Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 31, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EDITORS....Andrew Sullivan vents:

The publishing industry is one of the shallowest, dumbest and most archaic in the U.S. No one edits anything. The publishers do not care what is in their books and neither, by and large, do editors.

Is this really true? The reason I ask is that in virtually every book I read, the author praises the book's editor in glowing terms. It doesn't usually seem pro forma, either. It sounds genuine and heartfelt.

Of course, we are talking about writers here, and I suppose it's pretty easy for them to fake heartfelt acknowledgments if they want to. Is that what's going on? Are they just sucking up? Or are editors really unsung heroes?

POSTSCRIPT: And what about Andrew himself? It just so happens that I own four copies of The Conservative Soul (don't ask), and turning to the acknowledgments I see that his editor is practically the first person he thanks. Was this heartfelt? Inquiring minds want to know.

Kevin Drum 8:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAFFREY AND THE SURGE....Matt Yglesias, blogging "curtly" from his iPhone, summarizes Barry McCaffrey's congressional testimony today:

General McCaffrey says we shouldn't even bother to ask whether or not the surge os working until petraeus — 'the most talented person I have ever met' — has had a year. He also says we need to give the iraq security forces many more resources. But he says we need to reduce the number of troops we have in iraq or the army will start unraveling in april. He says we can achieve that by leaving the cities. Acknowledges that this is inconsistent with pet's strategy.

This is crazy. It's completely incoherent. The whole point of the surge is to pacify the cities enough to allow some chance at political reconciliation. If you leave the cities, the whole thing falls apart. How can supposedly knowledgeable people say stuff like this?

Kevin Drum 5:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

EUGENICS....Can we get serious here? When Ross Douthat argues that "eugenics" is the right word to describe modern liberal attitudes toward abortion and gene therapy, he's not being "unfair" or "weird." He is, to use his own phrase, smearing people over a difference of opinion about bioethics.

Look: Ross is a smart guy. He knows perfectly well that modern liberals have no serious connection to eugenics advocates of the past. He knows perfectly well that abortion supporters aren't motivated by eugenicist theories. He's not using the word out of a dedication to scientific precision. Rather, he and his fellow conservatives are using the word "eugenics" because they also know perfectly well that it's (quite rightly) associated with racism, pseudo-science, and Adolf Hitler. As far as they're concerned, that's a feature, not a bug.

This is highbrow Rush Limbaugh-ism, not serious argument. Back to the sandbox with it.

Kevin Drum 3:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Kevin Drum

BARK vs. BITE....Dan Drezner, commenting on the fact that the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates are passing up the centrist DLC's summer meeting in favor of speaking at YearlyKos, says:

The fact that YearlyKos matters more than the DLC seems like pretty damning and uncomplicated evidence to me of where the party has traveled over the last four years.

Actually, I think it is a little more complicated than the simple "left vs. centrist" spin that most people have put on this. In substantive terms, after all, the three main Democratic candidates this year are only slightly to the left of DLC big dog Bill Clinton himself.

Rather, it seems like this is mostly about optics. In the 90s, Democrats were still fighting the countercultural backlash of the 70s and needed ways to demonstrate their willingness to abandon old orthodoxies. Hanging with the DLC was a terrific way of signalling to both the press and the public that the party had reinvented itself.

But that reinvention is a done deal. As far as the optics are concerned, the DLC isn't really necessary anymore. YearlyKos is.

But it's not because the average Kossack is to the left of the average DLCer. The real difference is that the average Kossack is obsessed with Democrats having the stones to stand up to the modern Republican machine. Presidential candidates get trashed in the Kos diaries not so much when they take disfavored policy positions (though of course that happens too), but when they're viewed as backing down from a fight. The median Kossack may indeed be to the left of the median Democrat — it would be shocking if an activist group weren't — but mainly they just want their candidates to show some backbone.

I suppose in some sense this is a distinction without a difference. A median Democrat who stands up to the GOP and refuses to budge is, willy nilly, going to end up to the left of a median Democrat who looks for bipartisan compromise. But let's face it: if YearlyKos were genuinely more substantively powerful than the DLC, you'd see the big three candidates taking public positions considerably to the left of the party's positions ten years ago. If that's the case, though, I've missed it. No one's talking about rolling back welfare reform. No one's proposed a healthcare initiative even half as comprehensive as the 1994 Clinton plan. All three candidates continue to claim they're personally opposed to gay marriage. Their rhetoric on guns and abortion is much more muted than in the past. They mostly agree that some of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to expire, but not much more. They want to get out of Iraq, but that's a thoroughly mainstream position, and none of them are willing to commit to a complete withdrawal in any case.

So has the Democratic Party moved to the left? Probably a bit. There are more misgivings about trade policy; more concern over rising income inequality; and, for obvious reasons, more skepticism about foreign military interventions. In policy terms, though, the response to all of these things has been pretty muted. Speechmaking at YearlyKos vs. the DLC is far more about bark than bite.

Kevin Drum 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEST IN THE WORLD....Andrew Tobias relates his partner's latest run-in with the American healthcare industry:

Charles went to his back surgeon in debilitating pain last month and his back surgeon told him to go for an MRI so they could see what was happening and Charles's assistant called his health insurer to get prior approval for the MRI but the health insurer said it would take three days to get approval so (did I mention Charles was in debilitating pain?) Charles got it anyway, at a cost of $2,480, which the health insurer will not pay because it was unapproved.

It's a good system.

Oh sure, carp all you want. But did you know that in France they're so impoverished that they only have one MRI machine for the whole country? And the waiting list is 15 years? And nobody knows how to operate it anyway because the instructions are in English and no one in France speaks English? So buck up, Charles.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Kevin Drum

BARKING MAD....The Nation provides a pithy explanation of why Ron Paul is a lunatic who shouldn't be allowed within a thousand yards of the White House:

Look at those policy positions! Abolish the IRS and Federal Reserve; balance the budget; go back to the gold standard; pull out of the U.N. and NATO;....fence the borders; deport illegals; stop lecturing foreign governments about human rights; let the Middle East go hang. What's not to like?

Wait. Did I say The Nation? Sorry. Actually, that was John Derbyshire writing in National Review about why Ron Paul would be absolutely brilliant as president of the United States.

Have I mentioned lately that these guys are barking mad? Consider it done.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (141)

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By: Kevin Drum

R.I.P.....Very sad. Apparently the Bancrofts have decided to sell the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch.

UPDATE: Eric Alterman comments (in a column written several days ago):

It is rather shocking that so many people who care about the future of journalism remain silent or sanguine about his impact on one of democracy's most important professions. The news pages in the Wall Street Journal are about the smartest and bravest of any newspaper in America. Some people, like Dow Jones CEO Richard Zannino, enjoy stock holdings that offer roughly 20 million good reasons to believe that such journalism can continue unimpeded within the Murdoch empire. But the rest of us might as well believe in Peter Pan.

....The silver lining of this takeover is that when Murdoch destroys the credibility of the Journal — as he must if it is to fit in with his business plan — he will be removing the primary pillar of the editorial page's influence as well. In this regard his ownership is a kind of poisoned chalice.

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

CRAZIFICATION....According to Rasmussen, 28% of Americans hold a favorable opinion of Alberto Gonzales. It's yet more evidence for the John Rogers Theory of Crazification. I mean, it's one thing to argue that, technically, maybe Gonzales isn't quite guilty of perjury, but to actively approve of him? Why?

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....President Bush on Monday, talking about new British prime minister Gordon Brown:

He's a problem solver. He's a glass-half-full man, not a glass-half-empty guy, you know. Some of these world leaders say, 'Oh, the problems are so significant, let us retreat, let us not take them on, they're too tough'.

Where does he come up with this stuff? Who are these foreign leaders who are so overwhelmed with their jobs that they want to go hide in a closet? I want names.

Kevin Drum 1:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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July 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PROFESSIONALS STUDY LOGISTICS....An interesting point from Amory Lovins in an interview over at Grist:

About a third of our army's wartime fuel use is for generator sets, and nearly all of that electricity is used to air-condition tents in the desert, known as "space cooling by cooling outer space." We recently had a two-star Marine general commanding in western Iraq begging for efficiency and renewables to untether him from fuel convoys, so he could carry out his more important missions. This is a very teachable moment for the military. The costs, risks, and distractions of fuel convoys and power supplies in theater have focused a great deal of senior military attention on the need for not dragging around this fat fuel-logistics tail — therefore for making military equipment and operations several-fold more energy efficient.

