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Tilting at Windmills

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May 31, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PURGEGATE UPDATE....Tom Hamburger of the LA Times writes today about Tom Heffelfinger, one of the U.S. Attorneys whose name turned up on a list of potential firees a few weeks ago. But why was this "embodiment of a tough Republican prosecutor" targeted? What had he done?

Part of the reason, government documents and other evidence suggest, is that he tried to protect voting rights for Native Americans.

....Citing requirements in a new state election law, Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer directed that tribal ID cards could not be used for voter identification by Native Americans living off reservations. Heffelfinger and his staff feared that the ruling could result in discrimination against Indian voters. Many do not have driver's licenses or forms of identification other than the tribes' photo IDs.

....Newly obtained documents and interviews with government officials suggest that what displeased some of his superiors and GOP politicians was...his actions on Indian voting.

About three months after Heffelfinger's office raised the issue of tribal ID cards and nonreservation Indians in an October 2004 memo, his name appeared on a list of U.S. attorneys singled out for possible firing.

Needless to say, this is yet more evidence that (a) "voter fraud" was indeed behind much of the U.S. Attorney purge, and (b) it was almost certainly directed from somewhere within Karl Rove's domain. It's the political operation in the White House, after all, that's obsessed with suppressing Democratic-leaning voters by trumping up voter fraud charges whenever it can.

Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that just because voter fraud was a big part of Purgegate, that doesn't mean that was its sole purpose. It looks to me like maybe half of the fired USAs were targeted for reasons related to the voter fraud crusade, while some of the others were targeted for other reasons. Heck, some of them might even have been targeted just because they weren't doing a good job. Stranger things have happened.

Kevin Drum 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPAM....Here's some good news:

A 27-year-old man described as one of the world's most prolific spammers was arrested Wednesday, and federal authorities said computer users across the Web could notice a decrease in the amount of junk e-mail.

Robert Alan Soloway is accused of using networks of compromised "zombie" computers to send out millions upon millions of spam e-mails.

....A federal grand jury last week returned a 35-count indictment against Soloway charging him with mail fraud, wire fraud, e-mail fraud, aggravated identity theft and money laundering....Soloway could face decades in prison, though prosecutors said they have not calculated what guideline sentencing range he might face.

I don't have anything interesting to say about this. But it sure makes me happy, happy, happy!

Kevin Drum 4:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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WE'RE BACK....Hooray! The site is back up. I guess now I need to think of something to say. Shouldn't take more than a minute.....

Kevin Drum 4:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

SHRUM AND DUMBER....A few days ago the nice folks at Simon & Schuster sent me a copy of No Excuses, Bob Shrum's memoir of 35 years in the Democratic consulting biz — a career famously marked by almost unremitting failure at the presidential level. I haven't cracked it open yet, but Matt Yglesias has and he reports back in our current issue. Shrum's problem, he says, isn't an excess of conviction, but a lack of it:

[In 2004] three of the four leading Democratic presidential contenders — Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards — were all Shrum clients. What's more, on the most important moral and political issue of the day, they all broke the wrong way, supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Shrum concedes that he urged his clients to do this, going so far as to say that he prevailed upon Kerry and Edwards to opportunistically endorse a war they knew was wrong. Most astoundingly, he clearly regards this claim as something that will be helpful to the politicians in question, a misjudgment that would seem to speak volumes about the difficulty his clients have had in winning presidential elections.

....[Another] telling example is Shrum's recounting of how during the 2000 campaign "Gore was determined to give a blunt speech on global warming, and to do it in Michigan." Shrum and the rest of the staff talked Gore out of it, on the grounds that the issue "was a third rail in the automotive state of Michigan, a state we had to carry." And, indeed, such a speech almost certainly would have been unpopular in Michigan. On the other hand, voters with a direct financial interest in the issue were the people most likely already familiar with Gore's views, speech or no speech. What's more, Michigan wasn't strictly must-win — if Gore had carried Florida, he wouldn't have needed it. Giving the speech could not only have put him over the top in Florida, it would have countered the public's image of Gore as a phony, dull, passionless calculating figure by letting him connect with the environmental issues on which he was a lifelong advocate. It would also have allowed Gore to skewer Bush where his record was most vulnerable. The speech could have helped Gore establish a persona distinct from Clinton's, without forcing Gore to distance himself from Clinton's accomplishments. And even if the polls didn't show voters yearning for a speech on global warming, it was clear that the voters were yearning for Gore to do something that seemed driven by convictions rather than polls.

I dunno. Could Gore have won Florida convincingly if he'd played up his environmental record? Or would he just have lost Michigan and done himself no good anywhere else? If you were Bob Shrum, what would you have advised?

Kevin Drum 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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May 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DOBBISTRY....David Leonhardt has a pretty brutal takedown of Lou Dobbs in the New York Times today, much of which focuses on Dobbs's claim that we've seen a meteoric rise in leprosy cases over the past three years thanks to a tidal surge of illegal immigration. Here's the nutshell summary: two years ago a correspondent on his show said, "There were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years." Lesley Stahl challenged him on this a few weeks ago on 60 Minutes, and the next night Dobbs had on the same correspondent, who repeated the claim: "Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy."

Now, this turns out not to be true. It's 7,000 cases over the past 30 years, and the annual incidence of leprosy in America has been both low and fairly stable during that period. So Dobbs was wrong.

But that's not really the most astonishing part of this. A few days later Dobbs had on a couple of representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center who accused him of whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria by focusing on disease and crime. It turns out that Dobbs actually had a decent comeback to that charge: he claims that out of 750 reports on illegal immigration over the past few years, only six have focused on disease and crime. And to make that stick all he had to do was fess up about the leprosy error and move on. Instead he gave mere sophistry a bad name by claiming that he had never said those 7,000 cases were new cases of leprosy. Read and be amazed:

DOBBS: Mark, Richard, gentlemen, you know we never said they were new cases. What we said in point of fact was that there are 7,000 cases on the active — active leprosy register.

....COHEN: Just wait, Lou. Just wait. You said or your reporter Christine Romans said on May seventh that Hansen's was a disease so rare that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly in the past three years America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy.

DOBBS: Right.

COHEN: I think that makes it — that's a pretty strong implication that the number has jumped from 900 to 7,000 or over 7,000 in a very short period of time. You were wrong to claim that.

DOBBS: Let's listen and I would ask you to listen as well along with our viewers to exactly what Christine Romans said and if we could roll that, please.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting because the woman in our piece told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DOBBS: That report, as you gentlemen know, was done two years ago....So we did not say we quite agree that there were 7,000 new cases. We said there were 7,000 on the registry.

Wow. Karl Rove could take lessons from this guy. Just amazing.

Kevin Drum 9:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

ME vs. "ME"....I haven't clicked over to Martin Devon's site in a while since he hasn't been blogging very regularly for the past year or so, but I surfed over there today and found this post from last month. He's using me as an example of the difference between the way people come across in person vs. how they come across on their blogs:

This ties in with the experience I have of bloggers in person versus their blog personas. For example...Every time I've had a conversation with Kevin Drum I've found him to be smart, reasoned and clever. All that is in evidence in his writing, and... yet... when I casually read what Kevin writes there's a sarcastic edge to it.

Now, when I go back and read his words in his own voice, I can actually hear a tinge of frustration, and hear his deep commitment to this country as a place of liberty. Is it really there? For that matter, is the sarcasm I heard the first time actually there? Who knows. But my knowing who Kevin is in real life allows me to listen to his writing beyond my own biases. But if you are a right winger who doesn't know Kevin, how does his work read to you?

But this can all be true, can't it? I am frustrated with politics in America, and that frustration does often get expressed as sarcasm. In fact, I learned long ago that I had to tone down my natural sarcasm in person — though I relapse all too frequently — and one of the nice things about the blog is that it allows me to vent some of that steam. And that's a win-win for all of us. The blog is more fun for you while I manage to keep my brain from exploding. Most of the time, anyway.

Kevin Drum 8:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S HEALTHCARE PLAN REVISITED....Ezra Klein has taken a closer look at Barack Obama's new healthcare proposal and finds himself unable to work up much enthusiasm for it:

His is a plan of almosts. It is almost universal, without quite having the mechanisms to ensure nationwide coverage. It almost offers a public insurance option capable of serving as the seed of single-payer, but it is unclear who can enroll in it, and talks with his advisors suggest little enthusiasm or expectation that it will serve as a shining alternative to private insurance. It almost takes on the insurance industry, but asks for, rather than compels, their participation.

....All the ingredients are in place for this to be a great plan — a public insurance component, a commitment to universality, an understanding that coherence is better than fractiousness, a willingness to regulate the insurance industry — but, in each case, at the last second, the policy is hedged before the fulfillment of its purpose. In this, Obama's plan is not dissimilar from Obama himself — filled with obvious talent and undeniable appeal, sold with stunning rhetoric and grand hopes, but never quite delivering on the promises and potential.

Obama's voting record shows him to be, possibly, the most liberal of the three main Democratic candidates. But his record also shows him to be a very cautious liberal. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the time he's spent in the trenches doing community organizing and then as a state legislator seems to have taught him that there are no easy answers; that political coalitions are hard to build; and that real progress often requires a slow but steady approach. He may even be right about that. Certainly I'm no revolutionary myself. Still, sometimes audacity requires audacity. Hope isn't always enough.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEATING A DEAD HORSE....At the end of a post where he freaks out over a preposterously inappropriate way of measuring the federal deficit, Andrew Sullivan says this:

I also noticed in my latest letter from the Social Security Administration that, as currently configured, I'll get 76 percent of what I'm due if and when I retire. My bet is that it will turn out to be less than half. The boomers are going to hog all of it for themselves.

Please. Just stop it. Assuming Wikipedia has his age right, Andrew will turn 65 in 2028. Even if we do absolutely nothing, CBO estimates that Social Security will pay out full benefits at least until 2053. Andrew will be 90 years old at that point. What's more, a very modest tax increase starting a decade from now combined with a very modest slowdown in benefit growth will keep the system solvent forever.

This is grade school arithmetic, and the basic data is available with no more than a few minutes of googling. Can we please knock off the scaremongering on this subject?

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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SHOW US THE LETTERS....A pair of bloggers have filed an amicus brief in federal court in Washington D.C. asking the court to release the pre-sentencing letters that were submitted in the Scooter Libby perjury case. More here.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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DDT AND PHILIP MORRIS....Is DDT a banned substance? Answer: for widespread agricultural use, which produces increased resistance in many insect populations, yes. For vector control (primarily to contain mosquito-borne malaria), no.

For the last decade or so, however, a group of right-wing "sound science" advocates has been implying that the agricultural ban on DDT is really a blanket ban and that millions of poor Africans have died as a result. Why? DDT isn't patented and is only minimally profitable, so it's not as if the DDT industry is bothering to push this. So who is?

Short answer: the tobacco industry. Surprise! Turns out that the DDT disinformation campaign was really an effort to discredit the World Health Organization, which was planning a major anti-smoking initiative back in 1998. Discredit WHO on malaria, and you discredit WHO on its anti-smoking activism. And all the while you get to look like you're standing up for millions of impoversished black Africans. Neat, eh?

John Quiggin has the story. Follow the links for more.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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May 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

YES, VALERIE PLAME WAS COVERT....In a court filing today, Patrick Fitzgerald provides a summary of Valerie Plame Wilson's status with the CIA's Counterproliferation Division at the time she was outed to the press by members of the Bush administration. Guess what? She was covert:

While assigned to CPD, Ms. Wilson engaged in temporary duty (TDY) travel overseas on official business. She traveled at least seven times to more than ten countries. When traveling overseas, Ms. Wilson always traveled under a cover identity — sometimes in true name and sometimes in alias — but always using cover — whether official or non-official cover (NOC) — with no ostensible relationship to the CIA.

At the time of the initial unauthorized disclosure in the media of Ms. Wilson's employment relationship with the CIA on 14 July 2003, Ms. Wilson was a covert employee for whom the CIA was taking affirmative measures to conceal her intelligence relationship to the United States.

So that settles that. I hope the wingosphere can finally stop bleating about how she wasn't "really" covert and there was no harm in what Libby et. al. did.

On another note, this probably means I was wrong about the reason Fitzgerald didn't try to prosecute anyone for leaking Plame's name. (Libby was tried only for perjury, not for outing a covert agent.) I figured it was because Plame had been working inside the U.S. for six years at the time of the leak, and one of the technical elements of "covert" under the IIPA Act is that the agent has "within the last five years served outside the United States."

But obviously she had been working under cover outside the U.S. quite extensively during the previous five years, which means that Plame almost certainly qualified as "covert" under the specific definitions outlined in IIPA. Nonetheless, for some reason Fitzgerald decided not to bring outing charges against anyone. This suggests that Mark Kleiman has been right all along: Fitzgerald's decision had nothing to do with technical aspects of IIPA, but rather with its scienter requirements. That is, the leakers had to know that leaking Plame's name could be damaging, and Fitzgerald didn't think he had the evidence to make that case. That might have been especially true since the leaks seem to have been authorized at very high levels, something the leakers could have used in their defense at trial.

Anyway, it's still a bit of a mystery. But we're a tiny step closer to understanding it.

Kevin Drum 10:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (159)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE COAL....Brad Plumer has a piece today in the New Republic about coal-to-liquid that's more lucid and more damning that the NYT piece I linked earlier. In particular, feast your eyes on this:

Ironically, for all the hype, liquefied coal is hardly the cheapest or easiest way to achieve energy security. According to the National Coal Council, an advisory board to the Department of Energy filled with coal executives, a tremendous coal-to-liquid push — involving $211 billion in investments over the next 20 years and a 40 percent increase in mining — would allow the United States to replace just 10 percent of its oil supply. By contrast, using that coal to generate electricity for plug-in hybrids would displace twice the oil and emit a fraction of the carbon.

Look, if even the National Coal Council thinks we'd be better off just burning the stuff to produce electricity, then we're probably better off just burning the stuff to produce electricity. And as long as we're at it, maybe one of those coal companies talking up the joys of carbon sequestration for CL plants would like to step up to the plate and first demonstrate that it actually works on a commercial scale at an existing plant. Any takers?

UPDATE: Yet more from David Roberts. He's unimpressed too.

Kevin Drum 7:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

FEAR MONGERING....Chutzpah watch:

President Bush today accused opponents of his proposed immigration measure of fear-mongering to defeat it in Congress, and took on his own conservative political base as he did so.

"If you want to scare the American people, what you say is the bill's an amnesty bill," Mr. Bush said this afternoon at a training center for border enforcement agents located in this town in Georgia's southeastern corner. "That's empty political rhetoric, trying to frighten our citizens."

Can't have that, can we? After all, there's nothing worse than frightening the public for crass political purposes. Anybody who does that should be ashamed of themselves.

Kevin Drum 7:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

EATING LIBERALLY....It's been a while since we did one of our weekend get togethers for bloggers and blog readers at the Farmer's Market in Los Angeles, so how about if we do it again this Sunday?

Where: Farmer's Market, 3rd and Fairfax
Meeting Place: The upstairs seating area above Magee's Kitchen
When: Sunday, June 3, at noon

This is totally casual. Just come, grab some food from one of the stalls, and then come upstairs and join us. Last time there were about 30 of us and we stayed til about 3:00, so feel free to drop by anytime even if you can't make it by noon. Details to follow later in the week.

Kevin Drum 3:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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THE CIA AND THE WAR....Jonathan Schwarz has been reading The Italian Letter by Peter Eiser and Knut Royce and finds himself amazed. "I really can't understand why this hasn't gotten some attention," he says via email. In particular, he's amazed at this passage about Alan Foley, the head of the CIA's Weapons Intelligence Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC), which led the CIA's analysis of Iraqi WMD:

One day in December 2002, Foley called his senior production managers to his office. He had a clear message for the men and women who controlled the output of the center's analysts: "If the president wants to go to war, our job is to find the intelligence to allow him to do so." The directive was not quite an order to cook the books, but it was a strong suggestion that cherry-picking and slanting not only would be tolerated, but might even be rewarded.

Click the link for more. Apparently this passage has been verified by a couple of other sources, and Jonathan has the cites. Foley, unsurprisingly, has declined to be interviewed about this. Maybe someone in Congress should take an interest in asking him a little more forcefully?

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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OBAMA'S HEALTHCARE PLAN....This is odd. Barack Obama's website is currently featuring an AP story about Obama's healthcare plan. "A copy of his remarks and documents describing the program were obtained by The Associated Press," it tells us.

OK, but since this is actually Obama's own website, couldn't they simply put up a copy of the plan and let us all see it? Why announce it via an AP dispatch?

Whatever. Based on the AP story, though, it sounds like it's a pretty standard take on current conventional healthcare wisdom among Democrats. It relies on private insurance companies, presumably because everyone is convinced that nothing can be passed if we piss off insurance companies. There's some kind of play-or-pay tax on businesses: either provide insurance for your employees or else pay into a central fund. Small businesses will go ballistic over this, but I guess it's OK to piss them off. Oddly, there's apparently no personal mandate, which is everyone's favorite healthcare policy prescription du jour, which in turn makes it a little unclear how the whole insurance company thing is going to work.

I guess I'll wait for more details before saying any more. Overall, it sounds OK but not spectacular, yet another take on the Ron Wyden healthcare plan that I'm sort of lukewarm about. And since I'm in the camp that thinks detailed plans like this don't really have much impact on anything anyway, I'm not going to get too upset one way or the other based on all the wonky details.

Still, I sure wish someone had the guts to take on the insurance industry. Wishful thinking, I know.

UPDATE: I just received a fact sheet with a few more details. It doesn't seem to be available on Obama's website yet, but I've placed a copy on the WM site here. I didn't understand this after reading the AP story, but Obama's proposal creates a new public health insurance plan based on the plan currently available to federal employees. If you don't qualify for anything else, you can buy into this plan. If you can't afford it, you get a reduced premium. Private insurance plans will be highly regulated and will be required to offer benefits at least equal to the public plan.

I'll have more later, but there's not much point in trying to rush out an opinion before I've had time to read more details. So I'm going to hold off for now. Ezra has more over at Tapped, but he's still trying to puzzle his way through it too.

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

KING COAL....Hey, if it was good enough for Hitler, it's good enough for us!

Even as Congressional leaders draft legislation to reduce greenhouse gases linked to global warming, a powerful roster of Democrats and Republicans is pushing to subsidize coal as the king of alternative fuels.

....Among the proposed inducements winding through House and Senate committees: loan guarantees for six to 10 major coal-to-liquid plants, each likely to cost at least $3 billion; a tax credit of 51 cents for every gallon of coal-based fuel sold through 2020; automatic subsidies if oil prices drop below $40 a barrel; and permission for the Air Force to sign 25-year contracts for almost a billion gallons a year of coal-based jet fuel.

OK, the Hitler crack was unfair. I hereby award myself a Godwin's Law penalty.

But seriously, folks: on the list of energy technologies to subsidise, coal-to-liquid doesn't even make the top hundred. Even with carbon sequestration — which is untested, hated by the coal industry, and mostly used as pie-in-the-sky hokum to sucker the yokels — its carbon footprint is as high as gasoline. And without it, it's one of the most carbon intensive technologies known to man.

Besides, what about that federal carbon tax that both liberals and conservatives are starting to coalesce around as the best policy response to global warming? What are we going to do? Grant billions of dollars of subsidies to CL technology and then drive them all out of business with a carbon tax? That's some great policymaking there.

Jeebus. Are the electoral votes in Montana and West Virginia that important? What am I missing here?

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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EXTRICANDAE COPIAE!....On Sunday I asked for a nice Latin translation of "We must leave Iraq." Something pithy and Cato-like. On Monday, after much discussion of the gerundive passive periphrastic and the first declension feminine nominative plural, Mark Kleiman provides the answer:

Extricandae copiae!

In other words, "Get the troops out." Somebody start making bumper stickers.

Kevin Drum 12:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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FOUR YEARS....Julian Barnes reports in the LA Times that Gen. Petraeus and his staff are already trying to dial down expectations for the surge:

U.S. military leaders in Iraq are increasingly convinced that most of the broad political goals President Bush laid out early this year in his announcement of a troop buildup will not be met this summer and are seeking ways to redefine success.

....Military officers said they understood that any report that key goals had not been met would add to congressional Democrats' skepticism. But some counterinsurgency advisors to Petraeus have argued that it was never realistic to expect that Iraqis would reach agreement on some of their most divisive issues after just a few months of the American troop buildup.

These unnamed "counterinsurgency advisors" would be right if nobody had been working on any of these key goals until February 2007. In fact, though, they've been key goals for a long time. The problem isn't that we won't have any progress to show after six months, the problem is that we don't have any progress to show after four years. Another Friedman or two isn't going to change that.

Kevin Drum 12:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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May 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE WAR PRAYER.... In 1904, disgusted by the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War, Mark Twain wrote a short anti-war prose poem called "The War Prayer." His family begged him not to publish it, his friends advised him to bury it, and his publisher rejected it, thinking it too inflammatory for the times. Twain agreed, but instructed that it be published after his death, saying famously:

None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.

"The War Prayer" was eventually published after World War I, when its message was more in tune with the times. Now, Washington Monthly's publisher, Markos Kounalakis, who was affected by Twain's words when he covered the war in Yugoslavia in the early 90s, has made "The War Prayer" into a short video for release this Memorial Day weekend. It features stunning illustrations by Akis Dimitrakopoulos and is narrated by Peter Coyote, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Erik Bauersfeld. You can view it here.

Kevin Drum 2:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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REVOLT OF THE CEOs....In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Chris Hayes says that the collapse of the Republican Party has caused big corporations to take a fresh look at the world around them. And what they see is a lot of uncertainty over healthcare and a lot of uncertainty over climate change. And big corporations don't like uncertainty.

So, slowly but surely, they're starting to hop on board the national healthcare and global warming bandwagons. As Chris colorfully puts it, they're crying out, "Please, for the love of God, regulate us."

Well, maybe. But toward the end of his story there's this:

In the absence of federal leadership, state governments have rushed in to fill the vacuum, passing rafts of legislation meant to encourage alternative energy use, curb carbon emissions, and provide health insurance for their citizens. The initiatives on both these fronts — from Massachussets Governor Mitt Romney's universal health care reform to New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg's recently unveiled congestion pricing — have triggered fears among corporations that they'll have to deal with a state-by-state patchwork of fifty different regulatory regimes, giving them a powerful incentive to support a comprehensive nationwide approach.

...."The corporate guys are beginning to think this is going to happen," said Bill Galston, a senior policy adviser in the Clinton White House and a current fellow at the Brookings Institution, referring to health care and climate change legislation. "They are willing to make their peace with the welfare and regulatory state as long as they can have some say. What they don't want is for the train to leave the station and they're not in the first-class car." The Chamber of Commerce's Josten summed up his members' views this way: "You want a seat at the table, because if you’re not at the table you may be on the menu."

Now, don't get me wrong: even a little bit of movement is a good thing. And I don't care much what their motivation is. But a lot of what's happening here on the global warming front involves corporations trying to preempt tough state regulations with weaker federal rules — not exactly a sign of getting on the liberal bandwagon. Likewise, although some CEOs are genuinely concerned about skyrocketing healthcare costs, for the most part they seem to be simply adapting to the new sheriff in town. That "seat at the table" they're asking for isn't because they all took vacations in Stockholm this winter and came away true believers in universal healthcare. It's because they want to make sure that if something is going to happen, it'll be as little as possible.

In other words: sure, this is good news. At the same time, keep your hand on your wallet. These guys need to earn a seat at the table, not just be given one.

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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May 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TRAINING THE ENEMY....In the New York Times today, Michael Kamber writes that after spending a week with an infantry company in Baghdad he can find virtually no one who still believes they're doing any good in Iraq:

The pivotal moment came, he says, this past February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber's body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.

"I thought, 'What are we doing here? Why are we still here?' " said Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. "We're helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us."

...."In 2003, 2004, 100 percent of the soldiers wanted to be here, to fight this war," said Sgt. First Class David Moore, a self-described "conservative Texas Republican" and platoon sergeant who strongly advocates an American withdrawal. "Now, 95 percent of my platoon agrees with me."

....On April 29, a Delta Company patrol was responding to a tip at Al Sadr mosque, a short distance from its base....When the battle was over, Delta Company learned that among the enemy dead were at least two Iraqi Army soldiers that American forces had helped train and arm.

...."Before that fight, there were a few true believers." Captain Rogers said. "After the 29th, I don't think you'll find a true believer in this unit. They're paratroopers. There's no question they'll fulfill their mission. But they're fighting now for pride in their unit, professionalism, loyalty to their fellow soldier and chain of command."

The reports of individual soldiers provide a very limited view into how well or how badly the war is going. But eventually their voices add up, and it sounds like Delta Company has figured out the truth: that they're mostly just training Iraqi soldiers to be more efficient at killing both Americans and each other. They're inflaming a foreign civil war, not defending America, and the fact that their commander in chief continues to insist that they risk their lives anyway represents a betrayal of trust rarely equaled in modern history. These guys deserve better. They deserve a president who understands when to fight, how to fight, and how to win. George Bush plainly understands none of these things.

Cato ended every speech with "Carthago delenda est!" — Carthage must be destroyed. We need just the opposite. Does anyone know the Latin for "We must leave Iraq"?

Kevin Drum 9:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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May 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE PENTAGON....Why is the Pentagon a pentagon? Short answer: it was originally intended to be built on a pentagonally shaped piece of land, so a pentagon was what fit. It got moved later, but the shape stayed:

The original rationale for Bergstrom's pentagonal design was gone. The building no longer would be constructed on the five-sided Arlington Farm site. Yet the chief architect and his team continued with plans for a pentagon at the new location. There was no time to change them.

Besides, the pentagon design still worked. Like a circle, a pentagon would create shorter walking distances within the building — 30 to 50 percent less than in a rectangle, architects calculated — but its lines and walls would be straight and, therefore, much easier to build. The move from the odd-shaped Arlington Farm site freed the architects from the need to make the building asymmetrical. The advantages gained — a smoother pedestrian flow, better space arrangement, and easier distribution of utilities around the building — "proved startling," the architects concluded.

I knew none of this history, so this was pretty interesting to me. Including a map that showed the entire area, with both old and new sites, would have been pretty darn helpful, though. Maybe it was in the print edition.

Anyway, it turns out that a lot of people didn't like the whole pentagon idea, but in the end FDR overruled them:

"You know, gentlemen, I like that pentagon-shaped building," Roosevelt said. "You know why?"

"No," the commissioners replied resignedly.

"I like it because nothing like it has ever been done that way before."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is vintage Franklin Roosevelt. Go spend a dime on something in his memory.

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By: Kevin Drum

ON BEING RATIONAL....In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan argues that although people are rational in the marketplace (which is a good thing, since this assumption is required to make classical economics work), they become foolish and incoherent when they step into the voting booth. Chris Hayes lays it out:

The idea is this: People are rational when they pay for the consequences of their decisions. But in elections, the odds of your vote determining a given election are so slim that the price of voting your irrational whims is nil. This gives people the freedom to indulge delusional notions about the economy. And that results in a populace who are capitalists in the market place and socialists in the voting booth.

Needless to say, Caplan thinks we're at our best in the former case and quotes legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the latter: "[T]he typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again."

There's way too much to unpack here for a single blog post, but allow me to make one wee point: there's a distinction between "rational" and "good," and most of us know it when we see it. Thomas Jefferson, for example, kept slaves because it was, after all, a rational thing to do. He needed the money his slaves brought in and he was too weak-willed to forego that money and free them. However, he also argued that slavery was wrong and should be banned — a position that's usually presented as an unfathomable paradox. But it's not. Jefferson wanted slavery banned because he understood that individuals often lack the willpower to do individually what they know is right. Sometimes it takes the power of community action to force ourselves to do good things that we can't (or won't) do on our own.

