's position is clear: more war, more domestic surveillance, more torture, and fewer civil liberties. And while it's true that the liberal position on making America secure is a little more complicated than the schoolyard version of foreign affairs beloved of Bush-era Republicans, it's not that complicated. So instead of complaining about how mean Giuliani is, why can't Obama and Clinton just tell us what they'd do?

Whining just reinforces the message that Democrats are wimps. The real way to be "hard hitting" is to explain why Giuliani is wrong and what Democrats would do instead — and why the average Joe and Jane would be safer and better off without guys like Giuliani bumbling recklessly around the globe leaving a stronger al-Qaeda and a weaker America in their wake. Until they do, Rudy and the Republicans are going to win every round of this fight.

UPDATE: This response from the DNC isn't what I was after, but at least it's a decent attack on Giuliani. That's a start, I guess.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (164)

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THE UPSTART....Is trade policy the "single biggest fault line in today's Democratic Party"? That's what Zack Roth says in the current issue of the Monthly, and he suggests that up-and-comer Tim Ryan, a favorite of the netroots, is just the guy to bridge the divide. Ryan, who represents Ohio's blue-collar 17th district, may be a solid favorite of organized labor (he recently cosponsored a tariff bill aimed at Chinese imports), but it turns out he's also a big fan of Alvin Toffler and the knowledge economy:

That Ryan finds himself claimed as an ally by both sides of the trade divide is more than just clever political positioning. His approach may represent where the party, and the country, is ultimately heading on the issue. Younger people appear far more willing than their elders to acknowledge, as Ryan does, that America can't wall itself off from the global economy. In a recent poll, 41 percent of respondents aged eighteen to thirty-four agreed that free trade deals help the United States. Among respondents fifty and over, that figure was just 18 percent. "Younger people didn't fully live as adults in the world as it used to be," says Lori Kletzer, a trade policy expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank that has generally favored trade liberalization. "So they're more willing to figure out ways to work in a world that has ... job insecurities and vulnerabilities."

This has the ring of plausibility to me, and given the importance of young voters to the future of the Democratic Party this may be bad news for the populist wing of the party. Read the whole thing for more.

Kevin Drum 12:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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April 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NYET!....The latest from our commander-in-chief:

Speaking somberly on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving on a trip to New York, Bush said he was willing to meet with Democratic leaders "as many times as it takes to resolve our differences," but he signaled no intention to compromise with them on the funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As I recall, that was approximately the Soviet style of "negotiation" during the Cold War. Who says Bush never learns from history?

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THE WALL....Here's the latest on those large concrete things the U.S. Army is building in Baghdad:

U.S. and Iraqi military officials scrambling to deflect criticism of a wall being erected to separate a volatile Sunni Muslim neighborhood from surrounding Shiite areas insisted Monday that the structure is not a wall at all. It's a barrier.

....Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, said Sunday night that he opposed the project and had ordered it halted.

But Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim Musawi said at a news conference Monday that the project would go on and said Maliki had supported the barrier idea. Opposition arose after exaggerated media reports making the structure sound like the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China or the barrier being built by Israel in and around the West Bank, he said.

"There's a difference between constructing a security barrier and a security wall," said an infuriated Musawi. "Some media said the security forces will construct a security wall. This is inaccurate and groundless. As I said, these will be barriers."

Musawi's distinction between a "wall" and a "barrier" — especially when it's 12 feet high, constructed of 2,000 pound concrete blocks, and runs three miles with only one public exit point — is obviously specious. And it was the U.S. Army that started the whole "Great Wall" meme anyway.

Nonetheless, Musawi is almost certainly telling the truth when he says that Maliki originally supported the idea and is now folding in the face of public outcry. Whether he's right to fold like that is almost irrelevant. Either it was a good idea but Maliki didn't bother building support for the barrier among local leaders, or it was a bad idea and he never should have gone along with it in the first place. If he now flips again and allows the construction to go forward after "consulting" with American military commanders, his remaining credibility will be somewhere south of zero.

Can progress be made in Iraq without credible leadership? The question answers itself. A new military strategy and a few extra battalions in Baghdad do nothing to change that.

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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HOUSING UPDATE....More bad news in the housing market. Blamed on the weather, natch. Feel free to believe that or not depending on your own personal mood.

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KARL ROVE UNDER THE MICROSCOPE....Oh my:

The Office of Special Counsel is preparing to jump into one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Washington, launching a broad investigation into key elements of the White House political operations that for more than seven years have been headed by chief strategist Karl Rove.

The new investigation, which will examine the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House e-mails, and White House efforts to keep presidential appointees attuned to Republican political priorities, could create a substantial new problem for the Bush White House.

...."We will take the evidence where it leads us," Scott J. Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel and a presidential appointee, said in an interview Monday. "We will not leave any stone unturned."

I have a longstanding belief that Rove will never be seriously touched by any investigation. He's too good at keeping his fingerprints off the wetwork. But I'd love to be proven wrong.

Kevin Drum 1:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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BUSH FATIGUE....Mitt Romney says Jeb Bush would be a presidential front-runner if his name weren't Bush. Larry King asked George Bush Sr. if he thought that was true:

"There's something to that," he said. "There might be a little Bush fatigue now."

A little?

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HEDGE FUNDS....I really don't get hedge funds. Their reported performance is only a bit higher than most stock market indexes, and there's very persuasive evidence that even the reported performance is overstated — possibly by a lot. So why are people willing to pay fees of 20% or more to hedge fund managers? What am I missing?

Take this story in the New York Times, for example. The top hedge fund manager in the world posted a gross return of 84% last year using rocket science algorithms of various kinds, so it's easy to understand why his customers were happy to pay him astronomical fees. But there's also this:

Raymond T. Dalio, head of Bridgewater Associates, which has more than $30 billion in hedge fund assets, for example, took home $350 million last year even though his flagship Pure Alpha Strategy fund posted a net return of just 3.4 percent for the second consecutive year.

Why would anyone in their right mind keep their money in this fund? More to the point, how has Dalio avoided angry mobs of customers threatening to do things that even John Yoo wouldn't approve of unless he gives back a piece of that $350 million? ($350 millon!)

Beats me. But at least I'm not the only one who's confused:

"There is some question as to what the hell they are doing that is worth" that kind of money, said J. Bradford DeLong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. "The answer is damned mysterious."

Anyone care to enlighten us?

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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April 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S SPEECH....Barack Obama gave his big foreign policy speech today. "There are five ways America will begin to lead again when I'm President," he said. Here they are:

  1. Get out of Iraq (but responsibly!)

  2. Increase the size of the Army and Marines by 92,000 soldiers and teach 'em some Arabic. Get support from other countries when we fight wars of choice.

  3. Get serious about stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.

  4. Rebuild our traditional alliances. Understand that things that affect other countries also affect us.

  5. Double the foreign aid budget.

After reading Michael Hirsh's cover story in our April issue, I read Obama's speech looking for influences from Samantha Power, a person I admire but who I suspect has rather too optimistic a view of the potential of American military power. I guess I saw that influence mainly in point #2, which suggests that Obama is assuming that we'll be conducting more foreign occupations in the future and is already thinking of ways to make them run more smoothly. After all, we hardly need more troops in order to fight the conventional phase of conventional wars.

As usual, I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, if we're going to occupy countries, we ought to have the troops to do it right. (Though I note very little in Obama's speech about what those 92,000 extra troops would be focused on.) On the other hand, I'd just as soon that we didn't occupy any more foreign countries, and a larger military simply encourages us to think we can do this effectively. On the third hand, not every war is a war of choice. We might well be faced with a defensive war in the near future, and if we are we ought to be prepared for both combat and occupation. On the fourth hand, if we are going to add a few divisions to the active force, it would also be nice to hear at least some lip service paid to scaling back some of our more fanciful technology expenditures.

I don't expect to make up my mind on this score anytime soon. Most of the time I come down in favor of expanding the military, on the basis that (a) if you're going to do something, you should do it right, and (b) we're not likely to continue to be ruled by petulant children forever into the future. Needless to say, (b) is a gamble.

On the whole, I thought it was a pretty good speech, one that set out a much-needed vision not 100% obsessed with terrorism and nothing else — though I'd add the caveat that it's actually easier to make a good foreign policy speech than a good domestic policy speech. Why? Because people expect policy details when you talk about domestic stuff, but not so much when you talk about national security. Soaring rhetoric ("pay any price, bear any burden....") goes over a lot better in the overseas sphere.

But even with that caveat, it was pretty good. Obama hit a lot of the right notes, offered more policy specifics than he had to, and set a good tone. Not bad for a guy who supposedly has no foreign policy experience.

Kevin Drum 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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RETURN OF THE SOCK PUPPET....John Podhoretz vs. Lee Siegel is surely a cage match we'd all pay to see, but putting that aside, is there any truth to this particular assertion from Podhoretz?

On the other hand, this is Lee Siegel we're talking about — a person who has seen fit to say something nice, in my memory, of only one work of contemporary art.

This is, admittedly, not really something I care much about, but I'll confess to some curiosity. Is Siegel really that jaundiced? Was his infamously pretentious takedown of Jon Stewart, for example, really high praise by his standards? Does anyone with more knowledge of the Siegel oeuvre care to chime in on this burning question?

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BARRICADES....I remember years ago writing that I hoped Iraq didn't become the "West Bank writ large," but this isn't quite what I had in mind:

The U.S. military is walling off at least 10 of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods and using biometric technology to track some of their residents, creating what officers call "gated communities" in an attempt to carve out oases of safety in this war-ravaged city....The tactic is part of the two-month-old U.S. and Iraqi counterinsurgency plan to calm sectarian strife and is loosely modeled after efforts in cities such as Tall Afar and Fallujah, where the military says it has curbed violence by strictly controlling access.

....Wartime Baghdad has become a tableau of barricades as violence has swelled. Enterprising residents put them to use as free advertising space, blank canvases for graffiti and sunny spots for drying carpets.

But the blockading of Baghdad has reached full throttle under this year's security crackdown, with dozens of new neighborhood military outposts needing protection — and fast. The push has triggered a run on concrete barriers, which sometimes are not fully dry when military engineering units pick them up, said Capt. David Hudson, 30, who leads a company charged with building many of the city's blast walls. The unit now goes through as many as 2,000 barriers a week.

If Karin Brulliard's reporting is accurate, feelings are mixed about the barricades among Iraqis themselves. But apparently not so mixed that Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki hasn't decided to give in to complaints and demand a halt to at least one of the walls under construction.

Unfortunately, this is probably the key to the whole thing. Physical security is one thing, and obviously Maliki knew about and approved the barricade plan when it was first proposed. Politically, though, he can't stand up to pressure from the various factions in his government, so now he's changing his tune. It's a microcosm of the entire problem with Iraq. This is a political war more than a physical one, and that's the war we're losing. Eventually Republicans will figure that out.

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GETTING OUT....National Journal's cover story this week is about our inevitable withdrawal from Iraq. It might not happen soon, but it's going to happen eventually:

The military could take a host of steps to help mitigate the risks of a U.S. troop drawdown....But all of those options require the careful planning and hard decision-making that [retired Col. Richard Sinnreich] fears are being stymied by the deadlock in Washington. "The downside of this political theater in Washington, and the disingenuous refusal to admit that we've lost the political will to keep American troops heavily engaged in Iraq indefinitely," he said, "is that it keeps military planners from developing a timetable and a deliberate plan for withdrawal."

It's almost impossible for the military to seriously plan for a contingency — withdrawal — that the commander-in-chief won't even discuss, Sinnreich noted.

The U.S. military has contingencies for practically everything, as it should. But not for withdrawal from Iraq, even though everyone knows it's only a matter of time until it happens. Why? Because president Bush refuses to allow the planning to go forward.

Question: is the military brass eventually going to revolt over this? After all, they're the ones who have borne the brunt of the civilian leadership's irresponsible lack of planning for the original occupation, and they surely know that they'll also bear the brunt of a botched withdrawal, if and when it happens. How long will it be until they make it clear that they just aren't willing to be the scapegoat for yet another round of irresponsible leadership?

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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April 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DECONSTRUCTING NEWT....I think Newt Gingrich has finally died and been replaced by a Newtbot. You know, one of those computer games where you type in a few initial subjects and it spits out some related nonsense prose in the style of a famous author. In this case, the author is Newt Gingrich.

Or maybe, as in one of those old Superman comics, Newt has died and been replaced by a full-blown Newt robot. Except the power supply is running down and the poor thing is reduced to spouting nonsense in a vaguely Newt-esque style.

Or....maybe Newt is still alive, but thanks to an alien virus even he can't talk like Newt anymore. He can only produce a parody of 1994-vintage Newt. That's probably it.

Seriously, does this even make any sense at all? Isn't it time to stop inviting a guy who talks like this onto Sunday morning talk shows?

Kevin Drum 8:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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THE HAIRCUT....As you know, unless you've been vacationing on Mars, John Edwards recently got a couple of $400 haircuts and the media has been all abuzz about it ever since. There appear to be basically four different schools of thought about this in the liberal blogosphere:

  1. Edwards is an idiot. He knows perfectly well that a $400 haircut is exactly the kind of dimwit story our modern media loves to pile on. He never should have put himself in this position. See, e.g., Ezra and Garance.

  2. It's not Edwards's fault. If he gets an expensive haircut he's a sissy. If he gets a cheap haircut he's pretending to be a working stiff when everyone knows he's not. He's screwed no matter what, so he might as well get any haircut he wants. See, e.g., Matt Yglesias.

  3. Maureen Dowd is an unbearable prig and should be banished from American journalism. See, e.g., Paul Waldman.

  4. Edwards did the right thing but then blew it. He should have taken a page out of Karl Rove's handbook and turned the $400 haircut into an attack on Republicans. See, e.g., Gar Lipow.

#1 is a pretty defensible observation, and certainly Edwards should have been smart enough to pay for the haircut himself instead of charging it to the campaign, where it becomes a matter of public record. #2 is basically the Bob Somerby worldview and has much to recommend it. #3 pretty much goes without saying.

In the end, though, I vote for #4. Gar Lipow makes a very persuasive case. And as long as we're on the subject, be sure to read Neil's explanation of why Edwards spent all this money. Just, you know, so you know.

Kevin Drum 5:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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SURGE UPDATE....It's hard to know whether the surge has had any success yet in Baghdad, but it certainly seems to have had an effect in Diyala province:

Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers here have risen sharply in recent months, a problem compounded by an influx of fighters in search of safer havens outside Baghdad. Many of the insurgents are well-trained, highly mobile fighters who refuse to get dragged into open confrontations in which American forces can deploy their overpowering weaponry.

....Since November, when the 5,000-member 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division deployed to Diyala, at least 46 American soldiers have died in the fighting, officers said. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in the province from October 2005 to October 2006, according to a Washington Post database.

That's an increase from about one death per month to 8 per month. The answer? Send 2,000 more U.S. troops to Diyala. Sigh.

Read the rest for more. It's not entirely bad news (there's some evidence that American troops are taking advantage of splits among the various insurgent factions), but the rays of sunshine are mighty small among the widening gloom.

Kevin Drum 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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COPYCATS....Yesterday I was musing over the hoary old suggestion that widespread coverage of mass murders inspires copycat mass murders. In the case of the Cho killings at Virginia Tech, this has been trotted out as a reason for withholding Cho's videos from public view. After all, why "reward" Cho with exactly what he probably wanted? Doesn't that just send a message to other would-be mass murderers that shooting up a classroom is their path to media immortality too?

This is surely an appealing theory, and one that seems to make a lot of sense. But is it true? Do mass murderers typically take their inspiration from previous mass murderers? The Columbine kids famously wrote about how they intended to "outdo" Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City bombing — though this was but one in an astonishing stew of motivations — but how about other mass murderers? Is copycat-ism a common motivation?

I'm not pretending that this is anything remotely like a conclusive piece of research, but I got curious and went through the list of American mass murders since 1990 as compiled on this Wikipedia page. Basically, there are plenty of similarities: deep-seated feelings of grievance, revenge fantasies, depression, and psychosis of various kinds. Some of the murderers appear to have been partly inspired by various books and TV shows. But aside from the Columbine killers, only one, Jeff Weise, who killed seven students at Red Lake High School a couple of years ago, appears to have been even partly motivated by a previous killing.

What's more, ever since mass murders became relatively common affairs starting in the mid-80s, their frequency hasn't really increased: they've averaged one or two a year ever since.

This data is obviously anecdotal and the Wikipedia list is incomplete. In other words, I'm not trying to make any indisputable claims here. What's more, the simple fact that mass murders are fairly common these days probably does make it a more obvious form of retaliation for individuals who are already either mentally unhinged or on the edge of psychosis. And God knows I'd prefer it if the media toned down the coverage of these events by a factor of a thousand or so.

Still, does publicizing specific mass murders inspire copycats? I'm not so sure about that. In fact, it might be just the opposite: the massive publicity these events generate makes everybody far more vigilant about the possibility of "disturbed loners" in their midst and might actually reduce the likelihood of copycat sprees. What's more, when all is said and done, most of these killers come across in media accounts as delusional, hopeless losers, not as heroes to emulate.

On the other hand, there have been five more post office killing sprees since Patrick Sherrill started the trend in 1986. It's a little hard to chalk that up totally to coincidence.

Anyway, just something to chew over. Further data is welcome in comments.

UPDATE: See Todd Gitlin here for an opposing viewpoint. And Megan McArdle here. Neither presents any evidence that media coverage actually prompts copycats, but they make sensible points nonetheless. More data is needed!