The Apollo program gave us Tang, so why can't the Iraq war give us fuel-efficient vehicles? It would be nice to get some benefit out of it, after all.

Kevin Drum 3:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRED THOMPSON UPDATE....It turns out that Fred "The Great White Hope" Thompson managed to raise only a piddling $3 million in the second quarter of the year. Reaction has been swift:

Some are already saying a prospective Thompson run is a flop. "I just don't see it anymore," said a key Republican who had been extremely enthusiastic about a Thompson candidacy.

"That number is really underwhelming. There were indications it could be double that. They've been saying that people were waiting for Fred, and the money was going to pour in. He looks like he's already losing momentum."

And the Thompson camp's response? Hey, he's just testing the waters:

"There has been some criticism that the testing-the-waters committee is not such a testing-the-waters committee....He's raising enough to test the waters....It's a testing-the-waters-type number."

So, um, how does the water feel, Fred? Chilly?

Kevin Drum 2:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOR THE RECORD....Just to make sure there's no misunderstanding, Ross Douthat explains today that, yes, he really does believe that modern progressives favor a "new eugenics." Or, in any case, "eugenic-ish tendencies." Or, when we actually get down to the nub of the thing as it relates to actual progressives, "an unfettered right to abortion." So that explains that.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

SERIOUS DEBATE....Matt Yglesias writes today about the media's treatment of last week's mini-fracas between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Why, he asks, were pundits interested almost exclusively in the politics of the disagreement instead of the substance?

The first votes won't be cast until months from now. Why not cover what the candidates are saying about things and whether or not those things make sense? Why not let the issues play out a little bit and just wait and see who gains the advantage? Whether or not either Clinton or Obama ever intended to establish a sharp policy disagreement, there is an interesting issue here — should the United States abandon its policy of seeking to "isolate" countries we don't like by refusing to talk to them unless they first meet a series of preconditions?

This is a standard complaint about modern media coverage of politics, and God knows I'm sympathetic to it. I'd sure like the media to spend more time on substance.

On the other hand, Clinton and Obama themselves didn't exactly take the chance to elevate this into a scholarly colloquium themselves, did they? Instead we got Clinton calling Obama "naive" and "irresponsible," and Obama hitting back by accusing Clinton of endorsing a "Bush/Cheney lite" foreign policy. Enlightening stuff, no? Is it any wonder the press covered this as a food fight rather than a serious debate?

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SAUDI ARMS DEAL....I've only been following the recently announced Saudi arms deal with half an eye and don't really have a strong opinion about it. However, William Arkin's rundown of the deal today sure sounds about right:

There isn't one weapon in the package that will enhance American interests or security — or Saudi security, for that matter — and there certainly isn't one that threatens Israel....The Saudi monarchy has methodically focused its military on pomp and equipment and spiffy uniforms, ensuring that it not acquire any real offensive capacity or the ability to operate as a coherent force. It does not want a competent, independent military contemplating a coup. These toys are really for the battalions of princes to play with.

....Want early warning of what will happen? Despite congressional opposition, Saudi Arabia will get its arms: the money is just too much and the lobbying will just be too intense. Israel will voice its concern but basically accept the deal; it knows fundamentally that there is no Saudi airplane that threatens it. The Saudis will pledge to rein in extremists supporting the insurgency and terror in Iraq, then basicallly do nothing. And Iran will protest (in fact, it already has), to no avail. Tehran, of course, needn't worry either, although American domination of the arms supply will solidify the American empire in the region, at least militarily.

....American contractors will train, maintain and even operate the new Saudi equipment. American military personnel will follow. We will buy nothing in terms of security, and we will just put our own people in danger. But most important, we will once again renew the cycle of American penetration into the heart of Islam, one of Osama bin Laden's original and most compelling rallying points. That's why the Saudi deal is so dangerous.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

WANKER OF THE DAY....Chuck Schumer.

Look, I know Schumer's job is to raise money, and I know that Wall Street for a New York senator is the equivalent of the corn farming industry for an Iowa senator. But still. If you write a book about how much you love the middle class, the least you can do is have the gumption to support taxing hedge fund billionaires at the same rate as everyone else. Hell, even Robert Rubin supports changing the tax rate on carried interest.

Blecch. I really hate the Democratic leadership sometimes. It's a good thing for them I hate the Republican leadership so much more.

Kevin Drum 12:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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July 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

USAGE QUERY....A Washington Post story about an upcoming auction of wireless spectrum includes this sentence:

The auction is also testing the political might of Google, which has to this point been somewhat of an outsider in Washington.

Question: do you think the phrase "somewhat of" is correct in this context? I see this a lot, and it strikes me as flatly wrong. It should be "something of an outsider."

Agree? Disagree? Did "somewhat of" used to be incorrect but has since become standard usage? Or has it always been OK?

Kevin Drum 10:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

MEN ARE PIGS, PART 487....I've long counseled women I know to be more aggressive when it comes to negotiating salary and benefits on the job. My usual advice is, "Honest, no one will think the worse of you for trying. The worst that can happen is that they say no."

Sadly, Shankar Vedantam reports today on some recent research from Linda Babcock and Hannah Riley Bowles suggesting that that's not the worst that can happen. It all depends on which gender you're negotiating with:

Their study...found that women's reluctance [to negotiate] was based on an entirely reasonable and accurate view of how they were likely to be treated if they did. Both men and women were more likely to subtly penalize women who asked for more — the perception was that women who asked for more were "less nice".

"What we found across all the studies is men were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not," Bowles said. "They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not."

....Subsequent studies used actors who recorded videos of themselves asking for more money or accepting salaries they had been offered. A new group of 285 volunteers were again asked whether they would be willing to work with the candidates after viewing the videos. Men tended to rule against women who negotiated but were less likely to penalize men; women tended to penalize both men and women who negotiated, and preferred applicants who did not ask for more.

So: if you're dealing with a man, negotiating puts you at a disadvantage compared to men who are applying for the same position. Your choice, then, is to either negotiate and risk not getting the job at all, or to stay quiet and accept a lower offer than a man would get. On balance, I think I'd still offer the same advice I always have, since I suspect the downside of negotiating might be a fairly short-term thing. Still, "the worst that can happen is that they say no" is obviously a little too glib, especially if you're dealing with a seething biological sack of testosterone on the other side of the desk.

Kevin Drum 10:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (126)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALL ALONE....Wow. There's literally no one left who will come to Alberto Gonzales's defense anymore, even on Fox News. "We invited White House officials and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend Attorney General Gonzales," Chris Wallace said today on Fox News Sunday. "We had no takers."

And in other news, my liberal blogger license would probably be suspended if I didn't link to this story in the Washington Post today:

A surgeon general's report in 2006 that called on Americans to help tackle global health problems has been kept from the public by a Bush political appointee without any background or expertise in medicine or public health, chiefly because the report did not promote the administration's policy accomplishments, according to current and former public health officials.

The sad thing is that this kind of story doesn't even outrage me anymore. It just seems like baseline performance from the Bush administration. And there's still 541 days to go.....

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE....Yesterday I was scratching my chin over the accusation that a "new eugenics" had begun to rear its ugly head among modern progressives. Where had that come from, I wondered. Today, via Matt, I see that Rick Perlstein has shed some light on this question. Here's Glenn Beck at the end of a weird rant about the monstrousness of Al Gore's fight against global warming:

Then [i.e., in the 20s and 30s] you get the scientists — eugenics. You get the scientists — global warming. Then you have to discredit the scientists who say, 'That's not right.' And you must silence all dissenting voices. That's what Hitler did.

So that's the deal. A few old-time progressives touted eugenics as a "scientific" approach to improving human nature back in the early 20th century, and modern-day progressives tout "science" as evidence that global warming is real in the early 21st century. Our reliance on science, then, basically means that we're pining away for the days of legalized racism. Gotcha.

Now, here's the thing: Glenn Beck, Yuval Levin, and Ross Douthat didn't come up with this stuff themselves. But it didn't just pop up out of nowhere either. It's way too abstruse for that. Rather, some bright boy or girl in the conservative movement dreamed this up and now it's being run up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes. If it gets some attention, it'll be rolled out to a wider audience.

So whose bright idea was this? Is there a proud parent out there who wants to take credit?