In the marketplace we are competitive, selfish, meanspirited, and xenophobic, so it's no surprise that left to its own devices that's the kind of society a free market will produce — in fact, has produced at various points in history. But although we're seldom strong enough to personally sacrifice our own immediate economic self-interests (yes, that means you too), we often recognize as a society that we ought to do better. And so, as long as the rules apply to all of us, we occasionally allow our better natures to be shamed, cajoled, or inspired into insisting on it. And civilization slowly progresses because of it.

So slavery and child labor are gone, even though both were efficient means of production in their time. We went to war against Nazi Germany even though Hitler was as good a trading partner as the Weimar Republic. We pass minimum wage laws because our guts tell us that it's wrong to expect an adult in a rich country to work like a dog seven days a week for subsistence wages. And some of us continue to press for national healthcare not simply because it addresses known market failures (though it does), but because we think it's fundamentally wrong to make people beg, plead, and scrape in order to receive decent medical care.

The free market rejects all of these things. But in the voting booth, sometimes the better angels of our natures take wing for a moment and persuade us to try to make ourselves into better people. The free market pushes back, of course, and warns us that we can't always have everything we want. Thankfully, though, it doesn't always win. Rationality is a high virtue, but it's not the only virtue.

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SILLY WASHINGTON LAWS....I don't really have an opinion immediately at hand about whether we suffer from a glut of Nobel Prize winners and should clamp down on giving them permanent residency here, but baseball is another thing entirely. Reducing the number of visas available for power hitting shortstops is clearly beyond the pale. Barry Frank, a top honcho at uber-agency IMG, explains the realities:

Look, baseball is basically becoming a Hispanic game. And don't forget who their employers are — men of considerable means and power. The owners are not going to let their stars get away because of some silly Washington law. I think you're going to hear some noise.

Indeed. These are men of considerable means and power. They can hardly be expected to sit still for a silly Washington law, can they?

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May 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SADR REAPPEARS....Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr finally emerged from hiding today:

An emotional crowd surged forward and showered Sadr with candies when he arrived at the western gate of Kufa mosque, surrounded by bodyguards, to deliver the midday sermon for the first time in more than four months.

He began by asking his followers to chant three times: "No to injustice. No to Israel. No to America. No to the devils." [Note: Juan Cole translates it as "No, no to evil! No, no to America! No, no to Israel! No, no to Satan! No, no to colonialism!"]

"I renew my request that the occupiers should withdraw or schedule their withdrawal," Sadr said. "The (Iraqi) government should not allow the occupiers to extend their stay in Iraq, not even for one more day."

I'm guessing this is bad news, right?

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING.... Busy day today. Sorry. But there was, you know, actual news to post about this morning.

Anyway, Domino is fine. In fact, more than fine. After months of slowly getting her acclimated to the upstairs (though why she needed acclimating remains a mystery), last week she finally figured out that (a) the bed would not bite her and (b) there were people there all night! Now, she not only comes up to bed every night, she actually scoots up early in the evening, almost as if she can hardly wait for us to show up. We'll see how long this lasts.

Today's picture, of course, is Inkblot trying to fit himself into a tiny box of cat food cans that I bought yesterday. As you can see, he eventually gave up.

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LOBBYING REFORM....Last week I linked to a couple of reports suggesting that lobbying reform was having trouble getting traction among congressional Democrats. Turns out it was much ado about nothing. The bundling provision, which was the most important part of the package, passed yesterday by a vote of 382-37. It's not perfect, but it's not bad, either. Good work, Democrats.

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CHENEY INSANITY WATCH....Joe Klein thinks that Steve Clemons' report about Dick Cheney's plan to goad Iran into attacking us so that we'll be justified in counter-attacking is probably correct. Today he reports this:

Last December, as Rumsfeld was leaving, President Bush met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in "The Tank," the secure room in the Pentagon where the Joint Chiefs discuss classified matters of national security. Bush asked the Chiefs about the wisdom of a troop "surge" in Iraq. They were unanimously opposed. Then Bush asked about the possibility of a successful attack on Iran's nuclear capability. He was told that the U.S. could launch a devastating air attack on Iran's government and military, wiping out the Iranian air force, the command and control structure and some of the more obvious nuclear facilities. But the Chiefs were — once again — unanimously opposed to taking that course of action.

....Bush apparently took this advice to heart and went to Plan B — a covert destabilization campaign reported earlier this week by ABC News. If Clemons is right, and I'm pretty sure he is, Cheney is still pushing Plan A.

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THE END OF THE DREAM....Everyone knows that income inequality has been widening dramatically in the past three decades, as the rich get (lots) richer and the working class mostly stagnates. But hey — this is America! At least we still have lots of social mobility, right? People here go from rags to riches all the time, unlike those stagnant European hellholes where.....um....what? Oh:

There is little available evidence that the United States has more relative mobility than other advanced nations. If anything, the data seem to suggest the opposite. Using the relationship between parents' and children's incomes as an indicator of relative mobility, data show that a number of countries, including Denmark, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany, and France have more relative mobility than does the United States (see Figure 3).

Well, Horatio Alger died a long time ago, I guess. Still, at least things are getting better. Maybe middle class kids aren't becoming CEOs, but at least they're doing better than their fathers. Right?

In a word, no. American kids used to do better than their fathers, but not anymore. The economy might be growing at a healthy clip, but men today actually make less than their dads did in 1974:

The story changes for a younger cohort. Those in their thirties in 2004 had a median income of about $35,000 a year. Men in their fathers' cohort, those who are now in their sixties, had a median income of about $40,000 when they were the same age in 1974....This suggests the up-escalator that has historically ensured that each generation would do better than the last may not be working very well.

Bummer. No more up-escalator. And it's not just individuals. If you look at families it turns that they're doing a smidge better than in the past, but only because more families have two earners these days. However, even that small improvement has gone away in the Bush era. Income used to increase along with productivity growth, but that slowed down starting in 1974 and then disappeared entirely starting in 2001. Just a coincidence, I'm sure.

All these charts come from the Economic Mobility Project, a joint effort of the The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute. The full report is here.

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AN EPIPHANY....Kathryn Jean Lopez today, commenting on the bullying and dishonest editorial style of the Wall Street Journal toward anyone they disagree with:

It's nice to be talked about, but I do wish the Wall Street Journal wasn't so hostile and insulting when talking about us and immigration.

Lopez in 2005, commenting on how grating George Bush's grade school speaking style is when you disagree with him on something (Harriet Miers, in this case):

I hate this groaning-when-the-president speaks reflex I've had all week on this issue.

Isn't it remarkable how quickly the obvious becomes really, really obvious when you're on the receiving end of the conservative noise machine?

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From a federal judge in the sentencing of Animal Liberation Front arsonist Kevin Tubbs to 12 years in jail:

"Fear and intimidation can play no part in changing the hearts and minds of people in a democracy."

Noted without comment.

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GETTING OUT....This is sort of a rare occurrence, but I want to strenuously disagree with Swopa today. After today's disappointing war vote, he argues that the best way for liberals to sway public opinion over the next few months is to keep the death toll front and center:

In my opinion what matters most is for the next Iraq-funding vote opportunity to be defined ASAP and to apply the necessary weeks/months of full-court pressure to the swing votes that kept us from securing a withdrawal timeline this time around.

Which is where the mounting U.S. death toll comes in. The higher casualty rate is a result of Dubya's "surge" strategy of increasing the visibility of our military presence in Iraq — and if that approach is kept up through the end of his term, 2,000 more Americans will have died by the end of January, 2009....Every Democrat or other progressive with access to a microphone, TV camera, or keyboard can help by reminding people that those 2,000 lives are the price we're going to pay for not putting an end to the war.

I think this is badly wrong on two counts. Substantively it's wrong because the death toll isn't the reason we should withdraw from Iraq. After all, if fighting in Iraq really were critical to our national security, we'd be willing to make the sacrifice in lives and treasure that we're making. The reason we should leave Iraq isn't because the war is costing lives, but because the war isn't critical to our national security.

Rhetorically, this is also a bad strategy. Focusing on the death toll merely reinforces Republican frames about "defeatist" Democrats: namely that we're too spineless and weak-kneed to stay strong in the face of a determined opposition. Faced with a few deaths we run for cover. Likewise, most Americans don't want to feel like they're giving up just because they can't take a beating. That's cowardly, and they'll resist arguments that make them feel that way.

Bottom line: We should avoid focusing too heavily on the death toll as a reason for withdrawal from Iraq. Rather, our primary focus should be on why this is a bad war and why our national security would be improved by getting out. Not only is it the truth, but it's also a more persuasive argument.

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LATEST CHENEY INSANITY RUMOR....Should a responsible blogger pass along bizarre, unsubstantiated rumors like the one I'm about to pass along? Probably not. But here it is anyway.

Steve Clemons, relying on "multiple sources," says that Dick Cheney is slowly coming to the sad realization that President Bush may be a wimp who can't be trusted to start a shooting war with Iran. If that turns out to be the case, Cheney figures that the only option left will be to somehow goad Iran into attacking us first, thus making war inevitable. According to Steve's sources, a senior aide on Cheney's national security team has been making the rounds of conservative think tanks to map out Cheney's plan:

The thinking on Cheney's team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran's nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles).

This strategy...could be expected to trigger a sufficient Iranian counter-strike against US forces in the Gulf — which just became significantly larger — as to compel Bush to forgo the diplomatic track that the administration realists are advocating and engage in another war.

Well, OK. But wouldn't a plan like this work only if it were kept absolutely secret? Wouldn't peddling it around at "lunch and dinner gatherings" defeat the whole purpose? And exactly what does Cheney supposedly think Iran would counter-strike against? A carrier group? Bases in Kuwait? Seriously? And wouldn't the Israelis be a wee bit nervous about acting as Cheney's cat's paw, especially in an operation deliberately designed to do little actual damage?

In other words, it's ridiculous to think that anyone would be contemplating something like this. But then again, Dick Cheney isn't just anyone. I wonder if he's a fan of 24?

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SUPERSTAR CEOs....Eduardo Porter writes in the New York Times about today's insane levels of executive pay and manages to include at least a dozen nuggets worthy of comment. But sort of at random, I'll choose this one:

Processing reams of data, [Xavier Gabaix and Augustin Landier] estimated that hiring the most effective chief executive in the country would, statistically, increase the stock value of a company by only 0.016 percent, compared with hiring the 250th chief executive. But at a company like General Electric, which is worth about $380 billion, that tiny difference would amount to $60 million.

This, the economists argued, helps explain why that top chief executive earned five times as much as the 250th. "Substantial firm size leads to the economics of superstars, translating small differences in ability to very large deviations in pay," the economists wrote.

Needless to say, this is ridiculous. For starters, a microscopic number like 0.016% is probably just a statistical artifact. But let's say it isn't. Let's say it's real. It still doesn't matter because it's still plainly too small to be a predictable difference.

So sure: if you interviewed 250 candidates, the top candidate might be 0.016% better than the 250th candidate. But which is which? With a difference that small it's impossible to say. You have no idea beforehand which one of those candidates is going to earn you that extra $60 million. And since you don't know, statistically you'd be better off choosing someone from the middle of the pack and saving yourself some money.

But that would bring the whole game to a screeching halt, and we can't have that, can we? Much better to keep the rubes conned with stories about "superstar CEOs" and "more complex modern environments." Look! It's Halley's comet!

UPDATE: A reader wrote this morning to say that he thought I was unfairly dismissive of Gabaix and Landier in this post. Unfortunately my email responses keep getting bounced back, so I can't get a fix on exactly what the problem is. But let me clarify something anyway.

Basically, I'm accepting Gabaix and Landier's results here. If their research says 0.016%, then for now I'm willing to assume that's correct. However, if that result is right, I think it's ridiculous to interpret it as explaining skyrocketing CEO pay. If you could systematically predict who was going to deliver a benefit that small, that would be one thing. In that case, maybe the higher pay would be justified. (Maybe.) But the microscopic size of the difference in measured CEO performance makes that vanishingly unlikely. CEO pay has certainly skyrocketed over the past couple of decades, but minuscule and unpredictable differences in performance don't seem likely to explain why.

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May 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DEMS AND THE WAR....Like a lot of people, I've been mulling over the Iraq showdown between Congress and the president and wondering why Democrats backed down so quickly. The simple answer, of course, is that they didn't have enough votes to pass the bill they wanted. As excuses go, however, that's pretty unconvincing: veto-proof majorities are extremely rare, after all. Rather, the real reason is that Dems were convinced that if things came to an impasse and war funding was cut off, they're the ones who would get the blame.

And maybe that's right. One interpretation of the great budget showdown of 1995 is that the president has an inherent advantage in this kind of fight since he can speak with one voice and make his bottom line clear. Congress, by contrast, will always seem fractious and will never be able to communicate to the public as clearly as the president. If they refuse to send him a workable bill, they're the ones who will seem stubborn and petty, not the president.

But there's also a different interpretation: that the public will side with whoever they agree with on the merits. Maybe that seems naive in our spin-ridden, media saturated age. But you never know. People might actually support the side they agree with. Stranger things have happened.

If that's the case, it means that Bill Clinton won his showdown with Newt Gingrich not because of his bully pulpit, but because Gingrich wanted to make cuts in social programs that the public didn't support. And in fact, that's exactly what happened. Clinton's position was the popular one in that battle, so Gingrich ended up getting the blame for shutting down the government.

This time around, though, the public is pretty clearly on the side of congressional Democrats: they think the war is going badly and they want to see us withdraw from Iraq within the next year. So what would have happened if Dems had held their ground, made a public case for why it would actively benefit the country to get out of Iraq, and simply sent a lightly modified version of the original bill back to Bush? If he'd vetoed it again, isn't it likely that Bush would get the blame for being stubborn and petty, not Congress?

This strikes me as at least plausible. However, I suspect it depends on Democrats making a positive case for withdrawal. Not just that the war is unwinnable, or that it's costing too many lives — both of which seem merely defeatist to a lot of people — but that America will be actively better off by getting out of Iraq. I admit that's a tough case to make, since we liberals have been less than totally candid about acknowledging the almost certain chaos and bloodshed that will follow an American departure. With that in mind, Democrats likely fear that if we forced a withdrawal we'd spend all of 2008 on the defensive as Republicans insisted that Dems were to blame for the ongoing civil war in Iraq. The public, not having been prepared for this, might agree.

But I doubt it. The public wants out, and the death toll is so high now that they'd likely accept that further bloodshed was bound to occur whether we had stayed or not. Unfortunately, Dems don't have the courage to take that chance. Apparently they'd rather fight next year's election with an unpopular Republican war in the background rather than take the chance of fighting it with an unpopular Democratic withdrawal in the background. As a result, we've missed yet another chance to look decisive on foreign policy, do the right thing in Iraq, and start the process of pulling ourselves out of the hole Bush has dug us into and giving the next president a clean slate to start building a non-insane national security policy on.

If you display conviction, the public will follow. Maybe next time around Dems will finally figure this out.

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QUESTIONING GOODLING....Dahlia Lithwick, in the process of reaming Democratic members of the House judiciary committee for doing a lousy job of questioning Monica Goodling, mentions something I hadn't noticed in yesterday's reports:

[Goodling] tells Brad Sherman, D-Calif., that she looked at Web sites detailing the political contributions made by applicants for assistant U.S. attorney positions, and that she felt she could take account of political considerations in evaluating immigration judges. (Kyle Sampson told her that was OK.) She tells the committee that she didn't give one job candidate a position, adding, "I didn't know she was a Democrat. But I had heard she was a liberal." The committee, however, seems to miss all this. Indeed, they are so delighted when she points fingers at Sampson and McNulty, they don't remember to ask what precisely Sampson and McNulty did.

Goodling looked up the political contribution history of applicants for career civil service positions? That's interesting, isn't it? I wonder if anyone else did that. Seems like this is something that deserved some followup.

Which it didn't get, of course. I know that politicians are in love with their own voices, but it never ceases to amaze me that they insist on questioning witnesses like Goodling themselves. For starters, most of them are no good at it. For finishers, Perry Mason himself would have a hard time making headway if he were limited to five-minute bursts. Instead, why not block off a couple of hours and hand off the questioning to a tough, well-briefed staffer who knows how to cross examine a hostile witness? Then sit back and watch the show.

I guess that's why I'll never be a politician. Watching a good show appeals to me more than participating in a mediocre one.

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THE WAR....Latest poll results on the Iraq war:

  • 76% believe the war is going badly.

  • 63% support a timetable for withdrawal in 2008.

  • 76% think the surge is either making things worse or having no impact.

  • Only 15% support open-ended funding. The rest either want to cut off funds completely or make them conditional on benchmarks.

  • Large pluralities trust Dems more on foreign policy (51%-31%) and on making decisions about the war (51%-33%).

Sure, politicians shouldn't blindly look to polls to decide where they stand. But when, by huge margins, polls back up the positions you already have, it means you could certainly stand to show a little more spine defending those positions. Dems have a substantial lead over Republicans on foreign policy for the first time in ages, but they could lose that lead pretty quickly by looking weak and indecisive. The American public wants to be out of Iraq by next year. Democrats ought to be the ones to insist that that happen.

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AL-QAEDA IN IRAQ....Joe Klein may or may not be a wanker, but honestly, he doesn't really deserve any abuse for reporting in his latest column that (a) Anbar province is fairly quiet these days and (b) the tribal sheikhs in Anbar who lead the Sunni insurgency there have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Both of these things have been widely reported elsewhere, and if Klein deserves any abuse here, it's not for trusting anonymous government sources, it's for trying to spice up his column by repeating common knowledge as if he had dug it up himself.

This tribal U-turn against AQI predates the surge by many months, of course, and mainly shows that the U.S. presence isn't really necessary in order to fight them. The tribal sheikhs consider AQI a threat, and left to their own devices they'll get rid of them on their own. That leaves us in the position not of staying in Iraq in order to fight al-Qaeda, but of staying in order to moderate a communal civil war, a task we're singularly unsuited for.

So what happens in the unlikely event that lots of Republicans (and nervous Dems) figure that out by September and decide it's time to get out? Phil Carter writes about the logistics of withdrawal in Slate today, and to my surprise he says this: "Even if commanders dictate a rapid pullout, it may take weeks or months to bring everyone home from Kuwait and the Persian Gulf region." I have long been under the impression that basic force protection issues would force a withdrawal from Iraq to take the better part of year, but Phil apparently thinks it doesn't have to. He also reads the tea leaves and suggests that the Pentagon already has detailed plans in place to do exactly this. They haven't published the plans, but they've got them

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FIGHTING THE REAL MENACE....The military is still busily firing gay Arabic linguists in its continuing quest to keep America safer. I would personally prefer it if they spent more time keeping us safer from the Arabic-speaking jihadists who are trying to kill us and less on the gay menace that merely wants the right to look fabulous, but I guess we all have our quirks.

James Joyner doesn't defend the law, but he does defend the Pentagon in this case: "The military is simply following the law, ousting service members who make it publicly manifest that they are gay." That's a fair statement. That is, it would be a fair statement if it were true in the case at hand. Here's what happened to former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Benjamin:

He said he was among about 70 people investigated at Fort Gordon in Georgia for using the computer to send personal notes. He said others who are not gay kept their jobs even though they were caught sending sexual and profane messages.

Benjamin said investigators from the Defense Department's inspector general's office pulled the message logs for one day and reviewed them for violations. Some people, he said, received administrative punishments for writing dirty jokes, profanity and explicit sexual references.

So Benjamin wasn't making it "publicly manifest" at all. Publicly, he was keeping a low-enough profile that nobody had ever hassled him before. Rather, he was fired for writing explicitly private emails that could have quite easily been ignored. Benjamin could have received the same administrative punishment as everyone else.

But we're quibbling, I suppose. James and I both agree (I think) that the rule against gay service members ought to be consigned to the dustbin so that nitpicking like this is unnecessary. Obviously the military could help by recommending that the ban be ended. Conservatives could help by recognizing that a strong military is more important than keeping James Dobson happy. And even if they won't do that — and they won't, since the culture war is still more important to them than real war — then Democrats could simply vote to end the ban. So far, though, we're only up to 124 House members in favor. We've got another hundred to go.

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"HOW A DEMOCRAT CAN GET MY VOTE"....Our June issue has a pretty provocative set of short pieces called "How a Democrat Can Get My Vote." The pieces are written by seven recent war veterans and offer competing perspectives on how a Democratic presidential candidate can win the votes of the active duty military.

The whole package is here, but there were two pieces in particular that I feel like highlighting. The first, by Ross Cohen, a former paratrooper and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is probably the one that liberal readers are going to find most congenial. It's called "Withdraw Decisively":

A candidate who proposes a speedy withdrawal need not fear an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the troops. That would be the result only for a candidate whose position seemed camouflaged in fuzzy language and hedged bets. The "Fighting Dems" — Democratic veterans such as Jim Webb, who ran for largely Republican-leaning congressional seats this year — represented a good start at speaking clearly.

....In November 2004, most of my colleagues, officers and enlisted alike, voted to reelect George Bush in spite of the fact that he had sent them to fight a poorly planned war being waged for ever-shifting rationales. They overlooked these flaws because his firmness inspired their confidence. If Democrats come out with equal firmness for withdrawal, they may find themselves picking up some unexpected new military votes. The men and women of the military fear, above all else, someone who will abandon them to the kill zone. They want someone who will lead them through it.

Cohen's piece is followed by a bracing dose of castor oil served up by Clint Douglas, a former staff sergeant in the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) who served in Afghanistan in 2003. Douglas is a Yellow Dog Democrat, but even so his advice is not likely to be so well received:

Conservatives appear genuinely to respect people in the service. They don't just assume that soldiers are economic victims or refugees from an unfair free market. They might even allow that one could enjoy soldiering without being a nut, a sadist, or a fascist.

Most of my non-Army friends would identify themselves as liberals or progressives or Democrats. My experience may be atypical, because I tend to hang around with opinionated people, but nearly all of them, I find, are suspicious of the military. "They'll change you," most warned after I announced my intention to enlist. "Don't do it." One acquaintance suggested psychotherapy instead. (This was my personal favorite in patronizing offensiveness.)

....My peers in this group have no qualms about holding forth about the armed forces, an institution with which they have no experience. Worse, when the windiness has subsided, they have no concrete suggestions on defense policy. They'll do butter, but they won't do guns.

Also worth noting is Andrew Exum's "Understand the War We're In." His advice is simple: "The destruction of the Army and Marine Corps stemmed from a failure of the Bush administration — its greatest failure: the inability to articulate or even understand what kind of war we're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere....I'll carefully read and listen to the statements that come from the Democratic candidates. Because if they really get it, if they properly articulate the nature of the war that began on September 11, then a Democrat will earn my vote in 2008."

Phil Carter starts things off here. The entire package is here.

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May 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GAMESMANSHIP....A week ago, in a reversal of its longtime policy, the Bush administration agreed to hold face-to-face talks with Iran. This decision didn't go over well with conservatives, who believe that negotiation is a sign of weakness, and likely didn't go over well with hardliners within the administration for the same reason.

What to do? Answer: Prove that you're still as tough as you ever were. Perhaps this is why we've seen the following in the past few days:

These actions are probably designed both to put the Iranians on notice and to quell conservative disquiet at home. For their part, the Iranians may be engaged in the same kind of gamesmanship, and with the same two audiences in mind. Perhaps that explains their rash of recent jailings of Iranian-Americans?

Something to think about. I promise not to make it into a hobby horse. But it might explain some otherwise mysterious actions.

Kevin Drum 11:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE IRAN LEAK....Yesterday ABC News revealed that President Bush has signed a "nonlethal presidential finding" that approves covert action to destabilize the Iranian regime. The CIA plan "reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions."

The very first comment on this story over at the ABC site is this: "If it was a secret, it isn't any longer. I will turn off ABC News and never watch again. I consider ABC News [traitors] to the United States." Plenty of other commenters agree, as do most conservative pundits and bloggers.

But there's something about this story that's been nagging at me. ABC says its sources are "current and former officials in the intelligence community," and I'm having a hard time figuring out who they might be. The presumption among right-wing bloggers is that the leakers are a cabal of CIA doves, and this makes sense since it's an article of faith among modern conservatives that the CIA is a virtual fifth column, full of Ivy League softies unwilling to do anything more forceful than write a stern memo to the United Nations. And they all hate Bush and are just itching for a chance to undermine him.

That's the view from the fever swamp, anyway. Back in consensus reality, the CIA is mostly populated by hardnosed Republicans who hate countries like Iran and love covert operations like this that strike back at them. It's their bread and butter. And they love presidential findings, too, since this is what covers their ass legally when they start up their field operations. What's more, contrary to conservative dogma, they really, really don't make a habit of disclosing active covert operations to major news organizations. That can get people killed, whether the operation itself is lethal or not.

And let's face it: a campaign of "propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions" is just about the mildest possible covert operation you can imagine. Why would anyone at the CIA, let alone multiple sources, be so outraged by it that they decided to leak its existence to ABC News?

Beats me. Maybe I'm not using my imagination enough. But there is an alternative: namely that this wasn't the work of malcontents at all. Rather, it was deliberately leaked as a way of sending a message to Iran, in much the same way that Simon Tisdall's "senior US official in Baghdad" decided that the Guardian might be a good place to plant a similar message. There seems to be a fair amount of that kind of thing going on right now.

Anyway, it's just a thought. Things are not always as they seem on the surface.

UPDATE: Here's a statement from ABC News responding to criticism that they disclosed a covert operation:

In the six days since we first contacted the CIA and the White House, at no time did they indicate that broadcasting this report would jeopardize lives or operations on the ground. ABC News management gave them the repeated opportunity to make whatever objection they wanted to regarding our report. They chose not to.

Hmmm.

Kevin Drum 7:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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SUPERNOTES REVISITED....As an update to last night's Supernote story, a reader directs me to a piece written by Klaus Bender in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung last year. It turns out this is quite the fascinating little mystery. This in particular caught my eye:

Strangely, although the counterfeiters have mastered the technology of the infrared sensitive security inks used on the new Supernotes, the notes are produced in such way that automated currency test systems recognize them immediately as forgeries. In America, the Supernotes have little chance of going undetected.

In other words, the supersophisticated counterfeiters who produce this stuff could make absolutely untraceable notes if they wanted to, but they don't. They deliberately produce them in a way that can be tracked by no one except the U.S. government and other central banks. What's more, the notes are produced in such small quantities that it's actually a loss-making enterprise. The presses and inks cost more than the value of the bills produced. What could account for an operation like this? Bender offers a possible answer:

A rumor has circulated for years among representatives of the security printing industry and counterfeiting investigators that it is the American CIA that prints the Supernotes at a secret printing facility. It is in this facility, thought to be in a city north of Washington D.C., where the printing presses needed to produce the Supernotes is said to be located.

The CIA could use the Supernotes to fund covert operations in international crisis zones, and such funds would not be subject to any control by the American Congress.

Well, that's always the first answer to any unsolved mystery, isn't it? The CIA did it. Of course, sometimes it turns out that it's the final answer too.

Kevin Drum 3:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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GOODLING TESTIFIES....So far Monica Goodling has called Paul McNulty a liar and admitted that she might have used partisan criteria for hiring career prosecutors in the Justice Department. But only a teensy little bit. Honest:

She said she never spoke to former White House counsel Harriet Miers or Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, about the firings. But she admitted to have considered applicants for jobs as career prosecutors based on their political loyalties — a violation of federal law.