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRENCH ELECTIONS....According to Belgium's Belga news agency (via the Guardian), exit polls show that the winners of the first round of today's French election are the Conservative, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Socialist, Ségolène Royal. Jerome a Paris has some background here. And as long as you're over there, I also recommend last week's monster fisking of the Economist's endorsement of Sarkozy. It's not that I agree with everything Jerome said in it, just that it might possibly be the most thorough and spectacular example ever committed to pixels of an old and fading genre. Brings back memories.

UPDATE: Officially released exit polls confirm the early results. From the BBC: "Centre-right Mr Sarkozy won 30%, ahead of Ms Royal of the Socialists on 25.2%. Centrist Francois Bayrou got 18.3% and the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen 11.5%."

UPDATE 2: Final results:

  • Nicolas Sarkozy — 31.1%

  • Ségolène Royal — 25.8%

  • Francois Bayrou — 18.6%

  • Jean-Marie Le Pen — 10.5%

  • Other lefties — 10%

  • Other righties — 3.5%

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April 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PAUL WOLFOWITZ UPDATE....Back in 2002 the Bush administration accused North Korea of starting up a uranium enrichment program, which it then used as an excuse to withdraw from the Agreed Framework and halt bilateral negotiations. Today the administration says there was no uranium program after all. It was just an intelligence screwup.

Well, stuff like that happens to the best of us, doesn't it? Still, with this administration, when there's an "intelligence screwup," that usually means that some actual person took ambiguous intelligence and decided to go to town with it. So who was it in this case?

Commenting privately...a concerned observer, then and now, said "the [HEU] evidence was very ambiguous. Wolfowitz took it and ran with it as hard as he could, and the upshot was that we shut down everything we planned to do with the DPRK. It was after that [Jan., 2003] they threw out the IAEA and began [what became] the run-up to the bomb test [last fall]."

Paul Wolfowitz! What a surprise. If we ever find evidence that he also trumped up intelligence against Iran, he'll have an Axis of Evil trifecta.

Via Balloon Juice.

Kevin Drum 8:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CHO VIDEOS REVISITED....Early Friday morning I defended NBC's decision to air the now infamous Cho videos. A short 12 hours later I complained that it was "well past time to dial down the Virgina Tech coverage." Over at Shakesville, Waveflux wants to know if I can reconcile these two views.

You betcha! Here's the thing: I'm not making any special argument about how NBC should have presented the Cho images. (In fact, I didn't even see the NBC newscast.) We have more options today than we did ten years ago, and I'm pretty open to the idea that NBC should have merely explained the tapes, maybe showed the images briefly, and then told their viewers that the full package was on their website for anyone who wanted to see the whole thing. No exploitation, but full disclosure.

Because it's the disclosure that's important. I may not like the fact that this story has become such a media circus, but it has — and news organizations simply shouldn't be in the business of withholding information about important stories just because they think certain people might be disturbed by it. After all, this wasn't a routine news judgment about whether a particular story was worth covering, or whether a couple of sentences should or shouldn't be added to an existing story. It was obviously blockbuster stuff, and one or two guys sitting in New York shouldn't decide for the rest of us whether we even get to see it. That's a slope I really don't want to see the media sliding down. After all, next time they might decide to withhold something you want to see.

But was it just violence porn? To Cho it probably was, but the fact is that the rest of us really did learn something from it. First, we learned — really learned — just how disturbed Cho really was. No words could possibly have the same impact as seeing it, and that makes a difference when we're asking questions like whether Cho should have been allowed to buy a gun or whether the university should have been more proactive in getting him help. Second, we learned that he apparently wasn't motivated by any particular event or belief. He wasn't doing it for Allah, as not a few people have speculated, and he wasn't doing it because of distress over global warming. He wasn't mad at George Bush or Nancy Pelosi, and he didn't do it because he thought the Columbine kids were really cool. That stuff is all worth knowing, and we'd never know it for sure if the NBC guys just assured us there was nothing there but wouldn't allow us to see it for ourselves. Again: even if this isn't something you happen to be interested in, keep in mind that next time they might be withholding something gruesome you do want to see — like, say, Abu Ghraib photographs. Wouldn't you prefer to decide that for yourself?

Moving on: does releasing stuff like this encourage copycat behanvior? People are forever making hoary claims about this, but I've seen little evidence on this score and I'm skeptical anyway on the general grounds that people are almost always suspiciously partisan in their beliefs about the power of media to influence behavior. Liberals think violence is bad but don't care about porn; conservatives think porn is bad but don't care about violence. By immense coincidence, both sides are convinced that the stuff they care about influences society (badly, natch) but the stuff other people care about doesn't. In this case, people who don't think the videos should have been released have suddenly decided that maybe it inspires copycats. Well, maybe it does, but before I buy in to this I think I'd like to see some serious supporting evidence rather than just urban legendish speculations. Cho certainly doesn't seem to have been copying anyone, for example. (Though we only know that because we've seen his video rants.....)

So that's that: Yes, the videos should have been released because they have legitimate news value, but no, that doesn't mean they have to be splashed on every newscast and front page coast to coast. That's where news judgment comes into play.

Now then: how about the Alec Baldwin tape? Should news organizations have given that the time of day? Or held it back?

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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By: Kevin Drum

STANDING UP....Laura Rozen has more evidence that the training of Iraqi troops is not going well: on Thursday the Pentagon abruptly blocked a group of mid-level officers from testifying before Congress about their personal experiences working with Iraqi security forces. More here.

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April 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Sunny Southern California has turned into gloomy, rainy Southern California, so today we're all stuck indoors. On the left, Domino is playing with her new favorite toy, a Gelson's shopping bag. Usually these toys only last a day or so before they get stale, but she's been entertaining herself with this one for over a week now. On the right, Inkblot the Mighty Hunter is attacking a mysterious predator that's lurking underneath his favorite red blanket. He'll catch it one of these days, just you wait.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TRAGEDY INDUSTRY....I don't agree with every sentence in Rosa Brooks' op-ed today about the Virigina Tech shooting, but she does manage to put into words something that bugs me as well:

Convincing ourselves that we've been vicariously traumatized by the pain of strangers has become a cherished national pastime. Thus, the Washington Post this week accompanied online stories about the shooting with a clickable sidebar, "Where to Find Support" — apparently on the assumption that the mere experience of glancing at articles about the tragedy would be so emotionally devastating that readers would require trained therapists.

....Count me out. There's something fraudulent about this eagerness to latch onto the grief of others and embrace the idea that we, too, have been victimized. This trivializes the pain felt by those who have actually lost something and pathologizes normal reactions to tragedy. Empathy is good, but feeling shocked and saddened by the shootings doesn't make us traumatized or special — these feelings make us normal.

It's well past time to dial down the Virgina Tech coverage. There's a point where genuine empathy turns into artifice, an attempt to loudly and publicly demonstrate our continued empathy bona fides rather than a genuine demonstration of empathy itself, and I think we passed that point some time ago.

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WEDDING BELLS....It looks like Washington has a new power couple!

Two Bush administration officials who have been linked in scandal are now linked in wedlock. The union of former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles and Sue Ellen Wooldridge could have implications for the investigation into Griles's ties to ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

....Legal experts note that people can refuse to testify against their spouses, and that in some cases, people can prevent their spouse from testifying against them.

....Wooldridge is represented by a lawyer in the matter of her arrangement with Griles and a top lobbyist at ConocoPhillips to buy a $980,000 vacation home. Department of Justice officials said Wooldridge had cleared the purchase with the DoJ.

....As a senior staffer, Wooldridge provided ethics advice to Griles during an investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general, according to published reports.

Brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it? Via Taegan Goddard.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

FINGERS IN THE COOKIE JAR....Dahlia Lithwick reports on yesterday's Alberto Gonzales show:

One of the finest moments comes when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., busts out a big, big chart. Which happens after almost everyone has gone home. The chart compares the Clinton protocol for appropriate contacts between the White House and the DoJ on pending criminal cases with the Bush protocol. According to Whitehouse, the Clinton protocol authorized just four folks at the White House to chat with three folks at Justice. The chart had four boxes talking to three boxes.

Out comes the Bush protocol, and now 417 different people at the White House have contacts about pending criminal cases with 30-some people at Justice. You can just see zillions of small boxes nattering back and forth. It seems that just about everyone in the White House, including the guys in the mailroom, had a vote on ongoing criminal matters.

Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., calls this "the most astounding thing" he's seen in 32 years.

Gee, I wonder why the Bush White House feels the need to exercise such tight control over the Justice Department's handling of criminal cases? Hmmm. Any ideas?

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS....You learn all sorts of interesting things when you meet with the president, I guess. Take Nancy Pelosi. On Wednesday she learned that the firestorm of criticism she received a couple of weeks ago for traveling to Syria had nothing to do with the president at all:

"I would rather not go into the details of the conversation," the speaker said in an interview. But she confirmed that the president apparently drew a distinction between his criticizing her and rebukes delivered by his press office and others in the administration.

"He just said, 'I didn't criticize your trip to Syria,'" Pelosi said. "In the course of the conversation, he said, 'I didn't criticize your trip.'"

Asked if she was surprised, Pelosi laughed. "Surprised? I'm beyond surprise."

To summarize then: When the vice president rips into you and the White House press office rips into you, that doesn't mean the president himself is upset. In fact, even when the president himself rips into you, it doesn't mean the president himself is upset. Consider me enlightened.

Kevin Drum 11:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CHO VIDEOS....Sign me up with Atrios on this one:

I'm a bit puzzled by all the conversation about whether NBC and other news outlets shoud've broadcast Cho's videos. While there can always be debates about what should be front and center, the idea that this kind of thing should be withheld by a Media That Knows Best is rather disturbing.

There's no question that these images and videos are intense; they undoubtedly cause pain to the loved ones of the victims; and they might even help promote copycat behavior — though I suspect this is more urban legend than reality. But like it or not, they're also a key part of helping us understand one of the biggest news stories of the year. Under those circumstances, maybe there's someone you trust to unilaterally decide that we're not grownup enough to see this stuff, but not me. If we're all going to jabber endlessly about this event — and we are — we ought to do it with as much factual information as we can possibly get.

Besides, unless I miss my guess, the same people who are yelling the loudest right now would be yelling even louder if investigators announced the existence of the material but then refused to allow anyone to see it. Right?

Kevin Drum 12:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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By: Kevin Drum

SLOW BLEED....Remember "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down"? Apparently that's no longer operative:

Military planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces.

Training Iraqi troops, which had been the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iraq policy since 2005, has dropped in priority, officials in Baghdad and Washington said.

So we're going to defeat the insurgency without significant help from Iraqi troops? Phil Carter calls this "Plan F": the fifth and latest in a string of strategic realignments forced on us when previous plans failed to gain control of the country. Unfortunately, it won't work:

Gen. Petraeus and his brain trust have devised the best possible Plan F, given the resources available to the Pentagon and declining patience for the war at home. But the Achilles heel of this latest effort is the Maliki government. It is becoming increasingly clear to all in Baghdad that its interests — seeking power and treasure for its Shiite backers — diverge sharply from those of the U.S.-led coalition. Even if Gen. Petraeus' plan succeeds on the streets of the city, it will fail in the gilded palaces of the Green Zone. Maliki and his supporters desire no rapprochement with the Sunnis and no meaningful power-sharing arrangement with the Sunnis and the Kurds. Indeed, Maliki can barely hold his own governing coalition together, as evidenced by the Sadr bloc's resignation from the government this week and the fighting in Basra over oil and power.

Plan F will fail if (or when) the Maliki government fails, even if it improves security. At that point, we will have run out of options, having tried every conceivable strategy for Iraq. It will then be time for Plan G: Get out.

Now this is a "slow bleed." Where are Politico's clever phrasemakers when you really need them?

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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April 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DAVID IGLESIAS....Slate's Emily Bazelon comments on the Gonzales hearing at a Q&A hosted by the Washington Post:

I learned two new things, so far. The first is that Gonzales said that the idea of firing some US attorneys was his. His words "I believe it was my plan." That's the first time I remember him saying that.

The second thing, I think, is that the reasons behind David Iglesias' firing look more fishy, not less. Gonzales acknowledged talking to Sen. Pete Domenici and to President Bush about the voter fraud investigation that preceded Iglesias' firing. He claimed there was nothing "improper" about the firing, and made vague references to Iglesias' lack of aggressiveness. But I haven't heard him offer anything of real substance to counter the allegation that the voter fraud investigation was the real rationale. Since this accusation involves both the core of prosecutorial discretion AND the franchise, all of this should matter.

Yes, exactly. With the other prosecutors, Gonzales has at least made a half-hearted effort to suggest legitimate reasons for their firing. With Iglesias, even after weeks of preparation, he still can't come up with anything. Why? Probably because there isn't anything. Iglesias was fired for not being sufficiently tough on Democrats, but Gonzales can't say that. So he's left with nothing.

Kevin Drum 3:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

BANANA REPUBLICANS....Greg Gordon of McClatchy on the politicization of the Justice Department:

For six years, the Bush administration, aided by Justice Department political appointees, has pursued an aggressive legal effort to restrict voter turnout in key battleground states in ways that favor Republican political candidates.

The administration intensified its efforts last year as President Bush's popularity and Republican support eroded heading into a midterm battle for control of Congress, which the Democrats won.

....On virtually every significant decision affecting election balloting since 2001, the [Civil Rights] division's Voting Rights Section has come down on the side of Republicans, notably in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Washington and other states where recent elections have been decided by narrow margins.

Much more at the link. Read it all.

And over at the LA Times, Jon Chait gets shrill on the subject:

It would be very easy to overreact to all these things and conclude that our democracy is imperiled or that Republicans are wannabe Putins. But almost nobody seems to be overreacting.

Most people are under-reacting. Allowing the security apparatus of the state to help tilt elections is an extremely grave precedent. When the line of acceptable behavior can be moved without much protest, it often can be moved further the next time.

No, we're not becoming Russia. But becoming just a little bit like Russia still ought to be considered a major scandal.

Well, you'd think so. But let's not overreact.

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By: Kevin Drum

GONZALES....I've only been watching his testimony sporadically and with half an eye (or ear), so I don't have any substantive comment. But for a guy who's been preparing for weeks, he sure does seem awfully flummoxed and testy, doesn't he?

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KILLING THE MESSENGER....Suppose you're the agency tasked with overseeing county programs for the developmentally disabled. And suppose a couple of workers at an adult day-care program were caught on cell phones abusing developmentally disabled patients. And suppose the video was made public. What would your policy response be?

Answer: tell workers not to bring cell phones to work, of course. Your tax dollars at work.

POSTSCRIPT: I'll say, in fairness, that this policy might very well be designed to discourage workers from invading the privacy of disabled patients. This was still pretty bad timing for announcing it, though.

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By: Kevin Drum

FAMILY PLANNING AND THE WORLD BANK....Here's yet another reason to think that maybe Paul Wolfowitz wasn't such a hot choice to head up the World Bank:

Under beleaguered President Paul D. Wolfowitz, the World Bank may be scaling back its long-standing support for family planning, which many countries consider essential to women's health and the fight against AIDS.

In an internal e-mail, the bank's team leader for Madagascar indicated that one of two managing directors appointed by Wolfowitz ordered the removal of all references to family planning from a document laying out strategy for the African nation. And a draft of the bank's long-term health program strategy overseen by the same official makes almost no mention of family planning, suggesting a wider rollback may be underway.

....[The managing director, Juan Jose Daboub] said he did not ask that family planning be struck from the Madagascar report. "It is not true," he said.

Yet internal e-mails obtained by the Government Accountability Project appear to indicate otherwise. Referring to Daboub as the "MD," an acronym for his title as managing director, Madagascar country program coordinator Lilia Burunciuc wrote to colleagues on March 8, 2007: "One of the requests received from the MD was to take out all references to family planning. We did that."

It's bad enough that Republican administrations routinely remove funding for family planning from American foreign aid budgets, but this makes it look like the administration is trying to bully the World Bank into doing the same thing. And keep in mind: this isn't just about abortion. It's about all family planning. I'm sure the Republican base will be delighted.

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By: Kevin Drum

TRUE BELIEVERS....Over at Pelosi's place, Jesse Lee blogs about yet more politicization of the Justice Department. Apparently you can't even get considered for the intern program anymore if you've demonstrated any identifiable liberal traits. This is from an anonymous letter sent to House and Senate Judiciary committees:

After choosing potential candidates to interview, the division personnel forwarded their lists to the Office of Attorney Recruitment Management for what was traditionally final approval. This is no longer a final step, however, because the list had to go higher — to the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. When the list of potential interviewees was returned this year, it had been cut dramatically.

....When division personnel staff later compared the remaining interviewees with the candidates struck from the list, one common denominator appeared repeatedly: most of those struck from the list had interned for a Hill Democrat, clerked for a Democratic judge, worked for a "liberal" cause, or otherwise appeared to have "liberal" leanings. Summa cum laude graduates of both Yale and Harvard were rejected for interviews.

The full letter is here.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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April 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WORLD OPINION....I have to say that PIPA's periodic polls of world opinion fascinate me. It's not the overall results so much, which are often predictable, but because they always seem to have at least one weird outlier. Take this one, for example.

Basically, the question they're asking seems useless. I mean, how many people in other countries are going to say that the United States ought to be the preeminent world leader in anything? Conversely, how many are going to say that we ought to just withdraw from the world entirely? Hardly any, and that's what the poll mostly shows. Even Americans don't think we ought to be the world's preeminent problem solvers.

But then there are the outliers. Israel, I understand. Ditto for the Philippines and South Korea. But India? By a wide margin, Indians are more pro-American than any other country. When did that happen?