UPDATE: By the way, I should note that this new meme apparently replaces the old meme, namely that liberals aren't any more dedicated to science than conservatives, they just have different blind spots. Oddly, one of the pieces of evidence for the old meme was liberal antipathy toward evolutionary psychology (aka sociobiology) and our concomitant unwillingness to accept the vast scientific evidence showing that IQ is primarily controlled by genetics. In other words, our supposedly irrational anti-eugenics stand.

Well, whatever. Consistency has never been a strong point among movement conservatives. If X doesn't work, try not-X!

UPDATE 2: Ah. A friend emails to say that Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism, links progressivism and eugenics. Of course it does. And various folks are probably just starting to get their advance reading copies. So this will soon be the topic du jour in conservative circles.

My heart leaps with joy at the thought.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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By: Kevin Drum

OPEN THREAD....Topic of the day: carpool lanes. Are you for 'em or against 'em?

Kevin Drum 1:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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July 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

"DATA MINING" != "SURVEILLANCE"?....What was the big dispute about on March 10, 2004, when Alberto Gonzales paid a hospital visit to a doped-up John Ashcroft to try to persuade him to approve a controversial NSA program? Gonzales says the dispute wasn't over the NSA's "terrorist surveillance program," and today the New York Times takes a stab at explaining how he could say such a thing in the face of massive evidence to the contrary:

A 2004 dispute over the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program that led top Justice Department officials to threaten resignation involved computer searches through massive electronic databases, according to current and former officials briefed on the program.

....The N.S.A.'s data mining has previously been reported. But the disclosure that concerns about it figured in the March 2004 debate helps to clarify the clash this week between Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and senators who accused him of misleading Congress and called for a perjury investigation.

....If the dispute chiefly involved data mining, rather than eavesdropping, Mr. Gonzales' defenders may maintain that his narrowly crafted answers, while legalistic, were technically correct.

Give me a break. Are these guys serious?

Kevin Drum 6:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

ORDER IN THE COURT....I guess maybe the American public is paying attention after all:

Nearly a third of the public — 31 percent — thinks the court is too far to the right, a noticeable jump since the question was last asked in July 2005. That's when Bush nominated John G. Roberts Jr. to the court and, in the six-month period that followed, the Senate approved Roberts as chief justice and confirmed Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

....The public seems to have noticed the shift. The percentage who said the court is "too conservative" grew from 19 percent to 31 percent in the past two years, while those who said it is "generally balanced in its decisions" declined from 55 percent to 47 percent.

Looks like Chuck Schumer picked a good time to announce his new "Just Say No" policy on Bush Supreme Court nominees.....

Kevin Drum 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE DECLINE OF THE DAILY NEWSPAPER....There's been lots of blog talk about the decline of newspapers over the past few days. A lot of it focuses on the fact that although the raw number of news outlets has decreased, in practical terms we all have access to far more news than we used to. And that's true for now. But here's the problem:

Serious, daily, national reporting is overwhelmingly the preserve of a tiny handful of big-city newspapers with large staffs and worldwide bureaus. Of these, the Los Angeles Times is under pressure to downsize by its parent company, as is the Washington Post. Knight Ridder was recently purchased by McClatchy. And every big-metro daily in the country, including the still-independent New York Times, is under relentless pressure from deteriorating circulation, poor demographics, loss of classified ad revenue to the Internet, and the decline of urban department stores — storms that private owners might have weathered but institutional investors have no stomach for.

When these dailies succumb, there's really nothing to replace them. Television news does very little in-depth daily reporting, most radio is hopeless, and blogs simply don't have the resources. Magazines do some good work but come out only weekly or monthly. So while the raw numbers of media consolidation may be the most dramatic symptom of the problem, it's the small number of national dailies at the core of today's MSM that ought to be the biggest cause for concern.

Unsurprisingly, since I wrote those words, I agree completely. If I had to guess, I'd say that upwards of two-thirds of serious, daily reporting on national and international topics in the U.S. press comes from five sources: the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and McClatchy. If the Denver Post dies, that's bad for Denver, but what happens when the Big Five die? There's really nothing to replace them.

Now, sure, there are other sources of information. I can read the Guardian and the Financial Times anytime I want. There's plenty of good reporting in weekly and monthly magazines. Wire services and TV can provide basic coverage of press conferences and congressional hearings. It's not as if we'll be bereft of news.

But when it comes to daily reporting from Iraq; when it comes to uncovering things like the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program or the identity of Curveball; when it comes to serious investigations of federal corruption or corporate malfeasance — well, most of that is done by the Big Five. Not all of it. But most of it. And I'm not quite sure who's up to the task of doing the kind of very costly reporting that this stuff requires if these big dailies either go away or shrivel into mere local outlets.

Maybe I'm worrying over nothing. After all, if there's a demand for this kind of reporting, someone will provide it. And there is a demand for it. Right?

UPDATE: On the other hand, the New York Times reports today that Arizona State University is going to place a tuition surcharge on journalism majors starting next year. I guess the journalism profession can't be suffering too badly if there are so many aspiring reporters that ASU needs to beat them off with a stick. I wonder what all these kids are planning to do with their j-school training?

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

DIVIDE AND CONQUER....In a review/essay critiquing both the phraseology and the underlying reality of the "war on terror," Samantha Powers notes the following from Ian Shapiro's new book, Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror:

Shapiro is at his most persuasive when he argues against lumping Islamic radical threats together. He points out that at the time of the cold war, George Kennan, the formulator of the containment policy, warned against treating Communism as a monolith. Policy makers, Kennan said, ought to emphasize the differences among and within Communist groups and "contribute to the widening of these rifts without assuming responsibility." The Bush administration, by contrast, has grouped together a hugely diverse band of violent actors as terrorists, failing to employ divide-and-conquer tactics.

Although it is tempting to feel overwhelmed by the diversity of the threats aligned against the United States, Shapiro says that very diversity presents us with opportunities, since it "creates tensions among our adversaries' agendas, as well as openings for competition among them." To pry apart violent Islamic radicals, the United States has to become knowledgeable about internal cleavages and be patient in exploiting them.

This is the serious side of dumb gaffes from people like Rudy Giuliani, who seem unable to distinguish between even simple divisions like Sunni and Shia. They're not just demonstrating a willfull ignorance, they're demonstrating an ignorance of one of the key levers we have for fighting violent jihadism. If you treat everyone who's ever said a salaat as an enemy, you've lost the battle before it's even started.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESSIVES....Holy cats. Are conservatives really gearing up to do the same thing to "progressive" that they've spent the last few decades doing to "liberal"? Over at The Corner, Yuval Levin takes a shot at it:

Progressivism, after all, has a very mixed history in American politics, which takes in not only efforts to reform labor laws, bust trusts, and create national parks but also some serious doses of racism, social Darwinism, eugenics, and a very strange mix of authoritarianism and out of control populism....Ross [Douthat] suggests it is no coincidence that the growing preference for the term "progressive" comes at a time when a new eugenics is rearing its head, and when the left is increasingly emphasizing its self-identification as the party of science.

Lovely, no? Did you know before now that a "new eugenics" was rearing its head? Did you even know there was a new eugenics? And that apparently us progressive types endorse it? And furthermore that if we call ourselves progressives we're implicitly endorsing every odious view of every person who's ever called himself a progressive?

Good gravy. These guys really don't know when to quit, do they?

Kevin Drum 1:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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July 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BOMB, BOMB, BOMB IRAN....Nils Gilman reminds me of a recent Heritage Foundation study that I forgot to blog about. Basically, Heritage decided to model the economic effects of bombing Iran and concluded that those effects would be bad (oil prices up, GDP down, employment down, recession in the offing, etc.). However, since Heritage is institutionally committed to insane hawkery, they reran their model with a few changes and discovered that the results weren't so bad after all. In fact, bombing Iran might even be good for the economy!

Now, my first thought when I read this was: holy hell. Out of all the possible things they could spend their time doing, they decided to expend a substantial effort on torturing the data to come up with some plausible way of claiming that bombing Iran would be just peachy as far as the U.S. economy is concerned. Wow. That's dedication to the cause.