''I may have gone too far, and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions,'' Goodling said. ''And I regret those mistakes.''

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., hammered Goodling on her decisions to hire prosecutors who favored Republicans.

''Do you believe they were illegal or legal?'' Scott asked.

''I don't believe I intended to commit a crime,'' Goodling, a lawyer, answered.

''Did you break the law? Is it against the law to take those considerations into account?'' Scott said.

''I believe I crossed the line, but I didn't mean to,'' she responded.

Could we get a clarification of "some occasions" please?

In other news, Goodling is now the latest high-ranking DOJ official to say that, really, she has no idea why those U.S. Attorneys were fired last year, or who made the choices. The list appeared, somehow, but apparently not from any human hand. It's a miracle!

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HEDGE FUND FEES....You learn something new every day. Everybody knows that hedge fund managers earn astronomical fees for managing their funds, but today Jared Bernstein informs me that these fees are taxed at capital gains rates (15%), not income rates (about 35%):

The industry argues that since the lion's share of their compensation is keyed off the appreciation of the fund, it should be treated as a capital gain. A growing number of critics disagree. Look at their job title: they're managing other people's money. Sure, they often reinvest their own returns, but their income from managing the fund is just that: income derived from doing their job.

This is absurd. I'm not a fan of low capital gains rates in general, but even among those who are, the rationale is that it encourages investment, which in turn helps the economy grow. But while low rates might encourage people to put their money in hedge funds in the first place, they do nothing to encourage fund managers to invest the money, which they're going to do regardless. Lower tax rates for management fees are pure windfall.

Bernstein is right: hedge fund fees are income for doing your job. Hedge fund managers should pay capital gains rates on any money of their own that they've invested in their own fund, but they shouldn't be able to do so on the fees for managing other people's money. This is just a racket, yet another example of the super-rich ripping off the rest of us with special tax treatment. It's time to get the pitchforks out.

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WHEN IS A SODA CAN NOT A SODA CAN?....Spencer explains the mysterious soda can quote here. Sort of.

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IT'S GOODLING DAY....From Karen Tumulty:

How much will we learn [Wednesday] when Monica Goodling, the Justice Department's former White House liaison, testifies in front of the House Judiciary Committee under a grant of immunity from prosecution? A spokeswoman for the Committee says it has been given "every indication" that she will be forthcoming.

I can't wait.

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MORE IRAQ WEIRDNESS....Simon Tisdall is a busy guy on the Iraq front suddenly. Today he's back on the front page of the Guardian with yet another report about Iraq that's very nearly single-sourced, this time from a "former senior administration official who is familiar with administration thinking." In a nutshell, this source says that George Bush is planning to (a) get the UN involved in Iraq, (b) drum up more support for the Maliki government from neighboring Arab countries, and (c) draw down U.S. troops from "frontline combat duties."

If anything, this report is even weirder than yesterday's. Bush is planning to ask for "a UN command and flag to supplant the US coalition command"? Rilly? Does that sound even remotely plausible? And then Tisdall's source adds this:

"Internally, the plan is for US forces to help isolate takfirists (fundamentalist Salafi jihadis), peel off Sunnis from the insurgency, contain hardcore elements of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, and halt Iranian and trans-Syrian infiltration of troops and materiel."

That sounds like a great plan. All we need now is the Wizard of Oz to help us pull it off.

I really don't know what to think of this. Tisdall is an experienced journalist and the Guardian is a serious newspaper, but this stuff is just loony. There's no way George Bush is going to turn over military command of Iraq to the UN and there's no way the UN would touch it even if he did. Neighboring Arab states might be talked into supporting Maliki more strongly, but we've been trying to talk them into that for a long time without much sign of success. And the other stuff is just moonshine. If we had the capability to do any of it, we would have done it long ago.

There's obviously something very strange going on here. Either Tisdall has gotten suckered or else he's living in a different quantum reality from the rest of us. That said, though, I'll admit that this part of the story sounds pretty plausible:

In a sign that personal as well as governmental damage limitation is under way, key Bush administration figures appear to be distancing themselves from current policy. National security adviser Stephen Hadley is expected to hand over many Iraq-related duties to Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, who some in Washington are already describing as a fall guy.

Similar senior-level role changes involving officials dealing with Iraq at the state department and Pentagon has fed speculation that people who helped launch Gen Petraeus's "sinking ship" are now abandoning it.

Sounds about right. The real question is why Lute hasn't figured this out too?

Kevin Drum 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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SUPERNOTES....From the "minor curiosity" file: A report from Switzerland, the acknowledged masters of banknote printing, concludes that it's unlikely that North Korea is the source of the counterfeit "supernotes" that have been circulating around the world for the past few years. But there's also this:

For years, analysts have wondered why the supernotes — which are detectable only with sophisticated, expensive technology — appear to have been produced in quantities less than it would cost to acquire the sophisticated machinery needed to make them....."What defies logic is the limited, or even controlled, amount of 'exclusive' fakes that have appeared over the years. The organization could easily circulate tenfold that amount without raising suspicions," says the Swiss police report, which also says Switzerland has seized 5 percent of all known supernotes.

Moreover, it noted that the manufacturer of the supernotes had issued 19 different versions, an "enormous effort" that only a criminal organization or state could undertake. The updates closely tracked the changes in U.S. currency issued by the Federal Reserve Bank.

That is odd, isn't it? The production of fake notes is far too low to cause any economic damage to the U.S., and whoever's doing it is apparently operating at a loss. You'd have to be deranged to set up a massive counterfeiting operation that (a) had no effect on your target and (b) lost money in the process.

Which, come to think of it, points the finger back toward North Korea, doesn't it? Maybe Kim Jong-il doesn't care if the operation makes money as long as he still has some American cash to buy his goodies with.

Kevin Drum 12:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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May 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HOW WE WON....Did Dems win in 2006 by electing a bunch of centrists and moderates? I remember that was a hot topic of conversation back in November, but it's easier to evaluate now that we have a few months worth of voting records to look at. The answer, according to Nicholas Beaudrot, appears to be yes. (In the House, anyway.)

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A SECOND SURGE?....I don't even remember where I first saw this now, but it seems like half the lefty blogs I read have linked today to a piece by Stewart Powell of Hearst Newspapers that examines deployment orders for Iraq and comes to a startling conclusion:

The Bush administration is quietly on track to nearly double the number of combat troops in Iraq this year, an analysis of Pentagon deployment orders showed Monday.

....The actions could boost the number of combat soldiers from 52,500 in early January to as many as 98,000 by the end of this year if the Pentagon overlaps arriving and departing combat brigades.

Separately, when additional support troops are included in this second troop increase, the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq could increase from 162,000 now to more than 200,000 — a record-high number — by the end of the year.

But the Pentagon routinely overlaps arriving and departing combat brigades. And when they do, it always produces a temporary increase of troop levels that lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a month or two. And since the surge has increased the base number of troops, it's likely that the temporary increase this time around will be larger than past ones.

In other words, I don't quite get the fuss. This might be news if Powell had some evidence that the overlap period was going to be longer than usual — or, even worse, that troops currently in Iraq weren't going to come home at all. But there's nothing like that at all. It seems like it's going to be the same kind of short-lived enlargement that we've seen several times in the past.

It's unwise to blindly accept explanations from the Pentagon at face value, but when they say that 20 brigades is 20 brigades and the year-end swell is due to "temporary increases that typically occur during the crossover period," that actually seems pretty plausible. Count me as a skeptic on the "secret second surge" theory until I hear more about it.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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CAT VACUUMING....Every two weeks a pair of housecleaners comes to clean our house. They ring the doorbell first and then a few minutes later they start vacuuming. Our cats are so spooked by this that actual vacuuming is no longer necessary to send them scurrying up the stairs to hide under the bed. All you have to do is ring the doorbell.

Most cats are like that, right? Which makes the display of cat vacuuming on the right especially remarkable. On the other hand, I've heard that white cats are often deaf, so maybe that's what makes the difference here. Our guys might like it too if the damn thing didn't make so much noise.

Via Balloon Juice.

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DECISIONS, DECISIONS....Question: Which is more annoying? (a) Lefter-than-thou liberals who are under the impression that it's somehow either immoral or impolite to make money or (b) hacker-than-thou conservatives who worship 24/7 at the altar of making of money except when the moneymaker in question happens to be a Democratic presidential candidate and thus presents a chance to score some political points? It's a tough choice.

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JOE LIEBERMAN WATCH....Joe Lieberman seems to be sliding further and further away from the Democratic Party:

"I hope the moment doesn't come that I feel so separated from the [Democratic] caucus" that he decides to shift allegiance to the Republicans, he said in an interview. Asked what Democratic actions might cause such a break, he invoked Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1964 definition of pornography: "I'll know it when I see it."

....The senator said his new-found independence may extend to presidential politics...."It's quite possible I would support a Republican or independent,'' Lieberman said.

It seems like every time Lieberman opens his mouth he moves a few more inches toward leaving the Democratic caucus. I wonder how much longer it will take until he decides, as a salve to his own conscience, that the Democratic Party "left him," rather than the other way around?

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HEALTHCARE NON-DEBATE....Mark Schmitt and Jon Cohn are genteelly arguing about whether presidential candidates ought to release detailed healthcare plans during their campaigns. Jon says yes, Mark says no. Look what happened to Bill Bradley's healthcare plan, after all.

I am, roughly speaking, on Mark's side. Phone book plans are worthless at best, and probably even counterproductive in most cases. But then again, it turns out that Jon agrees. It's all a matter of what you mean by "detailed plan." This becomes clear when Mark describes what he does want to hear from a candidate:

Are they willing to challenge insurers? Are they willing to challenge those elements of the business lobby that will resist higher taxes or an employer mandate? Indeed, the key to health care is not designing the system, but figuring out what fights to pick and how to win them.

Jon follows up with this:

The basics will suffice. When you say universal coverage, do you mean everybody? If so, by when? Roughly what level of benefits do you consider adequate? Do you want to blow up the whole health care system or simply find a way to patch the holes in coverage? If it's the former, do you intend to create a single-payer system or craft a system that relies heavily on private insurance? If it's the latter, how do you intend to pay for your plan, since it probably won't save enough money to cover the extension of coverage?

It's hard to see a lot of daylight here. On Mark's side, I suspect that the questions he wants answered actually require a moderate amount of detail to answer. On Jon's side, it's obvious that this moderate amount of detail is roughly what he wants too. Kumbaya, brothers!

But I will say one thing: Details may not be all that important, but strong convictions are. Ronald Reagan might not have issued a 200-page tax plan during his campaign, but there was never the slightest question what he was going to try to do with taxes. Likewise, I don't need to know precisely which model of national healthcare a candidate supports, but I need to at least hear a strong dedication to the proposition that not one single person should ever find themselves without health insurance. After all, the public will never support this unless someone leads the way.

And I'll also repeat what I said earlier about Barack Obama: If you decide to go the generalities route, that's fine. But if you do offer details, they better be good ones. You can't have it both ways.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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FAX? WHAT FAX?....The story about Alberto Gonzales's late night hospital run in 2004 to pressure a woozy John Ashcroft into reauthorizing the NSA's domestic spying program keeps getting weirder. The latest excuse for this little romp is that Gonzales's dog ate his homework:

After the incident, there were recriminations over what [James] Comey portrayed as an attempt by Bush's top lawyer and chief of staff to "take advantage" of a very ill man. Comey didn't tell the Senate panel that the bad feelings were stoked even more the next morning when White House officials explained the hospital visit by saying Gonzales and Card were unaware that Comey was acting A.G.

....Just days earlier, Justice's chief spokesman had publicly said Comey would serve as "head of the Justice Department" while Ashcroft was ill. Justice officials had also faxed over a document to the White House informing officials of this. When a Gonzales aide claimed the counsel's office could find no record of it, DOJ officials dug out a receipt showing the fax had been received. "People were disgusted as much as livid," said the DOJ official. "It was just the dishonesty of it."

This sounds just like our Alberto, doesn't it? He's consistently demonstrated an inability to construct explanations for bad behavior above the level of a junior high school student. "We didn't get the fax" is par for the course.

Via the Carpetbagger Report.

Kevin Drum 11:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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SENDING MESSAGES....The Guardian has a story today featuring lengthy analysis from "a senior US official in Baghdad" about Iran's intentions in Iraq:

The official said US commanders were bracing for a nationwide, Iranian-orchestrated summer offensive, linking al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents to Tehran's Shia militia allies, that Iran hoped would trigger a political mutiny in Washington and a US retreat.

...."Certainly it [the violence] is going to pick up from their side. There is significant latent capability in Iraq, especially Iranian-sponsored capability. They can turn it up whenever they want. You can see that from the pre-positioning that's been going on and the huge stockpiles of Iranian weapons that we've turned up in the last couple of months. The relationships between Iran and groups like al-Qaida are very fluid," the official said.

....Any US decision to retaliate against Iran on its own territory could be taken only at the highest political level in Washington, the official said. But he indicated that American patience was wearing thin.

I don't have any idea whether any of this stuff about Iran is true. If it is, and Iran is being so unsubtle about it that we already know their plans, then the Iranian leadership is populated by morons. After all, just about the only thing I can think of that would unite American public opinion to stay in Iraq would be the knowledge that Iran was indisputably sponsoring serious direct military action against us there. Even Feingold and Reid would vote against Feingold-Reid if that happened.

But put that aside since the truth is unknowable. It's still telling that a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, presumably with the authorization of his superiors, decided to give a lengthy and public warning to Iran that included the possibility of "retaliating against Iran on its own territory." Question: who is senior enough to say stuff like that? And who is senior enough to give him the green light?

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May 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MYSTERIOUS QUOTE OF THE DAY....Spencer Ackerman asks Colonel Haider, the commander of Khadimiya Police Station in Baghad, about infiltration of the police force by men loyal to Shiite militias:

The MOI is the Ministry of Interior, arguably the most powerful department in the Iraqi bureaucracy. It has control of the police, and since 2005 it has been an instrument of Shiite political power....Haider gets nervous when I press him about MOI complicity with the militias. He picks up a can of Pepsi from his desk. "I can't say anything about the MOI, but here's an example. This is a soda. You know what it is, and what it consists of."

Say what?

As for the rest of the piece, it confirms that, yes, the police are heavily infiltrated; everyone accepts that there's not much we can do about this; but maybe things can be improved a little bit if we stick around for another year or two. Or three or four. Maybe.

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KLEIN ON IRAQ....I think Joe Klein is exactly right about this:

This much I can confirm: there is growing pessimism among U.S. officials about the possibility of the long-sought political deal amongst Shi'ites and Sunnis and Kurds. The current feeling is that there's no way to get the Shi'ites to relinquish any significant power. So there may be an American desire to shake things up.

On the other hand — I just love it when I have to start a paragraph so forcefully — there's also the sense that Maliki is the most plausible alternative amongst the various Shi'ite factions. The vain hope, now six months old, that a broader coalition might be built to run Iraq amongst Kurds, acceptable Sunnis, secular Shi'ites and assorted cats and dogs is now officially dead.

That's right. The Shiites will will never give up any substantial power to the Sunnis. Why should they? And as long as that's the case, the Sunni insurgency will never give up either.

In the end, whether we stay or not, the Shiites will come to some kind of understanding with the Kurds, who will retain their quasi-independence in the north. The rest of the country will become a Shia theocracy. That can happen slowly, with us caught in the middle, or it can happen quickly after an American withdrawal. But it will happen either way, and there's nothing we can do to stop the bloodshed. There is no magic bullet.

Anyone who thinks otherwise needs to provide some plausible scenario in which we have at least a small chance of influencing this underlying political dynamic. I haven't heard one yet, and the surge is one of the most pathetic of the lot, little more than a desperate attempt to run out the clock so that George Bush can claim that he wasn't the one who lost Iraq. That might help him sleep better once he's out of office, but it won't change the reality or the history books. It's time to leave.

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"WEIRD OR BEARDED"....Taegan Goddard highlights this line from the Economist's roundup of last week's Republican debate:

Meanwhile Fox News, which broadcast the debate, continued its tradition of balancing good-looking conservative pundits with liberals who look either weird or bearded.

Weird or bearded? Somebody help me out here. Who were the pundits on display that evening?

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CHEAP WORKERS....Robert Hoffman, a VP at Oracle, is unhappy with the new immigration bill, which includes a "point system" that allocates visas to applicants with education and job skills:

"Under the current system," Mr. Hoffman said, "you need an employer to sponsor you for a green card. Under the point system, you would not need an employer as a sponsor. An individual would get points for special skills, but those skills may not match the demand. You can't hire a chemical engineer to do the work of a software engineer."

If nothing else, you have to admire the chutzpah Hoffman demonstrates here. The H1-B visa regime is not quite the system of indentured servitude that it used to be, in which workers were essentially prohibited for years from leaving the company that sponsored them, but it still has some elements of that. And needless to say, the sponsoring companies think that's just fine. The idea that someone can simply get a green card without going through a sponsor and then freely work for the highest bidder is not really what high-tech CFOs have in mind when they dream of filling up job slots with foreign workers.

At the same time, employers in non-high tech industries are unhappy with the point system because it's too favorable to high tech companies and might reduce the supply of poorly paid hotel workers. The Chamber of Commerce is unhappy because the bill doesn't open up the floodgates of cheap labor widely enough. And every employer is unhappy over requirements that employers actually check to make sure they're hiring legal workers. Legal workers cost more, after all.

Hmmm. Do you detect a trend here?

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IRAQI LEADERSHIP GONE MISSING....Juan Cole notes today that of the six men who actually run Iraq, one of them is in Iran getting chemotherapy for his lung cancer; one is in hiding; and one, improbably, is in the U.S. seeking treatment for his obesity:

So of the central club, al-Hakim is now absent. And, Jalal Talabani is flying to the US to spend three weeks, allegedly in a bid to lose weight. I'm tempted to speculate that something is in the works such that someone thinks it desirable that Talabani be out of country, since the idea that Mam Jalal suddenly decided he needed to go to a fat farm in Minnesota strikes me as far-fetched. But I will control myself; speculation in the absence of information is not very useful.

....Here you have the president and the leader of the largest bloc out of country. Not to mention that another important figure, Muqtada al-Sadr is in hiding in the Kufa area of Iraq, apparently afraid that the US "surge" will include another attempt to assassinate him.

....Nothing is likely to get done in their absence. Even under the best of circumstances, getting Talabani, Barzani, al-Hakim, al-Maliki and al-Hashimi all on the same page is nearly a miracle. But for the next few weeks it won't be possible at all.

This strikes me as a coincidence worth taking note of, especially since Maliki's government has shown distinct signs of strain lately. Stay tuned.

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REVISING FISA....Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, is unhappy with the current state of the FISA statute, which was enacted 30 years ago to provide a legal framework for the use of eavesdropping by the federal government:

FISA was created to guard against domestic government abuse and to protect privacy while allowing for appropriate foreign intelligence collection. Technology and threats have changed, but the law remains essentially the same. If we are to improve our ability to protect the country by gathering foreign intelligence, this law must be updated to reflect changes in technology and the ways our adversaries communicate with one another.

McConnell's op-ed is a masterpiece of vagueness, distinguished more by what it doesn't say than by what it does. Most notably, in the course of 600 words he never says what kinds of changes he'd like to see in the law. In fact, he never so much as hints at it.

He also fails to mention that George Bush can recommend legislation to modify FISA anytime he wants. In the six years since 9/11 he hasn't done so. This is an odd state of affairs if FISA is as antiquated as McConnell says. [UPDATE: This isn't quite true. See below.]

He's also disturbingly open-ended. "We cannot know how technology will advance in the next 30 years," McConnell says. "Our job is to make the country as safe as possible by providing the highest possible quality intelligence available. We should not tie the nation's security to a snapshot of outdated technology." Suggesting that FISA should be updated after 30 years on the books is fair enough, but going on to suggest that it needs to be updated in such a wide ranging way that it will never need to be updated again is another thing entirely. That would almost inevitably produce a law so broad as to be virtually useless.

And then there's this: "In a significant number of cases, our intelligence agencies must obtain a court order to monitor the communications of foreigners suspected of terrorist activity who are physically located in foreign countries." But what McConnell doesn't say is that this happens only when (a) an American is on the other end of the line or (b) the conversation is being routed through a domestic switch and the only way for NSA to get hold of it is to monitor all the traffic, both domestic and international, going through the switch. That puts a different spin on things, doesn't it?

I'm willing to consider changes to FISA. McConnell is right that it's three decades old and could use an update to address changes in technology. But all he's offering here is a pig in a poke, a deliberately hazy recommendation that the law be changed to allow the intelligence community to monitor just about anything it wants without any serious oversight at all. That's just not going to fly anymore. If he wants to be taken seriously, he needs to tell us exactly what's wrong with FISA and exactly how he wants to change it. Then we can sit down and talk.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald points out that, in fact, FISA was modified as part of the passage of the PATRIOT Act in October 2001. Since then, however, George Bush has turned down every opportunity to amend it further.

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May 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TODAY IN FINANCIAL SERVICES....In the New York Times today, read about how financial services companies help scam artists rip off old people. In the LA Times, read about how financial services companies rip off anyone trusting enough to buy one of their "bank gift cards."

There are times when I think it might be a good idea to line up the CEOs of every financial services company in America and shoot every tenth one of them. Just on principle.

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IT'S BEEN WEEKS....Roger Federer won a clay court title today in an upset victory over clay demigod Rafael Nadal. I love this line from the BBC's report:

Federer's victory also ended his own run of four tournaments without a title, his worst spell since he became world number one in February 2004.

Four tournaments without a title! Someone call the slumpmobile!

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By: Kevin Drum

YOU HATE US, YOU REALLY HATE US!....Time's resident film reviewer, Richard Schickel, doesn't like the blogosphere:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity....French critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a name not much bruited in the blogosphere, I'll warrant....We have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering....They need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion. ....At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books [] blogging was presented as an attractive alternative — it doesn't take much time, and it is a method of publicly expressing oneself (like finger-painting, I thought to myself, but never mind).

This kind of stuff doesn't really bother me. I mean, bloggers can dish it out, so I suppose we should be able to take it too.

What strikes me, though, is that Schickel's jeremiad isn't unusual: all too often, people who complain about the vitriol and ignorance of the blogosphere find themselves so tongue-tied by the whole phenomenon that their criticism plunges with barely a backward glance into paroxysms of....vitriol and ignorance. There's something about the whole subject that almost inevitably sends them into conniptions.

So I wonder what Schickel's problem really is. Has he never before heard anyone complain about art critics being too elite for the average joe? I doubt it. That's an ancient sport. Does he truly believe that bloggers think their work belongs in the same pantheon as Edmund Wilson and George Orwell? That's hard to credit. Has he never noticed that average joes have been producing home-brew criticism for centuries? Surely not.

So what is it? Merely the fact that this is happening on a different and modestly larger stage than before? Is that really so threatening?

POSTSCRIPT: What's really odd about Schickel's piece is that it was apparently inspired by an article about literary bloggers and the decline of newspaper reviewers that ran in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. But it's the farthest thing imaginable from blogger triumphalism.

In fact, here's blogger Maud Newton: "I find it kind of naive and misguided to be a triumphalist blogger," Ms. Newton said. "But I also find it kind of silly when people in the print media bash blogs as a general category, because I think the people are doing very, very different things."

Conversely, here's Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, a blog detractor: "Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. 'Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,' Mr. Ford said, 'in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn't.'"

Italics mine, of course. You tell me: which side comes out looking better in this particular exchange?

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (130)

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By: Kevin Drum

FUNNY CUZ IT'S TRUE....Andrew Sullivan on Patrick Leahy:

He's sending letters to administration officals that ring with the kind of passion usually reserved for condo association meetings.

This remark is a couple of days old and I have nothing to add to it. I just thought it was funny and deserved preservation. Ring of truth and all that.

Kevin Drum 12:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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May 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GETTING OUT....Greg Miller of the LA Times reports today that the CIA deployed about 50 additional agents in Pakistan last year as part of a plan to replace the agents who were yanked out of Afghanistan in 2002 to help prepare for the war with Iraq. The goal was to reinvigorate the search for Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders, but so far it hasn't panned out. "We're not any closer," a senior U.S. military official told Miller. "Any prediction on when we're going to get him is just ridiculous. It could be a year from now or the Pakistanis could be in the process of getting him right now."

But that's not the worst of it. It's been obvious for a long time that the Iraq war is al-Qaeda's best recruiting tool, but although the CIA's surge has been unsuccessful at locating bin Laden, it has been successful at tracking an alarming increase in al-Qaeda fundraising:

U.S. officials said that Al Qaeda's command base in Pakistan increasingly is being funded by cash coming out of Iraq, where the terrorist network's operatives are raising substantial sums from donations to the anti-American insurgency as well as kidnappings of wealthy Iraqis and other criminal activity.

The influx of money has bolstered Al Qaeda's leadership ranks at a time when the core command is regrouping and reasserting influence over its far-flung network.

....Little more than a year ago, Al Qaeda's core command was thought to be in a financial crunch. But U.S. officials said cash shipped from Iraq has eased those troubles. "Iraq is a big moneymaker for them," said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official.

Say it with me: We. Need. To. Get. Out. The sooner the better. Our presence in Iraq is doing nothing for Iraq itself, which is doomed to sectarian civil war no matter what we do. It's actively hindering the destruction of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which will almost certainly proceed more quickly and more ruthlessly once we leave. It's made Iran into a more powerful regional player than it ever could have dreamed of. It's produced a relentlessly worsening foreign policy catastrophe by swelling the ranks of Middle Eastern Muslims who support anti-American jihadism in spirit, even if they don't directly support al-Qaeda itself. And it's turned into a bonanza of recruiting and fundraising among those who do directly support al-Qaeda.

In almost every way you can think of, our continued presence in Iraq is bad for Iraq, bad for the Middle East, and bad for America's own national security. I can't even think of anything on the plus side of the ledger anymore, and every additional day we stay there only makes the ledger look worse.

We desperately need to construct a national security policy that actually addresses violent jihadism in a serious and effective way. We can't do that as long as we're in Iraq. That's why we need to leave.

Kevin Drum 9:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (120)

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IS ETHANOL GREEN?....There are probably some of you out there who believe that not everything in the world can be put into chart form. On Thursday, for example, I wrote that "corn ethanol is a boondoggle," and that probably seems like an un-chartable statement. But it's not. After all, one can always chart how much of a boondoggle something is.

The chart on the right, provided by Berkeley's Michael O'Hare from a paper he co-authored last month, doesn't quite do this, since there are many dimensions to boondogglishness. However, it does measure one aspect of boondogglishness: whether corn ethanol actually provides any green benefits. As you can see, the answer is "it depends on how you make it."

The thing I've labeled Corn 1, for example, is "Coal-fired ethanol production with cogenerated electricity." Basically, it sucks, producing nearly as much total greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline. Other types of corn ethanol are better, the best being "Biomass-powered ethanol production," which clocks in at about half the GHG production of gasoline. Switchgrass ethanol, the holy grail of the ethanol community, is even better.

There's more to corn ethanol than this, of course, since ramping up corn production requires big federal subsidies (bad), drives up the price of food (also bad), and demands intensive nitrogen fertilization that produces greenhouse gases of its own (yet badder still). A complete boondogglishness index would take that and more into account. But if it's basic greenness you're interested in, this chart tells the ethanol story pretty well.

UC Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center is here if you want to check them out. The full paper this chart comes from is here. Michael has more at his own blog here.