Conversely, the pro-America vote is only 1% in Argentina. When did Argentina become the most anti-American country in the world? Even the French and the Palestinians are more sympathetic to a leading role for the U.S. Weird.

On another subject, nearly all of the countries surveyed thought the United States pretty much ignored their interests when making foreign policy decisions. In one country, though, a remarkable 82% believe the United States routinely takes their interests into account. Can you guess which one it is?

The full report is here.

Kevin Drum 6:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: T.A. Frank

THE WOES OF THE POWER COUPLE....I can't say I feel that sorry for Paul Wolfowitz, and that's mainly because he's, well, Paul Wolfowitz. That said, I'm not yet persuaded that his alleged string-pulling for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza, an employee at the World Bank, amounts to something that requires his resignation. (Several newspapers have now demanded it, and the White House is underscoring its "full confidence" in Wolfowitz. Can the end be far?) The first accusation, that he improperly secured favorable employment and pay for Riza, seems undercut by documents showing that he consulted with the bank's board at the time about how to deal with the situation. The second, that he effectively arranged for Riza to take a "junket" to Iraq in 2003, seems to be less of a sin since she took no money for the trip.

But there's no doubt that Riza should have told her bosses at the bank about her relationship to Wolfowitz when she decided to go to Iraq, and her supervisors are understandably displeased. Also, all of this strengthens, if I may say so, the point of my piece on DC power couples: that keeping Washington's little secrets about who's hitched to whom just makes everyone look bad, and that, yes, disclosure (plus banning those damn lobbyist-legislator unions) is the way to deal with it. In Slate, Christopher Hitchens, defending Wolfowitz and his girlfriend, speculates that "it could be that two grown-up people, both with previous marriages and with growing children, did not feel much like undergoing yet another round of 'disclosure.'" An understandable feeling, but wouldn't that have been preferable to what they're undergoing now?

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE IN CANUCKISTAN....Despite the seemingly endless stream of scare stories peddled by the insurance industry and its conservative enablers about the nearly third-world condition of Canadian healthcare (hip replacements!) it turns out that a review of all the known studies comparing Canadian and American health outcomes gives Canucks the nod. Ezra Klein has the details:

Of the 38 studies examined, 14 showed clear advantaged for Canadian patients, five suggested US care was superior, and the remainder were mixed....How can we possibly countenance a system that costs twice as much as the Canadian system but delivers slightly worse care? Even assuming diminishing returns, our expenditures should result in care outcomes at least 20% or 30% better than Canada's. Instead, they're about 5% worse, but cost around 187%. Does it sound like we're getting a good deal?

Maybe not, but did you know that Canada has waiting lines for some hip replacements?!? Seriously. They do. Clearly this means that national healthcare would be a disaster. As for the rest of the elephant behind the curtain, please ignore it.

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By: Kevin Drum

CHIPPING AWAY AT ROE v. WADE....The Supreme Court has upheld a nationwide ban on the procedure that dare not speak its name. At least not in the Washington Post unless it's in quotes.

It's "partial birth abortion" to its foes and "intact dilation and extraction" to its supporters, but whatever you call it, it's now illegal. Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, and with the usual conservatives going along the final decision was 5-4 in favor of upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 despite the fact that it contains no health exception provision whatsoever. Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissent:

"Today's decision is alarming," Ginsburg wrote for the minority. "It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists....And, for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman's health."

She added: "Retreating from prior rulings that abortion restrictions cannot be imposed absent an exception safeguarding a woman's health, the Court upholds an Act that surely would not survive under the close scrutiny that previously attended state-decreed limitations on a woman's reproductive choices."

There's a sense in which this is more symbolic than anything else, since IDX is infequently used and there are almost always alternate procedures available. But it's not entirely symbolic, and in any case, symbols matter. What's more, as Ginsburg points out, the different standard of scrutiny the court applied in this case will affect future abortion cases as well. It's sad news.

UPDATE: The majority opinion really referred to obstetricians as "abortion doctors" throughout? Apparently so. Wow.

UPDATE 2: I had some kind of brain freeze when I wrote this and ended up implying that Kennedy had previously been opposed to banning IDX. It's fixed now.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (149)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHO AND CHINA....Via Ross Douthat, James Fallows tells the story of what happened when one reporter made one mistake and identified the Virginia Tech shooter as a Chinese national: Fox and Drudge picked it up and the Chinese media subsequently went into full lockdown. Wow.

Moral of the story: get your facts right, kids. Second moral: freedom of the press sucks in China.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

RESPONDING TO TRAGEDY....When we learned yesterday that Cho Seung Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, had been an "eccentric loner" who had written "disturbing" essays and plays, my heart sank. Here we go again, I thought. It's going to be just like the aftermath of Columbine, when high schools around the country went crazy and started expelling kids who wore too much black, or who wrote compositions too full of teenage angst, or who affected a pose of rebellion that was just a bit too unnerving. It was an insane overreaction to a tragic event, and one that's gone a long way toward virtually outlawing a lot of fairly normal teenage behavior.

But then the stories about Cho started dribbling out, and it turned out he was more than just an eccentric loner. He wrote poetry so disturbing that classmates refused to come to class and he ended up getting one-on-one tutoring. The tutor, Lucinda Roy, says she tried repeatedly to warn campus officials about Cho but was told there was nothing they could do. There were complaints two years ago from female students about harrassment. After the second one Cho was checked into a psychiatric hospital.

In other words, Cho's behavior wasn't merely eccentric. There really are good reasons to think that it might have been possible to do something prophylactic before Cho finally snapped and killed 32 students and professors two days ago. And it's going to be perfectly reasonable to start thinking about ways this tragedy might have been stopped before it ever occurred.

All I can say is: I still hope everyone takes this very, very slowly. There might be lessons we can learn from Monday's tragedy, but our first reactions are almost certain to be wrong. Probably our second reactions too. Whatever we do, let's not make the cure worse than the disease.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (227)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOOK WHO'S HITCHED!....In this month's issue, T.A. Frank writes about Washington D.C.'s power couples. Nothing wrong with them, he says, except that it might be nice if the rest of us knew just who was related to whom:

When, for instance, Campbell Brown, anchor for the weekend edition of NBC's Today Show, tied the knot with Dan Senor, longtime GOP operative and former spokesman for Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, no one minded that Brown had first met Senor when interviewing him in Iraq and soon after taken a shine to him. People can't help whom they fall for. Nor did anyone insist that Brown amend her NBC Web site bio to include information about her new spouse. That was Brown's business.

Or take the case of American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Fred Kagan, who is widely credited with authorship of the "Surge" in Iraq. Kimberly Kagan, wife of Fred, is writing assessments for the Weekly Standard of how the Surge is working. Nowhere in the Standard, however, has there been any reference to her marriage. Blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote a pointed entry about this — "[T]hey picked the wife of the main author and one of the plan's original architects. And they never disclosed these relevant facts" — and so did a few others, but it never rose above a minor grumble. The Weekly Standard stayed the course.

So what's your power couple IQ? Bill & Hillary and Bob & Liddy are no brainers. Slightly harder but still pretty well known: Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan and NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell. Harder still: Russ Schrieber, John McCain's media strategist, and Nina Easton, Fortune's Washington bureau chief. And even harder: Ken Pollack, famously wrong Iraq analyst, and Andrea Koppel, CNN's congressional correspondent.

And of course, there's Philip Perry, former general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, who's married to Liz Cheney, the veep's daughter. But you already knew that because you read the Washington Monthly and we wrote all about him last month.

For more, check out our chart, "Washington's 60 Sizzlingest Power Couples." Here's how to play: Count up the number of power couples on the list that you already knew about and then divide by 30. The result is your DC Power Couple IQ. Have fun!

Kevin Drum 12:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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April 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GATES: HOORAY FOR DEMOCRATS!....Defense Secretary Robert Gates said today that Moqtada al-Sadr's withdrawal of six cabinet ministers from the Iraqi government might, in the end, turn out to be a good thing depending on who replaces them. Then he added this:

Gates, on a Middle East tour, called for a range of efforts from inside and outside Iraq to speed up the formation of a broad-based government of Iraq's majority Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.

...."The debate in Congress ... has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited," Gates told Pentagon reporters traveling with him in Jordan. "The strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable probably has had a positive impact ... in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment."

Somebody jog my memory here. I know that other people have made this point about congressional pressure before, but never a high-ranking Bush cabinet officer, right? Is Gates off the reservation, or is this is the new party line from the White House?

Kevin Drum 8:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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VISITING IRAQ....Lawrence Korb just got back from a trip to Iraq. "Unreal" seemed to be his overall reaction to the PowerPoint-laden presentations he heard from various American and Iraqi officials, most of which were entirely divorced from the ground-level reality of day-to-day life in Iraq. In a different sense it also applies to his conclusions about the surge:

Getting through Iraqi customs was a chore....The long wait did allow me to speak to some of the contractors about the situation on the ground. When I assured them I was not a member of the press, they were unanimous that the surge was not working....The most optimistic projection was "maybe temporarily." But most people speaking off the record believe that the insurgents will shift to other areas and lay low for a while in Baghdad.

....No one in or out of the American or Iraqi government seemed to have a good answer to my question: "how does it end?" On the back of this visit, I am more and more convinced that we must take control of our own destiny by setting a specific timetable for withdrawal. Currently, our fate is in the hands of an Iraqi government that does not have any real incentive to get its act together and does not even seem to understand the gravity of the situation or the declining level of support in the United States.

Italics mine. Other tidbits: George Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki don't actually talk much on their conference calls. Mostly they just trade scripted presentations. General George Casey didn't think much of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Foreign governments like dealing with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh better than dealing with Maliki, apparently because Saleh speaks really good English. But Saleh is a weasel who just tells you what you want to hear.

Yet more: American consultants in Iraq are very good at convincing people who come for short visits that the situation in Iraq is improving — but if you push them you learn that "the place is a mess" and it's not improving. Iraqis call the Green Zone PX the "Christian pharmacy" because that's where you get liquor. The Interior Ministry can't get enough officers to come to Baghdad, and there aren't very many American patrolling the streets of Baghdad either. (Korb didn't see a single one during his stay.)

Also this: "Do not believe anyone who tells you that the situation is getting better." Seems like sound advice.

Kevin Drum 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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THE FORECLOSURE BOOM....This sure looks scary: foreclosures are up 800% in California. Reaction within the industry seems to range from mild fear to all-out panic.

On the other hand, housing prices aren't falling much, as you'd normally expect. In fact, they went up a bit in March. Very weird.

Offhand, my guess is that the problem isn't that this will push the economy into recession. Rather, the problem is that this is happening even though the economy is reasonably strong. But strong economies don't last forever, and if the economy starts to go south even a little bit while foreclosures are still rising, it could start a pretty vicious chain reaction. Keep your fingers crossed.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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ENOUGH....Yesterday I thought about writing a post bemoaning the tendency of so many people to use the Virginia Tech massacre as an instant excuse to trot out whichever position on gun control they already favored, but after a few moments I thought better of it. Aside from being tedious and sanctimonious, I'm not sure it's even a reasonable point. When stuff like this happens, people like to talk. And when they talk, they talk about all sorts of stuff. They're just being human.

Using it as an excuse for all-purpose foaming-at-the-mouth bigotry, on the other hand, is just vomit-inducing. It must be a Pakistani Muslim! No, it's a Chinese national! No, it's a Korean national who's a permanent resident! Foreigners everywhere! Keep 'em out! After all, next time it really will be a Muslim shooting up one of our universities!

Anyway, turns out the shooter was "a South Korean native who immigrated to this country as a child." So there you have it. Time to chill.

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (160)

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AARP ENTERS THE PRIVATE INSURANCE MARKET....Via Matt, AARP has announced that it will begin selling health insurance to people aged 50-64:

Dawn M. Sweeney, president of AARP Services Inc., the tax-paying business unit of AARP, said, "We will use our collective market power to negotiate" competitive prices for the new health insurance products.

....People ages 50 to 64 often find that health insurance is unavailable or unaffordable when they try to buy it on their own. AARP said its underwriting practices would be less stringent than those of many commercial insurers, but it reserved the right to deny coverage to some sick people ages 50 to 64.

To guarantee issuance of a policy to every applicant in that age group is "just not economically feasible," Ms. Sweeney said.

Great. Yet another powerful group with a vested interest in experience-rated private healthcare that works for everyone except, you know, the people who actually need it. That's just peachy.

One of the great arguments among universal healthcare advocates is whether to press for a system that continues to make use of private insurance companies or to press for a purer single-payer system that gets rid of insurance companies altogether. The argument for working with the insurance industry is a political one: if we try to eliminate a role for insurance companies they'll fight us tooth and nail, and that's the last thing we need. Universal healthcare has enough powerful enemies as it is. The argument for pure single-payer is mostly (though not exclusively) economic: in our current system, healthcare administration uses up about 30% of all healthcare dollars, compared to 10% or less in countries with national systems.

I waver sometimes, but basically I'm on the side of pressing for a pure national healthcare system that does away with private insurance except at the margins (i.e., filling in gaps that the national system doesn't address, or providing coverage above and beyond the basics). There are plenty of policy reasons for preferring this, of course, but the main reason is that I don't really believe the political argument for compromising with private insurers. I think they'll fight national healthcare just as hard no matter what the plan is, because the private health insurance industry is so big that even a reduced role means an enormous loss of revenue for them. What's more, I think they'll also judge (correctly) that even a reduced role is just the camel's nose under the tent that will eventually lead to the end of private insurance entirely.

So trying to make nice with the insurance industry is a mug's game. They just aren't ever going to be on our side, and frankly, I don't blame them. All that said, however, the fight against the entrenched interests of the insurance industry gets a lot harder when an organization that might have provided significant lobbying muscle for a single-payer system is depending on a private insurance business line for a big chunk of its revenue. It's definitely not pleasant news for the good guys.

Kevin Drum 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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April 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S MOUTH....The Washington Post says 58% of Americans trust congressional Democrats to do a better job than George Bush of handling the situation in Iraq:

The president has taken advantage of the congressional spring recess to pound Democrats over their legislation, which would impose benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet, set strict rules for resting, equipping and training combat troops, and set a 2008 date for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops. Despite those efforts, Bush has actually lost a little ground to Democrats, who were trusted by 54 percent to set Iraq policy in February.

....Bush continued today to say victory in Iraq is pivotal to the larger war on terrorism, but Americans are increasingly siding with the Democratic view that the issues are separate. Some 57 percent now say the United States can succeed in the war on terrorism without winning the war in Iraq, a 10-percentage point increase since January, when Americans were almost evenly divided on the question.

This reminds me of the Social Security fiasco: every time Bush opened his mouth on the subject, polls moved in the opposite direction. Now the same thing is happening with Iraq. If he had any brains, he'd just shut up and try to ride it out. His mouth is his own worst enemy.

Kevin Drum 7:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (249)

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NO, NOT A GOOD PERSON....Via Scott McLemee, Phil Nugent delivers the first Don Imus rant that actually kept me semi-riveted all the way to the end. Here's a key bit:

The talk radio world, one that Imus worked hard to shape, is one where overpaid white guys who did well in the voting for the title of "Class Clown" at their respective high schools sneer at blacks, women, gays, what have you, in a dismayingly self-congratulatory tone.

....I remember that when Howard Stern began a short-lived tenure of having his show broadcast in New Orleans, he held a press conderence, and one of the local reporters asked him how he would compete with the hilarious, daring wild man talk guy who was already doing a New Orleans morning show, and whose name escapes me. Stern, who'd clearly never heard the local guy's name, said something like, what's he do, like a Southern guy and a black guy and a gay guy, all the while doing high-school level impersonations of a drawling hick, a Stepin Fetchit type, and a nelly dude, which did indeed sound exactly like the local guy's repertoire of funny voices. I remember that the New Orleans reporter was stunned by this, and seemed genuinely unaware that there was some yokel doing the same basic act at some radio station in every city in America.

The whole thing is well worth reading, and deserves a spot in the New York Times, not an obscure blog. I may be almost as tired of the sanctimony of the anti-Imus forces as I am of the revolting phenomenon of Don Imus himself, but Nugent captures that revolting phenomenon, and the wider cesspool it comes from, better than anyone else I've read.

Kevin Drum 1:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (172)

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FAKERY....Remember those charges that North Korea was flooding the world with counterfeit U.S. bills laundered through a bank in Macau? A recent audit says it's not true:

"From our investigations it is apparent that ... the Bank did not introduce counterfeit U.S. currency notes into circulation," the Ernst & Young audit said, noting that large cash deposits from North Korea were routinely screened for counterfeits by the Hong Kong branch of an unidentified bank with U.S. operations.

The audit's conclusions about the laundering of counterfeit currency are significant because they cast doubt on Bush administration claims that North Korea has engaged in state-sponsored counterfeiting and introducing these fake bills via Banco Delta.

This is a big deal. On September 19, 2005, North Korea finally agreed in principle to abandon its nuclear weapons programs, prompting optimism that the six-party talks might finally be making progress. In a triumph of timing — maybe deliberate, maybe not — the very next day the Bush administration announced sanctions on the Macau bank, freezing its North Korean assets and causing the always prickly North Koreans to assume the U.S. was acting in bad faith. Shortly thereafter they walked out of the talks, and a year later announced that they had tested a nuclear weapon.

Now we find out that the charges were probably unfounded. Just like we found out in February that the original charges in 2002 that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment might not have been true either. Just another example of the Bush administration doing its best to bring our credibility down to the level of the most batshit insane regime on earth. Good job, guys.