But it gets even better. Guess what policy actions we need to take in order to turn bombing Iran from a net negative to a net positive? You guessed it: policy actions that the Heritage Foundation prefers in the first place. Fund the military! Ease regulatory burdens! End tariffs on ethanol! Don't raise gasoline taxes! Approve drilling in ANWR! "The results were impressive," the Heritage folks tell us, beaming with pride. "The policy recommendations eliminated virtually all of the negative outcomes from the blockade." Nils comments: "Actually, the thing I found most surprising about the scenario was that these guys didn't seem to realize that another obvious consequence of bombing [Iran] is that it will require an abolition of the capital gains tax to tide us through the emergency."

The serious side to this, of course, is that Heritage now has this study sitting on their shelf just waiting for the next time Iran hawkery is again in the news. And when someone says that, among other things, it would be economically devastating, they'll be able to very soberly claim that a sophisticated economic model says we have nothing to worry about — as long as we do all the things Heritage says we ought to do. And sane people almost certainly won't have a comparable piece of claptrap to fight back with. Ugh.

Kevin Drum 6:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

YOUNG PEOPLE....Matt Yglesias notes something from that survey of young people that I missed earlier this morning:

White young people like the GOP just fine; the GOP has a two point advantage. The issue is that black and hispanic youth loathe Republicans and the younger demographic has disproportionately few non-Hispanic whites....The Democratic leanings of young people are driven by giant advantages among women (+28), people with no college education (+28), Hispanics (+42), and blacks (+76).

I don't have anything sparkling to add to this, but just thought it was worth pointing out.

And while we're on the subject of writing about young people, you know what's really hard about writing about young people? Coming up with synonyms for "young people." A couple of weeks ago I wrote an op-ed about the Republican collapse among our nation's youth, and the hardest part was figuring out ways to avoid saying "young people" about twice per paragraph. Eventually I came up with "Gen Y," "today's youth," "young voters," "twenty-somethings," and "18-29 year olds." Crikey.

Kevin Drum 5:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....This is Domino's latest conquest, a wicker basket that we accidentally left out a few days ago. It's her new favorite thing. Any bets on how long it will take her to get bored with it?

And speaking of Domino: Yesterday Marian and I went to the Orange County Fair (type "Drum" in the search box here to see why) and saw Domino's twin. It was a goat at the petting zoo: jet black, white mark on its forehead, and a big pear-shaped butt just like D's. I suppose this describes lots of goats, but the first thought both of us had was, "Man, that looks just like a gigantic Domino." We're just easily amused city folks, I guess.

As for Inkblot, I thought a picture of him under the bench highlighted by streaks of light might be cool. Turns out I was wrong. But that's the picture you get anyway.

In other cat news, you've all seen the story of Oscar the amazing death cat, haven't you? If not, here it is. Also, a reminder: cat threads are for cat comments. (Example: "Aw, he's so cute!" Or: "Kitties!") No politics allowed. Them's the rules.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CREDIT BUBBLE....Steven Pearlstein writes today about the subprime mortgage meltdown and the more general credit bubble that it was a part of:

The nature of credit bubbles is that the difference in interest rates paid by risky borrowers and safe borrowers narrows. Never in history were they as narrow as they were just a few weeks ago.

....A credit bubble develops when there's too much money to lend and too few places to lend it. A world capital glut has been created by the impending retirement of the baby-boom generation and the globalization of finance, which has made the savings of billions of people in developing countries available for investment overseas.

But I wonder if there's more to it? A tax code that supports free and easy capital formation is a good thing, but when does it become too much of a good thing? Middle class workers generally spend most of their earnings on consumption while the rich, who can't spend it all, look for investment opportunities. So as income inequality spreads and the rich accumulate ever more money; as their top marginal tax rates go down; as capital gains taxes are reduced in order to spur investment; and as the Fed chairman actively supports dodgy loan practices — all of these things contribute to ever more cash looking for places to be invested. When there's too much of this cash floating around, you get a credit bubble.

If the only people hurt by this were the rich who created the bubble in the first place, it probably wouldn't be a big deal. But there's a price to be paid by all of us for a bubble created partly by policies that favor investment and capital to the exclusion of almost everything else. Conservative economics run amok hurts everyone.

But you already knew that.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT....This is about what you'd expect, but Democracy Corps has released yet another survey demonstrating that the Republican Party is losing young people in droves. Among 18-29 year olds, 50% have a favorable view of the Democratic Party compared to only 35% for the Republican Party. There are plenty of reasons for this, but basically they hate George Bush, they hate the Iraq war, and they hate religious conservatives.

The good news, of course, is that people are brand loyal. Once they make up their minds in their twenties which party they like better, they generally stick with it for the rest of their lives. So the Republican Party's deal with the devil to embrace the Christian Right might have helped them out for a while, but in the long term it's a disaster. Sic transit etc.

The full report is here.

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OBAMA vs. CLINTON....OK, so at Monday's YouTube debate Barack Obama was asked if he'd meet with assorted foreign baddies "without precondition" and he said he would. Hillary Clinton, sharp debater that she is, spied an opening and shot back that she wouldn't meet with anyone until the diplomatic groundwork had been set. Boo yah! Obama is naive! Point for Hillary!

Fine. Whatever. This seemed like a pretty minor gotcha to me, since it rises and falls on the assumption that Obama was saying he'd literally hop onto Air Force One and jet off to Caracas a couple of weeks after his inauguration. In other words, silly season stuff.

But no! Obama and Clinton have now spent the entire weeking exchanging barbs over this. And Brian Beutler thinks this is a good thing:

I think the escalating rhetorical battle the two senators is perhaps the only helpful instance of campaign jousting I've ever seen. At the same time, I only think I'll believe that as long as Barack Obama wins, or at least puts up a good show. Because what we are seeing is, in as close to an unfiltered way as possible, a standoff between a status quo foreign policy and a much more constructive (though I hesitate to say new) direction.

Certainly what you're hearing from Clinton and Obama is a healthier debate than what you're hearing from journalists. Clinton's basic position is that Obama has, by announcing his intent to engage enemy leaders, proven that he's too naive to set the country's foreign policy. Obama, on the other hand, contends that Clinton's foreign policy ideas are too similar to George Bush's for comfort. As far as I'm concerned, I think Obama's argument is basically correct and Hillary's argument is totally nuts, but in any case both arguments are pretty close facsimiles to what the two candidates actually believe about foreign policy.

Hmmm. So not silly season stuff after all? That's an interesting thought, though it's worth pointing out that Obama's original answer to the debate question included the following caveat: "One of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses." Is there really a substantive difference between Obama's plan to "send a signal" and Clinton's plan to "use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters"? If there is, it's a mighty small one.

Still, I take Brian's point. It's rare to have a discussion about foreign policy that actually revolves around a concrete point, and by foreign policy standards this one counts as at least a mud brick point. Basically, do you think the United States should, as a routine part of its foreign policy, say that it's willing to talk to any country that's willing to talk to us? That the mere act of talking isn't a tacit capitulation to a rogue regime's demands?

I sure think so, and not just for the obvious reason that talking can sometimes lead to actual results. The bigger reason is that if you talk routinely, then the mere act of talking isn't a tacit capitulation to a rogue regime's demands and can't possibly be spun that way. It's just something we do.

So: not such a bad discussion after all. More heat than light, to be sure, but even a little bit of light is welcome in the darkness that defines American foreign policy these days.

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY IS HE LYING?....About two minutes ago I got an email from a reader asking a question that's been on my mind too: Why is Alberto Gonzales lying?

I'm not talking about his stonewalling in the U.S. Attorney firings. His motivation is pretty obvious there. I'm talking about his insistence that the meetings he held on March 10, 2004, just before he buttonholed John Ashcroft in the hospital that evening, weren't about the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. What am I missing here? Gonzales seems to think it's important to persuade the public that there was no internal dissension over the wiretapping program, but why? There's a huge amount of evidence from every major player that there was internal dissension, and an equally huge amount of evidence that that's exactly what the meetings were about.

So not only is Gonzales fighting an obviously losing battle, but it doesn't strike me as a battle that's even very important. So what if there was dissent? There's dissent about a lot of stuff. It's not that big a deal. In any case, certainly not a big enough deal to commit perjury over.

What am I missing?

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CANCER AROUND THE WORLD....Over at TNR, Jon Cohn provides us with the latest dope from the Annals of Oncology. Exciting! The question at hand is whether the United States, with its awesome private healthcare system, is better at delivering new cancer drugs to patients than Europe, with its array of feeble and feckless public healthcare systems. At first, it looks like the United States is the winner, but when you dig a little deeper it turns out that this has a lot to do with the fact that the study includes lots of countries that have very low healthcare spending, like Great Britain and Eastern Europe. So what happens when you do an apples-to-apples comparison?