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May 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....OK, I'll do some catblogging in addition to the anniversary blogging. Today's edition shows what happens when I get up from my chair for a moment or two. Inkblot usually keeps an eye on me and races to take possession before I can get back. Today he won. Domino, who decided to curl up in bed with us this week for the first time ever (hooray!) looks like she's declaring victory over something in the picture on the right. In reality, she's just batting at a piece of string that Marian is waving over her head.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION REFORM....I guess I'm supposed to have an opinion about the immigration reform bill that was hammered out yesterday, but I really don't. Guest worker programs are a disaster on a variety of levels, so that's a strike against it. The path to citizenship for current illegals is good, though absurdly complex for dumb political reasons. (Note to Republicans: your base is going to hate this provision no matter how much you lard it up with idiocies designed to make it look like it isn't "amnesty." It's a losing game.) The stiffer employer sanctions are a good idea, but only if the bill includes mechanisms to guarantee they'll be enforced. That looks iffy to me, though I probably need to educate myself more on the enforcement details. The revised visa protocols are probably a step in the right direction.

So....I dunno. This is the precisely the kind of issue that never produces anything close to a clean bill, so complaining about that is pointless. On substance, I'd give it a C-: it's worth passing — barely — but probably not worth mourning if it doesn't. On the politics, it probably deserves about a B, since passing it is likely to piss off the Republican base way more than it will the Democratic base. On the other hand, virtually every leading Republican candidate for president has denounced the bill (McCain is the exception), which means it gives them a wonderful built-in opportunity to recapture the base next year with fire-breathing speeches about how they wouldn't have sold our country for a mess of pottage if they'd been president. So maybe politically it's only a C+.

In other words, it's a mighty close call. Maybe I'll think differently after I've read more about it. We'll see.

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By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL FORCES....William Arkin reports that congressional Democrats are working to shift the priorities of special ops forces:

The House Armed Services Committee has directed the military to place more emphasis on unconventional warfare and less on "direct action" missions aimed at individual terrorists. (Thanks to Richard Lardner of the Tampa Tribune for the reporting.)

The committee, in its report on the fiscal 2008 defense budget, proposes a change in legislation that would give greater priority to the indirect mission. The new legislation ranks 12 missions for special operations forces, moving direct action from atop the current list to No. 5. Unconventional warfare, the new top mission, includes the "softer side" of special operations, from training to engaging local populations in the battle for hearts and minds.

I can't find any further detail about this, so I'm just tossing it out as an FYI. Here's a bit more from Lardner's piece:

U.S. Rep Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who chairs the committee's terrorism and unconventional threats panel, said the intent is not to force a kinder and gentler approach to the terror war. There is now and always will be a need for substantial direct action capabilities, he said in a telephone interview, but kicking in doors and killing the enemy is just one part of the broader solution.

....When Smith talks to Socom officials, he said they emphasize the importance of unconventional warfare and other "indirect" approaches.

This isn't the biggest deal in the world, but a lot has changed in the 20 years since special ops priorities were last set. These guys are a lot more than the ninja teams of popular culture fame, and it's nice to see evidence that the Democratic takeover of Congress is finally starting to get people thinking about how the military ought to work in the 21st century.

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FRIDAY ANNIVERSARY BLOGGING....If it's Matt's birthday today it must be my anniversary. And sure enough, it is: Marian and I were married 16 years ago today. Don't we look young and cute in our wedding picture? And don't our flower girl and ring bearer look even younger and cuter? They're both getting ready to graduate from college soon.

According to Wikipedia, on this same date 16 years ago, Helen Sharman from Sheffield became the first Briton to orbit in space and Northern Somalia declared independence from the rest of Somalia as the Republic of Somaliland. Hooray for Somaliland! Other famous events on this day include Napoleon's proclamation as emperor, the publication of Dracula, the disappearance of Aimee Semple McPherson — who, by the way, lived a few houses down the street from my mother's childhood home — and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Famous births include Omar Khayyam, Pope John Paul II, and George Strait. Let's all take the weekend off in celebration.

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By: Kevin Drum

NO CONFIDENCE....Even Republicans are starting to tire of Alberto Gonzales's contempt and mendacity:

Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, said on Thursday that Mr. Gonzales should resign....In addition, Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said Mr. Gonzales's resignation should now be considered a possibility. "When you have to spend more time up here on Capitol Hill instead of running the Justice Department, maybe you ought to think about it," Mr. Roberts said.

This week, Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said Mr. Gonzales should leave. Other Republican senators who have called for his resignation are John McCain of Arizona, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

And Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has not called for Mr. Gonzales's dismissal, came closer to saying that he was finished. "I have a sense that when we finish our investigation, we may have the conclusion of the tenure of the attorney general," Mr. Specter said at a meeting of the committee on Thursday.

Democrats are planning to introduce a nonbinding vote of no confidence shortly. The way things are going, I'll be surprised if it doesn't command a two-thirds majority by the middle of next week. That's impeachment territory, if Bush and Gonzales decide to keep stonewalling.

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CLIMATE CHANGE UPDATE....Global warming may be happening faster than we thought:

The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is so loaded with carbon dioxide that it can barely absorb any more, so more of the gas will stay in the atmosphere to warm up the planet, scientists reported Thursday.

...."We thought we would be able to detect these only the second half of this century, say 2050 or so," [said researcher Corinne Le Quere]. But data from 1981 through 2004 show the sink is already full of carbon dioxide. "So I find this really quite alarming."

Just another reminder that when global warming research reports show a range of values, the high end of the range is just as likely as the low end. Maybe even more so.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NATIONAL SECURITY CURTAIN....The legal justification for the NSA's domestic spying program, originally written by the infamously hackish John Yoo, was repudiated in March 2004 by the Department of Justice after Yoo left and a new team insisted on taking a serious look at both the program and Yoo's legal arguments for it. Marty Lederman points out today that this team — John Ashcroft, Jack Goldsmith, and James Comey — was no bunch of weak-kneed liberals. They were, under every other circumstance, hardnosed conservatives dedicated to an expansive view of executive power in wartime. What's more, the NSA program was one the administration considered critical to the war on terror; repudiating a previous finding is highly unusual; their actions undermined a key legal tenet of the president's wartime powers; and they knew that both the president and vice president would be furious at what they had done.

And yet not only would Ashcroft, et al., not budge — they were prepared to resign their offices if the President allowed this program of vital importance to go forward in the teeth of their legal objections.

In light of all these considerations, just try to imagine how legally dubious the Yoo justification must have been that John Ashcroft was so profoundly committed to its repudiation. It's staggering, really — almost unimaginable that anything such as this could have happened, especially where the stakes were so high.

....Moreover, the "revised" NSA program that OLC and DOJ approved some weeks after the March incident...still allowed electronic surveillance of communications as long as the NSA had a "reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda." Presumably this extremely generous guideline was required by the need to bring the program under the aegis of the AUMF....If that's the narrow version of the NSA program, just how broad and indiscriminate was the surveillance under the program that Ashcroft, et al. would not approve?

Even the Washington Post, not exactly a keen critic of President Bush's executive excesses, has had enough: "The president would like to make this unpleasant controversy disappear behind the national security curtain. That cannot be allowed to happen."

That's a start. A little late, but a start.

Kevin Drum 12:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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May 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

LEAVING IRAQ....Marc Lynch makes two good points today. First, he explains why committing to a firm withdrawal plan is probably our last hope of achieving even marginal success in Iraq:

The insurgents have made it pretty clear in a series of public statements and private communications that they're willing to start talking and dampen down the violence if the United States commits to withdrawing from Iraq....But everything hinges on the United States making a commitment to withdraw — politically, they can't and won't get in the political game without that because it would destroy their credibility and because, frankly, getting the United States out really matters to them. But there's a window here that I'm afraid we're going to let close because of domestic politics.

Second, he observes that at the same time that al-Qaeda as an organization is losing support in the Muslim world, its jihadist clash-of-civilizations worldview is gaining support. The reason is Iraq:

When you get these attacks in Algeria and Morocco, it repels people rather than attracting them. But the paradox is that even as Al Qaeda repels people with its actions, its core ideas are becoming more widely accepted, and that's really troubling, and a real indictment of American public diplomacy. That's also why the situation in Iraq is so devastating at the wider regional and global level. Killing people in Morocco and Algeria triggers a negative reaction, but fighting Americans in Iraq resonates with a much wider part of the Arab population.

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE....I don't write much about torture these days because the whole subject just makes me ill. I know that's a lousy excuse. I'm sorry. But if I'd tuned in to Tuesday's Republican debate and heard the crowd hooting and hollering as the candidates played "can you top this" over who was most willing to take up the mantle of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, I probably would have lost it. It's not just that it's depraved, it's demagogic, and it's depressing, but also that it's dimwitted. Macho talk about torture may be a great applause line on the right-wing rubber chicken circuit, but it does nothing to make us safer.

Today in the Washington Post, a former commandant of the Marine Corps and a former commander of CENTCOM explain why:

It is the duty of the commander in chief to lead the country away from the grip of fear, not into its grasp. Regrettably, at Tuesday night's presidential debate in South Carolina, several Republican candidates revealed a stunning failure to understand this most basic obligation. Indeed, among the candidates, only John McCain demonstrated that he understands the close connection between our security and our values as a nation.

....As has happened with every other nation that has tried to engage in a little bit of torture — only for the toughest cases, only when nothing else works — the abuse spread like wildfire, and every captured prisoner became the key to defusing a potential ticking time bomb. Our soldiers in Iraq confront real "ticking time bomb" situations every day, in the form of improvised explosive devices, and any degree of "flexibility" about torture at the top drops down the chain of command like a stone — the rare exception fast becoming the rule.

....This war will be won or lost not on the battlefield but in the minds of potential supporters who have not yet thrown in their lot with the enemy. If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and we are well down the road to it.

Even if basic considerations of morality don't sway you, the fact that torture and abuse contribute to eventual defeat on the battlefield should. That's more important than winning a few more votes from the troglodyte crowd.

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MOVING THE ISSUE FORWARD....The usual dodge for anyone in the Bush administration who doesn't want to talk to the press is to decline comment on a matter that's "under investigation." We don't want to throw sand in the wheels of justice, after all. And since practically everything in the Bush administration is under investigation these days, it's a pretty handy excuse.

But when NBC's Kelly O'Donnell asked Bush about the recently reported Ashcroft/Comey/Gonzales debacle (i.e., whether he was the guy who dispatched Gonzales and Andy Card to Ashcroft's hospital bed to twist his arm into re-approving the NSA's domestic spying program), he tried a different tack:

I'm not going to talk about it....I'm not going to move the issue forward by talking about something [that's a] highly classified subject.

Not bad! Talking about it would "move the issue forward," so there'll be no talking about it. That's almost as good as Monica Goodling's refusal to testify before Congress because she felt it would be a "hostile and questionable environment." How long before they stop bothering to construct verbal excuses at all anymore?

PREEMPTIVE TROLL REPELLANT: Note that O'Donnell's question had nothing to do with the nature of the NSA program. It was solely about whether Bush personally ordered Gonzales and Card to visit Ashcroft in the hospital. There's nothing even colorably classified about that. He just didn't want to "move the issue forward."

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GREY'S ANATOMY MUSIC REVISITED....This wouldn't normally make it onto the Washington Monthly's radar screen, but a few days ago I wrote a vague post about "Grey's Anatomy music," asking if people understood what I meant by that term. Some did, some didn't. Today, by chance, the Wall Street Journal introduces us to the performer on tonight's finale episode:

The singer is Ingrid Michaelson, a 26-year-old Staten Island native who lives at home with her parents and has become the chanteuse of "Grey's Anatomy." She was discovered on MySpace by a management company that specializes in finding little-known acts and placing their works in soundtracks for TV shows, commercials, movies and videogames....Three of her songs have already been aired on this season's "Grey's" as the sonic backdrop for the drama's soapy tales of Seattle Grace Hospital.

....TV, of course, has become an increasingly powerful force for driving music sales. Apart from "American Idol" and "Saturday Night Live," possibly the most coveted TV slots for musicians are on "Grey's Anatomy," which has helped make songs like "How to Save a Life" by the Fray into top sellers on iTunes. A finale spot on "Grey's" is considered a particularly plum slot. Last year, the finale allowed Scottish band Snow Patrol to break through to a broad audience and played a role in making its featured song, "Chasing Cars," a hit.

So there you have it. That "finale spot" is what I was talking about, and I had no idea that it was (a) a different performer every week, or (b) even recognizable music, let alone a "particularly plum" soapbox for aspiring artists. I thought it was just the show's version of Muzak.

Yet another demonstration that I'm totally out of touch with this stuff. Consider me schooled.

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VITRIOLIC? THE BLOGOSPHERE?....Thursday Think Tank Roundup? Seriously? Yes indeed.

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PALACE REVOLT....Why did the Department of Justice suddenly get antsy about the NSA's domestic spying program in March 2004, more than two years after the program started up? I think Paul Kiel has it about right here. I suspect that the key player, by far, is Jack Goldsmith, as Newsweek told us over a year ago. A couple of days ago I linked to their 2006 piece, "Palace Revolt," about Goldsmith and others, and if you didn't click through to read (or reread) it, you should take a minute to check it out. It's worth your while.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE THAN EIGHT....The Washington Post reports today that the scope of Purgegate was much wider than anyone has admitted:

The Justice Department considered dismissing many more U.S. attorneys than officials have previously acknowledged, with at least 26 prosecutors suggested for termination between February 2005 and December 2006, according to sources familiar with documents withheld from the public.

....The number of names on the lists demonstrates the breadth of the search for prosecutors to dismiss. The names also hint at a casual process in which the people who were most consistently considered for replacement were not always those ultimately told to leave.

....Sources who have examined or been briefed on the full records identified at least 26 names, including the nine prosecutors fired last year and another, Karl K. "Kasey" Warner of Charleston, W.Va., who was dismissed in August 2005. The remaining 16 include three who resigned from their posts after appearing on one or more lists.

We already know that the first cut at Purgegate, back before cooler heads prevailed, was a suggestion that DOJ fire all the U.S. Attorneys and start the new term with a clean slate. So in a way, it's hardly surprising that the original list of potential firees was larger than eight.

But, you know, a whole bunch of DOJ employees, up to and including the Attorney General, have testified repeatedly under oath about this whole process, and with their hands on a Bible they've all managed to forget to testify that there were a couple dozen people who flitted on and off the purge list over the course of a year.

And that, of course, takes us back to the central mystery: what the hell were the criteria these guys were using for putting prosecutors on the purge list and then taking them off? Were there any? Was it partisan hackery? "Voting fraud" obsession? Monica Goodling's gut feel after chatting up a few of her buddies? Or what? I mean, I've seen league softball teams that seemed to have a more coherent approach to figuring out their Saturday afternoon lineup than these guys did to figuring out who should be America's front line in the war on crime. It's like they were all children trying out a shiny new toy.

So: back to the witness stand for all of them! They do work for the Department of Justice, after all. It seems like they could use a wee reminder of what "the whole truth" actually means.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CORN ETHANOL BOONDOGGLE....In the LA Times today, Colin Carter and Henry Miller argue that there's a big problem with President Bush's goal of replacing 15% of domestic gasoline use with ethanol:

With current technology, almost all of this biofuel would have to come from corn because there is no feasible alternative. However, achieving the 15% goal would require the entire current U.S. corn crop, which represents a whopping 40% of the world's corn supply.

....Thus, it is no surprise that the price of corn has doubled in the last year — from $2 to $4 a bushel. We are already seeing upward pressure on food prices as the demand for ethanol boosts the demand for corn.

That's a problem? I thought that was the whole point.

Seriously, though, read the whole thing. As practically everyone except politicians pandering their way through Iowa knows, corn ethanol is a boondoggle. It doesn't do much to reduce oil use, it doesn't do much for the environment, and it doesn't do much for your food bill. All it does is make corn farmers happy.

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THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM....I have a gift today for my two or three conservative readers. It's a story of government regulation gone wild.

On Wednesday I went up to LA to visit the new and improved Griffith Observatory following its four-year, $93 million renovation. The first thing you see when you walk into the main hall is a Foucault Pendulum, and yesterday it was swinging away. You've probably seen one, but for those who haven't it's basically just a gigantic pendulum that demonstrates the rotation of the earth. As the pendulum swings freely and the earth rotates under it, the plane of the pendulum appears to move in a slow circle. (Nice cartoon explanation here.) At the latitude of Los Angeles it takes 42 hours to complete a circle, and it's traditional that at each hour mark you place a little wooden peg that gets knocked over when the pendulum hits it. It's fun for the whole family.

But yesterday, no pegs. What's the deal? The docent/explainer person explained: the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is down in a shallow pit. One day a health inspector came by and asked how the pegs got reset after they'd all been knocked down. So they told him: someone jumps down into the pit, stands up the pegs, and jumps out.

The health inspector was horrified. That's dangerous! You can't have a city employee leaping into a 5-foot pit and then resetting pegs while a giant pendulum is swinging! Shades of Edgar Allen Poe!

So they contracted with someone to build a peg-setter-upper that could manipulate the pegs from outside the pit. But during the remodeling, they lost the doohickey, and the guy who made it is retired (or dead; I forget which). So: no pegs. Sorry.

And that's your story of bureaucracy run wild. We will return shortly to normal blogging.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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May 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TAKE YOUR PICK....Is this good news or bad news?

The World Bank's executive board has dismissed a [compromise] proposal floated by the Bush administration aimed at delivering the resignation of the institution's embattled president, Paul D. Wolfowitz, according to senior officials at the bank.

Wolfowitz, meanwhile, was negotiating an agreement to resign, the Associated Press reported, quoting an official familiar with the talks. The deal would include an acknowledgment by the World Bank that Wolfowitz does not bear sole responsibility for a controversy surrounding a generous pay package for his girlfriend, AP reported.

Good news: it looks like Wolfowitz is toast. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Bad news: Can you imagine who Bush is going to nominate as a "screw you" replacement? Doug Feith? Rick Santorum? Monica Goodling?

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FALWELL AND ABORTION....Via Brad Plumer, Michelle Goldberg writes in the Guardian that abortion wasn't originally a big issue for the Christian Right:

The religious right's creation myth holds that Roe v Wade so outraged the faithful that they could no longer sit passively on their pews. As the Columbia University historian Randall Balmer has shown, this is nonsense. The Southern Baptist Convention, Falwell's denomination, was officially pro-choice throughout the 1970s; anti-abortion activism was seen as the province of Catholics, a group then widely despised by fundamentalist Protestants. No, what really galvanized the religious right were Supreme Court rulings stripping whites-only Christian academies, like the one Falwell founded in 1966, of their tax-exempt status. Fervent opposition to abortion, which eventually cemented the alliance between conservative Protestant and Catholics, came later.

There's no question that early evangelical leaders were originally drawn to politics by the loss of tax-exempt status for their segregated schools, which happened via a series of court rulings before Roe v. Wade was even a twinkle in Harry Blackmun's eyes. Still, while the SBC may have been "officially" pro-choice during the 70s, it was pro-choice only "reluctantly," and Falwell himself was always virulently anti-abortion and anti-gay. What's more, it was only after abortion and gay bashing were added to the evangelical mix that the Christian Right became a genuine, broad-based "movement."

In 1978, for example, the Washington Post reported that Falwell was "against abortion, poronography and homosexuality, and created a stir in the 1976 presidential campaign in Virginia when he attacked Jimmy Carter for being interviewed by Playboy magazine." In 1979, after Falwell founded the Moral Majority, the Post reported that his goals "include tax breaks for church-run schools, diplomatic recognition of the new government of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and the frustration of the abortion and gay rights movement." Later that year U.S. News & World Report reported that "Falwell's aims include sharp restrictions on abortion, an end to pornography, defeat of the proposed SALT treaty and rejection of the equal-rights amendment."

Money and segregation were certainly issues for Falwell and others, but it was abortion and gay bashing that powered them to fame and fortune, and they know it. There's a good reason that the old guard evangelicals feel badly threatened by Richard Cizik.

UPDATE: Don Byrd, who writes the BJC blog, emails to add some historical context:

The mistake in Michelle's piece is in saying the Southern Baptist Convention is "Falwell's denomination." That's a bit misleading in a paragraph about SBC views in the 70s. Falwell was an "independent Baptist," in large part because of the positions the SBC took with which he disagreed: church-state separation, against prayer in schools, and abortion allowance in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother among them. Once the SBC had transformed itself into a GOP, social conservative machine, partly due to being inspired by Falwell's Moral Majority, then sure, he said he could be one with the SBC. But that was much much later — 1996, to be exact. For some 10 years before that the relationship between Falwell and the SBC was limited to that of a "mutual admiration society." And before that you'd have to say he would not have wanted to be affiliated with them in any way.

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PRUDES....Jonah Goldberg:

The liberal media loves — loves! — casting evangelicals as sexually hung up prudes. It should not detract from the basic unfairness of this bias to also concede that some evangelical leaders have supplied their enemies with ample ammo in this regard.

Actually, I don't think the media makes this point very consistently or very strongly at all. Not strongly enough for my taste, anyway. But if they did, why exactly would it be unfair? Especially if evangelical leader have supplied "ample ammo" to make the case?

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MEDIAN INCOME....This is probably true:

My problem with economists is that even many of the smart ones tend to instinctively equate the social welfare of a country with its per capita GDP. This is absurd, and it isn't as if they don't actually know this, but nonetheless it tends to be how people operate.

This happens because of two basic reasons. First, there's no actual way to define social welfare scientifically. One can define social welfare functions which meet certain kinds of pleasing properties, but ultimately judgment calls have to be made. You know, is overall social welfare enhanced more if you give an extra dollar to me instead of Bill Gates? Consequently per capita GDP as a measure of society's welfare is seen as a kind of value-neutral measure.

But there is a simple figure that has roughly the same relationship to "social welfare" as GDP does to "economic growth": median hourly income. It misses a lot of stuff, as any simple measure will, but it tells you as much as a simple GDP figure does. If the mainstream press paid as much attention to quarterly reports of median wage growth as they do to quarterly reports of GDP growth, they might even start to understand why "popular" views of the health of the economy so often seem to be at odds with the "official" view.

Added note: one of the reasons I like MHI as a primary economic statistic is my belief that sustained MHI growth is actually the single best measure of the strength of an economy. It's almost impossible for an overall economy to be in bad shape as long as real MHI is growing strongly. It's one of the reasons that Democratic administrations tend to produce better economic results than Republican administrations: though it's usually cloaked in more sophisticated language, Democrats tend to focus on MHI. Republicans don't.

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FEINGOLD DEFEATED....The Feingold proposal to begin withdrawal from Iraq within 120 days and suspend funding for operations completely by March 2008 has been defeated. That's no surprise, but the margin was: it was defeated 29-67.

I guess that's not really surprising, though. Just disappointing. In any case, Democrats are fools for not sticking together on a point of principle like this.

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FIREFOX QUERY....Technical questions for the masses. I'm using Firefox, and on certain web pages my system slows down to a crawl. When I bring up Task Manager it reports that Firefox is sucking up 95% of my CPU time. As near as I can tell, it seems to be related to advertisements that use Flash: some of them cause the system to go crazy by sucking up every CPU cycle they can get their hands on. Or maybe it's certain Java or Javascript applications. I can't tell for sure, but in any case it seems to be clearly related to some kind of bug in certain advertisements.

Anyone else ever come across this? Any solutions?

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BANANA REPUBLICANISM....CONT'D....The Bush administration says that Michael Baroody, their nominee to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission, "has taken the steps necessary to avoid any conflict of interest in the event he is confirmed." Like this, for example:

A senior lobbyist at the National Association of Manufacturers nominated by President Bush to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission will receive a $150,000 departing payment from the association when he takes his new government job, which involves enforcing consumer laws against members of the association.

....Mr. Baroody said in the letter that the payment would not prevent him from considering matters involving individual companies that are members of the manufacturers' association, many of whom are defendants in agency proceedings over defective products or have other business before the commission.

I'd comment, but what is there to say? Democrats ought to unanimously vote to reject this doofus without even bothering with a hearing, but I suppose that's not in the cards. Too bad.

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HEALTHCARE IN AMERICA....The Commonwealth Fund has released its latest comparison of healthcare performance among various countries, and you can read all about it here. However, since I know you're all busy people, I'll just cut to the chase: we suck. Despite the fact that we see doctors less often, go to the hospital less often, and stay in the hospital for shorter times than any of the other countries in the report, we still spend by far the most money. In return for this we get lousier care. As the summary chart below shows, we score last or close to last on five out of five measures — though we do manage to eke out a first place finish in one subcategory. Go team!

If you want a quick and dirty look at the data, download the chartpack and page through the charts. My favorites are 21, 28, 50, and 56. There are a few areas where the United States does well (preventive care, for example), but for the most part we're either average or below average. And when it comes to various sorts of preventible medical errors, we're absolutely terrible. It almost makes you want to just stay home the next time you feel a pain in your chest.

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May 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

NO GOOD ANSWERS....Here's the final line of Mark Thoma's conversation with a globalization skeptic:

"Economists still suck."

The rest is worth reading too. Kind of dismal reading, appropriately, but worthwhile anyway.

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GREY'S ANATOMY MUSIC....Oddball question here: does anyone know what I mean by "Grey's Anatomy music"? It seems to be cropping up everywhere these days and for some reason it bugs the hell out of me. Am I the only one?

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RUDY AND THE RIGHT....Thomas Edsall argues that Rudy Giuliani can win the Republican nomination because conservatives these days care more about terror than they do about abortion and gay rights. Matt Yglesias isn't so sure:

This is interesting stuff, but I'm not sure it indicates that abortion and gay marriage have fallen in salience nearly enough. After all, I wouldn't say abortion is my top priority in the coming election, but if Barack Obama were to announce tomorrow that he's pro-life and wants to [appoint] justices who'll overturn Roe v. Wade my level of enthusiasm for his candidacy was drop to zero....At the end of the day, I think you'll find that most Republicans really want their party to be against abortion and if Giuliani is still front-running months and months from now somebody (my guess is McCain) will emerge as the pro-life alternative and win.

I sort of agree with this. Furthermore, I think Giuliani will lose because at some point he'll throw a public hissy fit of some kind and self destruct. Still, there are reasons to think Edsall could be on to something.

First, we have an odd situation this year where social conservatives are uncomfortable with all the leading GOP candidates: Giuliani is too liberal; Romney is an abortion flip-flopper and a Mormon; and until his panderfest started last year, McCain was publicly hostile to evangelical religious leaders. If there were someone the social cons could coalesce around who was a little more credible than Sam Brownback, Giuliani might have more problems. As it is, all he has to do is be a little less unacceptable than his opponents.

Second, Giuliani hasn't really done the equivalent of what Matt suggests. Take Harry Reid: he's pro-life, but Democrats like him fine. Why? Because his personal beliefs aside, everyone knows that Reid is mostly on our side legislatively. He's not going to do any damage to the pro-choice cause.

Giuliani is singing a mirror image of the same tune. Sure, he's pro-choice, but he's going to appoint conservative judges. He's in favor of gun control, but only in urban areas — and he wants to leave it up to the states anyway. And while he might not be the guy to push for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he won't be pushing to open things up on that front either.

All that said, I guess I agree that Giuliani's social views will eventually doom him if his temper doesn't do it first. I don't think it's a slam dunk, though. As long as he can convince the social cons that he won't allow liberal moral decay to gain any more of a foothold than it already has — and a few ads about "Piss Christ" might do the trick on this score — that might be enough to win the support of a big chunk of voters who aren't all that thrilled with any of his competitors either. Stranger things have happened.