Kevin Drum 1:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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A PINT'S 15 OUNCES THE WORLD ROUND....The British navy may be taking its lumps these days, but at least there are some Brits left who understand the importance of traditional culture:

Mike Benner, chief executive of [the Campaign for Real Ale], said: "It is a disgrace that up to a quarter of all pints served in the UK are less than 95% liquid when the consumer is paying for a full pint every time."

Camra has launched an online "full pints" petition calling on the government to end short beer measures.

Quite right. Next up: are all the numbers on modern dart boards really the same size? We'll report back next week.

UPDATE: As several commenters point out, "a pint's a pound the world round" except in Britain, where it's a pound and a quarter. So my headline is not only lame, but culturally ignorant. And anyway, no, I don't know what the specific gravity of beer is. So let's just forget the whole thing, OK?

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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WHY THE WAR CZAR BALKED....General John Sheehan, who was recruited recently for the post of "war czar," explains today why he turned it down. The problem, he says, is that the Bush administration needs not only a short-term battle plan, but also a long-term plan for dealing with the entire Middle East. Unfortunately, after asking around, he discovered that all it has are platitudes:

We cannot "shorthand" this issue with concepts such as the "democratization of the region" or the constant refrain by a small but powerful group that we are going to "win," even as "victory" is not defined or is frequently redefined.

....We got it right during the early days of Afghanistan — and then lost focus. We have never gotten it right in Iraq. For these reasons, I asked not to be considered for this important White House position. These huge shortcomings are not going to be resolved by the assignment of an additional individual to the White House staff. They need to be addressed before an implementation manager is brought on board.

Smart man.

Kevin Drum 12:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (200)

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BENN ON TERROR....Here's an interesting upcoming comment from a rising member of Britain's Labor Party:

President George W Bush's concept of a "war on terror" has given strength to terrorists by making them feel part of something bigger, Hilary Benn will say....And Mr Benn, a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership, will confirm that UK officials will stop using the term.

....Mr Benn will say: "In the UK, we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone. And because this isn't us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives."

...."What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength."

OK, OK, this is only very mildly interesting. Still, getting rid of the phrase "war on terror" is probably the first step toward developing a coherent policy against....um....whatever it is, and it would be welcome news if Benn really is speaking for the British government, not just for himself. But I wonder if he's going to suggest a replacement?

Kevin Drum 12:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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April 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE WORST OF THE WORST....It occurs to me that I owe you all an explanation of why, earlier today, I chose Nancy Grace and Chris Matthews as our most loathsome media stars, with a bonus honorable mention for the collective id of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. So here it is.

Basically, I figure that although the general phenomenon of right-wing spewing has done serious damage over the past couple of decades, individual wingnut frothers like O'Reilly and Limbaugh, for all their loathsomeness, have limited influence these days. They draw most of their viewers from the ranks of true believers, so their tirades probably change very few minds. Their audience already agrees with them.

But that's not true of my three choices. Matthews' audience is probably mostly liberal and centrist liberal, and he convinces them that liberal politics is an idiotic clown show. Nancy Grace pulls in all types and turns them into slavering lynch mobs convinced that amendments 4 through 8 of the constitution are mere obsolete technicalities. And the WSJ editorial page is read mostly by business people who initially tend toward the right, but are then converted by the WSJ's patented brew of smarminess and intellectual dishonesty into full-time Hillary-hating, supply-side idolizing, worker-loathing zombie shock troops for movement conservatism.

Of these, by the way, the WSJ editorial page is by far the worst. I'm convinced it's done more real damage to the liberal cause than any other single source of the past quarter century. There's probably a good book in that story somewhere.

Anyway, that's that. I just thought I should probably explain myself.

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (246)

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BOOK WARS....Want to know what a bunch of British bookstore employees think are the best hundred books of the past 25 years? Then you're in luck! The list is here, dominated almost entirely by fiction. I've only read 15 of them, though I suspect I would have done better if science fiction had been more heavily represented.

I think I'll nominate The Five People You Meet in Heaven as the most cringe-inducing book to make the list, even though I haven't read it and therefore have no right to dismiss it so breezily. But I will anyway. Feel free to correct me in comments.

Kevin Drum 7:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (105)

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MIRROR, MIRROR....Since loathsome media stars are in the news this week, I'm curious: who do you think is the most loathsome of all? Feel free to interpret this any way you want: personally most annoying, most damaging to the body politic, most dishonest, most harmful to the general karma of the universe, etc. Whatever. Basically, who would you most like to get rid of?

By rights, I suppose the answer should be someone like Michael Savage, Bill O'Reilly, or Sean Hannity. And those are all good choices! But for reasons I can't fully articulate — perhaps because I just don't watch enough TV — my choices are Nancy Grace and Chris Matthews. If "Wall Street Journal editorial page" were a person, they'd make my list too.

What's your choice? And even though I'm not setting a good example here, let us know why you chose who you chose. But please keep the language entertaining, not offensive. It's a weekend, and the cats might be reading.

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

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BEND OVER....From the annals of American labor relations, circa 2007:

When the airline industry went into a deep slump after the 2001 terrorist attacks, American Airlines' pilots, flight attendants and mechanics agreed to billions of dollars in cuts in wages and benefits to keep the carrier afloat.

Now AMR Corp., American's parent, is back in the black, so much so that 874 top executives will receive more than $150 million in stock bonuses next week.

As for the 57,000 rank-and-file employees, they're seeing red. "We made huge sacrifices," said Dana Davis, an 18-year American employee and spokeswoman for the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants. The airline's 18,000 attendants took an across-the-board 16% pay cut and gave up vacation days. "We're not getting anything back for it," Davis said.

Of course, if American's workers dare to go on strike later this year, we'll be besieged by comments from tough-minded free-market conservatives about how unions are ruining the competitiveness of a once-great American industry by making plainly irresponsible wage demands. Don't these people understand creative destruction?

And for those who like to pretend that this is all just posturing because executive compensation isn't big enough to make a serious difference when it's spread among all a company's workers, I'll do the arithmetic right here. $150 million split among 57,000 workers is....

$2,600 each. Chump change for the rock jawed captains of industry running American Airlines, I'm sure, but probably not to the flight attendants.

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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PURGEGATE UPDATE....Here's the latest Purgegate news:

  • The original plan to fire all 93 U.S. Attorneys came from Karl Rove "as a way to get political cover for firing the small number of U.S. attorneys the White House actually wanted to get rid of." Link.

  • Wisconsin USA Steven Biskupic was originally on the list of prosecutors slated to be fired. Then he was removed. The reason for his reprieve is unclear, but perhaps it was because he was making his bosses happy by pursuing a bogus prosecution designed to make Wisconsin's Democratic governor look bad? Link.

  • When he testified before Congress, Alberto Gonzales's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, said that he had no replacements in mind when he was originally planning the purge. Turns out that's not exactly true. Link.

That's all for now. More to come, I'm sure.

Kevin Drum 1:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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AL-QAEDA vs. THE INSURGENCY....The Washington Post reports today about a story that's been developing in Iraq over the past few weeks: the looming breakup between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the rest of the Sunni insurgency.

Key Sunni militant groups are severing their association with al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni group that claims allegiance to the organization led by Osama bin Laden....The Sunni insurgency in Iraq has long been fractious, in part because secular nationalists, tribal leaders and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and army have rejected al-Qaeda's tactics, particularly beheadings. But the emerging rift represents the Sunni groups' most decisive effort since the 2003 invasion to distance themselves from al-Qaeda in Iraq.

....What the split means for the United States and its efforts to pacify Iraq remains unknown.

It's hard to say what this all portends, but a couple of days ago Marc Lynch made a point that's worth keeping in mind: this splitup means that opposition to al-Qaeda is no longer the same thing as opposition to the Sunni insurgency. So if you read a story saying, for example, that tribal leaders are "turning against al-Qaeda," this may or may not really mean anything. It might be good news, but it also might mean only that the local shaykhs are taking sides in an internal dispute — but are no less committed to fighting American forces. Something to keep in the back of your mind as you scan the news.

Kevin Drum 1:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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April 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PLAYING POLITICS WITH THE TROOPS....Ponder the following timeline if you will.

Tuesday: George Bush tells the American Legion, "If Congress fails to pass a [war funding] bill I can sign by mid-May, the problems grow even more acute....Some of our forces now deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq may need to be extended, because other units are not ready to take their places."

Wednesday: Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces, "Effective immediately, active Army units now in the Central Command area of responsibility and those headed there will deploy for not more than 15 months...." That's a 3-month extension of the normal 12-month tour of duty.

Later in the press conference, Gates says they would have announced the new policy later, but someone leaked it and forced their hand.

Thursday: Dana Perino takes questions from the press:

Q: Why did [Bush] tell the American Legion that people would be staying in Iraq longer because of the Democrats, when his own Pentagon, 24 hours later, was going to keep people there longer?

MS. PERINO: Well, one, I don't know if the President knew about the — the meeting — remember, yesterday morning is when Secretary Gates came and talked to the President....

Q: And so the President didn't know about his own policy until Wednesday?

MS. PERINO: I'm not aware that the President knew that there was going to be — that Secretary Gates had come to any decisions.

Well, that's possible, isn't it? Alternatively, perhaps Bush was assuming the new policy wouldn't be announced until after he'd had a chance to veto the war funding bill, thus making it look like the Democrats were responsible for the longer tours of duty. Of course, that would be a very cynical interpretation of events, wouldn't it?

Thanks to Atrios, Steve Benen, and ThinkProgress for connecting the dots.

Kevin Drum 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Question: has this week really been more depressing than usual, or is it just me? Probably just me, right?

Anyway, here's a cat tableau to cheer you up. If you're a cat person, that is. Domino is keeping a suspicious eye on me (as well she should) and Inkblot is keeping a suspicious eye on Domino (as well he might). What do they know that I don't?

Neologism watch: A reader suggests that if web logging is blogging, and video blogging is v-logging, then cat blogging should be clogging. What are your thoughts on this important issue?

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CHUTZPAH WATCH....Get this: conservative groups are now complaining that the FDA is politicized. Why? Because after years of pandering to social conservatives by refusing to approve Plan B emergency contraception for over-the-counter sale, the FDA finally followed the advice of its own medical experts and told the wingnuts to take a hike. Ann Friedman has the details.

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TURKEY AND THE KURDS....A couple of people have been bugging me recently to pay more attention to Turkey and the Kurds, and they have a point. The background is pretty straightforward: There are Kurds in northern Iraq and Kurds in southern Turkey (as well as Syria and Iran), and Kurdish nationalist parties have long believed that ethnic Kurds from these countries should break away and form an independent Kurdish nation. Needless to say, though, the Turks are not excited about losing a big chunk of their country.

Sporadic fighting has been going on for years, with Kurdish separatists/terrorists (depending on who you talk to) crossing over into Turkey and Turkey fighting them off. What's brought it to a more feverish pitch than usual lately is something I've written about once or twice before: an election coming up later this year in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq, that will determine whether or not Kirkuk becomes part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has made noises in the past about preventing Kurds from controlling Kirkuk (because the region's oil wealth could help fund the separatist movement), and on Saturday Iraqi Kurdish Provincial President Massoud Barzani issued an unveiled warning:

Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does we will interfere in Diyarbakir's affairs and other cities in Turkey.

Against the backdrop of a major Turkish counterattack against Kurdish guerrillas operating in southeast Turkey, Turkey's prime minister shot back: "They should be very careful in their use of words...otherwise they will be crushed by those words." Then the Turkish army escalated the rhetoric further:

Turkey's army chief called Thursday for a military incursion into neighbouring northern Iraq to hunt down Turkish Kurd rebels based there, despite US objections.

...."If you ask me whether a cross-border operation is needed, yes it is needed," said Buyukanit, though he added that it would require parliamentary authorisation.

"If the armed forces are given this mission, they are strong enough to carry out such operations," he said.

More background here. The upshot? Who knows? The United States would like Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds to work together to rein in Kurdish guerrillas, but that's not especially likely. It's also possible that the Kirkuk election could be postponed, but it's not clear if that's possible or if it would do any good anyway. For now, it's just worth keeping in mind that Baghdad and the Sunni triangle aren't the only places in Iraq where open warfare is a distinct possibility. As Judah Grunstein put it, "File this one under 'Things That Haven't Gone Majorly Wrong In Iraq But Still Could'."

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THE LORD'S WORK?....You know, I sort of admire the way Matt Yglesias continues to take on Charles Krauthammer and Brad DeLong continues to take on Donald Luskin — though I think Brad may have cried uncle on the Luskin thing a while back — but at some point you have to wonder if we're endangering our national resources by allowing this to go on. Surely every moment spent reacting to the increasingly feverish drivel from people like this reduces your IQ by some fracton of a point? And fractions add up. How long before Matt and Brad, Flowers for Algernon-like, end up behind the business end of a mop in an industrial bakery?

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STUDENT LOANS....In recent years, Education Department officials have been notified about several "questionable practices" in the student loan industry but have decided not to bother doing anything about them. Why?

At least eight top officials in the Education Department during the Bush administration either came from student-loan or related organizations or have taken lucrative jobs in that arena since leaving the agency....Members of Congress — including the Democrats who head committees overseeing education, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California — say they are concerned about the industry ties.

....Some Republicans are critical as well, including Rep. Tom Petri of Wisconsin. "It's hard for a program staffed mainly by folks in the industry to impartially conduct oversight of the industry," says Thomas Culligan, Mr. Petri's aide for education policy.

It's nice to see that at least one Republican cares about this. But since it's practically the founding principle of the modern party, I somehow doubt that his concern will spread widely.

Kevin Drum 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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April 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MISSING EMAILS UPDATE....Remember all those missing emails the White House told us about yesterday? Turns out the RNC does have copies on its servers. Whew. Apparently, back in 2004, as part of the Valerie Plame investigation, Patrick Fitzgerald told them to stop deleting emails.

So they did. Except, it turns out, for Karl Rove's emails, many of which are still missing. Now that's just plain peculiar, isn't it?

Luckily, I'm sure the RNC has backup tapes. Right? Everyone keeps backup tapes, don't they?

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ALGERIA AND AL-QAEDA....Were the twin bombings in Algiers on Wednesday a sign that al-Qaeda has expanded its reach once again? Maybe, but George Joffe argues that in reality it was nothing more than the sporadic continuation of Algeria's long-running civil war of the 1990s:

The group that was responsible for the bombing of the premier's office last Wednesday, the Groupe Salafiste de Predication et du Combat (GSPC), which renamed itself al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb last September, had emerged out of the conflict in 1997 and has continued the fight ever since, with the same goals, in northern Algeria and in the Sahara.

....Even though it now claims the mantle of al-Qaida — something which Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida's number two, confirmed after the group's second attempt to gain such an endorsement last September (the first was made in 2001) — its real agenda has not changed....its real target is still the government in Algiers.

....And where does al-Qaida fit into the picture? The suggestion that it acts as a transnational organisation directing violence in Algeria according to a centrally-conceived plan is simply untrue. Events there do not fit into the alleged global threat to western states accused of interfering in the Muslim world.

This is part and parcel of the "franchise" theory of al-Qaeda, namely that al-Qaeda has morphed from a centrally controlled transnational terrorist group into a broader, even more dangerous hydra-headed organization with satellites all over the world. But how true is this? If a longstanding nationalist insurgency/terrorist organization simply assumes the al-Qaeda name while continuing with its previous agenda, does this really mean "al-Qaeda" is any more dangerous before? Or are they actually less so?

Relabeling the GSPC may suit the propaganda desires of both al-Qaeda and the Western hawks who revel in the myth of ever-expanding jihad, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to believe it. The prosaic truth is that al-Qaeda most likely has very little to do with Algeria's serious and longstanding internal problems.

Kevin Drum 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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SMART?....I would like to propose an indefinite moratorium on the lazy overuse of the word "smart" to describe a piece of journalism. As in, for example, "Laura Rozen has a smart piece in Mother Jones today about skullduggery in Iraqi Kurdistan." I've gotten pretty tired of it. Anybody with me?

By the way, Laura does have piece in Mother Jones today about skullduggery in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now how can I describe it? She herself calls it "odd, unusual, but kind of revealing," so how about that? Check it out.

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THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN....The New York Times, in a genuine act of public service, has conducted an investigation into voter fraud. Republicans claim it's rampant, and the only way to stop it is via strict voter ID laws that — purely by coincidence — happen to have the effect of reducing turnout among several traditionally Democratic constituencies. So what's the score? By 2005, four years after John Ashcroft had changed Department of Justice guidelines to streamline prosecutions, how much voter fraud had DOJ dug up?

....about 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted as of last year. Most of those charged have been Democrats, voting records show. Many of those charged by the Justice Department appear to have mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, a review of court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers show.

.... In swing states, including Ohio and Wisconsin, party leaders conducted inquiries to find people who may have voted improperly and prodded officials to act on their findings.

But the party officials and lawmakers were often disappointed. The accusations led to relatively few cases, and a significant number resulted in acquittals.

Here's the nickel summary: In 2002, DOJ changed their guidelines to make it easier to prosecute voter fraud. They made it a priority to find voter fraud cases. They appointed a clean slate of U.S. Attorneys loyal to the Republican Party. They set up training classes to help prosecutors charge and win voter fraud cases. But after all that, they managed to demonstrate fraud in a grand total of only 86 cases over four years. And even then, many of the cases of confirmed fraud were simply mistakes, while virtually none of them were actually designed to affect the outcome of an election.

So in four years of concerted effort, the Bush Justice Department managed to come up with maybe half a dozen cases of actual voter fraud. In other words, two or three per election cycle. Mostly in rural districts for low-level offices. And because of this, we're supposed to believe that it's a high priority to spend millions of dollars on voter ID laws that plainly do nothing except make it harder for poor people to vote.