If you really want to know how universal health insurance per se affects the diffusion of cancer drugs, a much more logical comparison would be between the U.S. and some of the countries that more closely resemble us in terms of economic development — and that don't spent quite so little money on their own medical care systems. And guess what happens if you do that? A very different picture emerges: We may be atop the world when it comes to getting new cancer drugs to our patients, but we're hardly alone on that perch. Three other countries — Austria, France, and Switzerland — are right there with us.

....Admittedly, the paper is vague on one key point: It doesn't indicate whether, among those four world leaders, the U.S. stands out as the best. If it did, the argument against universal health care might still have some small merit. Fortunately, Jonsson and Wilking have e-mail addresses. And they were kind enough to respond when I contacted them. "Overall," I asked, "was one country significantly and consistently better than the other three?" Wilking's response: "Not really."

I suppose you're all getting tired of hearing this, but the conclusion here is pretty much the same as it is every time you look at the U.S. vs. Europe: the differences are almost entirely about money. If you have a national healthcare system but you spend way less than the United States (as Great Britain does), you can provide good but not great service. If you spend modestly less than the United States (as France does) you can provide healthcare every bit as good as ours — and cover every single citizen in the bargain.

And what if you actually spend as much as the United States — but you have to put up with our ragtag private delivery system? Then you get healthcare about as good as France's, except that it doesn't cover everyone, it bankrupts large companies, and it goes away anytime you get laid off. And all for only about 40% more than anyone else in the world pays. Pretty good system, eh?

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THE REAL OC....Finally, my hometown of Irvine gets written up in Slate. And any publicity is good publicity, right?

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July 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SCOTT THOMAS....Have you been following the Scott Thomas story? He's a pseudonymous soldier in Iraq who wrote a couple of columns for TNR describing the ways in which war robs us of our humanity. One soldier dug up a skull and wore it on his head. Another one amused himself by running over dogs in his Bradley. Thomas himself mocked a woman who had been disfigured by an IED.

Conservative sites went crazy. Thomas didn't really exist. His stories were made up. The left hates the troops. Etc. etc.

The whole thing has been kind of weird. Needless to say, Thomas does exist (he went public this morning on TNR's blog) and so far nobody has any evidence that he's made anything up. What's more, his point is, if anything, so common as to be almost banal. So why the hysteria? I guess Andrew Sullivan has the best take on it:

Mainly, it seems to me, the conservative blogosphere has taken such an almighty empirical beating this last year that they have an overwhelming psychic need to lash out at those still clinging to sanity on the war. This Scott Thomas story is a godsend for these people, a beautiful distraction from the reality they refuse to face.

It combines all the usual Weimar themes out there: treasonous MSM journalists, treasonous soldiers, stories of atrocities that undermine morale (regardless of whether they're true or not), and blanket ideological denial. We have to understand that some people still do not believe that the U.S. is torturing or has tortured detainees, still do not believe that torture or murder or rape occurred at Abu Ghraib, still believe that everyone at Gitmo is a dangerous terrorist captured by US forces, and still believe we're winning in Iraq.

Like a Kabuki story, though, you can already see how this is going to play out. Not only will Thomas's character be dragged savagely through the mud (Michelle Malkin is leading the charge over at her site), but eventually some small part of Thomas's account will turn out to be slightly exaggerated and the right will erupt in righteous fervor. They were right all along! Thomas did make up his stories! The left does hate the troops! The war is going swimmingly! At least, it would be if the MSM weren't undermining it at every turn.

Etc. etc. It's almost like we don't even have to bother with real life anymore.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....Ana Marie Cox on how to get the Bush administration to cooperate with Senate questioning:

You know if the Senate would just call it "legislative waterboarding" and not "oversight," I bet they could get Cheney to support it.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMPEACHMENT FEVER....M.J. Rosenberg argues that impeachment should not be off the table:

The Constitutional remedy of impeachment is no longer what it once was. For better or worse, the Republicans changed it, for all time, when they impeached Clinton over, essentially, nothing.

And Clinton changed it as well. Impeachment not only did not end his Presidency; it did not hurt his standing with the public. His numbers stayed high, even improved some, and he left office on schedule, a very popular President.

In other words, impeachment is no longer the political nuclear bomb it once was, especially if one knows in advance that conviction and removal from office is unlikely to occur.

Accordingly, impeachment proceedings are essentially the best means of getting information to the public which is otherwise unavailable.

Impeachment should become a routine tool for getting public attention whenever we disagree with a president of the opposite party? This might be the worst argument in favor of impeachment of all time.

Can we all please get a grip here? Remember: revenge is a dish best served cold.

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By: Kevin Drum

OZONE....Here's the latest news on the climate change front:

Rising levels of ozone pollution near the ground are damaging the ability of plants to take up carbon dioxide, reducing their potential to act as a counterbalance to greenhouse gas accumulation, scientists said Wednesday.

....The finding adds a new component that will have to be factored into climate models used to assess the future effects of global warming, they said.

....[Stephen] Sitch and his colleagues projected that the largest reduction in carbon absorption would take place over North America, Europe, China and India.

So burning fossil fuels not only produces CO2, but also creates ozone that prevents plants from absorbing the CO2 that the burning produces in the first place. The news just keeps getting better and better, doesn't it?

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By: Kevin Drum

"NOT THE TSP?"....What was the subject of a meeting on March 10, 2004, between congressional leaders and the White House national security staff? Here's what Alberto Gonzales said under oath on Tuesday:

At a heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Gonzales repeatedly testified that the issue at hand was not about the terrorist surveillance program....Instead, Gonzales said, the emergency meetings on March 10, 2004, focused on an intelligence program that he would not describe.

Gonzales, who was then serving as counsel to Bush, testified that the White House Situation Room briefing sought to inform congressional leaders about the pending expiration of the unidentified program and Justice Department objections to renew it.

...."Not the TSP?" responded Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "Come on. If you say it's about other, that implies not. Now say it or not."

"It was not," Gonzales answered. "It was about other intelligence activities."

Other intelligence activities? Not the TSP? Despite the recollections of other participants that the meeting on that day was precisely about the TSP?

Well, guess what? It turns out the dates of all the TSP meetings were the subject of a memo from John Negroponte last year. So it's all down on paper. And you know what date shows up? March 10, 2004. Looks like Gonzales has some 'splainin to do.

UPDATE: The Post has a decent rundown of the whole issue here.

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By: Kevin Drum

RECRUITING....Army recruiting, which seemed like it was picking up for a while, took a sudden tumble in June. Reenlistments are looking anemic too. BGRS has the details.

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July 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IF IF IF....Fred Kaplan takes a look at the latest Iraq strategy coming out of Baghdad and is unimpressed:

If the U.S. military had, say, 100,000 more troops to send and another 10 years to keep them there; if the Iraqi security forces (especially the Iraqi police) were as skilled and, more important, as loyal to the Iraqi nation (as opposed to their ethnic sects) as many had hoped they would be by now; if the Iraqi government were a governing entity, as opposed to a ramshackle assemblage that can barely form a quorum — then maybe, maybe, this plan might have a chance.

That's about the size of it. Click the link if you want more detail to back up this pessimism.

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LIBERAL vs. PROGRESSIVE....Ryan Sager singles out this as a "bright moment" from the YouTube debate on Monday:

Clinton's forthright disavowal of the term "liberal," because Republicans have made it a dirty word in the minds of voters. She may have just put that term entirely in the past (at least in its Ted Kennedy-bashing usage) and formalized the switch to "progressive."

I only bring this up because it's been in the back of my head for a while that he's right. I've always been vaguely in favor of refusing to give up the "liberal" label because I don't think we ought to let Republicans decide what we can and can't call ourselves, but over the past year or so I've been slowly coming to the conclusion that not many people agree with me about that. I'm a fairly hardnosed descriptivist in vocabulary matters, and it's starting to look like "progressive" has won this battle whether I like it or not. Comments?

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RUDY AND FEDERALISM....I was genuinely pretty surprised when I opened up the paper this morning and read Ron Brownstein's weekly column. He's generally a sharp guy, but today he takes at face value Rudy Giuliani's argument that he's a principled federalist:

Giuliani argues that the best way to reduce tension about social issues is to allow states, rather than the federal government, to take the lead in responding to them. That would allow socially conservative and liberal states to each set rules that reflect the prevailing values inside their borders....That perspective leads Giuliani toward positions uncomfortable for both left and right.