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PUTTING THE CRAZIES BACK IN THE BOX....Remember that plan from last February to send a third carrier group to the Persian Gulf in order to rattle a few sabers at Iran? Newsweek reported it in their February 19 issue, but then carried a correction saying that "In fact, the USS Nimitz is scheduled to replace one of the other carrier groups operating there." (Italics mine.) Later, when the Nimitz carrier strike group sailed from San Diego, the Navy reported that it would indeed be a replacement, not an addition. "There is no plan to overlap them at all," they said.

So what really happened? There's no telling for sure, but Gareth Porter claims that there was originally a plan to overlap the carrier groups, but that it was scuttled by Admiral William Fallon, who had been appointed as the new CENTCOM commander at around the time the plan was hatched. Here's his story:

Fallon, who was scheduled to become the CENTCOM chief Mar. 16, responded to the proposed plan by sending a strongly-worded message to the Defence Department in mid-February opposing any further U.S. naval buildup in the Persian Gulf as unwarranted.

"He asked why another aircraft carrier was needed in the Gulf and insisted there was no military requirement for it," says the source, who obtained the gist of Fallon's message from a Pentagon official who had read it.

Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch".

Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, "You know what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box."

Needless to say, an anonymous source who "obtained the gist of Fallon's message from a Pentagon official who had read it" should be taken with a grain of salt. But a second source seems to have backed up the story, so it seems like a bit of gossip worth passing along. Porter goes on to say that "The defeat of the plan for a third carrier task group in the Gulf appears to have weakened the position of Cheney and other hawks in the administration who had succeeded in selling Bush on the idea of a strategy of coercive threat against Iran."

Interesting stuff, no? I'll be curious to see if anyone else confirms it.

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THE KIDS THESE DAYS....PART 567....Yet another study about how well our high school students are doing:

Only one-quarter of high school students who take a full set of college-preparatory courses — four years of English and three each of mathematics, science and social studies — are well prepared for college, according to a new study of last year's high school graduates released today by ACT, the Iowa testing organization.

....The study predicted whether the students had a good chance of scoring C or better in introductory college courses, based on their test scores and the success rates of past test takers. The study concluded that only 26 percent were ready for college-level work in all four core areas, while 19 percent were not adequately prepared in any of them.

....Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, another Washington-based group that advocates standard-setting, said that as she traveled around the country, she found many schools not offering challenging work.

"When you look at the assignments these kids get, it is just appalling," she said. "A course may be labeled college-preparatory English. But if the kids get more than three-paragraph-long assignments, it is unusual. Or they'll be asked to color a poster. We say 'How about doing analysis?' and they look at us like we are demented."

This is pretty much just an open thread. I really don't know what to think about this stuff anymore. I mean, it's hardly surprising that a national testing organization thinks curriculum standards ought to be higher, and the report doesn't seem to provide any comparison of its results with past studies, so it's impossible to say if things are actually any worse than in the past. On the other hand, the statistics on their own look pretty bad, and the anecdotes look really bad. Nobody writes term papers anymore? Plus there's the fact that my friend Professor Marc says his classes for the past couple of years have been noticably less prepared for real work than in the past.

The full report is here for hardy souls.

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COMEY'S TESTIMONY....Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey is on Capitol Hill today testifying about his run-ins with the White House over the NSA's domestic spying program back in 2004. For those interested, here is Newsweek's account written last year:

There was one catch: the secret program had to be reapproved by the attorney general every 45 days. It was [Jack] Goldsmith's job to advise the A.G. on the legality of the program. In March 2004, John Ashcroft was in the hospital with a serious pancreatic condition. At Justice, Comey, Ashcroft's No. 2, was acting as attorney general....Goldsmith raised with Comey serious questions about the secret eavesdropping program, according to two sources familiar with the episode. He was joined by a former OLC lawyer, Patrick Philbin, who had become national-security aide to the deputy attorney general. Comey backed them up. The White House was told: no reauthorization.

The angry reaction bubbled up all the way to the Oval Office. President Bush, with his penchant for put-down nicknames, had begun referring to Comey as "Cuomey" or "Cuomo," apparently after former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who was notorious for his Hamlet-like indecision over whether to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s. A high-level delegation — White House Counsel Gonzales and chief of staff Andy Card — visited Ashcroft in the hospital to appeal Comey's refusal. In pain and on medication, Ashcroft stood by his No. 2.

Yes, you read that right: John Ashcroft was a more serious defender of civil liberties than Alberto Gonzales. It's a very concrete demonstation of the old saying: "When you think things can't get any worse, they do."

Paul Kiel has a rundown of Comey's testimony today, which includes a little more spice than Newsweek's account. Check it out.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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THE FEINGOLD PROPOSAL....So how are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama going to vote on Russ Feingold's proposal to begin withdrawal from Iraq within 120 days and complete it by March 2008 (with a few minor exceptions)? From the AP:

Aides to the two 2008 presidential hopefuls declined comment on the issue Monday night, two days before a scheduled vote....

These two are running for president. They've thought long and hard about this stuff. Regardless of which side they're on, shouldn't they at least know which way they're going to vote by now? It's hardly the kind of thing that requires a lot of close study of the legislative language.

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NO MORE MYSPACE....A few days ago the military restricted blogs written by soldiers. Now there's this:

The Defense Department began blocking access on its computers to YouTube, MySpace and 11 other Web sites yesterday, severing some of the most popular ties linking U.S. troops in combat areas to their far-flung relatives and friends, and depriving soldiers of a favorite diversion from the boredom of overseas duty.

....Senior officers said they enacted the worldwide ban out of concern that the rapidly increasing use of these sites threatened to overwhelm the military's private Internet network and risk the disclosure of combat-sensitive material.

The bandwidth argument is obviously bogus. There are fairly straightforward ways of allocating bandwidth if overuse of MySpace or YouTube is causing genuine infrastructure problems. They just want to restrict images of war flowing in both directions.

TV brought the Vietnam War home to Americans in the 60s, and today the internet is doing the same for the Iraq War in the 00s. The military didn't like it then and they don't like it now. Plus ca change.....

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STAB IN THE BACK....Back in February, Michael Ramirez published a cartoon in Investor's Business Daily that showed an American soldier with a knife in his back labeled "Congress." Ramirez, obviously, felt that plans to introduce a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq constituted a stab in the back from Democratic members of Congress.

Now, if you capitalize this you get Stab In The Back, which is famous as a popular German rationalization for their loss in World War I: i.e., the real reason they lost was because the German army was "stabbed in the back" by various actors, including politicians and the public. Hitler later adopted this as a populist rallying cry during his rise to power.

Ramirez may or may not know this history. He probably does. Nonetheless, this from Mark Kleiman seems overboard to me:

I know that supporters of the currently ruling coalition of crooks, warmongers, torturers, incompetents, and theocrats are deeply, deeply hurt when they and their pet politicians are compared to Nazis. But could someone suggest to them — politely, of course — that it would help if they stopped borrowing Nazi iconography and phraseology?

But look: the phrase "stab in the back" is a common idiom. Everyone reading this has probably used it dozens of times in their lives without once thinking about its German roots. It's simply not a phrase like "Final Solution," which clearly became exclusive Nazi property after the Holocaust.

God knows I have plenty of reason to dislike Ramirez since I had to put with his swill for years when he was the editorial cartoonist for the LA Times. What's more, the "stab in the back" myth that Republican war supporters have been ginning up for the past couple of years is both odious and unsupportable. As an idea, it's worth fighting tooth and nail. But that still doesn't make it "Nazi iconography." It's a common phrase, commonly used, and I've never heard a suggestion that it's no longer suitable for ordinary conversation. Unless we're ready to make that argument, we should probably call off the language police on this one.

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May 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DOJ SHIP CONTINUES TO SINK....Deputy attorney general Paul McNulty offers up the least convincing resignation explanation of the week:

The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career.

Well, he does have four kids. And hell, if Debra Wong Yang can get a $1.5 million signing bonus for moving into the private sector, I suppose McNulty can do pretty well for himself too. Still, I could swear there's something missing from this explanation. But what....?

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OBAMA AND AFFIRMATIVE ACTION....I've seen several bloggers suggesting today that Barack Obama repudiated race-based affirmative action in his interview with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday (see Malena Amusa here, Jon Chait here, Paul Butler here). That would be pretty big news if he did, which makes it odd that ABC's own summary of the Stephanopoulos interview doesn't even mention it and the New York Times writeup gave it only a couple of paragraphs at the end of a short story.

So did Obama really do any repudiating? Here's the complete transcript:

Stephanopoulos: You've been a strong supporter of affirmative action.

Obama: Yes.

Stephanopoulos: And you're a constitutional law professor so let's go back in the classroom.....I'm your student. I say Professor, you and your wife went to Harvard Law School. Got plenty of money, you're running for president. Why should your daughters when they go to college get affirmative action?

Obama: Well, first of all, I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged, and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities. I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed. So I don't think those concepts are mutually exclusive. I think what we can say is that in our society race and class still intersect, that there are a lot of African American kids who are still struggling, that even those who are in the middle class may be first generation as opposed to fifth or sixth generation college attendees, and that we all have an interest in bringing as many people together to help build this country.

Stephanopoulos: Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that in 25 years affirmative action may no longer be necessary. Is she right?

Obama: I would like to think that if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education, improved K through 12, if we have done what needs to be done to ensure that kids who are qualified to go to college can afford it, that affirmative action becomes a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.

Hmmm. This is pretty hard to deconstruct. Which two concepts is he talking about? Presumably (a) it's OK to reduce race-based affirmative action for well-off black kids and (b) it's OK to increase class-based affirmative action for poor white kids. But Stephanopoulos doesn't seem to think this is a big enough deal to follow up on, and Obama's subsequent statements seem to be pretty standard affirmative action boilerplate. If either one of them thought Obama was making news, they sure managed to cover up their excitement.

In any case, the most Obama seems to be suggesting is that he's OK with income-based affirmative action and — maybe — also OK with a modest reduction in race-based affirmative action for well-off blacks. Sometime in the indefinite future, that is. But it's hard to tell. Obama doesn't like being nailed down on specifics much, and this is a topic where nobody likes being nailed down anyway. I suspect we'd need some detailed followup to see if there's really anything here.

But it would be nice if there were. Switching to a system of class-based affirmative action, perhaps combined with very modest levels of race-based affirmative action, would probably accomplish about as much as we accomplish now, and do it with far less acrimony. It's certainly something worth injecting into the national conversation.

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SARKOZY FEVER....I've been waiting for conservative euphoria over the election of Nicolas Sarkozy to wind down, and today I finally see the first sign. It comes from Andy McCarthy at NRO:

I'm glad Sarkozy won, but the U.S. swooning over him has been premature and over-optimistic. He is just as opposed to U.S. operations in Iraq as conventional French opinion. He would take the military option against Iran off the table (he is, in other words, a proponent of the status quo that is failing even as we speak). And, at a time when things are not going well in Afghanistan, he is in favor of pulling France's forces out of the NATO coalition there. It's nice that he is saying a few positive things about America, but I am not going up in a balloon over this guy.

It's not like I expect conservatives to support a Socialist candidate for anything, let alone president of France, but Sarkozy strikes me as the most de Gaulle-like president France has elected since, um, Charles de Gaulle. He may admire American culture, but I suspect that when it comes to actually dealing with the United States, he's going to be every bit the pain in the ass de Gaulle was. Conservatives should be more careful what they wish for.

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PAKISTAN....Violence in Pakistan has been mounting for weeks, ever since President Pervez Musharraf suspended Pakistan's chief justice in March. Today, a court clerk who was close to the suspended judge was assassinated. Joe Klein comments:

It's been clear for years that Pakistan is one bullet away from becoming an unstable extremist government with a nuclear weapon. And things seem to be getting worse: This assassination and the weekend rioting in Karachi may be very significant. A people's movement for justice may well compel a military backlash.

...Which is why we need a serious discussion about the rebalancing of U.S. foreign security obsessions north and east from the I-countries (Iraq and Iran) to the stans (Afghani and Paki).

I couldn't agree more. Except for one thing: I'm never able to quite make up my mind just what our policy toward Pakistan ought to be. For all that groups like Hamas or Hezbollah or the Revolutionary Guard are dangerous and destabilizing, my sense has long been that they pale in comparison to the ISI. Letting them get more control of a nuclear-armed state could be disastrous beyond anything we can imagine from those other groups. Unfortunately, it's all but impossible to figure out what set of policies would best constrain the ISI and propel Pakistan along a more moderate, less Islamist course.

Maybe I'm overreacting. It's not like this is a brand new problem, after all. But in any case, yeah, I imagine that one of these days we're going to pay more attention to Pakistan than we do now. I'm just afraid of exactly what event it's going to take to cause that to happen.

UPDATE: Michael Crowley talked to a few experts and relays this: "Everyone agreed on one thing: Musharraf has played up fears of a radical Islamist power grab to freak out American policymakers and ensure their support for his regime."

Yep. That's what makes it so hard to figure this stuff out. The games being played are very deep.

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THE LIVES OF OTHERS....Via Andrew Sullivan, Clive Davis writes that he was unimpressed with a recent Oscar winner:

The Lives of Others certainly has a lot going for it in terms of its subject — the sordid underbelly of East Germany and its secret police force — but the characterisation is one-dimensional, the pacing is ponderous in the extreme and the storyline is full of unexplained holes. I never for a second believed the central character's conversion into a good guy, and I never really cared about the noble playwright, his cripplingly neurotic actress-girlfriend or the Party bigwig who lusts after her.

Thank goodness. I was beginning to think I was the only one. I especially agree with Davis about Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi eavesdropper who mysteriously turns from government automaton into weirdly sympathetic coconspirator with the objects of his eavesdropping. There was simply no serious motivation provided for this transformation. It was almost as if the writer figured he didn't really need to bother.

More broadly, I guess part of my problem with The Lives of Others was that I was expecting something different. (Yes, I realize this is hardly a fair basis on which to judge a movie.) I was vaguely expecting a movie that demonstrated the constant, day-to-day oppression of living in a state where your every action is potentially under surveillance, but instead it turned out to be a story about one single person who's under surveillance and is trying to outwit his watchers. This, to me, made it into fairly ordinary thriller material, except without much in the way of thrills.

I still wouldn't pan it as badly as Davis did, but it definitely struck me as not nearly as good as its reviews, part of that class of movies that routinely gets more respectful treatment than it deserves solely because it's foreign and the subject matter is serious. Comments?

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TRADE AGREEMENTS....Jared Bernstein writes today about global trade deals that hurt (some) workers and tries to answer the $64,000 question: "What would you tell some guy who just lost his good, middle-class, union, high-wage and benefits job? What's your program to help him?"

Here's what I'd say to the guy in the question:

"We can't stop globalization, but we can take its benefits and plough them back into repairing the damage it has done to you. That includes access to quality health care for you and your family, expanding and keeping your pension safe, and some serious retraining.

This will mean letting the Bush high-end tax cuts sunset (a point Obama agrees on — go, big O!) and using that revenue to help you. It will also mean major health care reform.

We'll also work to behind the scenes to pushback on the downsides of trade. We'll push the Fed to maintain truly tight labor markets, we'll put enforceable labor standards in our trade deals, and we'll pushback against countries that manage their currencies to keep our exports out."

Roughly speaking, this sounds great. I don't want to stop trade, which is fundamentally a good thing. I'd just like to make sure that we don't have one group that gets all the benefits while another group pays all the price.

My only problem with Bernstein's answer, then, is this: It's more or less the same answer we've been hearing for the past 15 years. Unfortunately, in case after case, after we end up voting for trade agreements based on promises of relocation assistance, retraining, etc., everyone somehow loses interest in the promises. Republicans in particular, who still control 47% of the House and 49% of the Senate, simply refuse to consider this stuff.

So, free trade supporter or not, I'm increasingly of the view that I'd like to see us fulfill some of these promises first, and then pass the trade agreements afterward. We've tried it the other way around for a long time, and it doesn't seem to work out so well.

Kevin Drum 11:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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May 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GOOD OL' BOY PHOBIA....Stephen Bainbridge claims to be a conservative, but I'm not so sure after reading this list. Sure, I'd prefer a nice, fat housecat to a golden retriever, I don't really care about the whole wine and cigars thing, and I thought Crimes and Misdemeanors was a pretty good movie. Other than that, though, I'm pretty much on board.

Of course, there's still the whole politics thing to work out, but I guess we can leave that for another day.

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POSTAGE RATES....A mere 16 months after we last did this, I have yet another public service announcement about postage rates here at the Washington Monthly:

On Monday, first class postage goes up to 41 cents.

As usual, I'm appending an exciting chart for lazy mailers like me who buy only ordinary first class stamps. It shows you the new postage rates all the way up to the first class maximum weight of 13 ounces, along with the number of 41¢ stamps required to keep your snail mail crawling smoothly through the system.

Interesting note: although the basic rate increased to 41¢, the rate for additional ounces decreased from 24¢ to 17¢. So letters over an ounce but under 4 ounces are actually cheaper than before.

Also worth noting, though: the postal service's efforts toward "Shaping a More Efficient Future in Mail" are not designed to make your life more efficient. Letters over 3.5 ounces, for example, have to be mailed at the "large envelope" rate, which is why there's a whopping 56¢ increase between 3 ounces and 4 ounces. Also, the new rules are much more stringent about shape and size, with higher rates on letters more than a quarter inch thick. Get out your calipers, people! Pricing details are here. Kvetching from the direct mail industry is here.

UPDATE: Text and chart changed to actually be accurate. I didn't notice the new 3.5 ounce first class maximum the first time I read the rules.

Kevin Drum 7:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

STRIKE THREE....Quote of the day, from Harry Reid:

I have no animosity toward the president. I look forward to when he's out of office, maybe going to a ballgame or something.

Or something.

Kevin Drum 3:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEINLEIN CENTENNIAL PLUG....The coordinator of the Robert A. Heinlein Centennial emailed me a few days ago to ask if I'd plug the event on the blog. You betcha! Heinlein is one of my great vices, so I'm happy to help.

Basic info: Heinlein was born July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri, but grew up in Kansas City. So the Centennial, appropriately enough, will be held July 6-8 in Kansas City this year. The event site is here. I'm almost tempted to go myself, but it might be a little intense for a casual fan like me.

But that's kind of dry for a blog post. Therefore, in order to draw the mockery of my betters, here's something to argue about: a complete list of Heinlein's books organized from (personal) favorite to (personal) most loathed. I think I'd probably make a few changes to this list if I went back through it today, but I don't feel like doing that. So instead, consider this a 90-ennial list since I created it in 1997.

  1. Time Enough For Love

  2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

  3. Stranger in a Strange Land

  4. Starman Jones (most underrated Heinlein; also, IMHO most filmable Heinlein)

  5. The Past Through Tomorrow

  6. Citizen of the Galaxy

  7. Starship Troopers

  8. Time for the Stars

  9. Double Star

  10. The Star Beast

  11. JOB: A Comedy of Justice

  12. Orphans of the Sky

  13. Tunnel in the Sky

  14. Assignment in Eternity

  15. Glory Road

  16. Friday

  17. Waldo & Magic, Inc.

  18. The Door Into Summer

  19. Podkayne of Mars

  20. Beyond This Horizon

  21. The Puppet Masters

  22. The Menace From Earth

  23. Have Space Suit—Will Travel

  24. Between Planets

  25. The Rolling Stones

  26. The Number of the Beast

  27. Red Planet

  28. Farnham's Freehold

  29. Farmer in the Sky

  30. Space Cadet

  31. Rocket Ship Galileo

  32. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

  33. To Sail Beyond the Sunset

  34. I Will Fear No Evil

Kevin Drum 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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By: Kevin Drum

NO PROGRESS....So I picked up the LA Times on my driveway this morning and noticed a big headline on the front page with the words "oil law" in it. Hey, I thought, the Iraqis must have finally passed a law spelling out how oil revenues would be distributed. Some rare good news! But then I unwrapped the paper and read the whole headline:

Iraqis resist U.S. pressure to enact oil law

Sigh.

Kevin Drum 12:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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LOBBYING REFORM IN TROUBLE?....AP reports that lobbying reform, one of the key planks in the 2006 Democratic campaign, is running into problems in the House:

Now that they are running things, many Democrats want to keep the big campaign donations and lavish parties that lobbyists put together for them. They're also having second thoughts about having to wait an extra year before they can become high-paid lobbyists themselves should they retire or be defeated at the polls.

The growing resistance to several proposed reforms now threatens passage of a bill that once seemed on track to fulfill Democrats' campaign promise of cleaner fundraising and lobbying practices.

There are four specific provisions that are said to be in trouble:

  • Bundling: Requires disclosure of the names of lobbyists who bundle lots of small donations from individual contributors. Current law requires only that the small donors themselves be disclosed.

  • 2-year lobbying ban: Requires retiring lawmakers to wait two years before they're allowed to come back and start lobbying Congress.

  • Grassroots lobbying: Requires disclosure of "astroturf" firms that encourage voters to call or write Congress on specific issues.

  • Convention parties: Bans lobbyists from sponsoring parties at national conventions.

Let's take these one by one. The party ban I don't really care much about. If there's any place in the world that lobbyists ought to be allowed to let the liquor flow, surely national conventions are the place. I mean, it's not like they're good for anything else these days.

The grassroots lobbying regulation is tricky. I sympathize with the idea, but I have to confess that conservative arguments over the past few years have persuaded me that First Amendment issues are more important than I've given them credit for in cases like this. I'm not entirely sure I support this provision at all. [UPDATE: The main issue here is that petitioning the government is a core First Amendment right, and mobilizing the citizenry to petition the government is likewise a core First Amendment right. What's more, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between "astroturf" operations and genuine grassroots lobbying, and onerous reporting requirements could put some small grassroots groups out of business. For more, see the ACLU's explanation of its opposition to this provision here.]

The 2-year lobbying ban, according to CQ, is still around: "Democratic leaders have insisted on a two-year ban as part of their ethics overhaul push," a recent article says, despite pushback from some backbenchers. Good for them.

So far, then, not really that bad. But that leaves us with the biggest provision of all: disclosure of bundling. The American League of Lobbyists is dead set against it, which is no surprise, since this is a prime loophole that allows special interests to funnel vast sums of money to politicians without ever being identified. Apparently, though, it's become so radioactive that Dem leaders are planning to drop it entirely, promising that they'll allow it to come up later as a separate bill. Sure they will.

Come on, folks: show some spine. If Democrats want people to believe that there's really a difference between the two parties, then show them there's a difference. Put the bundling provision back in and give it a vote. It's the right thing to do.

Kevin Drum 12:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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May 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SDRAWKCAB YROTSIH GNIHCAET....Via MoJoBlog, The Progressive has a story this week about Michael Baker, a high school teacher in Lincoln, Nebraska, who was let go after showing the HBO documentary "Baghdad ER" to his geography class. Stupid. But that's not what caught my eye. Extremely longtime readers may recall that I once suggested that history could be made more interesting to high school students if it were taught backwards (see here), and it turns out Baker was doing exactly that. His school district didn't think much of that experiment either:

Baker has clashed with administrators before. In 2005, they objected to his innovative approach to teaching history, which was to start at the present and work backwards, an approach he'd been using for four years.

But then, the school district forbade him from teaching that way any longer. The school's consultant said it was "not logical, does not contribute to effective teaching or monitoring of progress, and puts students at a disadvantage" with newly instituted statewide tests, according to a paper on the subject by Professor Nancy Patterson of Bowling Green. Baker appealed but lost, and was eventually "prohibited from teaching U.S. history," Patterson writes.

Hmmph. It still seems like a decent idea to me, though: current events are intrinsically interesting, and learning about them make you genuinely curious about why the world ended up the way it did. If the lessons are structured with curiosity about causes in mind, this will make you interested in the Cold War, which in turn makes you interested in World War II, which in turn makes you interested in the Great Depression, etc. It's a solution to the most obvious problem of teaching history: without any context, why should a 16-year-old care about dusty topics like the Missouri Compromise or the rise of the labor movement?

Oh well. I suppose the amazing thing is that they let him teach this way for four years before they shut him down. He was probably a communist, after all.

Kevin Drum 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE REAL WORLD....From Insty:

PEOPLE LIVE LONGER, and yet: "The average retirement age is now 62, not 65. Indeed, only 27 percent of Americans retire at age 65 or later, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute."

I find that amazing.

I'm always amazed that people find this amazing. If you work in a stimulating, highly rewarding job like, say, law professor or paid blogger, it makes sense that you might want to keep working past 62. On the other hand, if you've slogged away as, say, a Wal-Mart checker or an accounts payable clerk eight hours a day for the past 40 years, it makes perfect sense that you'd want to get the hell out at the earliest possible moment, even if it means accepting a lower Social Security payment. What's so amazing about this?

Kevin Drum 8:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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ROMNEY'S MORMONISM....Here's a question for any old-timers who might be reading this blog: was George Romney's Mormon faith an issue for him when he ran for president in 1968? I know that Romney self-destructed with his "brainwashing" comment so early in the campaign that nothing else really mattered, but I'm just curious about whether this was something that was even an issue at the time. Anyone know?

Kevin Drum 3:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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POLITICAL PROGRESS REPORT....Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon said today that he needs more troops in Diyala province:

"I'm going to need additional forces," he said, "to get that situation to a more acceptable level, so the Iraqi security forces will be able in the future to handle that."

Mixon was particularly withering in his criticism of the Iraqi government, saying it was hamstrung by bureaucracy and compromised by corruption and sectarian divisions, making it unable to assist U.S. forces in Diyala.

....Mixon's comments were the first of what could be a succession of blunt evaluations by officers under Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a veteran of the Bosnian conflict who is now an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I suspect the new Defense secretary has told general officers to speak their minds," Nash said. "It's going to be hard for some in the administration; suddenly they're going to feel it from the inside. I think you're going to see more of it."

I doubt that every general in Iraq is going to start publicly asking for more troops. They all know the score, after all. But if Nash is right, they might start badmouthing the Iraqi government more bluntly and more frequently — and that might be even more dangerous for the Bush administration's fairy tales about Iraq than complaints about troop levels. After all, if there's one thing that everybody seems to finally agree on in Washington, it's the fact that military progress is meaningless without political progress to go along with it. If the generals are still saying that the central government is worthless when September rolls around, Bush is going to have a mighty hard sell even within his own party for keeping our troops in harm's way.

Kevin Drum 12:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (135)

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May 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE MOTHER OF ALL SOAPBOXES....A couple of years ago I was at a small panel discussion in Los Angeles on the subject of blogging. My most vivid memory of the event — aside from the fact that Eugene Volokh actually had a bullet-pointed handout for the group — came about halfway through when a lady stood up and said, in a querulous tone, "The thing I don't like about blogging is that it allows anybody to say anything."

It's the kind of remark that pretty much leaves you speechless. Luckily, Eugene and Virginia Postrel are not easily rendered speechless and managed to respond in some way or another before the conversation moved on. I just sat there with my jaw gaping.

This isn't really apropos of much of anything, but it was prompted by the conversation on a variety of blogs today about why so many mainstream reporters fear and loathe the blogosphere. It was, for my taste, a wee bit disingenuous: bloggers could probably do themselves a favor by stepping back once in a while and trying to understand the impact of being on the receiving end of a hundred furious blog posts, a thousand livid comments, and five thousand enraged emails telling you in very personal terms why you're a corrupt, sniveling, lying sycophant merely because you said something nice about Joe Lieberman or opposed net neutrality or opined that Harry Reid was wrong about the war. It's really not the same thing as mere "blunt criticism."

But then I remember that lady. And stamping out her attitude once and for all just seems a whole lot more important than worrying about hurt feelings due to verbal feeding frenzies. And then I feel better.