Can we now please put this nonsense to rest? Can we please stop writing stories that treat voter ID laws as if they're sincerely designed to stop voter fraud? There's no longer any excuse.

POSTSCRIPT: This stuff can also ruin lives. Be sure to check out the part of the story about the guy who was deported to Pakistan because he mistakenly filled out a voter registration card while standing in line at the DMV. I'm sure the prosecutor who brought that case is proud of himself.

Kevin Drum 12:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (144)

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April 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE DOG DELETED MY EMAIL....Oh please:

The White House said Wednesday it had mishandled Republican Party-sponsored e-mail accounts used by nearly two dozen presidential aides, resulting in the loss of an undetermined number of e-mails concerning official White House business.

Congressional investigators looking into the administration's firing of eight federal prosecutors already had the nongovernmental e-mail accounts in their sights because some White House aides used them to help plan the U.S. attorneys' ouster.

....[Spokesman Scott] Stanzel said some e-mails have been lost because the White House lacked clear policies on complying with Presidential Records Act requirements....He could not say what had been lost, and said the White House is working to recover as many as they can.

High school English teachers have been on to this kind of excuse for the better part of a decade now. Does the White House seriously think we're going to buy this?

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, there are always the RNC servers themselves. They ought to have these emails archived. Right?

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CONNECTING THE ZARQAWI DOTS....Who was really responsible for finding and killing Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq? And what role did interrogation play in the operation? Marc Lynch has some questions.

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SURGE ARITHMETIC....As everyone knows, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced today that regular Army units would begin serving 15-month tours in Iraq instead of their usual 12-month tours. But just in case the connection to the surge isn't obvious to everyone, here's how he explained it:

Gates said the change is necessary to prevent five Army brigades from deploying to combat before they complete a desired 12-month rest period at home and to give predictability to soldiers and their families.

....He said the longer deployments also will allow President Bush's "surge" strategy in Baghdad to last a year in case such high force levels are needed in Iraq.

The surge, of course, consists of five brigades. What Gates is telling us is that the Army didn't have those brigades, and the only way they got them was by lengthening the normal tour of duty in Iraq to 15 months.

It's not plausible that the Pentagon didn't know this when the surge was announced. They just decided not to announce it at the time. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to guess why.

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HEALTHCARE IN NOT-AMERICA....Jon Cohn writes about America vs. the world when it comes to healthcare:

Look at Japan. It has universal health care. It also has more CT scanners and MRIs, per person, than the United States....On a per capita basis the French get more physician office visits and more drugs than their American counterparts....The Germans get almost as much time as the French.

....Cannon, Gratzer, Tanner, and others have all seized on the survival rates for cancers — particularly breast cancer and prostate cancer. In those two cases, Americans diagnosed with those diseases are significantly more likely to live than Europeans diagnosed with them....[Some caveats follow.]....But, even if that were true, it's hard to read the data as indictment of universal health care when the U.S. survival rate on other ailments isn't so superior. The Swedes are more likely than Americans to survive a diagnosis of cervical, ovarian, or skin cancer; the French are more likely to survive stomach cancer, Hodgkins disease, and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Aussies, Brits, and Canadians do better on liver and kidney transplants.

Good stuff. And yet, it still leaves me with the unsettled feeling that all we're doing here is showing that we can cherry pick data just as well as the Heritage Foundation can. After all, every system does some things well and some things poorly, and it's not that hard to make any point you want if you only show a tiny portion of the data. (For example, here's a handy rule of thumb: any time a healthcare article starts nattering on about hip replacement waiting times in Canada, just stop reading. The authors are cherry picking so egregiously it's a wonder their fingers haven't fallen off.)

It's always struck me that one of the big obstacles in the way of universal healthcare in America is that it's so easy to scare Americans about healthcare in other countries. Basically, Americans just have no clue what healthcare is like elsewhere and assume that, say, in France, it's only barely better than it is in the third world. (Did you know that French-speaking Canadians sometimes have to wait a year for hip replacements?!?) But despite the damage this widespread fear does to the cause, almost no one ever writes about what foreign healthcare looks like to the actual people who use it. A full-scale book looking at healthcare in other countries, warts and all, would be great. Even a long magazine article about healthcare in one country would be great. But for some reason, very little like that really seems to exist. Just a scattering of OECD studies stuffed with charts and footnotes.

I'm not sure why. Is it too hard? Too expensive? Or what? In any case, demystifying healthcare in other advanced countries sure seems like it would help out the pro-universal healthcare cause in America. So consider this a job from the assignment desk.

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HOS AND BITCHES....Now that Don Imus has been universally condemned for calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," the conversation is moving on, as conversations do, to broader questions. In the LA Times today, civil rights attorney Constance Rice joins in the condemnation ("Imus' remarks were racist, offensive and, given that these athletes are not fair targets, out of bounds. There is no excuse for what he said.") but then switches gears:

Imus should only be fired when the black artists who make millions of dollars rapping about black bitches and hos lose their recording contracts. Black leaders should denounce Imus and boycott him and call for his head only after they do the same for the misogynist artists with whom they have shared stages, magazine covers and awards shows.

The truth is, Imus' remarks mimic those of the original gurus of black female denigration: black men with no class. He is only repeating what he's heard and being honest about the way many men — of all races — judge women.

Atrios thinks this sort of thing is a leap of logic that makes no sense. But really, it's hardly much of a leap, and it sure seems to make sense to an awful lot of people, black and white alike.

A slur aimed at specific people is obviously different than a generic slur in a rap song, but it's not that different. If one is offensive, so is the other, and it's hard to argue that the cesspool of misogyny in contemporary rap has no effect on the wider culture. It's not that this excuses what Imus did. It's just the opposite. If we're justifiably outraged by what Imus said, shouldn't we be just as outraged with anybody else who says the same thing, regardless of their skin color?

POSTSCRIPT: Yes, Constance Rice is related to Condeleezza Rice. They're second cousins. "I admire Condoleezza," she told Pasadena Weekly last year. "I just think she's hanging around the wrong crew right now."

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (245)

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GET THIS MAN A BLOG!....Who said this?

We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car....I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don't need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That's not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I've had enough. How about you?

Answer here.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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YOUR NEWSPEAK WORD OF THE DAY: "EDITING"....A few months ago I posted about a study on election fraud commissioned by the nonpartisan Election Assistance Commission. The nickel summary is that the study's authors (one Republican and one Democrat) concluded that there really wasn't much. This was a crushing blow to Republicans, who thrive on invented fairy tales about hordes of illegal voters turning American into a banana republic, so naturally the commission decided not to release the report.

This being the Bush administration, though, they didn't stop there. In December they finally released the study, but not before doing a bit of editing first:

The revised version echoes complaints made by Republican politicians, who have long suggested that voter fraud is widespread and justifies the voter identification laws that have been passed in at least two dozen states.

....Though the original report said that among experts "there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud," the final version of the report released to the public concluded in its executive summary that "there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud."

Ah, the old "great deal of debate" dodge. This is, of course, also a favorite among global warming skeptics, who know that all they have to do is manufacture enough uncertainty to keep the average joe slightly confused about what's really going on. Meanwhile, the usual parade of transparent lies about massive voting fraud can continue unabated, serving the GOP's purpose of passing voter ID laws that suppress Democratic Party turnout. It's pretty sweet.

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OUT OF GAS....The Washington Post reports that the White House is casting about for a "high-powered czar" who would have authority over both military and civilian operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only problem is, no one wants the job:

At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said, underscoring the administration's difficulty in enlisting its top recruits to join the team after five years of warfare that have taxed the United States and its military.

"The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going," said retired Marine Gen. John J. "Jack" Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. "So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, 'No, thanks,' " he said.

....Besides Sheehan, sources said, the White House or intermediaries have sounded out retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and retired Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who also said they are not interested. Ralston declined to comment; Keane confirmed he declined the offer, adding: "It was discussed weeks ago."

Sheesh. Even Keane doesn't want the job, and the surge was his brainchild in the first place. That's quite a vote of confidence.

The other brainchild of the surge, Frederick Kagan, thinks the czar idea is a dandy one: "Hope they do it, and hope they do it soon. And I hope they pick the right guy. It's a real problem that we don't have a single individual back here who is really capable of coordinating the effort."

Count me skeptical. The fact that the White House is incapable of coordinating the war effort is indeed a real problem, but aside from the wee issues Sheehan mentioned — Bush doesn't know what he's doing and Cheney still has too much influence — ask yourself: is one more matrix manager really going to do any good? We already have Secretaries of State and Defense, we already have a military chain of command, and we already have an NSC that's supposed to coordinate all this stuff. Does anyone truly think that a shiny new White House staffer with no budgetary authority, no bureaucratic support, and little in the way of institutional levers of control is going to be able to magically get everyone on the same page sometime in the next few months? It's a suicide mission, and the fact that Bush apparently thinks that a bit of org chart shuffling will make a significant difference in Iraq is just one more sign of how deeply out of touch with reality he is.

And speaking of that, Sheehan confirms — to the surprise of no one, I imagine — that the out-of-touch faction is indeed still firmly in charge of things:

In the course of the discussions, Sheehan said, he called around to get a better feel for the administration landscape.

"There's the residue of the Cheney view — 'We're going to win, al-Qaeda's there' — that justifies anything we did," he said. "And then there's the pragmatist view — how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence."

We are so screwed.

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April 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IT'S SUBPOENA TIME....Congress has gotten tired of waiting for the Justice Department to voluntarily turn over the documents it wants in Purgegate, so it has now followed up on its threat to subpoena them:

"We have been patient in allowing the department to work through its concerns regarding the sensitive nature of some of these materials," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the judiciary panel's chairman, wrote Gonzales in a letter that accompanied the subpoena. "Unfortunately, the department has not indicated any meaningful willingness to find a way to meet our legitimate needs."

....Legal experts said the standoff will likely end up in court unless the two sides reach agreement on a compromise.

And the Georgia Thompson case I mentioned in the previous post? Wisconsin's senators say they'd like to take a look into that as well.

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UNITED STATES v. THOMPSON....Consider a case with the following facts:

The state of Wisconsin is evaluating bids for travel agencies. Under the scoring system used by the evaluation committee, the two top candidates are Adelman and Omega. Adelman scores 1026.6 and Omega scores 1027.3 out of 1200. That's a difference of .06%. However, Adelman is an in-state company, and one member of the committee, a civil servant named Georgia Thompson, says something along the lines of "our bosses won't like it if we choose Omega." Since Adelman is in-state, and also the low bidder, and the scores were essentially tied, why not choose Adelman?

That's it. That's all that happened. Now, suppose you're the U.S. Attorney for Wisconsin and someone brings this case to your attention. What would you do?

  1. Sigh, say you'll look into it, and then get back to your real work.

  2. Assign someone to investigate. They report back that Thompson gained nothing from this, so whatever else it may be, it's not a violation of federal law. Return to your real work.

  3. Think to yourself, "Hmmm. Governor Jim Doyle is a Democrat, and he's up for reelection. If we could manufacture a case making it look like Thompson was trying to pay off one of Doyle's campaign contributors, that would be pretty sweet." Then assign a prosecutor to the case and take it to trial.

This being the Bush Justice Department at work, do I have to tell you which one is the right answer? Not only did Steven Biskupic take this absurdly insubstantial case to trial and win a conviction of Thompson for violating federal law, he even persuaded the Republican judge in the case to toss Thompson in jail immediately instead of letting her remain free pending appeal. This is very unusual. (Do you think Scooter Libby will be hauled off to prison immediately after his sentencing?)

But then another unusual thing happened. A few days ago an appellate court heard the case and was plainly appalled that Thompson had apparently been railroaded by evidence that it called "beyond thin." The court unanimously overturned Thompson's conviction within minutes of hearing oral arguments and set her free. This only happens if the court is convinced not merely that the government is unlikely to win the appeal, but that the government literally had no case to begin with.

So why was this case ever brought in the first place? Do you have to ask?

POSTSCRIPT: Watching Those We Chose has been following this case for the past few days. Links here and here provide some background. Audio of the appellate hearing is here. Their latest post is here, with the good news that Thompson will probably be back to her old job within a few days. The post also includes some speculation about just how this case got so far in the first place.

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COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU....Now this sounds like Academy Award bait, doesn't it?

The Iranian military says it will soon release a film documenting the arrest, interrogation and statements by UK sailors held in Iran for two weeks.

....The military will release a CD and book about the arrest of the sailors — or, as it calls them, "British aggressors". The statement came from the culture and propaganda office of the joint chief of staff of Iran's armed forces.

A CD and a book! I can't wait. If they were smart, though, they'd auction off the rights to a British tabloid. That oil won't last forever, after all.

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BUSH TO CONGRESS: DROP DEAD....Ah, I see that our president is being his usual conciliatory self:

President Bush on Tuesday invited Democrats to discuss their standoff over a war-spending bill, but he made clear he would not change his position opposing troop withdrawals. The White House bluntly said the meeting would not be a negotiation.

...."At this meeting, the leaders in Congress can report on progress on getting an emergency spending bill to my desk," Bush said. "We can discuss the way forward on a bill that is a clean bill, a bill that funds our troops without artificial timetables for withdrawal and without handcuffing our generals on the ground. I'm hopeful we'll see some results soon from the Congress."

....In essence, Bush invited the Democratic leaders of Congress to come hear the stance he has offered for weeks.

What an offer! I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't be thrilled to be summoned to yet another version of Bush's self-righteous lecture about how anyone who disagrees with him is abandoning the troops. Sounds like a party waiting to happen.

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IMUS?....Is there anything we can talk about this morning other than Don Imus? No? That leaves me....um....without much to say.

About Imus himself, I've only heard him a few times and he's always struck me as just a standard issue shock jock. In other words, pretty uninteresting to anyone over the age of 18 or with an IQ in triple digits. Still there are plenty of juvenile radio hosts around, so whatever. The part I've never gotten is how his show became such a magnet for celebrities and serious politicians of all stripes. What's the story behind that? I've always gotten the impression that Imus's show is treated like some kind of extra-dimensional zone where you're allowed to say anything you want and it doesn't really count as having been said in the real world. Weird.

Anyway, I read God's Other Son about a decade or two ago and it was painfully unfunny. That pretty much exhausts my knowledge of the guy, so I guess I'll go scan the headlines to see if anything else is going on today. In the meantime, feel free to deconstruct the Imus phenomenon in comments.

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April 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORAL CLARITY WATCH....ABC News has reported that the United States is funneling money to Jundullah, a Sunni terrorist group based in western Pakistan. The New York Times has reported that the United States allows arms deliveries from North Korea to flow to Ethiopia. And now, via Ken Silverstein, CNN's Michael Ware is reporting that the U.S. military provides protection for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iraqi-based group listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department:

The U.S. State Department considers the MEK a terrorist organization — meaning no American can deal with it; U.S. banks must freeze its assets; and any American giving support to its members is committing a crime.

The U.S. military, though, regularly escorts MEK supply runs between Baghdad and its base, Camp Ashraf.

"The trips for procurement of logistical needs also take place under the control and protection of the MPs," said Mojgan Parsaii, vice president of MEK and leader of Camp Ashraf.

Well, the world is a complicated place. And one man's terrorist is another man's freedom figh....oh, wait. That's not right. Is it?

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TRAINING OUR ENEMY....I've always heard that one of the big problems with America's skyrocketing prison population is that it simply provides an ever bigger training ground for future crooks and drug lords. Makes sense to me. Now, apparently, we're exporting one of our least successful domestic policies to Iraq:

Iraqi officials also struggle with a crowded system where prisoners can languish as long as two years before getting a trial. But they say the Americans have allowed militants to flourish in their facilities.

"It looks like a terrorist academy now," said Saad Sultan, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry's liaison to U.S. and Iraqi prisons. "There's a huge number of these students. They study how they can kill in their camps. And we protect them, feed them, give them medical care.

"The Americans have no solution to this problem," he said. "This has been going on for a year or two, we have been telling them."

This is a good example of why I don't think a continued American presence can do any further good in Iraq. (The resurgence of Moqtada al-Sadr is another.) Sure, it's just one data point, but it's emblematic of the problem we've been fighting the entire time, namely that an American-style military occupation simply can't address the kinds of problems tearing Iraq apart. It can, however, make those problems worse. And the longer we stay, the higher the odds that worse is exactly what they'll get.

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COMMENTING POLICY....I guess the topic du jour is whether we should have a blogger code of conduct. Spare me. But since comments are part of the latest go-around in this ever popular navel-gazing game, I thought I'd let everyone know my commenting rule. I only have one. Here it is:

If I or my moderators get sufficiently annoyed with you, we will delete your comments. If you don't like it, tough.

That said, I'll add that I believe a free-ranging comment section, warts and all, is a valuable thing to have. Using the kind of language deployed around millions of water coolers every day doesn't bother me, and neither I nor the site moderators are easily annoyed. Still, our patience isn't unlimited.

(On the flip side, of course, is this: if the comments here or anywhere else are too strident for your taste, then don't read them. Sheesh.)

So that's that. Now, which ISO committee do I apply to to have this rule made into an international standard?

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I GUESS "FURY" WAS CORRECT AFTER ALL....Holding out for the best bid backfires sometimes. Case in point: today the British Ministry of Defense reversed itself and said the former Iranian prisoners can't sell their stories after all. Tabloid editors everywhere are crying in their beers tonight.