"Uncomfortable for both left and right." What a maverick! But please: there isn't a political reporter in Washington who doesn't know why Giuliani is taking this position, and Brownstein knows it too. But he gives us only one weak sentence about Giuliani's real motivation:

Federalism serves Giuliani's political interests because it allows him to reconcile his generally moderate social views with his socially conservative party.

Right. It would be one thing if federalism had been a hallmark of Giuliani's political career, but it hasn't. Hell, even his famous "12 Commitments" didn't say a word about federalism, and that was only a month ago. As virtually everyone acknowledges, Giuliani converted to the church of federalism because the Christian Right hates his tolerant views on abortion and gay rights and this is his way of pandering to them without officially changing his long-held views. Any serious look at whether Giuliani would genuinely be committed to federalism as president really ought to make that clear.

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STONEWALLING....More evidence here that Alberto Gonzales lied under oath yesterday. Not that that's a big shock or anything. He doesn't care, and neither does his boss.

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IRAQ AND IRAN....The Telegraph reports that during the recent meeting between the U.S. and Iran, the two countries agreed to form a security committee focused on containing Sunni insurgents. "The committee would concentrate on the threat from groups such as al-Qa'eda in Iraq, officials said, but not those [Shiite] militia groups the US accuses Iran of funding and training." Juan Cole comments:

If the US is allying with Iran against the Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda, this is a very major development and much more important than some carping over Shiite militias. (My guess is that 98% of American troops killed in Iraq have been killed by Sunni Arab guerrillas). If the report is true and has legs, it will send Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal ballistic. The Sunni Arab states do not like "al-Qaeda" in Iraq, but they are much more afraid of Iran than of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs who are fighting against US military occupation.

Five years from now Iraq is going to be a Shiite theocracy no matter what we do or don't do. The Saudis probably better get used to that idea.

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By: Kevin Drum

FORECLOSURES....I know that only a small number of my readers are interested in the California housing market, so I'll keep this short. Anyway, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the chart on the right from today's LA Times pretty much speaks for itself. It sure doesn't look like the housing bust has peaked yet, does it?

Here's what passes for optimism these days:

The good news, as seen by [Rich Toscano, a financial advisor with Pacific Capital Associates]: "I don't envision a 'Grapes of Wrath' scenario where we all have to pile in the family car and look for harvesting work."


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COL. McMASTER....Aside from David Petraeus himself, probably the most celebrated soldier of the Iraq War has been Col. H.R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty and the guy who had about a thousand newspaper articles written about him when he successfully pacified the city of Tal Afar in 2005. He was practically a poster boy for the Army's embrace of counterinsurgency in Iraq, and is currently part of Petraeus's counterinsurgency brain trust.

In other words, seemingly a shoo-in for promotion to Brigadier General. But apparently not. It turns out he was recently passed over for the second time. James Joyner comments:

I never served with McMaster and I've never heard anything but positive things about him. But it's hardly inconceivable that a rock star who is both a brilliant tactician and a leading scholar has managed to rub some people above him in the chain of command the wrong way — or even inspire a bit of jealousy at all the attention he's gotten. And the odds are more than even that those on the promotion board, who came up the ranks in a Big Wars Army, look askance at handing the keys to their institution over to people who want to make radical changes in it.

Obviously there might be some good reason for passing over McMaster. Only the promotion board knows for sure. Still, it's pretty damn odd, and it certainly doesn't inspire confidence that the military has any intention of supporting serious institutional change in response to 9/11.

No comment yet from George Packer, who wrote extensively about McMaster and Tal Afar for the New Yorker, but I'll be curious to see if he eventually has anything to say about it on his blog.

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July 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GOING TOO FAR....From David Kurtz today:

Since Alberto Gonzales has about as much credibility left as professional cycling....

That's a little unfair to professional cycling, isn't it, David? More details on today's Gonzales Follies here.

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REPUBLICAN CHUTZPAH WATCH....Via Steve Benen, the Washington Times reports on the latest campaign strategy from the Republican Party:

Senate Republicans are preparing to take aim at Majority Leader Harry Reid over the August recess for being "all talk but no action"...."We really ought to be asking why this Democrat leadership won't allow Congress to move forward on serious policy debates," [Sen. John] Kyl said, when asked about the talking-points memorandum he is circulating.

You have to give Republicans points for consistency. They bring the Senate to a halt and then blame Democrats for not getting anything done. They destroy FEMA's ability to respond to natural disasters and then hold it up as an example of why you can't trust government to do anything right. They lose a war via unparalleled military incompetence and then claim that liberals are defeatists for pointing it out. They spend 20 years claiming that Social Security is going bankrupt and then use the resulting public insecurity about Social Security as an explanation for why the whole system needs to be privatized.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The question is, will the press help them pass along their latest ode to chutzpah or will they instead give it the mockery it deserves? Unfortunately, I think we know where the smart money is.

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NOT JUST SUB-PRIME ANYMORE....The latest news from the housing bubble:

Shares of Countrywide Financial Corp. tumbled today after the nation's biggest mortgage lender signaled that rising defaults and delinquencies are spreading beyond the troubled sub-prime market to higher-quality "prime" loans.

....Countrywide said payments were at least 30 days late at the end of second quarter on 4.56% of prime home-equity loans serviced by the company, up from 1.77% a year earlier.

Payments were late on 23.71% of sub-prime mortgage loans, up from 15.33% at the end of the same period in 2006, the company said.

This is just one data point, and it might be a blip. But the single biggest concern about the sub-prime mortgage meltdown is that it might spread to the rest of the mortgage market, and Countrywide's problems suggest that this might be starting to happen. An increase from 1.77% to 4.56% is a mighty big jump.....

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THE SURGE....According to the New York Times, the U.S. military is working on a "redesign" of the Iraq plan developed several years ago by Gen. George Casey:

The classified plan, which represents the coordinated strategy of the top American commander and the American ambassador, calls for restoring security in local areas, including Baghdad, by the summer of 2008. "Sustainable security" is to be established on a nationwide basis by the summer of 2009, according to American officials familiar with the document.

....The overarching goal, an American official said, is to advance political accommodation and avoid undercutting the authority of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. While the plan seeks to achieve stability, several officials said it anticipates that less will be accomplished in terms of national reconciliation by the end of 2009 than did the plan developed by General Casey.

This isn't a surprise or anything, but it's worth pointing out clearly: the new plan, even with the advantage of a troop surge, is less ambitious than the plan we had in 2005. Wait a couple more years and it will be less ambitious still. That's what we're fighting for.

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DEBATES....I didn't see last night's Democratic debate, but the consensus opinion seems to be that all of the top three candidates did fine. No stumbles. No gaffes. Pretty good answers to all the questions.

In other words, about the same as every other debate so far. Really, as near as I can tell, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama are all so good that this is likely to be the outcome of any debate they take part in. What exactly are we all learning from these things?

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FARM SUBSIDIES....Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation writes today about agricultural policy:

Republican and Democratic congressional leaders rarely agree on a major issue. Yet both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) have gone on the record as opposing the current $25-billion farm subsidy system, which Congress is rewriting this month.

....[S]ome family farmers continue to struggle. But if subsidies were really designed to alleviate farmer poverty, then lawmakers could guarantee every full-time farmer an income of 185% of the federal poverty level ($38,203 for a family of four) for under $5 billion annually — one-fifth the current cost of farm subsidies.

Not gonna happen. If there's one thing farmers fight even harder than losing their subsidies, it's any change that would make it clear that the subsidies are really just a big welfare program. Welfare is for crack addicts in the Bronx, not hardworking Midwest soybean farmers.

Still, on the list of federal programs that have stayed around the longest with no real justification, farm subsidies surely top the list. (That Spanish-American War telephone tax might have been the previous winner, but it finally got killed last year.) But like a zombie that can't be killed, I don't imagine that farm subsidies are going to be eliminated or even scaled back this year any more than they have in any previous year. After all, how would Archer Daniels Midland compete with the French if we did that?