Kevin Drum 5:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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"JET-BLACK HAIR, GRAYING NATURALLY AT THE TEMPLES"....Are Mitt Romney's advisors complete idiots? Is there something in the Romney family DNA that causes them to say stupid things while running for president? The answer increasingly seems to be yes. Garance Franke-Ruta has the latest.

UPDATE: False alarm. Apparently this passage didn't come from Romney's campaign literature after all. Mark Kleiman has the details.

Kevin Drum 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....After last week's catblogging, I got this email from a reader:

My three-year-old granddaughter spends the night with us every Friday — and today she came in the door, demanding to see Inkblot. Thought that might make you smile.

It did! More details arrived later:

She is promoting PA, she tells people about "Nana's friend Kevin and his silly cat Inkblot..."

This one's for you, kiddo! Around here, catblogging is sort of like those playgrounds at McDonalds: a way of developing brand loyalty among impressionable young children. Cats today, universal healthcare wonkery tomorrow! Inkblot is a critical cog in our vast left-wing conspiracy to brainwash our youth and eventually take over the world.

And Domino too, I'm sure — though neither one seems to be aware of their place in history. My goal this week was to get a picture with the sun shining directly in her face, to give you an idea of what she actually looks like. In most of the pictures, her face just looks like a shadowy blob. This one is a little better.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

ROMNEY THE RIDICULOUS....Is it too late to change my mind about the Republican nomination? This is just getting farcical. It's hard to see how Romney can survive if stuff like this keeps trickling out at the rate of once or twice a week.

Who knows? Maybe this will end up like 1996 and the conventional wisdom candidate will end up winning after all. And then, of course, going down to a crushing defeat in the general election. If that's the storyline, then I guess John McCain might be the smart bet to win the nomination. In any case, his decision to get his pandering and flip-flopping out of the way last year is certainly looking smart.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECONOMIC UPDATE....Retail sales in April were down 2.4%, "the most wretched year-over-year showing by major retailers since the International Council of Shopping Centers began tracking the data in 1970," according to the LA Times.

But take heart. Sales may be down at places that cater to ordinary schmoes, but business is sunny at Saks, Nieman Marcus, and Nordstrom. Apparently shoppers at those places don't have to worry so much about the home mortgage meltdown, rising gasoline prices, or the soft labor market.

And that's not all. In other economic news, business is booming for boat moorings in Newport Harbor. So buck up!

Kevin Drum 11:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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THE ALBERTO GONZALES SHOW....One of the great discoveries of the Republican Party over the past decade or two is that an awful lot of the rules we take for granted are, in reality, just traditions. Like redistricting only once a decade, for example, or keeping House votes open for 15 minutes. And what Republicans have found out is that if you have the balls to do it, you can just ignore tradition and no one can stop you. It's that simple.

Alberto Gonzales has learned this lesson well. Normally, cabinet officers who have been caught in multiple obvious lies have to either resign or else seriously try to defend themselves. But Gonzales realizes this is just tradition. Unless House Democrats have the votes to impeach him, he doesn't have to do anything. He can just mock them to their face and there's nothing much they can do about it. Here's Dahlia Lithwick on his cavalier approach to his congressional testimony on Thursday:

The House Democrats are furious. To them, there is only one plausible explanation for what happened to the eight (now nine?) fired U.S. attorneys. There is only one narrative that works with the facts. The White House wanted party loyalists placed in either key battleground states, or in states where Republicans were being investigated or they thought Democrats should have been. Gonzales rolled out the welcome mat at the Justice Department and told them to install whomever they wanted while he played hearts on his computer. If Gonzales truly wants to rebut that narrative, he needs only to offer some plausible alternative. Anything at all. But he doesn't. He offers only distractions.

Read the whole thing. In Thursday's testimony, Gonzales made it clear that he just doesn't care what anyone thinks. After all, if Democrats don't like it, what are they going to do? Roll their eyes at him?

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (137)

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May 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CLASS, THY NAME IS RUDY....As part of a campaign stop planned for Iowa last week, Rudy Giuliani's Des Moines office called Deb and Jerry VonSprecken to see if they'd host an event at their farm. They agreed. After several days of planning and a security check, though, Deb was told to call Giuliani's New York office:

"They wanted to know our assets," she revealed, and added that she and Jerry have a modest 80 acre farm and raise cattle.

Later she received a call from Tony Delgado at the Des Monies location.

"Tony said, 'I'm sorry, you aren't worth a million dollars and he is campaigning on the Death Tax right now.' then he said they weren't going to be able to come," Deb continued.

The guy's just all class, isn't he?

POSTSCRIPT: So what really happened? It sounds like Giuliani's gang was playing an old time conservative game: trying to find a family farm that would eventually have to be sold in order to pay inheritance taxes. Of course, they can practically never find one, since inheritance taxes don't even start to kick in until a farm is worth several million dollars, and there aren't very many family farms worth anywhere near that. But that doesn't keep them from trying.

Kevin Drum 9:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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GREEN DOT....This is sort of fascinating. At least, I think it is, though details are a little sketchy. A charter school outfit called Green Dot, which has been at loggerheads with the Los Angeles Unified School District for some time, has managed to convince a majority of the tenured teachers at Locke High School — one of the worst in the city — to abandon the district and become a Green Dot charter:

Under Green Dot's proposal, which because of state law the Los Angeles school board would appear to have little choice but to approve, the 2,800-student Watts campus would be divided into 10 small Green Dot schools beginning in fall 2008.

....Teachers who wish to remain at the deeply troubled school would have to re-apply for their jobs to principals hired by Green Dot. The extensive labor agreement negotiated by the district's teachers union would also be thrown out, as Locke teachers would work under the shorter, simpler pact signed by Green Dot's union.

....For their part, union officials stand to lose more than just the dues-paying members who bolt to Green Dot. Union leaders have been some of the harshest critics of the charter movement in Los Angeles, and of Green Dot in particular. The support for Green Dot by rank-and-file Locke teachers could undermine the authority of union leaders and their position as major power brokers in the district — especially if teachers at other schools follow suit.

It's hard to think of a stronger vote of no-confidence in the teachers union than this. Tenured teachers are willing to jump ship, abandon the bennies they get from their union contract, and do it without even a guarantee that they'll get their jobs back, let alone jobs with civil service protection. That's pretty astonishing.

So what happened next? First, the district essentially fired Locke's principal, who supported Green Dot. Then, in an apparent effort to alienate everybody who might possibly help their cause, they pissed off the LA Times by barring their reporter from Locke amid reports that the school was "wobbl[ing] toward chaos." Bob Sipchen was not amused.

This is a (semi) local story for me, but I thought it might be interesting for the rest of you as well. The one odd thing about it is that none of the accounts of events at Locke seem to include any comments from actual parents or students. We'll wait and see on that, I guess. In the meantime, any union that's lost support from its rank-and-file this thoroughly seems like one that could use a serious kick in the butt. For now, anyway, I'll be rooting for Green Dot in this one.

Via Joanne Jacobs.

Kevin Drum 8:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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HIDDEN EMAILS....Back in February, Kyle Sampson drafted a letter (for acting Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling's signature) stating that Karl Rove had no role in appointing Timothy Griffin as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas. A few weeks later Sampson wrote another letter admitting that this wasn't true: Rove had indeed been interested in getting his friend Griffin the job.

But was this solely a misrepresentation on Sampson's part? Or did the White House sign off on it? Murray Waas says he's gotten hold of some email messages indicating that the White House was indeed involved in the deception:

The withheld e-mails show that Sampson's draft was forwarded for review to Chris Oprison, an associate White House counsel, who approved the language saying that Justice was not aware of Rove having played any role in supporting Griffin. But an earlier e-mail from Sampson to Oprison that has already been made public indicates that the two men discussed Rove and then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers as being at the forefront of Griffin's nomination.

....Oprison, in turn, consulted with White House Counsel Fred Fielding and Deputy White House Counsel Bill Kelley in approving the draft of the letter, according to White House records.

Waas says something similar happened with a letter stating that DOJ didn't intend to use the Patriot Act to install Griffin without Senate approval. According to a "senior executive branch official," another withheld email message shows that Oprison and others signed off on that letter as well:

In drafting the letter, Sampson consulted with Sara Taylor, the White House political director and an aide to Rove....The senior executive branch official who read the e-mail said it was significant because Taylor signed off on the letter despite the fact that Taylor, Oprison, and other White House officials knew that the administration had indeed considered using the PATRIOT Act to make Griffin a U.S. attorney.

The story is long and complicated, the precise content of the emails is a little hazy, and it's hard to say exactly how damaging these specific revelations are. However, the broader fact that DOJ is withholding emails about Purgegate is unquestionably important:

Two senior administration officials told National Journal they were frustrated with decisions by Gonzales not to release some of the documents held by the Justice Department. One of the officials charged that "Gonzales is doing this to save his own neck," at the expense of the administration. The same official said that senior aides to Gonzales have been refusing to turn over many relevant documents to Congress, and that the attorney general's top aides have been selectively leaking portions of them to the media to portray themselves in a favorable light.

More to come, no doubt.

Kevin Drum 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAYING GAMES....Idiots:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is poised to call for privatizing the state lottery, a move that would bring California a cash infusion of as much as $37 billion to help solve pressing budget problems but also could sacrifice a major revenue source for decades to come.

....It comes at a time when the state is facing only a modest budget deficit for the coming fiscal year — about $1 billion. But billions more in bond payments will be due soon after.

Once again, Arnold "We Have To Stop This Crazy Deficit Spending" Schwarzenegger is desperately trying to figure out a way to increase our deficit spending so that he can continue to pretend that he hasn't raised taxes. That's all this is about.

He's already done this once with his deficit bonds, which will have to be repaid out of increased taxes eventually, and now, in order to make sure that "eventually" is sometime after he leaves office, he wants to raid the lottery to tide himself over. The result, of course, will be lower revenue in the future and therefore higher taxes. But not on his watch.

Schwarzenegger may have a sunnier persona than George Bush, but the cynicism on offer here is even worse than Bush's. Arnold knows perfectly well he's raising taxes. He's just hoping the rest of us are greedy enough to allow ourselves to be convinced otherwise.

Kevin Drum 11:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

SURGE UPDATE....Robert Gates told Congress yesterday that he thinks it may be possible to reduce troop levels in Iraq if the surge is producing results by autumn:

"I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that's the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces," Gates said.

....Gates held firm against suggestions that the troop buildup be extended into 2008, saying a review in September would help determine future steps....At a news conference later in the day, he indicated that the eventual U.S. troop level could be as low as 25,000.

I don't know how serious Gates is about this. Maybe he's just blowing smoke. But it's consistent with the general tone he's taken ever since President Bush appointed him. He doesn't seem to be a die-hard supporter of the surge.

This also suggests that Gen. David Petraeus has a real tightrope to walk when he gives his evaluation of the surge in September. On the one hand, he needs to produce at least a mildly upbeat assessment or else he'll face irresistable pressure from congressional Democrats and reality-based Republicans to start a withdrawal. On the other hand, if his assessment is too upbeat he may end up facing pressure from his boss to do the same thing. He's going to have to thread that needle pretty carefully if he wants to keep troops at the same level that he has now.

This isn't to imply that Petraeus is going to provide a purely political evaluation. It's just to say that we all weigh our words carefully in public, and Petraeus is keenly aware of the effect his words are going to have. Gates has just ratcheted up the pressure a notch.

Kevin Drum 11:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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RUDY AND THE BASE....Conventional wisdom says that no candidate can win the Republican presidential nomination unless they're firmly opposed to abortion. Apparently Rudy Giuliani plans to test that wisdom:

After months of conflicting signals on abortion, Rudolph W. Giuliani is planning to offer a forthright affirmation of his support for abortion rights in public forums, television appearances and interviews in the coming days, despite the potential for bad consequences among some conservative voters already wary of his views, aides said yesterday.

...."Conventional wisdom says he can't" win the nomination, said Mike DuHaime, Mr. Giuliani's campaign manager, who then played down the significance of the discordance between Mr. Giuliani and much of his party on abortion and other social issues. "But we believe that based on his record in New York City, based on his leadership when America was tested on Sept. 11, that he can."

Maybe. But my money's on conventional wisdom. After all, Rudy's only doing this because he knows he really doesn't have any choice. Today's revelations about his donations to Planned Parenthood took waffling off the table as a feasible campaign strategy. He's screwed and he knows it.

Kevin Drum 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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May 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BLOODBATH IN THE OVAL OFFICE....George Bush met with 11 members of his own party today. Apparently it wasn't pretty:

It was, in the words of one of the parties, the "most unvarnished conversation they've ever had with the president." Another member said he has met with three presidents and never been so candid. They told the president, and one said, "My district is prepared for defeat. We need candor, we need honesty, Mr. President."...."The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There is no longer any credibility. It has to come from General Petraeus."

Well, they have the diagnosis right. Now let's see if they can connect the dots.

Kevin Drum 9:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Kevin Drum

BILL RICHARDSON....Call me crazy, but am I the only one who thinks that these new ads from Bill Richardson are wildly, bizarrely, wrong? Sure, they're funny, and I know they're aimed at those crazy hipsters who watch YouTube, not the old fogies who watch CNN, but still: isn't Richardson's whole problem that even though he's got a resume as long as your arm nobody really knows what he stands for? And don't these ads just confirm that while ostensibly making fun of it?

On the other hand, people are talking about the ads. Soon they'll "go viral" and eventually the New York Times will write another thumbsucker about the power of new media, complete with chin scratching quotes from Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis. I can hardly wait.

UPDATE: Comments are running approximately a thousand to one against me (I'm extrapolating). The general feeling seems to be that since Richardson is basically unknown, anything short of video of him sodomizing a goat is a winner as long as it gets him some attention. Could be. Bring on the New York Times!

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THE SUPERSTAR POLLSTER REVISITED....This is good. Mark Schmitt provides me with an excuse to elaborate on something I said poorly the other day. Responding to my question about polling ("Can someone explain to me the cult of the pollster in big-league politics?") he says:

It's hard to imagine a political campaign without a good pollster in the room. It's easy to get basic data on what people think, but, for example, if I were a candidate pushing health care, I would want to know everything there is to know about public attitudes on health care and policy, and who trusted messengers are and what language works, and what constituencies I'm reaching, and all that. Good pollsters provide that context, and if they're very good, they also help you understand which views are deeply held and which can be vulnerable to persuasion.

Quite so. But what I was really trying to get at was the idea of the "superstar pollster," someone like Mark Penn who not only polls but also acts as a key strategist for the campaign. I wanted to suggest that this is bad for two reasons.

First, sophisticated polling of the kind that Penn does is far more common than it was 30 years ago. There are lots of people in the consumer marketing biz (and elsewhere) who know how to do it, and this means that when you go looking for a pollster you're not limited to ten people in the whole world who truly know how this stuff works. These days, you can hire a mid-level staffer at a mid-level salary to do your polling if you want to.

Second, polling strikes me as an area where you can't afford to kid yourself. An adept number cruncher can twist big datasets to tell almost any story at all, and this means that a smart candidate will prefer someone who at least tries to do their best to look at the numbers honestly and tell you what they say. With a superstar like Penn you get exactly the opposite: he's almost dead certain to massage the numbers in order to produce results he likes. You'd be a lot better off hiring some nerdy statistics guru who's going to give you the numbers straight, and then hiring a completely separate stable of consultants who spend their time arguing over what the numbers mean.

As it happens, this is more or less what Mark also says in the rest of his post. It's worth reading.

Kevin Drum 3:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

PURGEGATE UPDATE....Why was Alberto Gonzales mad at his deputy, Paul McNulty, after McNulty spilled the beans about U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins being fired to make room for a pal of Karl Rove's? Was it because he thought McNulty had the story wrong? Not really, according to Time magazine:

During a private interview with Judiciary Committee staffers [Kyle] Sampson said three times in as many minutes that Gonzales was angry with McNulty because he had exposed the White House's involvement in the firings — had put its role "in the public sphere," as Sampson phrased it, according to Congressional sources familiar with the interview.

Right. But why is everyone so hellbent on pretending the White House had nothing to do with the attorney firings? Here's how the Time piece ends:

McNulty has told Congressional investigators that he was troubled to learn of the extent of White House involvement when Sampson told him March 8. That afternoon Sampson went to McNulty's deputy, a forty-year Justice Department veteran named David Margolis, and read him e-mails showing the White House role. In an interview with Judiciary committee staffers, Margolis said he was stunned by the revelations, Congressional sources tell Time.

Sampson then went to McNulty's office to read him the e-mails directly. Monica Goodling then came into Margolis' office and proceeded to break down and cry for 30-40 minutes, sobbing that she had only wanted to serve the President, the Administration and the Department. Days later, Sampson and Goodling resigned.

Since the White House clearly has the legal authority to be as involved as it wants to be in the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys, there's only one reason to try to cover it up: because something about that involvement was improper. When Goodling finally testifies, maybe we'll find out what that was.

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HABEAS CORPUS....The annual Pentagon funding bill gives us a chance to undo the damage we did last year and restore the right of habeas corpus to enemy combatants held at Guantanamo. Will we take it? The Washington Post is skeptical:

Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) says he favors the reform. At a hearing on Guantanamo last month he said he thought Congress acted unconstitutionally in denying prisoners habeas. But Mr. Skelton didn't include the amendment in the draft bill he circulated to his committee. His staff says he concluded that the measure should be contained in a stand-alone piece of legislation, which he is said to be preparing.

That strategy is at odds both with recent legislative history and with the judgment of most congressional observers: Mr. Bush, they point out, won't hesitate to veto a bill on habeas corpus but might be induced to accept the reform if it were attached to one of the annual defense bills. That is how Congress managed to force the reform of prisoner treatment known as the McCain amendment two years ago.

We could use some spine in this matter. Will the netroots help provide it?

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THE COUPLES RULE....I'm pretty convinced that Paul Wolfowitz played fast and loose with World Bank rules — not to mention common sense — when he arranged lavish pay raises and promotions for his girlfriend, who was forced to leave the bank when Wolfowitz took over in 2005. The World Bank staff may or may not have had it in for Wolfowitz from the beginning, but it hardly matters any more. He screwed up and it's time for him to leave.

But here's a broader subject to consider: why was Shaha Riza required to leave the World Bank in the first place? Answer: because World Bank rules don't allow couples to work at the Bank if one reports to the other even indirectly through a chain of supervision. Since everyone reports to the president, that meant she had to leave.

But is this an obsolete rule? The fear, obviously, is that Wolfowitz would display favoritism toward Riza, and just as obviously that's a legitimate fear. But why is this an issue only for couples? After all, when Wolfowitz took the job he brought along with him two buddies from the Bush administration, Kevin Kellems and Robin Cleveland, both of whom were offered high-paying jobs despite their lack of any particular relevant experience. This raised eyebrows at the time, but that was all. Their employment contracts were duly approved despite the fact that they were close to Wolfowitz and were plainly people to whom he'd be likely to show considerable favoritism in the future.

It's pretty reasonable that money arrangements (pay, bonuses, perks, etc.) should be specially scrutinized when couples are married, since money to one is essentially money to both. But beyond that level of scrutiny, which could be handled fairly routinely by an independent compensation review board of some kind, why should Riza have been treated any differently than anyone else who was obviously friendly with Wolfowitz? The "couples" rule probably affects women disproportionately by a factor of ten at least, and I wonder if it's finally time to think about whether it's obsolete. Favoritism ought to be scrutinized, but why should Riza have been scrutinized any more than Kellems and Cleveland?

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TERRORISM....After months of dithering from Justice Department officials, I see that international terrorist Luis Posada Carriles is now free. Maybe DOJ will pursue the case, maybe not. They aren't sure.

Because it's only terrorism when the other side does it. Blowing up Cuban hotels and jetliners is a whole different kettle of fish.

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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May 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BEATING AL-QAEDA....Andrew McCarthy, in a furious polemic over at NRO, lashes out at George Bush for his inability to convince the American public that Iraq really is the central front in the war against al-Qaeda. Even Democrats, he says, know it's true in their heart of hearts:

That's because, (1) whether or not they actually believe it, top Democrats keep saying we should be fighting al Qaeda, and (2) al Qaeda, like it or not, is in Iraq — massed, determined and deadly. It is the enduring failure of the administration that it cannot seem to make Americans see these two stark realities.

Iraq: The place where jihadists commit the latest atrocity hard on the last. Iraq: The "capital of the Caliphate," as Osama bin Laden has called it, further describing it as the center of the "third world war ... a war of destiny between infidelity and Islam." Iraq: The site of the battle bin Laden aptly says will end either "in victory and glory or misery and humiliation."

McCarthy goes on in this frothy vein for over a thousand more words, but it's woefully insubstantial stuff. The fact that Osama bin Laden is delighted that the Iraq war has helped his recruiting effort is hardly a persuasive reason for us to stay there and continue to help him out.

In fact, there's a dirty little secret of the Iraq war that neither party is eager to acknowledge publicly: namely that the fastest way to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is probably for us to leave and let the Iraqis do it themselves. Republicans don't want to acknowledge this for the obvious reason: they want to stay in Iraq and this doesn't help their cause. Democrats, I suspect, also don't want to talk too much about this, but for a different reason: because it tacitly condones the reason the Iraqis can do a better job than us of stamping out AQI. It's not just that Iraqis know their own neighborhoods better than us (though that's part of it), but that when it comes to exterminating AQI Iraqis would almost certainly be far more brutal about it than Americans. That's not really a subject anyone wants to bring up in polite company.

But that doesn't make it any less true. If we leave Iraq, the country is unlikely in the extreme to become an al-Qaeda haven. Partly this is because it's rage at the American presence itself that provides a big part of the fuel for AQI's growth. Our withdrawal would eliminate that source of rage and devastate AQI's ability to continue its recruiting. Partly it's because, as we're seeing in Anbar province right now, even Sunni extremists don't like AQI. Left to their own devices they'll kill off AQI jihadists in order to protect their own tribal turf. And partly it's because once we withdraw, non-Kurdish Iraq will be free to finish its inevitable transition into a Shiite theocracy — a transition that's sadly unavoidable whether we stay or not. Yes, this transition will be bloody, but in the end Iraq will almost certainly be composed of the Kurdish north, which has no use for al-Qaeda; the remaining Sunni sheikhs, who also have no use for al-Qaeda; and the victorious Shiite central government itself, which likewise has no use for murderous Sunni jihadists on its soil. Between the three of them, AQI isn't likely to last a year.

Of all the reasons for staying in Iraq, a desire to finish off AQI is by far the least convincing. It's our presence that largely keeps AQI going, and our withdrawal is the surest way to ensure their demise. It won't happen without a lot of bloodshed, but it will happen.

NOTE: For the purposes of this post I've skirted the question of whether AQI is really al-Qaeda in the first place. For the time being, I'm agnostic on that question.

Kevin Drum 10:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (156)

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SEPTEMBER....Bryon York joins Defense Secretary Robert Gates in wondering if setting a few deadlines might have a salutary effect on the Iraqi government:

Every instance in which there has been significant progress in Iraq — the writing of a constitution, election of a legislature, etc. — has come as a result of the U.S. pushing the Iraqis to meet a deadline. Without a deadline, they mess around, and mess around some more, and act as if they have all the time in the world. And even with a deadline, they are likely to miss it and delay until the last minute before getting anything done.

This is true. But there's more. Needless to say, the situation in Iraq after four years of bungling is pretty close to hopeless, but given that reality it's also true that the current state of affairs is about as good as things could plausibly get. Consider:

  • We have five more battalions either in Baghdad or on their way.

  • We have a commanding general in Iraq who (we're told) knows how to use them.

  • We have a Democratic Congress making extremely credible threats to the Iraqi leadership that they need to make progress ASAP or else troops are likely to start coming home whether George Bush likes it or not.

Now, maybe you think these conditions aren't ideal. Perhaps, like Fred Kagan, you think five battalions isn't enough. Perhaps, like me, you're not quite as impressed with David Petraeus as everyone else*. Perhaps, like Dick Cheney, you think Democrats should all just shut up.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. The fact remains that five battalions is the best we can do, Petraeus is probably the best general available for this job, and congressional threats really are providing incentives to Iraqi leaders to resolve their differences. This is why I suspect that September might really be September. Given the current conditions — the best ones it's reasonable to hope for at this point — if there isn't serious political progress in the next few months there are a fair number of nondelusional Republicans who are finally going to decide that they aren't willing to flush their careers down the toilet just to show solidarity with a lame duck president.

I know, I know: counting on moderate Republicans to come to their senses is a sucker's bet. But there are a lot of things coming to a head this time: the initial progress report on the surge that's due in September, the looming 2008 elections, hardening public support against the war, and the likelihood that Iraqi politics will be as stalemated as ever when September rolls around. Wayne Gilchrest's "30 to 60" House Republicans who opposed the surge may have gotten bullied into voting against the timelines in last month's supplemental funding bill (see Dave Weigel's interview with Gilchrest over at Reason for more), but the pressure on them to face reality is going to keep increasing. They can't hold out forever.

But it would still be nice to pin them down on their positions ahead of time. Maybe Josh Marshall could mobilize his army of citizen journalists to do the job district by district. I doubt that anyone else is going to try.

*I don't have anything against Petraeus, really, and he does seem to understand what needs to be done in Iraq better than most. But I continue to have this niggling thought in the back of my head that he's the guy who was originally in charge of training Iraqi security forces, and that really didn't work out so well.

Kevin Drum 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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CUI BONO?....According to Dani Rodrik, a study by Bradford, Grieco, and Hufbauer suggests that removing all remaining barriers to trade would raise U.S. incomes anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 per household. Wow! Let's do it! I could use the extra money. But then Rodrik hauls out the heavy artillery:

First a reality check. The standard partial equilibrium formula for calculating the gains from moving to free trade is 0.5 x [t/(1+t)]^2 x m x e, where t is the tariff rate, m is the share of imports in GDP, and e is the (absolute value of the price elasticity of import demand). In the U.S. average tariffs stand in low single digits and imports are less than 20% of GDP. There is no way of tweaking this formula under reasonable elasticities that would get us a number anywhere near the Bradford et al. estimates. For example, using the generous numbers t = 0.10, m = 0.2 and e = 3, the gains from moving to complete free trade are a meager 0.25% of GDP (compared to Bradford et al.'s lowest estimate of 3.4% of GDP).

Damn. There's a formula for calculating the gains from free trade? (A relatively simple one, too. I'm impressed. I always figured this stuff was done with rocket science computer models.) And even when you plug in generous variables it produces a gain of only 300 bucks per household? Hmmph.

Of course, 300 bucks a family still amounts to $30 billion or so. Divide that among a thousand super-rich families and that's $30 million each. It doesn't sound so bad when you put it that way, does it?

Via Mark Thoma.

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THE MODERN FACE OF TERRORISM....Federal authorities have arrested six men who were plotting to kill American soldiers at Ft. Dix in New Jersey. From the Washington Post:

Charging document filed in federal court in Camden yesterday portray an ambitious and cold-blooded — but somewhat bungling — cadre who hoped to kill at least 100 soldiers, but also dropped training videos off at a local store to be copied, and spoke openly to a Philadelphia police sergeant about obtaining maps of Fort Dix.

....In March of 2006, an FBI informant established a relationship with one of the men believed to be in the videotape....The informants convinced members of the group that they could help them obtain automatic weapons to use in their attacks.

....Their training regimen included playing paintball, the docments say.

Let me get this striaght: these guys dropped off jihadi videos at a local store, talked to Philly cops about getting a map of Ft. Dix, were still trying to procure weapons after 17 months of planning, and practiced for the attack by playing paintball.

This reminds me of that guy who planned to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. Or those dudes who wanted to destroy the Sears Tower but couldn't even afford to buy boots and rental cars, let alone explosives. Or Jose Padilla, who, it turns out, was a deluded schmoe who didn't really have serious plans to do much of anything.