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JOSHUA'S FIDDLE....Have you read Gene Weingarten's cover story in this week's Washington Post magazine? Basically, he took a world-class violinist (Joshua Bell) and had him play for about an hour at the entrance to a DC Metro stop to see if anyone would notice. To a good approximation, no one did. The tone of the story is a sort of artificially mournful tsk-tsking over our inability to recognize beauty in the world around us, take time out to smell the roses, etc. etc.

I'm sorry, but this is just idiotic. No one recognized Bell because even famous violinists don't have famous faces. No one cared much about his music because probably no more than five people out of a hundred enjoy classical music at all — and fewer still recognize the difficult pieces he decided to play. What's more, I'd be surprised if as many as one out of a hundred can tell a good violinist from a great one even in good conditions. And despite the claim that the acoustics of the L'Enfant Plaza station were "surprisingly kind," I'm sure they were nothing of the sort.

Plus, of course, IT WAS A METRO STATION. People needed to get to work on time so their bosses wouldn't yell at them. Weingarten mentions this, with appropriately high-toned references to Kant and Hume, but somehow seems to think that, in the end, this really shouldn't matter much. There should have been throngs of culture lovers surrounding Bell anyway. It's as if he normally lives on Mars and dropped by Earth for a few minutes to do some research for a sixth-grade anthropology project.

Sorry for the rant, but something about this article was so willfully clueless and hectoring (though in a sad, gentle way, natch) that it set my teeth on edge. Sure, I'm a philistine, but did anybody else have the same reaction?

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CELL PHONES IN FLIGHT....Via Tyler Cowen, the funniest line of the day comes from Mike Elgan of Computerworld, in an article explaining that the feds ought to get off their butts and definitively figure out whether or not cell phones and other electronic devices are harmful to airplane avionics:

If gadgets can't crash planes, then the ban is costing billions of hours per year of lost productivity by business people who want to work in flight.

Billions of hours! Of lost productivity! By business people torn from their cell phones for hours at a time! Give. Me. A. Break.

POSTSCRIPT: I should add that Elgan's story is remarkably nonpersuasive. Despite the fact that I don't like the idea of idiots sitting next to me chattering on their cell phones for hours on end, I basically agree that the feds ought to figure out whether cell phones really are dangerous or not. And yet, after reading his story, he's convinced me that there really are serious problems involved; that it really would be expensive to fix; and that it would be almost impossible to roll out the fix cleanly. Are flight attendants supposed to be able to figure out on a case-by-case basis whether someone is using a safe cell phone or a dangerous one? Will cell phones be allowed on some airplanes but not others? Is it really worth it to spend billions of dollars to usher in this brave new world? I'm less convinced now than I was before I read Elgan's piece.

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GONZALES DEATH WATCH....Michael Isikoff reports that Alberto Gonzales has wiped his schedule clean and brought the Justice Department to a "state of paralysis" in order to prepare for his April 17 testimony before Congress. Apparently it's not going well:

At a recent "prep" for a prospective Sunday talk-show interview, Gonzales's performance was so poor that top aides scrapped any live appearances. During the March 23 session in the A.G.'s conference room, Gonzales was grilled by a team of top aides and advisers — including former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie and former White House lawyer Tim Flanigan — about what he knew about the plan to fire seven U.S. attorneys last fall. But Gonzales kept contradicting himself and "getting his timeline confused," said one participant who asked not to be identified talking about a private meeting. His advisers finally got "exasperated" with him, the source added. "He's not ready," Tasia Scolinos, Gonzales's public-affairs chief, told the A.G.'s top aides after the session was over, said the source.

Everyone prepares for congressional testimony, but this is ridiculous. If Gonzales was planning to simply tell the truth, he wouldn't "keep contradicting himself" in practice sessions and he wouldn't need to bring his schedule to a standstill in order to figure out what he's planning to say. He'd just review the appropriate documents to make sure he had his dates straight and then tell Congress what happened.

Obviously, though, that's not quite what he's planning to do, is it?

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By: Kevin Drum

MARK KLEIMAN WATCH....Since I was busy with Easter festivities tonight, I'm outsourcing this post to Mark Kleiman. Check this stuff out:

  • A Guantanamo interrogator told a prisoner that his mother would be brought to Gitmo — with her being raped as an obvious threat hanging in the background — if he didn't start talking.

  • Apparently both George Bush and the State Department were told about Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria beforehand and neither one raised any objections. See also Josh Marshall on the same subject.

  • Rachel Paulose, the 33-year-old U.S. Attorney in Minnesota who was "coronated" recently and has since suffered mass resignations from her senior managers, may have asked one of those managers to lie to high-ranking DOJ officials. Seems like an allegation worth following up on, no?

  • Rudy Giuliani is unaware of whether North Korea or Iran is further along on its nuclear program.

  • A distinguished constitutional scholar (and former Marine colonel) says that he was put on TSA's no-fly list, and when he asked why was told that it was probably because he had delivered an anti-Bush speech. Participating in a peace march would have done it too.

Click on all the links. Then bang yourself on the forehead with a hammer a few times to make the pain go away.

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April 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE OTHER SHOE....Ever since Monica Goodling, a graduate of Pat Robertson's Regent University, made news by invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to testify about Purgegate, I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding those 150 graduates of Regent that are now populating the executive branch. Via David Kurtz, the Boston Globe doesn't really drop the shoe, but certainly gets it dangling a little further:

In a recent Regent law school newsletter, a 2004 graduate described being interviewed for a job as a trial attorney at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in October 2003. Asked to name the Supreme Court decision from the past 20 years with which he most disagreed, he cited Lawrence v. Texas, the ruling striking down a law against sodomy because it violated gay people's civil rights.

"When one of the interviewers agreed and said that decision in Lawrence was 'maddening,' I knew I correctly answered the question," wrote the Regent graduate . The administration hired him for the Civil Rights Division's housing section — the only employment offer he received after graduation, he said.

The graduate from Regent — which is ranked a "tier four" school by US News & World Report, the lowest score and essentially a tie for 136th place — was not the only lawyer with modest credentials to be hired by the Civil Rights Division after the administration imposed greater political control over career hiring.

And how did all those Regent grads get hired at DOJ? Easy. Bush hired one of Regent's deans to be director of the Office of Personnel Management and John Ashcroft changed DOJ rules to end the practice of having veteran lawyers screen applicants. It seems to have worked well.

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CASHING IN....Yesterday the London Times reported "fury" over the fact that the recently released British prisoners were cashing in on their fame by selling their stories to tabloid newspapers and TV shows. Today, the Times has toned it down to "criticism." The Telegraph calls it "dismay" The Guardian suggests "anger." The BBC thinks "fury" was the right word after all.

In any case, it looks like the prisoners are going to make upwards of half a million dollars between them for selling their stories. But you need to have an angle if you want the really big bucks:

One of the hostages, Dean Harris, 30, an acting sergeant in the Royal Marines, told a Sunday Times reporter yesterday: "I want £70,000. That is based on what the others have told me they have been offered. I know Faye has been offered a heck more than that. I am worth it because I was one of only two who didn't crack."

Indeed. At least until now, anyway.

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THIS IS WHAT PASSES FOR A SECRET THESE DAYS?....In the Washington Post today, Tim Watkin takes a look at the dark side of Oprah's book recommendations. Because I am embarassingly ignorant of popular culture, I had never heard of this book before. I wish I still hadn't.

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VICTORY FOR THE PROLETARIAT?....Mickey Kaus claims vindication for burger-stand economics: a week after he posted about an encouraging help-wanted sign at a local In-N-Out stand, official government reports show that unemployment is down and wages are up. Hooray! I wouldn't get too excited about a single month's data myself, but hey — fair enough.

Except for one thing. Mickey then goes on to note that "the government's 'average hourly earnings' figures have been controversial in the past because they appear to understate wage gains." So maybe things are actually even better than the government's wage figures indicate?

Sadly, no. The study Mickey links to is about alternate methods of calculating average wages. I have no idea if the authors' critique is reasonable or not. However, Chart 1 makes clear that they think BLS data consistently understates wages, not that it understates wage growth. In fact, over the study period of 1988-1999, their alternate measure increases about 42% while the official BLS data increases 46%. If anything, they're claiming that the BLS data overstates the rate of growth.

But don't worry about it. Virtually every measure of middle class and working class wages — median wages, cash wages, cash plus health benefits, lowest quintile, etc. — has been close to flat for over 30 years despite steady gains in productivity during the entire period. 30 years! Tyler Cowen, for some reason, says he is "increasingly of the belief" that this disconnect between wage growth and productivity growth is a thing of the past, but gives no clue why we should believe that. I'd recommend a bit more skepticism that a few months of wage growth really suggests the end of a three-decade pattern of productivity gains going almost exclusively to the wealthy. It's still a grand time to be rich and powerful in America, and Republican economic policies aim to keep it that way.

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CAGE MATCH....If you're looking for some amusement today, this is pretty funny. What's sad, on the other hand, is that literally every single person on the comment thread really does appear to believe, like James Inhofe, that global warming is just a gigantic hoax perpetrated by the scientific-industrial complex. Amazing.

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April 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S LATEST SCREWUP....More Catholic than the Pope? Apparently that's John McCain's new strategy:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will launch a high-profile effort next week to convince Americans that the Iraq war is winnable, embracing the unpopular conflict with renewed vigor as he attempts to reignite his stalling bid for the presidency.

This sounds like a godsend for McCain's opponents: he's making it slam-dunk easy for them to run to his left on the war without having to sound like they're completely giving up on it. Romney and Giuliani ought to be dancing in the streets at this news.

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BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT....Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker takes to the pages of the Washington Post today to add herself to the Dinesh D'Souza Hall of Fame: people who think that maybe the sharia-loving ayatollahs have some worthwhile social insights after all. In this case, it's their view that women should stay home with their babies and let men take care of the world's important business. The proximate cause of today's rant, you'll be unsurprised to learn, is the "humiliation" meted out to the West by Iran's release of Leading Seaman Faye Turney:

Just because we may not "feel" humiliated doesn't mean we're not. In the eyes of Iran and other Muslim nations, we're wimps. While the West puts mothers in boats with rough men, Muslim men "rescue" women and drape them in floral hijabs.

We can debate whether they're right until all our boys wear aprons, but it won't change the way we're perceived. The propaganda value Iran gained from its lone female hostage, the mother of a 3-year-old, was incalculable.

Does this barely literate frothing really deserve promotion from the syndicated ghetto Parker normally occupies? Why?

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IRANIAN PRISONER UPDATE....From the Guardian's after-action report of the Iranian prisoner seizure:

In the first few days after the captives were seized and British diplomats were getting no news from Tehran on their whereabouts, Pentagon officials asked their British counterparts: what do you want us to do? They offered a series of military options, a list which remains top secret given the mounting risk of war between the US and Iran. But one of the options was for US combat aircraft to mount aggressive patrols over Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran, to underline the seriousness of the situation.

The British declined the offer and said the US could calm the situation by staying out of it....The British government also asked the US administration from Mr Bush down to be cautious in its use of rhetoric, which was relatively restrained throughout.

Option A: this shows that the British are spineless wimps and their once-great civilization is on the verge of collapse. Option B: Tony Blair asked the children to please be quiet while the adults were working. Choose whichever one best fits your worldview.

More interestingly, the Guardian claims there is a "remarkable degree of consensus" that this operation was not planned centrally. Rather, some local Revolutionary Guard commanders took matters into their own hands, and once the deed was done it took two weeks to untangle "because their release had to be agreed by all the key players in the perpetual poker game that passes for government in Tehran." Unfortunately, those key players were all on holiday:

The crucial decision for release was taken on Tuesday by the supreme national security council. It includes representatives of the presidency, the armed forces and the Revolutionary Guard, and Tuesday was the first day they could all be brought together following the No Rouz holiday.

"I think they realised pretty quickly the game was not worth the candle," a senior British government source said.

I think so too. And while we're on that subject, raise your hand if you agree with the conventional wisdom that this whole affair has been a PR coup for the Iranian government. I think that's a pretty short-sighted view. Even countries friendly to Iran appear to believe that this whole episode was a pointless and foolhardy provocation; it's shown up the Iranian government as weak, disorganized, and unable to keep control of its own military; the propaganda videos released during the crisis were so crude and staged they surely fooled no one; and finally, by comparison with Iran, the British and Americans ended up looking restrained and steady — countries that have no need to perform hollow circus acts in order to get international attention.

Sure, the Iranians didn't torture their prisoners. But let's get real. Despite the transparently scripted huffing and puffing out of Ahmadinejad, that doesn't come close to making this whole thing a win for Iran. This was a plainly stupid miscalculation on their part, and one that they obviously lost control of once it began. Far from being scared off by their bluster, my guess is that this incident will make the world more united in its belief that Iran can't be trusted with a nuclear program, not less.

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April 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OUTSOURCING UPDATE....Is the world flat? Sort of. Here's the latest outsourcing news from India:

Nearly two decades into India's phenomenal growth as an international center for high technology, the industry has a problem: It's running out of workers.

...."The problem is not a shortage of people," said Mohandas Pai, human resources chief for Infosys Technologies, the software giant that built and runs the Mysore campus for its new employees. "It's a shortage of trained people."

....A shortage means something feared here: higher wages.

Much of India's success rests on the fact that its legions of software programmers work for far less than those in the West — often for one-fourth the salary. If industry can't find enough workers to keep wages low, the companies that look to India for things like software development will turn to competitors, from Poland to the Philippines, and the entire industry could stumble.

I remember crunching some numbers back in the 90s and concluding that it was only cost effective to outsource software coding if the basic hourly rate was one-fourth to one-third the cost of doing it locally. Even at half the hourly rate, the numbers didn't work. For companies with larger presences in India it probably works out differently, but this is still a decent rule of thumb, I think.

If India is truly starting to reach this barrier, it means that more and more of their business is going to have to be driven locally, not by Western companies who are outsourcing their development projects. And it also means they're going to have to radically upgrade their internal infrastructure. Bottom line: Outsourcing to India will certainly continue to increase, but I wouldn't be surprised if the era of skyrocketing growth is at an end.

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PELOSI IN SYRIA....Can we all please get a grip on the Pelosi in Syria story? Please? It's hardly unheard of for members of Congress to visit foreign countries and talk to their leaders, and it's not as if Pelosi was negotiating a treaty or something. As for "undermining" the president's foreign policy, that's just laughable. "Nobody gets to talk to the Syrians" hardly qualifies as a foreign policy in the first place.

At the same time, the Speaker of the House really does have different responsibilities than your average pol. That doesn't mean Pelosi isn't allowed to travel, but it does mean that it's obviously a different thing for her to have a chat with Assad than it is for a couple of obscure backbenchers. Come on, people.

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GOOD FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Here they are, Mr. and Mrs. Magnificence, posing with all the dignity they can muster. This was at the tail end of some good clean laser pointer chasing fun this morning. Quick tip: use one of those laser levels for this game. Not only does it produce a bigger piece of red light for them to chase around, but you don't have to keep your thumb on the button the entire time. Just turn it on and wave the thing around. Works great.

Have a nice weekend, everyone, and a happy Easter.

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SUPPLY SIDE CODA....A couple of days ago, after reading the latest tax-cut pandering from Republican presidential candidates, I had a weak moment and got to feeling a little sorry for supply-side economists. The one or two honest ones left, anyway. I'm obviously not a supply-sider myself, but the doctrine does have some serious critiques to make, and I got to wondering if serious supply-siders got tired of having their entire school of thought made into a laughingstock by today's endless parade of yahoos blathering mindlessly about how tax cuts always and everywhere magically increase revenue. Surely they find such childishness embarrassing?

"Maybe I should email Bruce Bartlett and ask him what he thinks," I thought. After all, he was there at the creation, so to speak. But then I got busy and didn't bother. Turns out, though, that he was reading my mind. Here's Bruce in today's New York Times:

The original supply-siders suggested that some tax cuts, under very special circumstances, might actually raise federal revenues....But today it is common to hear tax cutters claim, implausibly, that all tax cuts raise revenue. Last year, President Bush said, "You cut taxes and the tax revenues increase." Senator John McCain told National Review magazine last month that "tax cuts, starting with Kennedy, as we all know, increase revenues." Last week, Steve Forbes endorsed Rudolph Giuliani for the White House, saying, "He's seen the results of supply-side economics firsthand — higher revenues from lower taxes."

....As the staff economist for Representative Jack Kemp, a Republican of New York, I helped devise the tax plan he co-sponsored with Senator William Roth, a Delaware Republican....We believed that our tax plan would stimulate the economy to such a degree that the federal government would not lose $1 of revenue for every $1 of tax cut. Studies of the 1964 tax cut showed that about a third of it was recouped, and we expected similar results....When President Reagan proposed a version of Kemp-Roth in 1981, every revenue estimate produced by the Treasury showed large revenue losses from its enactment, based on standard models. The independent Congressional Budget Office produced figures that were almost identical.

His conclusion? "I think it is long past time that the phrase be put to rest. It did its job, creating a new consensus among economists on how to look at the national economy. But today it has become a frequently misleading and meaningless buzzword that gets in the way of good economic policy."

Now, Bruce does pass over supply-side's history a wee bit too breezily in his piece: it was, after all, considerably oversold by no less than Ronald Reagan himself, so today's supply-side yahooishness is hardly a new thing. But I'll leave that argument to the real economists. In any case, there's not much question about one thing: regardless of whether supply-side theory was boon or bane in the 1980s, it's now little more than a ritual incantation uttered by the clueless for the benefit of the rabid. It's time for conservatives to grow up and put away the fairy tales.