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THE COUP....Attention readers in Washington DC. We're throwing a party Tuesday evening for friend-of-the-magazine (and Playboy managing editor) Jamie Malanowski, who has just published The Coup, a sly Washington satire about a vice-president who gets bored and decides to connive his way into the top spot. Here are the details:

When: Tuesday, July 24, at 6:30 pm
Where: Borders Books, 600 14th Street NW
What: Cocktails and a reading from The Coup

If you're interested in coming, please RSVP to Kukula Glastris, our books editor, at kukula.glastris@gmail.com.

Kevin Drum 1:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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July 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE MAINSTREAM....From the latest Washington Post poll:

  • 78% think George Bush is too unwilling to change policies in Iraq.

  • 55% support legislation to withdraw from Iraq by next spring.

  • 55% trust congressional Democrats on the war (only 32% trust Bush).

  • 62% think Congress should have the final say about when to withdraw troops.

  • 49% think Democrats have done too little to get Bush to change his Iraq policy (only 17% think they've done too much).

Note to columnists: this is the mainstream of U.S. opinion. People don't like the war, don't trust Bush to prosecute it, and don't think Democrats have gone overboard in opposing it. Got that?

Kevin Drum 7:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE POTTERMANIA....As part of my continuing quest to annoy people who are appalled at any sign of frivolity while George W. Bush is turning our country into Amerika, how about a Harry Potter post? As a personal favor, it would be nice to keep the complaints that J.K. Rowling is but a pale shadow of William Shakespeare to a bare minimum here, but I know that that lots of you can't restrain yourselves on this score. So how about if the rest of us just ignore the cluck-cluckers this time?

The rest is below the fold. It contains spoilers, as will the comments, so don't click if you don't want to know what happens.

Background first: I like the Harry Potter series, but I'm not a massive fan. My biggest complaint has never been with the quality of the writing, which seems perfectly adequate for a children's book, but with the quantity of writing. I'm feeling this especially acutely right now because a week ago it occurred to me that I didn't really remember much of anything from the first six Harry Potter volumes, so I decided to reread them. As a result, I've read 4,000 pages of Harry Potter in the past week. Ugh. The first three books are OK, but it's pretty clear that the last four are just massively overwritten. Basically, the first 500 pages of each one should have been sweated down to about 200 pages, leaving us with a 400-page book that would have been considerably superior to the 700+ page doorstops we got instead.

I'm offering this as full disclosure so that you can dismiss my dislike of Deathly Hallows as merely the crabbiness of someone who's overdosed on Harry Potter if you like. But I didn't really care for it that much. I'd probably give it a B-.

The main reason, I think, is that Harry himself is a complete nonentity in this book. He has no idea what to do, no plan for doing it, and is merely a prisoner of events throughout the whole thing. Furthermore, on the few occasions when he does take action, his plans are absurdly moronic even by the standards of the previous books. Although I cut Rowling lots of slack in the "makes sense" department (way too many people judge the books by adult standards, not kid standards), there are limits, and Deathly Hallows rides merrily over the cliff on this score. Would even a kid believe that after weeks of planning with an inside confederate, Harry's plan for robbing Gringott's was to disguise himself as someone else and then cast a few spells? Really? If that's all it takes, I'm surprised wizards don't just keep their valuables under their magical mattresses.

The constant squabbling between Harry, Ron, and Hermione got tiresome pretty quickly. Actually, it got tiresome back in Book 5. This is one of those things that's actually pretty realistic — people under stress really do squabble a lot — but in the context of a piece of fiction it pales pretty quickly. Get on with things!

In the death department, I was betting on Snape (pretty much a gimme, since he was obviously a goner from the start) and Neville Longbottom, who seemed like a great choice for a heroic death. Instead we got Snape and Fred Weasley. But that's not all! The book turned out to have a remarkably high body count among good guys: in addition to Snape and Fred, we also lost Mad-Eye, Dobby, Lupin, and Tonks. Too much of a bad thing, if you ask me. I'd rather have had one or two really heroic deaths instead of half a dozen quickies.

The book's other big problem is that too much of the final reveal wasn't very satisfying. Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard of all time, didn't bother to put any kind of alarm on his horcruxes? Dumbledore didn't tell Harry anything about his final mission because he didn't think he'd do what needed to be done unless he was tricked into it? That's actually fairly contemptible. And how did Snape manage to fool Voldemort? Yeah, yeah, he was great at occlumency, but better than Voldemort? Etc. This is obviously a matter of taste, but all in all, the level of happenstance and strained explanation was just a little too high for me. I didn't buy it.

Maybe none of this matters. If kids buy it, that's all that matters, and kids are not notoriously difficult to satisfy in the deus ex machina department. In the end, I guess I just wish that somehow Harry had won by using his wits, instead of merely stumbling around for 700 pages. That's OK for a certain genre of adult fiction, but it seems like kids deserve better.

Kevin Drum 7:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (155)

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By: Kevin Drum

DARK DAYS....Dan Drezner comments on the dim prospects for expanding the Trade Adjustment Assistance program to include service sector workers:

The two direct losers from this kind of impasse: service sector workers displaced by offshore outsourcing, and free trade advocates. The first group is small — the second group is smaller.

Really? The ranks of free trade advocates have dwindled to a ragtag band of a few thousand penniless outcasts? Who knew?

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By: Kevin Drum

SILLINESS....James Kirchick rightly takes Jeff Jacoby to task today for a dumb column implying that Isaac Newton couldn't get a university job today because of his religious beliefs. But what's up with this?

No disrespect to Sir Isaac, but it's not a risky venture to posit that the Newtons of today don't believe in some of the silly things Newton did 400 years ago (like alchemy, and the "domination of an intelligent and powerful Being" over the universe). And, were Newton alive today, I'd like to think he wouldn't believe those silly things either.

Alchemy is indeed considered silly today, but belief in the "domination of an intelligent and powerful Being" over the universe is, um, still pretty widespread, isn't it? Or did I miss a memo somewhere?

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTERS....This chart got a lot of links over the weekend, and for good reason. It's pretty eye-popping. The accompanying article says that the trend toward more filibusters "has been evolving for 30 years," but really, that's pretty misleading even if it's technically true. In fact, the number of filibusters has been relatively steady since 1986 — until this year, when Republicans found themselves in the minority for the first time in a decade and decided to throw an unprecedented temper tantrum about it. If they keep things going at their current pace, they'll have conducted 153 filibusters by the end of 2008, compared to the previous record of 58.

It's also worth noting why Republicans are filibustering everything in sight. It's not because it's the only way they have of blocking legislation they dislike. After all, a Republican is president. The real reason is a desperate desire to kill popular legislation quietly (the press doesn't spend much time reporting on routine filibusters) rather than force President Bush to kill popular legislation in full public view (the press does report on presidential vetoes). The problem is that the public tends to be on the side of Democrats when domestic issues actually get some attention, so Republicans benefit by keeping their disagreements as low key as possible. The last thing they need is a bunch of high-profile vetoes that would make it crystal clear exactly what they're fighting against.

Thus, as a friend keeps reminding me, griping about obstructionism per se won't really get us very far. For the most part the public just tunes it out as "politics." It's a point worth making, but it has to be secondary to the main point: making sure the public knows what it is that Republicans are opposing. Unfortunately, I'm not really sure how to do that given the current state of the press in America. More funny YouTube videos?

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLUG-IN HYBRIDS....This new report suggesting that widespread use of plug-in hybrid vehicles would reduce greenhouse gas emissions no matter what kind of electricity generation you use is pretty interesting. Based on a "well-to-wheels" model for CO2 emissions, it concludes that even if you assume that your electricity comes entirely from the dirtiest of old-tech coal plants, a plug-in hybrid generates about 325 grams per mile of CO2 compared to 450 g/mile for a conventional car.

Sounds great. However, it's worth noting that under this scenario a conventional hybrid is about equally efficient: it generates around 300 g/mile of CO2. It turns out that most of the benefit of the plug-in hybrid comes not from the fact that electricity generation from plants is more efficient than electricity generation from an internal combustion engine, but from the mundane fact that the battery cuts down on engine use around town no matter where it gets its power from. The plug-in hybrid is superior only if it gets its electricity either from coal plants that use carbon sequestration or from sources like nuclear or biomass, and since carbon capture isn't likely to be in widespread use for a long time (if ever), and renewable sources are likely to grow slowly, it means that plug-in hybrids aren't likely to be a substantial improvement over conventional hybrids for a long time.