Is al-Qaeda recruiting these doofuses just to lull us into a false sense of security? Or maybe they're Jon Stewart fans and want to provide him with fresh material? WTF?

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THE CULT OF THE POLLSTER....In The Nation this week, Ari Berman writes about the various conflicts of interest posed by Mark Penn's polling work for Hillary Clinton while remaining CEO of one of the world's biggest PR firms. Matt Yglesias responds:

What Ari doesn't get into is whether, all that notwithstanding, Penn is just such a brilliant pollster that we should all be thrilled to have someone of his stature working for a leading Democrat. I would say "no."

Can someone please explain to me the cult of the pollster in big league politics? It seems like it all dates from Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign, when Patrick Caddell became the first celebrity pollster, generally portrayed in gushing media reports as a cross between Rasputin and Wernher von Braun. Is that right? Or am I too young to remember genuine celebrity pollsters before that?

In any case, I can see how having a rocket scientist pollster on board might have been helpful back then. Polling was still fairly limited, and having somebody to do your own work and really think hard about what it meant might give you a real leg up. But today? Surely any politician with an IQ in three digits is pretty well aware of what people think and how they vote. You can hardly avoid knowing it given the tidal wave of polling information available at the national level these days. And the number of people who know how to read and interpret that tidal wave of data is way bigger than it was 30 years ago.

So in terms of raw polling skill, what does Penn bring to the table? Anything? I don't get it.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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HEALTHCARE NUGGETS....Here are two tidbits about American healthcare that have nothing in common except that they piss me off. First, from Ezra Klein:

One aspect of the uninsured crisis that often gets referenced, but rarely receives much focus, is the difference between what the insured and the uninsured pay for the same treatments....A new study found that the uninsured paid, on average, 2.5 times what the insured pay, and three times what Medicare pays. So a procedure that hospitals charge Medicare $100 for would cost the uninsured $307.

It's bad enough being refused insurance because you have a preexisting condition. But it's outrageous that our healthcare system then turns around and flagrantly gouges the very people it refused to insure in the first place. Not to mention the ones who can't afford insurance and therefore are the least able to afford being gouged. It's shameful.

And then there's this from Shannon Brownlee's review in our current issue of How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman:

On average, a doctor interrupts a patient who is describing her symptoms within about twelve seconds.

This is like that proverbial picture that's worth a thousand words. I won't bore you with a rant about it today, but the constellation of issues that revolves around this one sentence probably represents the single thing that most annoys me about doctors and medicine on a purely personal, day-to-day basis. How about you?

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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EVITE MELTDOWN....Actually, if everyone went back to email invitations, it might even be a good thing. Right? Isn't Evite one of those massive abuses of technology that just gives the whole e-world a bad name? Not to mention being a significant drain on the creative brainpower of our youth.

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LA BELLE FRANCE....Mitt Romney says that in France they now have 7-year mariage contracts — and the Washington Post reports this howler without comment. But Mark Kleiman has a comment:

As embarrassed as Romney should be, the Washington Post should be more embarrassed. Doesn't saying something checkably — and hilariously — false count as gaffe? And shouldn't Romney now be asked to explain his remark? If the Post won't do it, everyone else should.

At first I was thinking about relating this to the demise of foreign bureaus among American media outlets. In the past, they could have just called their guy in Paris and fact checked this in a couple of minutes.

But then I remembered that the Post is one of the few newspapers in America that does still have a sizable stable of foreign bureaus, including one in Paris. So what's their excuse? Beats me.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, Romney did make his remarks at the now infamous Regent University, ground zero for movement conservative recruits to the Bush administration. I'm sure they lapped it up.

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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SIX MONTHS....No more Friedmans after September? That's what Jonathan Weisman and Thomas Ricks suggest in the Washington Post today:

"September is the key," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds defense. "If we don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, September is going to be a very bleak month for this administration."

....House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has taken a hard line in Bush's favor, said Sunday, "By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn't, what's Plan B."

....House Democratic leaders are coming together around legislation that would fund the war through September but would withhold more than half of those funds until July, when Bush would have to report on the Iraqi government's progress toward benchmarks such as quelling sectarian violence, disarming militias and sharing oil revenue equitably. Congress would then have to vote in late July to release the remaining funds.

When September rolls around Gen. David Petraeus is almost certain to report that things are tough but progress is being made on the ground. And he'll have metrics of some kind to back him up. What else is he going to do, after all? You can almost write his script right now.

But political progress? There are virtually no positive signs right now, and after 18 months of stalling it's unlikely that 18 more weeks are going to make a difference. What's more, I'm inclined to think that there are at least a handful of moderate Republicans who are genuinely serious about abandoning Bush this time around. This time, it looks like six months might really mean six months.

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May 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRED THOMPSON'S RED PICKUP TRUCK....Noam Scheiber thinks that before long, everyone will have heard about the phony everyman schtick that Fred Thompson employed during his 1994 Senate campaign:

By the time Fred Thompson decides whether or not to join the presidential fray, you will have heard the story of his red pickup truck at least a dozen times. The truck in question is a 1990 Chevy, which the famed statesman-thespian rented during his maiden Senate campaign in 1994. The idea was that Thompson would dress up in blue jeans and shabby boots and drive himself to campaign events around the state.

Bob Somerby begs to differ:

[W]e'll take a wild guess — no, you won't "hear the story of his red pickup truck at least a dozen times" in the coming weeks. That's because of an obvious fact: As a general matter, the modern press corps recites these tales only when they cut against Dems.

We'll see. But in fact, the red pickup is even phonier than Scheiber and Somerby make it sound. Not only was the truck rented, but Thompson didn't even deign to drive the thing himself. Here is Michelle Cottle describing a Thompson campaign event a couple of years later when he was running for reelection:

Seated in the audience is a childhood friend of mine....My friend stands talking with her colleagues as the senator is driven away by a blond, all-American staffer. A few minutes later, my friend gets into her car to head home. As she pulls up to the stop sign at the parking lot exit, rolling up to the intersection is Senator Thompson, now behind the wheel of a sweet silver luxury sedan. He gives my friend a slight nod as he drives past. Turning onto the main road, my friend passes the school's small, side parking area. Lo and behold: There sits the abandoned red pickup, along with the all-American staffer.

Basically, he just drove the thing the final few hundred feet before each campaign event, and then ditched it for something nicer as soon as he was out of sight of the yokels. Quite a man of the people, no?

Kevin Drum 8:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (88)

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IRAQI POLITICAL UPDATE....Remember the Iraqi constitution that was approved in a referendum back in October 2005? Of course you do. But you might also recall that approval of the constitution was in serious doubt until, just days before the vote, Sunni leaders agreed to a last-minute deal. As the Washington Post reported at the time:

The major concession from Tuesday's talks was agreement by the Shiites and Kurds that a committee be created early next year to consider amendments to the constitution....The Sunnis' most visceral objection to the draft constitution is the provision for remaking Iraq into a loose federation with a weak central government. The federation would include a highly independent Kurdish north and possibly an oil-rich, Shiite ministate in the south, leaving Sunnis in the resource-poor center and west.

Now, this deal never struck me as a serious concession since all it required was that amendments be considered. It would still take a two-thirds majority in the Council of Ministers to get them passed, and that never seemed likely — especially since Abdul Aziz Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, the biggest Shiite party in the country, essentially repudiated the deal with a wink and a nod shortly after the constitution was approved.

Still, the process went ahead. First, though, Iraqi leaders had to form a government, and that didn't happen until May 2006. Then they had to form a committee to propose amendments, and that didn't happen until September. Now, seven months after the committee was named and a year and a half after the original deal was first struck, the Sunnis say they've had enough:

Iraq's top Sunni official has set a deadline of next week for pulling his entire bloc out of the government....Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made his comments in an interview with CNN. He said if key amendments to the Iraq Constitution are not made by May 15, he will step down and pull his 44 Sunni politicians out of the 275-member Iraqi parliament.

"If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I have made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," he said.

Specifically, he wants guarantees in the constitution that the country won't be split into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish federal states that he says will disadvantage Sunnis.

The October 2005 deal has served its purpose admirably: it got the constitution passed and it gave everyone some breathing room. But eventually the Shiites and Kurds were going to have to come through with some changes, and no real progress has ever been made on that. Just stalling.

So what happens next? Prime Minister Maliki might be able to buy himself some more time, but probably not much. Eventually it's going to become clear that the Sunni amendments aren't going to be proposed, or if they are proposed, that they aren't going to pass. That day is looking ever closer, and all the battalions in the world aren't going to help Iraq if the Sunnis irrevocably pull out of the government. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 6:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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BANANA REPUBLICANISM, CON'TD....McClatchy digs up two more sources who say that Bradley Schlozman viewed his job as a gateway for hiring Republicans into civil service positions in the Justice Department:

Two former department lawyers told McClatchy Newspapers that Bradley Schlozman, a senior civil rights official, told them in early 2005, after spotting mention of their Republican affiliations on their job applications, to delete those references and resubmit their resumes. Both attorneys were hired.

One of them, Ty Clevenger, said: "He wanted to make it look like it was apolitical."

....Clevenger also recalled once passing on to Schlozman the name of a friend from Stanford as a possible hire. "Schlozman called me up and asked me something to the effect of, 'Is he one of us?'" Clevenger said. "He wanted to know what the guy's partisan credentials were."

And the Boston Globe reports this:

Under Schlozman, the profile of the career attorneys hired by the section underwent a dramatic transformation.

Half of the 14 career lawyers hired under Schlozman were members of the conservative Federalist Society or the Republican National Lawyers Association, up from none among the eight career hires in the previous two years, according to a review of resumes. The average US News & World Report ranking of the law school attended by new career lawyers plunged from 15 to 65.

Just a coincidence, I'm sure.

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THE ZAWAHIRI VIDEO....The latest from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's #2 (assuming Osama bin Laden is still alive, of course):

Al-Zawahri, shown seated before a bookshelf in a white robe and turban, addresses legislation pushed by Democratic leaders, and vetoed by Bush, that would have required the first U.S. troops in Iraq to be withdrawn by Oct. 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.

"This bill will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap," al-Zawahri said, according to a transcript released by the monitoring group SITE. The bill is evidence of American "failure and frustration," he added.

"We ask Allah that they (U.S. troops) only get out of it after losing 200,000 to 300,000 killed, in order that we give the spillers of blood in Washington and Europe an unforgettable lesson," he said.

Does he really mean this? Who knows. It's propaganda, not a Brookings white paper. And in any case, if we left Iraq he'd claim that as a great victory too. In fact, I daresay that no matter what we do, Zawahiri will claim a great victory. Bottom line: His statement should be read more for what it says about his intended message to domestic audiences than for any insight into his real beliefs about the war. Ditto for whatever he says when we eventually withdraw.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

A WEE TEST OF THE FREE MARKET IN HEALTHCARE....As part of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, Republicans expanded the Medicare+Choice program into something called Medicare Advantage. This was all part of an effort to get the free market involved in Medicare, but since it turned out the free market wasn't very interested, Republicans did what they usually do in such circumstances: they turned on the corporate welfare spigot. In this case, it took the form of bribing insurance companies to participate by paying them more for the same services than Medicare pays directly to doctors under traditional Medicare. The New York Times reports:

Federal officials said that the fastest-growing type of Medicare Advantage plan generally does not coordinate care, does not save money for Medicare and has been at the center of marketing abuses.

These "private fee-for-service plans" allow patients to go to any doctor or hospital that will provide care on terms set by the insurer. In most cases, no one manages the care. And some patients have found that they have less access to care, because their doctors refuse to take patients in private fee-for-service plans.

Moreover, those plans may be more expensive than traditional Medicare for some patients, because the co-payments for some services may be higher. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission says that the cost to the government is also higher because it pays the private fee-for-service plans, on average, 19 percent more than the cost of traditional Medicare.

Richard S. Foster, chief actuary for the Medicare program, said "the additional payments to Medicare Advantage plans, above and beyond the costs" of traditional Medicare, were causing higher premiums for all beneficiaries and speeding the depletion of the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund for Medicare.

Private insurance carriers charge more than Medicare to provide medical services because, duh, they're a middleman and they have to make a profit. But private carriers, by movement conservative definition, must be better than any government program, so we have to find a way to get them involved. How? By paying them 19% more! So they can provide poorer service! And rip off vulnerable elderly patients (read the story for details)! And deplete the Medicare trust fund even faster than before!

Your Republican Congress at work. No wonder these guys got thrown out.

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

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May 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TELEVISION WOES....A few weeks ago, in an effort to serve me better, the LA Times decided to stop including a TV guide in their Sunday paper. That sucked, but one has to roll with the punches, doesn't one?

So Marian and I investigated the alternatives. The Register, our local Orange County paper, has a TV guide on Sundays, and although it's not as complete as the one we're used to, it's OK. But do I really want to subscribe to the Register just to get one little magazine each week? Or pay a buck and a quarter and have to remember to buy a paper every Saturday evening?

TV Guide is cheaper. Only 59 cents a week, delivered to my door! Very colorful too. Unfortunately, it doesn't have complete daytime listings during the week. I figure I can live with that, but it also turns out that it doesn't have any daytime listings on the weekend, the very time when I actually need them. Why? I have no idea.

The LA Times still has TV listings in the daily paper, of course, but only for primetime shows. You're out of luck for everything else.

Then there's Cox cable: like most cable companies, it provides onscreen TV listings. But only if you subscribe to digital cable for whatever extortionate rate they're charging these days. I don't.

What other options are there? I can look up stuff online, which would be great if I had a computer sitting next my couch. But I don't.

Am I crazy? (Yes, probably. But I mean: am I crazy to think that it's nuts to make it so difficult for people to get complete TV listings?) Is there some simple answer to this mess that I'm overlooking? It seems completely deranged to me.

And why am I telling this to all of you? Beats me. I just need to vent, I guess. Thanks for listening.

Kevin Drum 11:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALAN BLINDER, RABBLE ROUSER?....I'm perplexed. Really. Today in the Washington Post, economist Alan Blinder writes:

I'm a free trader down to my toes. Always have been. Yet lately, I'm being treated as a heretic by many of my fellow economists. Why? Because I have stuck my neck out and predicted that the offshoring of service jobs from rich countries such as the United States to poor countries such as India may pose major problems for tens of millions of American workers over the coming decades.

For this he's being treated like a heretic? Let's read on:

[The forces of globalization] don't look so benign from the viewpoint of an American computer programmer or accountant. They've done what they were told to do: They went to college and prepared for well-paid careers with bountiful employment opportunities. But now their bosses are eyeing legions of well-qualified, English-speaking programmers and accountants in India, for example, who will happily work for a fraction of what Americans earn. Such prospective competition puts a damper on wage increases. And if the jobs do move offshore, displaced American workers may lose not only their jobs but also their pensions and health insurance. These people can be forgiven if they have doubts about the virtues of globalization.

....It's also going to be large. How large? In some recent research, I estimated that 30 million to 40 million U.S. jobs are potentially offshorable. These include scientists, mathematicians and editors on the high end and telephone operators, clerks and typists on the low end. Obviously, not all of these jobs are going to India, China or elsewhere. But many will.

....That is why I am going public with my concerns now. If we economists stubbornly insist on chanting "Free trade is good for you" to people who know that it is not, we will quickly become irrelevant to the public debate. Compared with that, a little apostasy should be welcome.

I don't get it. What exactly is Blinder's "apostasy"? That offshoring hurts the workers whose jobs are offshored? That, as he recommends elsewhere in the piece, we shouldn't consider trade protection as a way of stopping offshoring, but we should consider better unemployment benefits and a stronger commitment to retraining? Or that we need to "rethink our education system so that it turns out more people who are trained for the jobs that will remain in the United States"?

I'm squinting to detect any apostasy here, but I just can't find it. In fact, this sounds like very standard mainstream liberal economic advice. Is Blinder seriously suggesting that it's apostasy in the economics profession merely to point out that some people will be hurt by offshoring, and that we ought to think about helping them? That's hard to believe.

But he's a famous economist and I'm not. What's more, he's written about this before and obviously knows what kind of reaction he got. So: Is he right that merely bringing up this subject prevents you from being invited to whatever passes for A-list cocktail parties among economists? The mind reels.

Kevin Drum 11:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ ROUNDUP....The annual report of the Pentagon's Mental Health Advisory Team for the Iraq War found, among other things, that the length and duration of tours of duty in Iraq were starting to cause serious problems:

Multiple deployers reported higher acute stress than first-time deployers. Deployment length was related to higher rates of mental health problems and marital problems.

Suicides are up, marital conflicts are up, and 10% of soldiers and marines reported mistreating civilians when not necessary — an especially serious problem in a counterinsurgency mission designed to win hearts and minds. The report's recommendation?

Extend the interval between deployments to 18-36 months or decrease deployment length to allow additional time for Soldiers to re-set following a one-year combat tour.

Hmmm. Decrease deployment length? The report was written last November, just before President Bush announced the surge, but was not released until Friday. Why the four-month delay?

Pentagon officials have not explained why the public release of the report was delayed, a move that kept the data out of the public debate as the Bush administration developed its plan to build up troops in Iraq and extend combat tours. Rear Adm. Richard R. Jeffries, a medical officer, told reporters on Friday that the timing was decided by civilian Pentagon officials.

I'll bet it was. The last thing you need when you're announcing longer deployments to support a surge that's opposed by your commanders on the ground and virtually every military expert and the Iraq Study Group, is a report from within the military itself recommending that deployments be reduced. Hell, I'm surprised they released it at all.

In other Iraq news, the LA Times has finally decided to admit that the surge won't work and it's time to start planning for withdrawal. "We are not naive," says the Times. "U.S. withdrawal, whether concluded next year or five years from now, entails grave risks. But so does U.S. occupation." Indeed it does, and too few people seem to have figured that out.

Finally, in yet more Iraq-related news, the LAT also has a good piece about one of the worst-kept secrets of the Bush administration: the fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is not exactly a major fan of the surge:

"I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and Gen. Petraeus," said a former senior Defense official who has supported the buildup. "He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn't see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in."

Read the rest.

Kevin Drum 1:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (102)

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TIME TO VOTE WOLFOWITZ OFF THE ISLAND....Like Mark Kleiman, I haven't commented on the Paul Wolfowitz/World Bank affair because I wasn't sure what to think about it. I may not like Wolfowitz much, but it still seemed plausible that he had acted properly in a difficult situation and was now being railroaded by Bank employees who don't like him any more than I do.

But Wolfowitz has always maintained that the pay and promotions he arranged for his companion, Shaha Riza, were entirely above board and that he kept the Bank's ethics committee fully informed of his actions at all times. On Friday he admitted that this wasn't quite true:

Roberto Daniño, the bank's chief legal adviser at the time, testified that Mr Wolfowitz "incorrectly" awarded pay and promotions that "far exceeded, and were granted in addition to, those recommended by the ethics committee".

He said none of these additional "benefits were disclosed to or approved by the board, the ethics committee or the general counsel".

....Mr Wolfowitz's aides claimed in recent weeks that all arrangements concerning Ms Riza were made at the direction of the board and with the knowledge of the ethics committee.

As grounds for such claims, Mr Wolfowitz yesterday pointed to a letter from the ethics committee acknowledging that it had reviewed an anonymous e-mail from a member of staff who was angry about Ms Riza's pay.

So it appears that, to Wolfowitz, "keeping the ethics committee informed" actually means "someone else found out about the arrangements and blew the whistle in an anonymous email." Sounds like it's time for Wolfowitz to resign.

UPDATE: Steve Clemons has more juicy gossip.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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May 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE ATHEIST AVALANCHE....Last September Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion and Sam Harris published Letter to a Christian Nation. In January Victor Stenger published God: The Failed Hypothesis. This month Christopher Hitchens is out with God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

I'm curious: have I just not noticed books like this before? Or is it really true that there's a sudden avalanche of popular books extolling the virtues of atheism? (Or, in any case, denigrating organized religion.) Is there any particular reason for this?

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CAMPAIGNING IN FRANCE....From the Guardian:

Amid the shoppers hunting the perfect brie, warm pain de campagne or fresh okra, a lone activist broke the official ban on campaigning this weekend to distribute leaflets for Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, in Paris yesterday. 'It's more in hope than in anticipation,' she admitted glumly.

It's illegal to campaign in France on the weekend before a presidential election? Wow. Makes McCain-Feingold look like pretty weak tea, doesn't it?

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GODLESS ROVIANISM....From an interview with Christopher Hitchens:

Has anyone in the Bush administration confided in you about being an atheist?
Well, I don't talk that much to them — maybe people think I do. I know something which is known to few but is not a secret. Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn't shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, "I'm not fortunate enough to be a person of faith."

If this is true, it doesn't surprise me. In fact, I've never really thought Rove was all that committed a conservative, either. He strikes me more as a pure political operative, someone who could have signed up with either side if different opportunities had presented themselves when he was young. But he signed up with the conservative cause early, and once that happened he was the kind of person to jump in with both feet. I suspect that for Rove, red-meat conservatism is more a matter of doing whatever it takes to help your side win than it is a reflection of a real philosophical commitment.

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By: Kevin Drum

GETTING TO KNOW OBAMA....Sally Quinn writes about Barack Obama:

The biggest problem that Obama has is this: We don't know who he is. Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice? He's so new to the national political scene that he hasn't had time to choose the team that would be with him in the White House. The more we see him in action, he's still just campaigning. He still has the quality of an unknown. And as attractive and likable as Obama is, we still need references.

Here's a peculiar thing: I agree with this, though in a different kind of way, and the reason I agree is that I've read Dreams From My Father, Obama's autobiographical "story of race and inheritance."

That is peculiar, isn't it? You'd think that after reading an autobiography you'd get a better sense of the author. But I didn't. In fact, there's a very oddly detached quality to the book, almost as if he's describing somebody else. This is clearest in the disconnect between emotions and events: Obama routinely describes himself feeling the deepest, most painful emotions imaginable (one event is like a "fist in my stomach," for example, and he "still burned with the memory" a full year after a minor incident in college), but these feelings seem to be all out of proportion to the actual events of his life, which are generally pretty pedestrian. Is he describing his real feelings? Is he simply making the beginning writer's mistake of thinking that the way to convey emotion is to use lots of adjectives? Or is something else going on?

Another oddity is that we get very little sense of what motivates him. In 1983, for example, he decided to become a community organizer, but says in the book only that he was "operating mainly on impulse." Even with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, the only explanation he can offer is that it was "part of that larger narrative, starting with my father and his father before him, my mother and her parents, my memories of Indonesia with its beggars and farmers and the loss of Lolo to power, on through Ray and Frank, Marcus and Regina; my move to New York; my father's death." That's not very helpful.

There's just something very peculiar about the book. I can't put my finger entirely on what it is, but for all the overwrought language that Obama employs on page after page, there's very little insight into what he believes and what really makes him tick. It was almost as if Obama was admitting to his moodiness and angst less as a way of letting us know who he is than as a way of guarding against having to really tell us. By the time I was done, I felt like I knew less about him than before.

Has anyone else who's read the book felt the same way? I can't really tell if I just had some weird idiosyncratic reaction or if there's something to this. If you've read it, let me know in comments what you thought.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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May 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY'S SLIDE....Wow. In the past four months Hillary Clinton's net approval rating has dropped from +18% to -7%. That's nearly 1% of the population per week jumping ship from the approval column to the disapproval column. Time to dump Mark Penn?

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOG SURVEY....Would you mind doing us a favor? BlogAds is running their fourth annual survey of blog readers, and these surveys are a helpful way for us to learn more about the people who read Political Animal. The survey is here:

http://www.blogreaderproject.com/survey/ff9cadfa14a546f155bcce8b138a30ba

It takes about 12 minutes if you go through the whole thing, less if you skip the optional questions (some of which are a little weird this year). I just took it myself to check, and sure enough, it took me exactly 12 minutes. So if you have a few minutes to spare, click the link and go to it. Thanks!

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....The cats are spending the morning in their favorite places. Domino is in her beloved pod, wondering why I keep pointing that big glass eye in her direction. Inkblot, of course, knows exactly what the big glass eye is for, and as soon as he saw it he immediately rolled over to show himself off in all his vast furriness.

And speaking of the big glass eye, you know what's hard? Taking a picture of a cat with a completely black face. Sheesh.

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THE TERRORIST'S APPRENTICE....As long as we're on the subject of "the total conflation of all Islamist movements," the MoJo review I mentioned yesterday is now online. Here's a piece:

A military response to 9/11 would have made sense had it been directed narrowly at Al Qaeda and like-minded hardcore jihadists, who are motivated by a complex stew of religious fanaticism and rage that leaves no room for negotiation. But in the long run, jihadists can cause serious, long-lasting damage only if they have substantial popular support. Without it they wither and eventually die.

Unfortunately, our blinkered response to 9/11, including large-scale warfare and support for dictators throughout the Middle East, has instead increased the popularity of the violent radicals and put us implicitly at war with an entire region, rather than with a small and — until recently — unloved band of Sunni extremists. If there's a lesson from the sorry mess Bush has made, this is it: The only way to beat Al Qaeda is to wage what you might call a global counterinsurgency campaign, separating the terrorists from the surrounding population and getting the broader Muslim world on our side.

This is from a review of two books: The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism, by Matthew Carr, and The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror, by Stephen Holmes. Both were OK but not great. But the illustration by Hungry Dog Studio that accompanies the review is kind of cool.

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By: Kevin Drum

ROMNEY'S WAR....Since I was picking on Mitt Romney over stylistic issues last night, I'll pick on him over substantive issues this morning. I didn't see this part of the debate, but Spencer Ackerman notes Romney's answer to a question about how important it is to capture Osama bin Laden:

I don't want to buy into the Democratic pitch, that this is all about one person, Osama bin Laden. Because after we get him, there's going to be another and another. This is about Shi'a and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the worldwide jihadist effort to try and cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate.

Unfortunately, almost nobody seems to really care about this stuff, but as Spencer points out, this is completely wrong and demonstrates that Romney doesn't have a clue what we're up against. Yes, there's a violent jihadist movement, but it doesn't include the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Islamist but not terrorist. It's not about "Hezbollah and Hamas and al Qaeda," which have completely different goals. Spencer:

Mitt Romney's War: the total conflation of all Islamist movements. Not only is the Muslim Brotherhood not a jihadist organization, but its very lack of jihadiness is what spawned Ayman Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Suffice it to say that there is no caliphate on heaven or earth that will simultaneously satisfy Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which goes a long way toward explaining why there is no concerted "worldwide jihadist effort" by these groups to establish one.

Unfortunately, like I said, nobody seems to care. Romney sounds like he's being tough on the bad guys, and he managed to mention a whole bunch of Middle Eastern-ish stuff without mispronouncing any of it, which probably gets him points for being on the ball. But gibberish is gibberish, no matter how good your haircut is.

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ROBO-ROMNEY....I screwed up and forgot that tonight's Republican debate started at 5 instead of 6, which means I hardly saw any of it. So, no substantive commentary except for my awe at Tom Tancredo seriously suggesting on national TV (well, MSNBC anyway) that we should repeal the 16th Amendment. Atta boy, Tom. You win the wingnut award tonight.

However, especially given my pro-Romney post of a couple of days ago, where I picked him as the likely GOP nominee, I have to say that he was the one candidate who most made me want to leave the room screaming. I guess now I understand the instinctive revulsion some people feel toward Hillary Clinton's speaking style. To me, Romney looked like the perfect Stepford candidate, pulled out of a mold somewhere and propped up on a stage where he'd stand there looking good and spouting endless pieties designed to say as little as possible and offend the fewest possible viewers. I half expected someone to come up at the end, remove his battery pack, and carry him off the stage. Brrr.