UPDATE: Excellent! I said I'd leave the economic argument to the economists, and they come through here. Mark Thoma sets the stage, and many others follow in comments, including Bruce Bartlett and Paul Krugman. If you're interested in more details, especially about the historical context of the 1970s, click the link.

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THE BRODY FILE....Here's a bit of criticism directed toward some recent remarks of Rudy Giuliani's that displayed a certain amount of tolerance toward women who want abortions:

These comments may play well in the General Electon but in Iowa? In South Carolina? Rudy better hope he doesn' flame out before Super-Duper Tuesday on February 5th when pro-Giuliani states like California and New Jersey come into the mix. The campaign has told me that there strategy here is to hang on for dear life until February 5th and then clean up. But do these comments on abortion push you over the edge on Rudy or do you care? How much baggage can Evangelicals take?

This is from David Brody of Pat Robertson's CBN network.

Wait a second. What's that, David? You don't like it when people say that?

"Pat Robertson's CBN," Brody says in frustration. "We take that as a dig."

Brody does work for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, and mostly he's proud of that fact. But stereotypes are inevitable when you cover politics for a network run by a standard-bearer of the religious right. Brody, 42, has made it his mission to confound them.

By turning his blog into a sounding board for presidential candidates — testing their appeal to the much sought-after evangelical voter — Brody has turned CBN into an unlikely go-to source for political junkies, routinely cited by the mainstream media. In a breezy style with a dash of irreverence, he embraces some liberals and takes aim at some conservatives. That surprises people, and keeps them coming back; his blog, the Brody File, draws about 25,000 page views a month, triple last fall's numbers.

Brody's blog is here. Just thought I'd point it out since the LA Times brought it to my attention this morning. Evangelical Christians don't seem to blog much on politics, which makes Brody a bit of a unique source. Use it wisely.

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SADDAM AND OSAMA....So do I really need to link to yet another report telling us that Saddam Hussein did not, in fact, have any serious relationship with al-Qaeda? We all know that already, right?

But here it is anyway. Warning: not safe for work. The story includes a mug shot of Doug Feith.

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WATER WARS....Remember that stuff about how the third world is going to get hit by global warming before us rich folks? Apparently that's not completely the case:

The driest periods of the last century — the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the droughts of the 1950s — may become the norm in the Southwest United States within decades because of global warming, according to a study released Thursday.

....The study, published online in the journal Science, predicted a permanent drought by 2050 throughout the Southwest — one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation.

...."This is a situation that is going to cause water wars," said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

I guess that leaves us Californians no choice: it's time to declare war on Arizona. And Las Vegas. All we need now is a good excuse.

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POSER OF THE DAY....Which of these is more pathetic?

  • That Kirk Kerkorian bid $4.5 billion for Chrysler?

  • That DaimlerChrysler's stock went up on the news?

  • That I can't figure out why anyone would even bid that much?

Decisions, decisions.....

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April 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

"TWO YEARS OF SLOW BLEED"....I didn't think anyone overused clauses set off by dashes — like this one — as much as I did, but in his latest column Joe Klein manages to use four in five consecutive sentences. That's impressive. It's going to be hard — though not impossible — for me to top that.

And the column itself? Here it is: "I've tried to be respectful of the man and the office, but the three defining sins of the Bush Administration—arrogance, incompetence, cynicism—are congenital: they're part of his personality. They're not likely to change. And it is increasingly difficult to imagine yet another two years of slow bleed with a leader so clearly unfit to lead."

Yeah, we hear you. Except for a few things. It's not really arrogance, is it? More like barroom obstinance. And not quite cynicism, either. Closer to partisanship and paranoia gone psychopathic. And I'd change "not likely" to something a little stronger. Let's say, "Pigs will orbit Mars before this changes." And finally, that "difficult to imagine" part isn't quite right either. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to imagine.

Other than that, it's perfect!

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YET MORE ON VLOGGING....Not to beat this vlogging thing to death, but here's a comment from Dan Drezner:

I suspect most people consume blogs very differently from vlogs. To consume a blog you actually need to read it, which implies that you've given it top priority among the things your conscious mind is processing at that moment. Vlogs, on the other hand, can be consumed more passively. Yes, you can watch your screen as a bloggingheads segment plays. And, certainly, there are small snippets of video that will command one's full attention. On the whole, however people will treat a vlog the same way they treat the television or the radio — it can be on in the background while the consumer is consuming other things.

Hmmm. Is that true? I really can't do that. Background music is one thing, but listening to an actual conversation while I read or write or have the TV on is beyond my multitasking capabilities.

How about the rest of you? Can you listen to vlogs in the background? Or do you need to actually pay attention, like me?

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YET ANOTHER INVESTIGATION....ABC News reports that the Office of Special Counsel has opened an investigation of GSA chief Lurita Doan. You'll recall that she was the deer in headlights last week who pretended not to remember nothin' bout no PowerPoint presentations and, once the presentation in question was waved in front of her face, not to know what the word "target" meant vis-a-vis Democratic-held congressional districts in 2008. Not a clue in the world.

In the grand scheme of things, this investigation isn't even in the top 20. But that says a lot about the Bush administration, doesn't it?

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BILL RICHARDSON....I'm only tossing this out because the week is winding down and there isn't much else to talk about at the moment, but here's another observation about the fundraising totals announced this week: didn't Bill Richardson do awfully well? Sure, $6 million looks anemic compared to the three frontrunners, but in absolute terms that's pretty impressive, isn't it? If he keeps it up, he'll have a plenty big enough war chest to wage a serious campaign.

I don't have any big point to make here. It just seems like Richardson deserves a little more attention for raising that kind of money with virtually no name recognition.

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OBAMA IN THE CORNFIELDS....Can Barack Obama win in Iowa even if he doesn't pick up very many local endorsements? Mark Kleiman crunches the numbers and says it's doable with a well-funded ground campaign:

Last time around, 125,000 Democrats turned out for the Iowa caucuses....So a candidate who turns out 100,000 of his own supporters is going to blow the field away....An organizer hired for the last two weeks before the caucuses ought to be able to round up 50 attendees. So 2,000 organizers ought to be able to turn out those 100,000 voters.

Let's say a field organizer has to be paid $750/week, which might be on the high side. Then 2000 organizers for two weeks would cost $3 million. [Blah blah blah.] So it looks to me as if the whole thing could be done for $6 million. At the fund-raising levels now being established, that's chump change.

Now, as Mark points out, if everyone else has astronomic amounts of money too, then maybe 100,000 supporters won't be enough in 2008. But I think there's something more fundamental here: all the money in the world isn't going to raise total turnout all that significantly. At least, it hasn't in the past. So what's more likely is that total turnout will remain at around 125,000, or maybe increase modestly to 150,000 or so, and the candidates will simply be spending more money per vote. And as Howard Dean discovered in Iowa last year, there's a limit to what money and sheer numbers of ground troops can do. Ringing someone's doorbell five times just isn't going to do any good if you haven't been able to make the sale after ringing it twice. And running ads ten times a night buys you barely more than running them five times a night. Once you saturate a market, there's nothing more that money can buy.

In any case, I doubt Obama will try to win Iowa with huge wads of cash anyway. He'll save it for places like California and New York. In fact, if anything, I'd guess that Obama's experience in community organizing is his biggest asset in places like Iowa and New Hampshire. It's nice to have money, but knowing — really knowing — how to motivate and organize your organizers is probably even more important.

Plus ethanol. Don't forget about ethanol.

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PRISONER SWAP REVISITED....Did the Bush administration agree to trade Iranian prisoners for British ones? Garance Franke-Ruta points to another piece of evidence suggesting the answer is yes.

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BATTLE CRY....So who wins the showdown between Congress and President Bush over war funding? The LA Times says it's Bush:

Denouncing Democrats from coast to coast for trying to limit his freedom of action in Iraq, President Bush is betting — as he often has — that when it comes to national security, confrontation works better than conciliation.

In Washington, Republicans and Democrats expect that the president will win this battle in the short run...."Ultimately, politically, we have to give him [the] money," Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, predicted in an interview on NBC this week.

Sheesh. If that's the way Democrats insist on talking, then I guess I predict that Bush will win too.

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CUI BONO?....From our friends at EPI, here's our chart of the day. It compares the current economic expansion with past economic expansions.

Basically, everything sucks. GDP growth has been mediocre, employment growth has been terrible, and investment in equipment and software has been pitiful. And of course, we already know that median wages have been completely flat. The average worker has gained exactly nothing from five years of economic growth.

But guess what? One sector of the economy has gone like gangbusters: corporate profits. Even skyrocketing executive pay hasn't been enough to make a dent. Good times indeed.

If you're a corporation, that is. If you're not, then not so much. And if you think this is just a coincidence, you haven't been paying attention.

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April 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS....In the years since 9/11, al-Qaeda as a centrally controlled organization has been largely crushed. Its core leadership has been reduced from several thousand to several hundred, its ability to mount large-scale attacks has been seriously degraded, and it has evolved into something closer to a franchise operation than a single coherent group.

According to a number of reports, one of its franchises is a group called Jundullah, an affiliate that emerged around 2004 in the Baluchistan region that straddles the border between Pakistan and Iran. Jundullah carries out terrorist attacks on the leadership of both countries, and ABC News reports today that for the past couple of years the United States has been advising and funding its Iranian branch:

U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "finding" as well as congressional oversight.

Tribal sources tell ABC News that money for Jundullah is funneled to its youthful leader, Abd el Malik Regi, through Iranian exiles who have connections with European and Gulf states.

....Some former CIA officers say the arrangement is reminiscent of how the U.S. government used proxy armies, funded by other countries including Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

So in order to destabilize Iran we're funneling money to a Sunni extremist terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda? I'm sure that will work out well. But perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised: after all, this is pretty much what Seymour Hersh reported a few weeks ago, with the further comforting news that the covert side of this plan to buddy up with Sunni extremists is being run out of the vice president's office. Shocking, I know.

Needless to say, take this story with whatever size grain of salt you prefer, depending on how reliable you think ABC's anonymous sources are. But it's worth keeping in the back of your mind.

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By: Kevin Drum

PRISONER SWAP?....Via Andrew Sullivan, Scott Horton recounts a question he asked yesterday during a conversation with a British diplomat:

What were the prospects for a resolution of the current dilemma through a prisoner exchange — namely the 15 British sailors and marines seized by Tehran for the six Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq? The question drew a broad smile and this comment: "If everything develops as I hope it will, then about a week from today people may very well be speculating that this is what has happened. They might very well think that. Of course, government representatives would be at pains to convince them that there is no relationship between the releases, because it is the position of each of the governments involved that there can be no quid pro quo when it comes to hostages." That's about as close as a wiley diplomat would come to saying "yes."

Now that's entirely likely — though I have to say that Horton's diplomat doesn't really sound all that wiley to me. In fact, a resolution like this sounds very Cuban Missile Crisis-ish: we get something we want in exchange for giving them something we were probably planning to give them anyway. After all, how long were we planning on keeping those Iranians we detained a couple of months ago? Probably not much longer.

Kevin Drum 6:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUISLING BRITAIN....Mario Loyola entertains us further:

What we haven't seen yet — but it probably won't be long — are the details of the promises Iran extracted concerning its territorial integrity....Getting the British to agree to back down from the nuclear standoff — getting them to promise not to allow the U.S. to use the airbase at Diego Garcia — would be an enormous victory for the Mullahs. And it shouldn't be long before they start bragging about it.

Does he seriously believe this? That Britain agreed to (a) back off on the Iranian nuclear program and (b) deny the U.S. use of their bases? That's crazy. The British managed to demonstrate that in this case patient diplomacy was a better idea than bluster and threats, and the hawks just can't stand it. The result is bizarre concoctions like this one.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHENEY THE NUANCED....Dick Cheney, commenting today about the British sailors and marines who were seized by Iran a couple of weeks ago: "There's considerable evidence that they were, in fact, in Iraqi territorial waters when this happened."

"Considerable evidence"? Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but does this sound like the Big Time we know and love? Wouldn't "incontrovertible evidence" or "ironclad proof" be more his style if he did, in fact, believe that the boat was in Iraqi waters? What does his sudden embrace of nuance mean?

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

MILLIONS AND MILLIONS....I have a prediction: we are going to learn this year (or, actually, next year) that there are diminishing returns to money in presidential primaries. Not only do I have my doubts that the vast sums of money being raised by the current frontrunners will fund a more effective campaign than half the amount would, but I wouldn't be surprised if it leads to less effective campaigns. Sometimes too much money makes you lazy.

Anyway, this is a prediction I may someday kick myself for having made, but there you have it.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

BRITISH HOSTAGE CRISIS OVER....Iran is going to release the 15 British sailors and marines it seized two weeks ago. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the "pardon" today, accompanied by some of his usual peculiar rhetoric as well as videotape of some of the prisoners confessing to having trespassed in Iranian waters. The deal, we are told, is an Easter "gift" and has nothing to do with the recent release of an Iranian diplomat by Iraq.

Maybe so. But there's pretty clearly more of a backstory to this. I wonder if we'll ever get to hear it?

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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PELOSI IN DAMASCUS....Via Greg Djerejian, it appears that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants to send a message to Bashar Assad that Israel has no intention of launching an attack on Syria. His messenger? Nancy Pelosi:

Israel's political and military leadership has been preparing in recent weeks for the possibility of a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights that will start as a result of a "miscalculation" on the part of the Syrians, who may assume that Israel intends to attack them.

Israel, however, has delivered a calming message, and has no plans to attack its northern neighbor.

....The speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is scheduled to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus today, and will deliver a message of calm from Israel.

"We hope the message will be understood," political sources in Israel said yesterday. "The question is whether Assad is looking for an excuse ... so that he can carry out an attack against Israel in the summer, or whether this is a mistaken assessment."

Launching an attack on the Golan Heights sounds like a bit of suicidal insanity that even Assad couldn't be seriously contemplating, but I guess you never know. Luckily for Israel, there was an adult in the neighborhood to help them out.

Kevin Drum 2:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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April 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IN WHICH I TRY MY HAND AT SPEECHWRITING....A short speech I'd like to see:

It's unfortunate that President Bush continues to play chicken with the well-being of our troops in the field. Up on the Hill we're working hard to pass a bill that fully funds the war in Iraq, but today the president warned that "if either the House or Senate version of this bill comes to my desk, I will veto it." Apparently it's more important for him to play political games than it is to get our commanders on the ground the funds they desperately say they need.

And what is it that's so important that he's willing to risk the safety of our men and women in uniform? His continuing insistence on open-ended war, with no benchmarks for progress, no accountability to the public, and no end in sight.

This is no place for politics. President Bush has a chance to sign a bill that contains every dollar he's asked for, along with sensible, flexible benchmarks for standing up Iraqi troops and finally bringing our soldiers home. In a time of war, it would be irresponsible for the commander-in-chief to veto this legislation while our troops in combat are waiting for the funds.

I can dream, can't I?

Kevin Drum 8:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (124)

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IN WHICH I AM CRUSHED BY SUPERIOR TECHNOLOGY....I give up. I can't compete with this. Not only am I a dinosaur, now I even sound like one.

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FACTIONAL POLITICS IN IRAN....I don't have any idea whether this reporting is accurate, but what the heck. Here's what the London Times says about the Iranian hostage crisis:

According to an Iranian military source, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards has called for them to be freed.

Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi is said to have told the country's Supreme National Security Council on Friday that the situation was "getting out of control" and urged its members to consider the immediate release of the prisoners to defuse tension in the Gulf.

However, Safavi's intervention was reportedly denounced by another senior general at a meeting of high-ranking commanders yesterday.

Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards' political bureau, was said to have accused him of weakness and "liberal tendencies". Javani is said to have demanded that the prisoners be put on trial.

....Iranian military sources said the Supreme National Security Council had concluded on Friday evening that Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, should order the release of the British naval personnel on Safavi's advice.

However, according to one account, which could not be confirmed, Javani described Safavi's recommendation as tantamount to treason.

This more or less fits with Juan Cole's suggestion that the crisis is basically a product of internal Iranian politics: "Tehran's hard-liners...are trying to use the incident to rally the public around the flag and revive their flagging fortunes on the geopolitical stage with appeals to Iranian patriotism." However, it goes a bit further in suggesting that even the Revolutionary Guards are badly split on what to do next.

As usual, I'm just passing this stuff along. Iranian factional machinations are far too opaque for me to have an independent opinion on this stuff, but the basic idea that internecine battles of some kind are behind the whole affair seems increasingly plausible.

Kevin Drum 3:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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THE MODERATES....Greg Sargent passes along Andrea Mitchell's version of what moderate Republicans are saying these days:

[Petraeus] is telling them that he will report some progress, that he hopes to be able to report some progress by August. And in turn, what many Republican senators are saying, Chris, is that if there isn't real progress by the end of the summer, that's when there are going to really break with the president, that they're going along with this surge out of respect for the generals.

I dunno. I think I'm with Atrios on this. We've been hearing for about six years that moderate Republicans are going to break with Bush any day now on some issue or another, but the day never seems to come. When August rolls around, Petraeus will give another briefing where he'll provide a seemingly well-grounded and seemingly reality-based assessment of conditions in Baghdad accompanied by seemingly unimpeachable metrics showing that progress is being made — and the moderates will stroke their chins and agree that we're right on the cusp of serious change and we have to give Petraeus a chance to make his plan work.

Or something like that. At most, a few of the senators who are up for reelection might bolt, but that's about it.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

IN THE SANDBOX....Note to conservatives: if you decide to just ignore John McCain's laughable trip to Baghdad, I understand. There's really not much you can do except hope for a new presidential scandal to take it mercifully off the front page.