POSTSCRIPT: Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with Romney's actual positions, which are no more objectionable than any other Republican candidate's. Maybe less so, in fact. Pure gut reaction, though, is: Brrr.

LATE UPDATE: I don't know how meaningful this is, but here's the SurveyUSA poll of who won the debate. Apparently it was Giuliani, though the results look to me like they mostly just track how popular the candidates were before the debate even took place. But there it is anyway. Raw data for political junkies.

REALLY THE LAST UPDATE: That SurveyUSA poll is only for California. I didn't notice that when I tossed it up late last night.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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May 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WHY WERE THEY FIRED?....James Comey, the #2 guy at the Justice Department until July 2005, testified before Congress today about the eight U.S. Attorneys who were fired last December:

Comey was effusive in his praise of several of the fired prosecutors, saying that only Kevin Ryan of San Francisco had serious management difficulties.

He described Paul K. Charlton of Arizona as "one of the best," said he had a "very positive view" of David C. Iglesias of New Mexico, and called Daniel Bogden of Las Vegas "straight as a Nevada highway and a fired-up guy." In regards to John McKay of Seattle, Comey said: "I was inspired by him."

Perhaps most damaging to the Justice Department was Comey's description of Carol C. Lam of San Diego as "a fine U.S. attorney."

So, um, why were these prosecutors fired again? Gonzales & Co. still haven't managed to come up with a story suitable for public consumption, and after all this time I don't imagine they're going to come up with one now. That only leaves one alternative: the reason they were fired isn't suitable for public consumption. No surprise there.

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NYT NAMES NEW PUBLIC EDITOR....The New York Times has a new public editor:

The New York Times today named its next public editor, Clark Hoyt, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor who oversaw the Knight Ridder newspaper chain's coverage that questioned the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war.

....In the prelude to the Iraq war and the early days of the war, Knight-Ridder stood apart from most of the mainstream news media in raising doubts at times about the Bush administration's claims, later discredited, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda. Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said that record contributed to his selection of Mr. Hoyt.

"There was a lot of work Knight-Ridder did that was prescient, that wasn't easy to do," Mr. Keller said. "It's always hard to go against conventional wisdom. I think it probably brings him a measure of credibility that helps in getting started on a job like that — that he's been associated with a brave and aggressive reporting exercise like that."

This is sort of fascinating. Hoyt is plainly someone of considerable stature, someone who not only knows the nuts and bolts of newsgathering but also has the background and reputation to offer criticism that can really stick. And the Times is obviously interested in trumpeting his war skepticism as evidence of his credibility. Should be interesting.

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SAINT RONNIE....I note that tonight's Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan library has provoked an even greater gusher than usual of Reagan nostalgia among GOP hopefuls. A few days ago, for example, Tom Bevan wrote that the search for a new Reagan is "hanging especially heavy over the current presidential race."

No surprise there. After all, what choice do they have? Bush Jr. is radioactive; Bush Sr. was an apostate; Ford was an accident; Nixon was a crook; Eisenhower was practically a socialist by modern Republican standards; and Hoover was....

Well, let's not even go there. The less said about Hoover the better. But the bottom line is that aside from Reagan, there's literally no Republican president in the past 70 years that Republicans really feel comfortable with. The unpopular ones (Hoover, Nixon, Bush Sr., Bush Jr.) are toxic and the popular ones (Eisenhower, Ford) are far too moderate for today's crew. So Reagan worship is in full swing because, really, they don't have any other choice, do they?

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DOES THE MIDDLE EAST MATTER?....Edward Luttwak asks, "Why are middle east experts so unfailingly wrong?" I've often wondered the same thing! He proposes three fundamental mistakes that underlie their unfailing wrongness:

  1. "Arab-Israeli catastrophism": the idea that we're continually on the brink of an explosion in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  2. "The Mussolini syndrome": the idea that Middle Eastern countries actually pose a serious military threat to the rest of us.

  3. The "malleability" mistake: the idea that there's anything we can do to effect change in Islamic culture.

Luttwak's advice: the hell with them. Just leave the Middle East alone and direct our attention to areas of the world that actually matter.

Well, Luttwak likes to stir the pot, and that's what he's doing here. And I imagine there's a sizable coalition of (a) anti-imperial leftists, (b) heartland isolationists, and (c) barroom hawks who think we should just let the ragheads kill each other off, who would agree with him.

And, of course, we would leave them alone if it weren't for all that lovely oil, wouldn't we? Luttwak tries to brush this aside in a few sentences, suggesting that over time we're getting less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and will continue to get less dependent in the future, but if he actually believes this it's a remarkable display of wishful thinking. Every oil analyst on the planet agrees that oil reserves are falling fastest outside the Middle East, and that 20 years from now our dependence on Middle Eastern oil will be higher than it is today, not lower. All the pandering to all the corn farmers in all of Iowa isn't going to change that.

Still, Luttwak is probably right that the oil will keep flowing — more or less — through thick and thin. Cyclical violence aside, they need our money as much as we need their oil. So in the end, all that's left is nuclear and biological weapons. If you believe those don't pose a serious threat over the next few decades, then Luttwak is probably right that we could ignore the Middle East if we wanted to. But if you believe they do pose a threat, then figuring out a way to reduce Arab resentment of the West suddenly seems pretty important. The big question is: how?

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THE WAR ON WHATEVER IT IS....Mike Allen reports that John Edwards is getting off the "war on terror" train:

Now, in his first interview to explain his turnabout, Edwards tells Time that he will no longer use what he views as "a Bush-created political phrase."

"This political language has created a frame that is not accurate and that Bush and his gang have used to justify anything they want to do," Edwards said in a phone interview from Everett, Wash. "It's been used to justify a whole series of things that are not justifiable, ranging from the war in Iraq, to torture, to violation of the civil liberties of Americans, to illegal spying on Americans. Anyone who speaks out against these things is treated as unpatriotic. I also think it suggests that there's a fixed enemy that we can defeat with just a military campaign. I just don't think that's true."

Well, good for him. Unfortunately, the phrase is unlikely to go away until someone comes up with something good to take its place. GSAVE, "long war," and "World War 4" have been tossed out at various times, but none of them work either. The House Budget Committee's "ongoing military operations throughout the world" doesn't seem likely to win over any converts. And "Islamofascism" is just a bad joke.

It's a stumper. Even some conservatives agree that what we're fighting isn't a war and it's not directed against terrorism, but if that's the case, then what is it? I wrote a piece for Mother Jones recently that used this as a recurring theme (I'd link to it but it's not online yet), but I couldn't figure out what to call it either. Maybe Edwards's message gurus will figure something out.

POSTSCRIPT: For what it's worth, I tend to think the right answer is that we're fighting "violent jihadism," or some similar formulation. For obvious reasons, though, nobody's very eager to put that phrase into wide usage.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (148)

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ECONOMIC UPDATE....Productivity figures dropped precipitously last year, but the team at Goldman Sachs says they can explain it:

We believe there is a straightforward explanation for slower productivity growth — the housing downturn. The sharp drop in homebuilding activity has not yet led to a significant decline in employment, so productivity in this sector is falling rapidly. Productivity growth in the rest of the nonfarm sector remains at a healthy 2.5 percent pace.

Well, look: anytime any aggregate growth figure is low you can always point to its weakest component and say that things look a lot better if you just exclude it. A couple of years from now it will be something different: "Sure, there's a slowdown in the IT sector, but it's temporary and the rest of the economy is growing at a nice clip." This kind of analysis leaves me pretty cold.

In any case, the Goldman Sachs guys say this will all be taken care of as soon as the housing industry improves its productivity by firing a bunch of people, which sounds like good news for statisticians but not so good for the rest of us. Then, for reasons that aren't clear to me, Dan Drezner suggests that this might presage an era of low productivity growth but high wage growth — just the opposite of what's been going on for the past few years. Huh? Even Dan admits that this seems unlikely:

Profit margins have been sufficiently high to allow this to happen — though I confess I fail to see why firms would have an economic incentive to act in this fashion.

I fail to see it too, and sure enough, the BLS reported anemic wage growth this quarter. Kash has more on this over at his place.

A couple of days ago Kash also posted a brief look at U.S. consumption growth, which is by far the biggest driver of the economy, and concluded that it was hard to see where future growth was going to come from. Labor income is close to stagnant, credit cards are maxed out, and houses can no longer be used as ATMs.

I dunno. Maybe I'm just in a pessimistic mood lately, but this strikes me as pretty much correct. The middle class can't keep borrowing forever, and the rich can't keep the economy afloat all by themselves. So what happens now?

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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THE SHOW ME STATE....In the 2006 election, ground zero for voter fraud claims by Republicans was the state of Missouri. Greg Gordon reports on how that turned out:

Now, six months after freshman Missouri Sen. Jim Talent's defeat handed Democrats control of the U.S. Senate, disclosures in the wake of the firings of eight U.S. attorneys show that that Republican campaign to protect the balloting was not as it appeared. No significant voter fraud was ever proved.

The preoccupation with ballot fraud in Missouri was part of a wider national effort that critics charge was aimed at protecting the Republican majority in Congress by dampening Democratic turnout. That effort included stiffer voter-identification requirements, wholesale purges of names from lists of registered voters and tight policing of liberal get-out-the-vote drives.

This may not be news to you if you've been following the Brad Schlozman subplot of the U.S. Attorneys scandal, but even if you have, Gordon does a good job of wrapping up the whole story in a single place and putting a bow on it. Worth reading.

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May 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY....Jeff Miller is the 200th person to be exonerated by DNA testing after being wrongfully convicted. According to the Innocence Project, he's not unusual:

Of those exonerated after a rape conviction, 85 percent were black men accused of assaulting a white woman. In contrast, black men are accused in 33.6 percent of rapes or sexual assaults of white women, according to a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics study of victims.

This is all part of the dirty little secret of the criminal justice system: eyewitness testimony is close to useless. And it's especially useless when identifying a person of a different race, when the light is bad, and when you're under stress — all of which usually come into play in violent crimes. What's more, it doesn't matter if the person making the identification is really, really, sure: the confidence of the ID is pretty much uncorrelated with whether the ID is actually correct. Not quite like Law & Order.

UPDATE: If you're interested in learning more about this, click the link. There's some good stuff in the article.

If you want to learn even more, I've got two book recommendations for you. First, Actual Innocence, a terrific overview of the subject by the Innocence Project guys. Second, Last Man Standing, by Jack Olsen, a good book about the wrongful conviction of Geronimo Pratt. They're both well worth reading.

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By: Kevin Drum

FRED THOMPSON....Apropos of my post yesterday, a reader emails:

I'm curious why you say "it's nothing more than a measure of GOP desperation that Fred Thompson is considered anything but a joke." Could you elaborate on that either in a blog post or in an email?

This is a perfectly good question, though one to which I have only conventional wisdom to offer. Basically it's this: Thompson is a guy whose political record in the Senate was a big zero; whose only real claim to fame is being a character actor on TV and in films; who has done nothing to distinguish himself this year except deliver a few vaguely Reaganesque pastiches in a nice baritone; who is apparently not Christian enough for James Dobson's taste; who has no known issues that he really cares deeply about; and whose most famous quality is his laziness.

That sure doesn't sound like the resume of a guy who's going to rescue the Republican Party to me. The fact that so many people are talking him up seems like it says more about the suicidally desperate state of the GOP than it does about the actual presidential prospects of Fred Thompson.

But hey — maybe I'm wrong. For a nostalgic look back at the first round of "Thompson for President" mania, check out Michelle Cottle's Washington Monthly profile written shortly after his landslide reelection victory in 1996.

Kevin Drum 5:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE MONICA....Our old friend Monica Goodling appears to be in further hot water:

The Justice Department is investigating whether its former White House liaison used political affiliation in deciding who to hire as entry-level prosecutors in U.S. attorneys' offices around the country, The Associated Press has learned.

Doing so is a violation of federal law.

The inquiry involving Monica Goodling, the former counsel and White House liaison for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, raises new concerns that politics might have cast a shadow over the independence of trial prosecutors who enforce U.S. laws.

"Might have cast a shadow" indeed. I doubt that Goodling just up and asked applicants "Are you a registered Republican?" but one hardly needs to be so obvious anyway. "Who's your favorite Supreme Court justice?" ought to do the trick, no?

Kevin Drum 4:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE FOLLIES....Welcome to the real world, Matt. Trust me: it's only going to get worse.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NETROOTS CONT'D....Last night I was mulling over Jon Chait's piece about the netroots in TNR, trying to figure out why it rubbed me the wrong way even though I agree with an awful lot of what he said. In the end, I think the answer turns out to have almost nothing to do with substance and almost everything to do with tone.

Here's what I mean. In the last third of his piece, Chait makes an obvious point: netroots bloggers are advocates. Their goal isn't to tell both sides of the story or to engage in dispassionate inquiry. Contrarianism isn't seen as a virtue for its own sake. They have a point of view, and their goal is to marshal the best arguments they can come up with to advocate for that point of view. Political calculation is part of the game.

This is unremarkable. In fact, it's so unremarkable that Chait could have simply said this in a paragraph or two and then moved on. It's not as if anyone would argue the point. But instead of doing that, he spins this idea out to nearly 3,000 words using language that seems deliberately designed to be as loaded as possible:

Like any political community, the netroots have developed distinctive linguistic tics that hold special meaning to adherents, and these reveal something about the way the movement thinks....establishing the truth about an idea matters less than phrasing the idea in the most politically effective way....intellectual honesty is deeply alien to the netroots....the netroots critique is [] that the conception of fairness itself is folly....slight whiff of anti-intellectualism in some quarters of the netroots....The netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake nonsensical....There is a term for this sort of political discourse: propaganda....the netroots take part in a great deal of demagoguery, name-calling, and dishonesty.

Now, there's no reason Chait should pull his punches just because he's writing about the blogosphere. And God knows bloggers are just about the touchiest people on the planet when somebody throws some criticism their way. But writers generally choose their words and their tone with some care, and the tone here is not merely a clinical description of how advocacy works. Rather, it seems deliberately designed to make netroots bloggers out as unusually dishonest, hackish, and wild-eyed, even though they're doing the same thing that millions of advocates before them have been doing for thousands of years.

And that's what rubbed me the wrong way.

UPDATE: Armando has a pretty good summary of the blogospheric reaction to Chait's piece here. I agree with nearly all of his comments.

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

DOMESTIC SPYING....The Bush administration wants to change the rules that govern domestic spying, but oddly enough, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are skeptical of the intelligence community's explanation:

With little apparent success, they portrayed the administration bill as merely an adjustment to technological changes wrought by cellphones, e-mail and the Internet since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was enacted in the 1970s.

....But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) responded, "We look through the lens of the past to judge how much we can trust you."

....[Sen. John] Rockefeller pressed a demand for documents and was joined by vice chair Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-Mo.). "There is simply no excuse for not providing to this committee all the legal opinions on the president's program," Rockefeller said.

I'd say their skepticism is well founded. Remember Bush's promise last January to put the NSA's domestic wiretapping program under control of the FISA court? During the same hearing, they backed down from that too: "The president's authority under Article II is in the Constitution," Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told Russ Feingold. "So if the president chose to exercise Article II authority, that would be the president's call."

Translation: the president's promise to Congress is meaningless. Glad we got that cleared up.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOST....AP asked all the presidential candidates what they'd want if they were stranded on a desert island. Oddly enough, Tom Tancredo gave the best answer.

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May 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RUDY!....Michael Wolff questions the journalistic bone fides of two reporters who have recently written profiles of Rudy Giuliani:

Neither reporter — both of whom accompanied Rudy on his campaign trips — appeared to have asked the obvious question (it's a reasonable question for all politicians, but it's professional negligence not to ask it of Rudy): whether he's on antidepressants or any other pharmacological mood stabilizers.

Read the whole thing to get a grasp of why veteran New Yorkers are astonished that anyone thinks Giuliani has even a remote chance of becoming president. Nickel version: it's only a matter of time until he implodes on the campaign trail with the cameras rolling. And rolling. And rolling.

This is why I think the Republican race is easier to call than the Democratic race. It seems to me that all three of the top Dems are serious contenders, and it's almost impossible to figure out which one is most likely to win. Among the Republicans, though, it's simpler: McCain is spiraling into irrelevance and seems clearly doomed; Rudy is a walking time bomb; and it's nothing more than a measure of GOP desperation that Fred Thompson is considered anything but a joke. So that leaves Mitt Romney. Despite his affection for Battlefield Earth, he seems like the only candidate with a chance.

As usual, I'm sure I'll turn out to be wrong about this. But I sure don't see how any of these other guys manages to muddle through.

Kevin Drum 9:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

BANANA REPUBLICANISM, CONT'D....Quote of the day, from Thomas Sowell:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can't help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

Now that's a comforting, conservative thought, isn't it? I wonder what Buckley thinks of NRO publishing stuff like this?

(And in case you're wondering, there's no further context. That's the whole quote. It's one bullet point in a long series of dyspeptic observations about how liberals have ruined the country.)

Kevin Drum 6:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (187)

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By: Kevin Drum

IS THE GOP DOOMED?....Real Clear Politics highlights the following exchange from ABC's This Week on Sunday:

George Stephanopoulos: If this now declared deadline of Gen. Petraeus of September, if the political goals haven't been met by then, do you see large scale Republican defections at that point?

George Will: Absolutely. They do not want to have, as they had in 2006, another election on Iraq. George, it took 30, 40 years for the Republican Party to get out from under Herbert Hoover. People would say, "Are you going to vote for Nixon in '60?" "No, I don't like Hoover." The Depression haunted the Republican Party. This could be a foreign policy equivalent of the Depression, forfeiting the Republican advantage they've had since the '68 convention of the Democratic Party and the nomination of [George] McGovern. The advantage Republicans have had on national security matters may be forfeited.

Will's comparison of Iraq to the Depression is probably overstated, but perhaps not by that much. The public may not trust a party that it feels is unwilling to wage war even when war needs to be waged, but it also doesn't trust a party that seems hell bent on charging into war no matter what the circumstances. As the Republican Party continues to be identified with guys like Bill Kristol, who seem (literally) to favor the use of force as the answer to virtually every foreign policy crisis, the public is eventually going to decide that the party is led by knee-jerk loons who don't have a clue how to run a real foreign policy — even if they do dress nicely and speak in well-modulated tones. Eventually, maybe even the mainstream media will figure this out too.

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By: Kevin Drum

FAVORITES....Today's mandatory blogging is about Mitt Romney's declaration that his favorite novel is L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, a bad science fiction book made into an even worse John Travolta vehicle a few years ago (Scott McLemee provides a precis here). Several people have suggested that Romney must be telling the truth about this since no one in his right mind would lie about liking this book, but I suspect something else: I suspect Romney just doesn't read much fiction and was stuck for an answer. His neurons fired away momentarily searching for something to say, and Battlefield Earth is what popped up.

But here's what I don't get. As Matt Yglesias points out, questions like this are tough on image conscious politicians:

I do, however, sympathize with Romney since questions like this are intrinsically hard to answer. I feel like the media's basic setup is that you ask it, then if the politician responds with something lowbrow he'll be criticized for being dumb, and if he responds with something highbrow he'll be criticized for being out-of-touch and aloof.

Right. So why aren't they all prepared for this? Favorite novel. Favorite film. Favorite color. Favorite food. Most inspiring leader. Etc. Why wing it when it's so easy to prepare in advance?

Needless to say, I'm here to help. Sort of. Four years ago I wrote a post suggesting good answers to the "favorite philosopher" question, and I recommend that all presidential wannabes read it. At the end, however, I promised to follow up with a selection of "safe, patriotic, audience friendly 'favorite books,'" but I never came through. So let's do it ourselves! Here are the original categories:

  • Moderately intellectual choice, suitable for being interviewed by George Will

  • Funny choice, suitable for being interviewed on MTV

  • Multicultural choice, suitable for being interviewed by New York Times

  • Populist choice, suitable for being interviewed by Parade

  • Safely patriotic choice, suitable for being interviewed by Rush Limbaugh

  • Thoughtful choice, suitable for being interviewed on PBS

  • Anti-terrorism choice, suitable for being interviewed by Andrew Sullivan

Fill in your recommendations in comments.

By the way, there are both fiction and nonfiction categories here. For example, I note that Romney, taking a page from George Bush's playbook, later said that although Battlefield Earth is one of his favorite novels, his favorite book is the Bible. I wonder if he thinks that's going to cut any ice with all those evangelicals who don't think Mormons are real Christians?

Kevin Drum 3:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (100)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NOISE MACHINE....Jon Chait has a long article in the New Republic today about the netroots and how it's changing liberal politics. It's not a bad piece, though Chait obviously struggles to come to a firm conclusion about what the netroots is really all about. This is a predicament I can sympathize with, since I've been blogging for five years myself and I still have a hard time putting my finger on it. Is it about ideology? Sort of, but not really. Party loyalty? Yes, though not for everyone. Iron-fisted organizational discipline? Sure, except when it's not. In some way, the netroots is all about defining what it means to be a "good Democrat," but beyond that it's a helluva slippery phenomenon, one of those "I know it when I see it" kind of things.

So, bloggerlike, I'll skip the whole question for now and instead highlight this passage about the creation of the right-wing noise machine in the 90s:

Liberals made several attempts to recreate the conservative message machine — Jim Hightower, Mario Cuomo, and countless others attempted and failed to create talk-radio programs. Most people concluded from these failures that liberals simply didn't want partisan vitriol of the sort offered up by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. They wanted high-minded discussions of the sort found on National Public Radio. Nonconservatives, wrote The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg in 2003, "wouldn't think it was fun to listen to expressions of raw contempt for conservatives."

This analysis, shared by nearly all observers just a few years ago, turns out to be completely wrong. Maybe an audience for raw partisan liberal attacks existed all along but was ill-served by piecemeal forays into talk radio. Or maybe the audience was born suddenly by the shock of the Bush years. In any case, it is obvious that a sizeable liberal audience was not being served the red meat it craved. "People were hungry for strong, unapologetic liberals, and those were completely absent from the media landscape," Moulitsas writes. "I mean, who did progressive [sic] have supposedly representing their side? Joe Frickin' Klein. Is it any wonder blogs grew in response?"

I've heard variations on this theme too many times to count, but is it really true? Daily Kos, which is unique in the political blogosphere, gets about 500,000 readers a day, and after that there's a huge gap to the next most popular liberal blogs, which average 100-150,000 readers. By national radio and TV standards, that's not "sizeable" at all. It's puny — and it's not growing much either. So it seems to me that Hertzberg was basically right: in the context of what it takes to support mass media, there just aren't very many liberals who are interested in listening to hour upon hour of seething resentment and raw contempt. That seems to still be a mostly conservative vice.

But it's still early days, I suppose. It took movement conservatives a couple of decades to build up their audience, and maybe it'll take liberals that long too. Or maybe not. Olbermann is doing pretty well these days, isn't he?

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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By: Kevin Drum

SAVING CAPITALISM....Daniel Gross has written a new book praising bubbles (i.e., the dotcom kind, not the soapy kind), and apparently he argues that the 1920s stock bubble was a good thing because it helped pave the way for the New Deal. James Joyner is puzzled:

It would be hard to conceive sparking the New Deal, aka the socialization of the American economy, as a sign of market forces working. Otherwise, the argument (as summarized) strikes me as quite plausible.

Well, "good for the economy" isn't necessarily the same thing as "market forces working" — not universally, anyway. But in any case, what's so hard to believe? Modern economies have a hard time operating efficiently without a fair amount of regulation, and the New Deal provided exactly that: the SEC to ensure transparency in financial markets, the FDIC to restore trust in the banking system, unemployment insurance and a minimum wage to provide at least a minimal buy-in to capitalism from the working class, and much else. The New Deal may have had its overreaches, but 70 years later I think everyone not to Tom DeLay's right agrees that moderately regulated capitalism works better than unregulated capitalism, and that framework was what the New Deal provided.

In other words: yes, the overall result of the New Deal really was to strengthen markets, not weaken them. After all, Bill Gates is richer than John D. Rockefeller ever was, and the worst recession we've had since World War II would be considered a mere inconvenience by our great-grandfathers. Seems like markets work pretty well these days.

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BYE, TONY....Tony Blair is apparently ready to end the guessing game and announce his retirement:

Mr Blair, who was campaigning for the Scottish parliamentary elections in Edinburgh, told party supporters: "Within the next few weeks, I won't be prime minister of this country.

"In all probability, a Scot will become prime minister of the United Kingdom."

If Blair sticks to this, it means Gordon Brown will be the new PM by the end of May. Brown has never been much of a fan of the Iraq War, so presumably this change means that the British withdrawal from Iraq will proceed, if anything, on an even quicker pace than before.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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LEARNING TO DELEGATE....Murray Waas reports that last year Alberto Gonzales ceded control over all hiring and firing of Justice Department employees to two of his aides:

In the order, Gonzales delegated to his then-chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, and his White House liaison "the authority, with the approval of the Attorney General, to take final action in matters pertaining to the appointment, employment, pay, separation, and general administration" of virtually all non-civil-service employees of the Justice Department, including all of the department's political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation. Monica Goodling became White House liaison in April 2006, the month after Gonzales signed the order.

The existence of the order suggests that a broad effort was under way by the White House to place politically and ideologically loyal appointees throughout the Justice Department, not just at the U.S.-attorney level. Department records show that the personnel authority was delegated to the two aides at about the same time they were working with the White House in planning the firings of a dozen U.S. attorneys, eight of whom were, in fact, later dismissed.

Well, Gonzales did tell us that administrative and managerial tasks weren't his strong suit. So I guess he figured it was best to just get out of the way and let a couple of underlings take direction directly from the White House political operation.

Now, that's pretty lame, but it's not illegal or anything. Except for the fact that he didn't see fit to say anything about this during his testimony before Congress a week ago. Even though hiring and firing of DOJ employees was the whole point of the hearing. Patrick Leahy isn't amused.

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END GAME....The political situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate:

The largest bloc of Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi Parliament threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Shiite-dominated cabinet on Monday in frustration over the government's failure to deal with Sunni concerns.

....The bloc, known as the Iraqi Consensus Front and made up of three Sunni Arab parties, "has lost hope in rectifying the situation despite all of its sincere and serious efforts to do so," the statement said.

If the Sunni group followed through on its threat, it would further weaken a government already damaged by the pullout two weeks ago of six cabinet ministers aligned with the renegade Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and further erode American efforts to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.

So what's the answer? More than likely there isn't one, but Cernig has a long post today in which he reminds us that (a) Ayad Allawi is still lurking around and (b) the Sunni politician Saleh Al-Mutlaq, head of the national dialogue front, has previously suggested that he and some allies are just waiting for the right time to form a new coalition government:

The front, he said, would include "the national dialogue front, the national Iraqi list led by Allawi, the reconciliation and liberation front led by Meshaan Aljuburi, and the Sadr movement." It would also draw support from Baathists, pan-arabists, the old Army leadership and seven important clerics.

....A coalition such as that described above, combining Sadrists, Sunni hardliners and Allawi-led secularists would, as noted above, [reduce] much of the ability and propensity of Iraqi activists against the occupation to create violence....I know it sounds counter-intuitive — but discreet support for the very elements which the US has fought for at least a goodly portion of the time it has been in Iraq — the Sunni and Shiite nationalists who believe in a sovereign Iraq — may be the only Plan B there is.

I can't really judge whether this makes sense or not, but it sounds at least plausible. And there's not much question that the Maliki government is on its last legs. Something's going to have to give before long, and maybe this is it.

Kevin Drum 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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