But if you do decide to post about it, do you really think you can get away with pretending that the whole trip went smoothly and the press is merely being unfair in its reporting? And if you do think that, what does it say about your opinion of your readership?

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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FUZZY FOREIGN POLICY....Matt Yglesias, after observing that voting records don't really tell us that much anymore, unleashes some annoyance about Hillary Clinton's foreign policy rhetoric:

It does seem to me that at some point the Clinton camp needs to stop trying to blur the differences between her foreign policy views and Obama's and, instead, defend her views as better superior to his.

But that's the problem, isn't it? How do her views, in fact, differ from Obama's? Or Edwards's? Or Bill Richardson's? Unlike in domestic policy, where candidates fight each other with dueling white papers, most of the time there just aren't very many specific, detailed foreign policy issues on which candidates disagree. It's very much a rhetorical battlespace, and one where it's very difficult to draw sharp distinctions.

We're seeing the same thing on the Republican side, by the way. When a party occupies the White House, it takes its foreign policy cues from the president, and thus benefits from an aura of having a united and coherent foreign policy. That's because the party can simply coalesce around the actual actions of the president and be done with it. But now that campaign season is here, that fiction is harder to sustain. What's the difference between McCain's foreign policy and Romney's? Or Giuliani's? It's hard to say, isn't it?

So, yeah, I'd be interested in hearing Clinton, Obama, and Edwards explain how their foreign policy views differ, but I think that's unlikely because, in fact, their foreign policy views probably don't differ all that much in the first place. And to the extent they do, it's in the area of judgment: how their overall worldview affects the way they'd be likely to react to unexpected future events. That's a hard argument to have. In the meantime, judging them by rhetorical nuances and the kinds of advisors they hang out with is probably the best we can do.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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MEN ON THE STREET....Was the Baghdad marketplace that John McCain visited on Sunday really "like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime," in the words of Rep. Mike Pence (R–Cloudcuckooland)? We already know it wasn't, but Kirk Semple of the New York Times provides additional entertaining detail:

"What are they talking about?" Ali Jassim Faiyad, the owner of an electrical appliances shop in the market, said Monday. "The security procedures were abnormal!"

The delegation arrived at the market, which is called Shorja, on Sunday with more than 100 soldiers in armored Humvees — the equivalent of an entire company — and attack helicopters circled overhead, a senior American military official in Baghdad said. The soldiers redirected traffic from the area and restricted access to the Americans, witnesses said, and sharpshooters were posted on the roofs. The congressmen wore bulletproof vests throughout their hourlong visit.

"They paralyzed the market when they came," Mr. Faiyad said during an interview in his shop on Monday. "This was only for the media."

Hey, those Iraqi merchants are pretty sophisticated guys! And Faiyad is positively cheerful compared to the rest of the people Semple interviewed.

On the bright side, it turns out that Gen. Petraeus is a generous tipper.

Kevin Drum 2:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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April 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GOOSING THE ECONOMY....It might be a mistake to get dragged into this, but Mickey Kaus responds to yesterday's snark about burger-joint economics with this:

I'm not denying income inequality is rising....My suggestion is only that if you keep the economy going and stop new immigrant entrants from flooding in at the bottom, entry-level wages will eventually rise and people will start complaining (as they did in the late 1990s) about the "U-shaped" economy in which the rich and the poor were gaining faster than the middle.

Set aside the immigration thing. I think the evidence suggests that immigration has — at most — only a small effect on wages at the low end (see here and here), but that's certainly an arguable point. I'm more interested in Mickey's contention, which he's made more than once, that the real key to boosting entry-level wages is to "keep the economy going."

Consider the evidence. The average income of families in the bottom fifth of the population has been flat for more than 30 years, through good times and bad. In the most recent five years of economic expansion, using the BLS data that Mickey points to, it's been even worse: wages for the bottom 10% (after correcting for inflation) are flat. Wages for the bottom 25% are flat. Wages for the median worker are flat. And that was during a period of sustained economic growth. How long is it supposed to take for an economic expansion to turn into a tight labor market? Over the past three decades, the only time the median wage has increased significantly was during the late 90s, and that was thanks to the most intense, highest-flying bubble in a generation. We can't count on that happening again any time soon.

I'm as big a fan of a hot economy as the next person, but the stubborn fact is that economic growth over the past three decades has produced next to no gains for the average worker. And even if it did, what's the magic key to manufacturing an endless expansion? None that I know of. There's a Nobel Prize waiting for the guy who can figure out how to do away with the business cycle.

I happen to think that median wage stagnation has gone on long enough that it's plainly a serious problem and plainly something that needs to be addressed via policy. For some reason, the free market has disconnected wage gains from productivity gains in recent years, and there's no indication that this is going to change on its own. For that reason, I favor things like a higher minimum wage, looser union organization rules, saner trade policy, more labor-friendly tax policies, and — yes — an immigration policy that would have the effect of reducing total immigration.

But just keeping the economy going and leaving it at that? Nobody knows how, and it doesn't seem to work anyway. Unless we're giving up, there has to be more to the answer than just that.

Kevin Drum 11:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Kevin Drum

IN WHICH A DINOSAUR DEFENDS HIS TURF...Since I've been called out on the v-log issue — and also because I'm a little bored right now — here's a moderately detailed defense of my agreement with Nick Yglesias that v-logging kind of sucks. However, lest anyone take this too seriously, let me disclaim up front that this is a purely personal reaction. If you enjoy v-logging yourself, that's fine with me. Honest.

That said, here are my complaints, in reverse order of importance.

  1. The first objection is the most obvious one: it's so slo-o-o-o-w. A 20-minute v-log usually contains remarkably little content amidst all the interruptions, verbal tics, and hemming and hawing. I prefer my bloviating in more concentrated form. On a related note, v-logs are also almost impossible to scan, which I find endlessly annoying. I can scan a 3,000 word article in little more than a minute or so if I'm looking for a particular passage.

  2. V-loggers tend not to think out their arguments very well before turning on the camera, which means that I usually have to sit and watch for 20 minutes as they slowly and painfully piece it together. On a purely selfish basis, I'd rather that they spend the time it takes to hone their argument and write it down in a form where I can read it quickly, instead of blathering aimlessly and forcing me to spend the time to pick out the wheat from the chaff.

  3. Finally, I just don't get it. There's a reason political blogging has become popular: it's a genuinely different medium compared to other forms of political writing. Its combination of short takes, easy hyperlinking, interactivity (with other blogs and with blog commenters), constant updating, and accessibility by ordinary writers makes it unique. You can do things with a blog that you just can't do on an op-ed page or a magazine, and that's inherent in the medium.

    V-logging, by contrast, is just TV. It's literally the same thing that you see on PBS or CNN or Fox, except less professional. It just doesn't bring anything new to the table.

Having said this, though, I agree entirely with Matt's final point: v-logging is great as a training ground. If the point is to get better at doing TV commentary, v-logging is probably a good idea. (Though professional media training is probably an even better idea.)

So: would this post have worked better as a v-log? Upside: I probably would have explained myself in a little more depth. Downside: I probably would have been interrupted after each one of my three points. I think this would have made my argument harder to follow, not easier. Upside: The interruptions would force me to defend myself better. Downside: the kinds of defenses you come up with on the spur of the moment aren't necessarily very good ones.

Full disclosure: I don't really like professional v-logging (i.e., television) very much either. Also, I'd suck at v-logging. I don't have either the quick memory or the ability to think on my feet that successful real-time argument requires. What's more, v-logging is hard on bloggers because we can't just cut and paste stuff we want to comment on. We have to transcribe it first. So maybe this is all just sour grapes.

Kevin Drum 6:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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CO2 AND THE EPA....This comes as a surprise to me, but the Supreme Court ruled today that the EPA does indeed have both the authority and the responsiblity to regulate greenhouse gases:

In a 5-to-4 decision, the court found that the Clean Air Act expressly authorizes the E.P.A. to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, contrary to the E.P.A.'s contention, and that if the agency still insists that it does not want to regulate those emissions, it must give better reasons than the "laundry list" of invalid considerations it has offered so far.

....The majority did not declare that the E.P.A. must find that greenhouse gases are a danger because they contribute to global warming. But the justices said the agency can escape its regulatory duties "only if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change, or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do."

Even the Bush EPA is going to have trouble arguing that greenhouse gases don't contribute to climate change — though I'm sure they'll give it their best shot. This should be an interesting show to watch.

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INNOVATION....In an op-ed about the VA system today, Betsy McCaughey talks about a new technology called computer physician order entry (CPOE) that cuts down on physician errors:

With CPOE, a doctor enters the prescription at a computer terminal instead of scribbling it on a pad. The computer identifies incorrect doses or a medication that conflicts with other meds the patient is taking. If the computer sounds an alarm, the physician has to override it. In Australia, Britain, New Zealand and much of Western Europe, hospitals have adopted CPOE, but most U.S. hospitals have resisted. An exception is the VA, which has installed CPOE nationwide.

Question for the free market crowd: if you oppose national healthcare because you think it will reduce the pace of medical innovation, how do you explain this? Why is it that the VA and the national healthcare systems in Europe have all adopted this plainly useful innovation but American hospitals mostly haven't?

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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HIGHWAY ROBBERY....Credit card issuers have recently jacked up the transaction fees they charge merchants, and it's easy to understand why they had to do it. Check this out:

Credit card companies' profits from interchange fees rose 33% from 1990 to 2004, according to a September report by the Government Accountability Office.

That's outrageous. Only 33%? Don't small merchants understand that credit card executives have yacht bills to pay?

But it's not all about snark here at the Washington Monthly. It's about forward looking solutions. So let me offer one. The basic problem is that merchants, by law, aren't allowed to charge more for credit card purchases than for cash purchases. This means that card issuers can keep jacking up hidden transaction fees with no worries that the higher charges will drive away business. The only way to lose business is if merchants simply stop taking credit cards at all, and card issuers know perfectly well that this just isn't a realistic option for most retail operations. So they keep jacking away.

So let's unleash the free market on these guys. If they refuse to accept caps on transaction fees, let's allow merchants to pass along the fees to their customers. This would cause more people to pay by cash and check, of course, but that's the price of freedom. How about it?

POSTSCRIPT: Transaction fees were originally designed to offset the actual cost of processing credit card transactions. But how high are those costs? Lower than they were in the pre-computer era, certainly, but how much lower? As the article notes, Britain and Australia recently analyzed actual processing costs and discovered that they amounted to about 0.7% — i.e., less than a penny per dollar.

And how high are the fees in the U.S.? Over 2% That's a lot of free money the card companies are ripping off from merchants.

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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HOW ABOUT HIS CIGAR DEALER?....Cronyism, Arnold Schwarzenegger style:

Last month, Schwarzenegger appointed his dentist to the state dental board. His former chiropractor now chairs the chiropractic panel.

Insert your own joke here.

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"DAN QUAYLE IN COWBOY BOOTS"....There's a new book coming out: "Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP." No, it's not by Michael Moore. It's by Vic Gold, staunch Republican and longtime family friend to George Bush and Dick Cheney:

Under Bush and Cheney, he argues, the GOP has moved away from principles of small government, prudent foreign policy and leaving people alone to live their private lives — all views Gold associates with his hero, Goldwater. "Invasion of the Party Snatchers" makes plain Gold's contempt for the direction of his party and the guidance of its leaders.

"For all the Rove-built facade of his being a 'strong' chief executive, George W. Bush has been, by comparison to even hapless Jimmy Carter, the weakest, most out of touch president in modern times," Gold writes. "Think Dan Quayle in cowboy boots."

Gold is even more withering in his observations of Cheney. "A vice president in control is bad enough. Worse yet is a vice president out of control."

The line of former supporters who now understand that (a) Bush is incompetent and (b) Cheney is a serious loon is getting mighty long. Welcome to the club, Mr. Gold.

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April 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN'S SUNDAY PROMENDADE....So John McCain, in order to prove his point that there are neighborhoods in Baghdad that an American can stroll through safely, tells reporters at a press conference that he just got back from a 1-hour walk around the city. Safe and sound! Though, oddly for a guy running for president, without any TV cameras around. Later it turns out that he visited....

Wait for it....

A market three minutes from the Green Zone. Wearing a bulletproof vest. Accompanied by over a hundred well-armed soldiers. Covered by three Blackhawk helicopters. And two Apache gunships. ThinkProgress has the details.

Seriously, just how stupid does McCain think we are? Doesn't he realize that this kind of thing just draws attention to exactly how dangerous Baghdad still is? He's accomplished the exact opposite of what he set out to do.

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By: Kevin Drum

DAVID HICKS....Andrew Sullivan has about the pithiest take I've seen yet on the "confession" and plea deal that recently got David Hicks transferred from Guantanamo to an Australian prison. To say that it stinks is to do a disservice to rotten garbage.

Apropos of nothing in particular, this case is a good demonstration of what the Bush administration has cost us. The fact is that the whole issue of enemy combatants in an age of transnational terrorism is a really difficult one. This isn't a conventional war where we can just release prisoners after it's over, nor is it like domestic crime, where the state has the power to coercively collect evidence and demand testimony. It's a helluva hard problem, and under normal circumstances we'd all be well advised to cut the administration some slack as they try to figure out how to deal with it.

And we might, if it weren't for what this administration has done. But the combination of torture and "coercive interrogation," including rendition of high-value prisoners; widespread imprisonment based on evidence the Pentagon knows to be blatantly fabricated; and the adminstration's almost fanatical resistance to even minimal standards of review, has convinced even sympathetic observers that the Bush administration isn't struggling to find a solution to a hard problem. They just want to keep people locked up forever — unless it happens to be politically inconvenient, of course. Is it any wonder virtually no one trusts us on this subject any longer?

Kevin Drum 6:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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U.S. ATTORNEY UPDATE....Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen write:

About one-third of the nearly four dozen U.S. attorney's jobs that have changed hands since President Bush began his second term have been filled by the White House and the Justice Department with trusted administration insiders.

The people chosen as chief federal prosecutors on a temporary or permanent basis since early 2005 include 10 senior aides to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, according to an analysis of government records. Several came from the White House or other government agencies. Some lacked experience as prosecutors or had no connection to the districts in which they were sent to work, the records and biographical information show.

....No other administration in contemporary times has had such a clear pattern of filling chief prosecutors' jobs with its own staff members, said experts on U.S. attorney's offices.

Knock me over with a feather.

Kevin Drum 4:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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THE GOP ECONOMY....The chart on the right shows it in a nutshell. Here are Greg Ip and John McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal:

Even before Republicans' November defeat at the polls, some administration allies were warning that economic insecurity was eroding Republican support. A business coalition hired pollster David Winston to figure out why voters remained so dissatisfied with the economy. His focus groups of middle-income voters in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh found voters going deeper into debt to keep up with rising costs of health care and energy. Executive compensation "is getting to the point where it's obscene," said one focus-group participant.

The more politicians talked about how good the economy was, the worse these voters felt. "It's almost as if these folks are floating around in the ocean, watching the yachts and speedboats go by, thinking, 'Hey, I'm here, someone notice me,'" says Dirk Van Dongen, a co-chairman of the coalition and president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. Mr. Winston advised Republicans: "Our message should be that while the economy is getting back on track, we need to do more to help people with the cost of living."

This is, perhaps, more reliable data than a single sign in a burger joint in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood, no?

In any case, if you read the entire article you'll notice the distinct lack of any Republicans who treat this as anything other than a messaging issue. It needs to be addressed because it's becoming a political liability, but not by actually doing anything to raise middle class wages. What's needed, apparently, is simply a better brand of spin. The yokels have started cottoning on to the old stuff.

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"NEEDLESS KOWTOWING"....On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of parliament's passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act, Tony Blair expressed "deep sorrow and regret for our nation's role in the slave trade." Today, Niall Ferguson says that Blair's "needless kowtowing over slavery" was the proximate cause of Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines a week ago. It demonstrated weakness, you see.

Seriously. That's what he said. Click the link if you don't believe me.

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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FLAT MAXIMA.... SOLVED!.... Yesterday I asked whether NFL scouts were really able to choose the best players out of a college draft populated exclusively by the finest athletes in the country. Or were the differences between the top players so small that they were essentially picking randomly?

The chart on the right shows the answer. It's from a paper by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler, who mapped the performance of all NFL players drafted from 1991-2002. They chose five measures of performance, and by all of those measures it turned out that players chosen in the first round of the draft did better than those chosen in the second, second round picks outperformed third round picks, etc. The measures aren't perfect, but taken together they seem to make it clear that even when confronted by a small group of the most elite performers on the planet, scouts can indeed predict future performance reasonably well.

What this appears to show is that, at least in a case where scouts have truckloads of information on each prospect, the principle of the flat maximum doesn't hold up. Yes, everyone chosen in the first few rounds of the NFL draft is a phenomenal athlete, but there are still differences large enough to predict future performance with at least moderate accuracy.

On the other hand, the operative word is still "moderate." If you're interested in more (and who wouldn't be?), scroll down to Figure 7 in the paper, which compares players by position and draft order. (That is, it compares them not merely by draft round, but by the actual order they're picked.) Players picked earlier do get more starts than players picked later, but their Pro Bowl performance is nearly identical. Within the first draft round, the first player chosen at a given position is only barely more likely to make the Pro Bowl than a player chosen four spots later. Within all rounds, the difference is a little greater, but still only about 55%. The difference in pro performance between the third linebacker chosen and the seventh linebacker chosen is very, very small.

Of course, in most situations decisionmakers don't have nearly as much information about their prospects as NFL scouts. If this is as good as they can do, how likely is it that a college admissions committee can choose between a group of students who are all like this? Probably not very.

Kevin Drum 1:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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