It's still a technology well worth pursuing, though. Not only does it have more room for improvement than conventional hybrids, but it's also a bridge technology that can help drive demand for electrical infrastructure while still providing a car that ordinary people are likely to buy. Once that infrastructure is in place, it makes all-electric vehicles far more marketable, and it's likely that advances in battery technology will make electric vehicles both more efficient and more consumer friendly over the next decade or two. So bring on the plug-in hybrids.

Kevin Drum 12:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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July 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

POTTERMANIA....Yes, it's been an unusually quiet blog weekend here. I assume everyone can figure out why?

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July 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EXPERTS DISCUSS FLATNESS OF EARTH....The Washington Post editorializes today that we could all be singing Kumbaya on Iraq except for one itsy bitsy little thing:

The decision of Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) to deny rather than nourish a bipartisan agreement is, of course, irresponsible....A Democratic strategy of trying to use Iraq as a polarizing campaign issue and as a club against moderate Republicans who are up for reelection will certainly have the effect of making consensus impossible — and deepening the trouble for Iraq and for American security.

Yes, you heard right. After four years of Republican insistence that Congress's only role in the war is to pony up trainloads of money and then shut the hell up, it turns out that it's actually Democrats who are making consensus impossible. Ad astra per alia porci! In other news from this universe, J.K. Rowling revealed today that Harry Potter becomes a Sith Lord in the seventh book, destroys Hogwarts and kills all its inhabitants, and will henceforth be known as Darth Patronus. Movie rights will be auctioned shortly.

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July 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....That's it for the day. I'm off in a few minutes to have lunch with ex-Irvinite (and now rising DC wunder-pundit) Ezra Klein, followed by a trip to LAX to pick up my mother from her holiday in the country that apparently invented pretty much everything, including toilet paper. In the meantime, here are your Friday cats.

Kevin Drum 3:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

HOW MANY TAX CUTS CAN DANCE ON THE HEAD OF A PIN?....As an alternative to expanding the SCHIP children's healthcare program, President Bush has proposed replacing the current tax break for employer-provided health care with a flat tax deduction for individuals. Now, regardless of what you think about this in general, one problem is that a tax deduction is useless for low-income workers since they usually don't pay much income tax in the first place. This is a solvable problem, but Ramesh Ponnuru explains the current roadblock:

The administration and its Senate allies are open to modifying the tax proposal to make it better for low-earning workers. The idea would be to offer people a refundable tax credit, not just a deduction, so that people who don't make enough money to pay income taxes would get the benefit. Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, is crying foul. He does not mind the elimination of the tax break for employer-provided health care as long as it is offset by a tax cut somewhere else — and he does not believe that refundable tax credits count as a tax cut. So Republicans who support the modified version of this health-care plan would be, in his view, raising taxes — and most of them have signed Norquist's pledge not to do that.

Is a refundable tax credit "really" a tax cut? It's a bit of a theological question, and apparently Grover Norquist is now the tax cut pope. If he says it's not, then it's not. And although I'm sure that Norquist can produce paragraphs of closely reasoned arguments for his position, it's pretty obvious what the real issue is: this would be a tax cut for poor people. And that's not a real tax cut, is it?

Norquist's answer, according to Ponnuru, is to "throw in another tax cut to the mix." That's the ticket, all right. Anyone care to take a guess who that cut will benefit?

Kevin Drum 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

SHOWDOWN ON PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE....When Congress issues a contempt citation, it gets referred to the local U.S. Attorney for action. Today, though, in what the Washington Post called a "bold new assertion of executive authority," the Bush administration has announced a brand new exception to this rule: If the president has asserted executive privilege, then no U.S. Attorney will be allowed to pursue contempt citations against administration officials for refusing to testify before Congress.

So what happens now? Here are two possibilities. The first comes from Orin Kerr:

My amateurish guess is that this just adds another layer of litigation to the coming legal battles: it means that after the U.S. Attorney refuses to prosecute, Congress has to file a civil action seeking an order compelling the U.S. Attorney to refer the case to the grand jury. Courts then have to deal with that issue first, which could take a while as it works its way through the appellate process.

And the second from Karen Tumulty:

Where does that leave Congress? Barred from taking its case to court through the Justice Department, it may turn to its "inherent contempt" power to hold its own trials and even order officials to jail. The procedure was widely used in the 1800s, but hasn't been since 1934.

Marty Lederman, who predicted a couple of weeks ago that this would happen, has more details on pursuing these options here. Mark Kleiman, by contrast, thinks Congress should just start defunding the "non-essential" parts of the White House: the press office, the political office, and the White House Counsel's office. Says Mark: "Clinton won his [1995 budget showdown with Newt Gingrich] because Gingrich tried to shut down the government. Punishing and crippling Bush doesn't require shutting down any activity the public cares about."

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By: Kevin Drum

"FESTOONED WITH CHENEY PHOTOS"....Joe Klein offers up a tidbit about the DoD hack who told Hillary Clinton that her impertinent questions were imperiling the war effort:

Not sure if others have noted this yet, but the Pentagon official who strafed Hillary Clinton yesterday — Under Secretary Eric Edelman — is a former aide to Dick Cheney. I interviewed him in Ankara once when he was U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and his office was festooned with Cheney photos. I wonder what the SecDEf, who is not a Cheneyite, thinks about all this.

Festooned with Cheney photos? I don't care whether he worked for the guy or not, that's just creepy.

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By: Kevin Drum

BILLIONS AND BILLIONS....Via James Fallows, here's a philosophical question. The late Sen. Everett Dirksen is famous for once saying "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," but according to the Dirksen Center they can't find any record of him ever actually saying this. Then, in an update, they add this:

A gentleman who called The Center with a reference question relayed that he sat by Dirksen on a flight once and asked him about the famous quote. Dirksen replied, "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."

Thus the question: If Dirksen never uttered the actual words themselves, but actively accepted credit for them once they were attributed to him, is it fair to quote him as the author? Discuss.

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By: Kevin Drum

BROADBAND....President Bush, March 2004:

This country needs a national goal for broadband technology, for the spread of broadband technology. We ought to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007.

Yeah, cheap universal broadband would be great. So whatever happened to that? Robert McChesney and John Podesta told the story last year in the Monthly:

[Bush and FCC chairman Kevin Martin] have made no progress toward these goals; in fact, they have rewarded their corporate cronies for maintaining high prices, low speeds and lackluster innovation. Federal policies have not merely failed to correct our broadband problems, they have made them worse. Instead of encouraging competition, the FCC has allowed DSL providers and cable companies to shut out competitors by denying access to their lines. And whereas the Japanese government encourages individual towns to set up their own "Community Internet," Washington has done nothing. Fourteen states in the United States now have laws on the books restricting cities and towns from building their own high-speed Internet networks. No wonder America is falling behind its Asian competitors.

Huh. Imagine that. The incumbent captains of industry didn't like the idea of cheap broadband so the White House decided not to do anything about it. Shocking, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

SEPTEMBER IS SUCH AN AWKWARD MONTH....The Pentagon doesn't like the September deadline for reporting progress in Iraq anymore:

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said via teleconference from Baghdad that the military would produce the report on time as required by Congress. But, he said, September would be too early to determine whether security improvements would last and whether the buildup had worked.

"In order to do a good assessment, I need at least until November," Odierno said. "If I have 45 more days of looking at those trends, I'll be able to make a bit more accurate assessment — if it's something that we think is going to continue or something that was just a blip."

Translation: things aren't going well and we'd really rather not have you guys debating the Pentagon budget with the final version of this report on your desks. So let's just call it a rough draft and keep the process moving along smoothly, shall we?

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

MR. SULZBERGER, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!....Kausfiles passes along a rumor:

Is the infamous NYT TimesSelect paywall about to disappear? kf hears rumblings that the paper is about to abandon the whole misconceived project in which it has blocked unpaid Web access to its op-ed columnists.

Can this be true? It would sure be nice to once again be able to mock Tom Friedman.....

Kevin Drum 1:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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July 19, 2007
By: Christina Larson

SORRY SEN CLINTON, I SENT THE WRONG ONE ... I got an email tonight from Jennifer Packer of The Israel Project with the subject line "Urgent correction":

The Israel Project regrets that it accidentally gave out the wrong statement for Senator Hillary Clinton, prepared for The Israel Project's press conference on Iran July 19.

Some folks in Washington just had a terrible horrible no good very bad day. I wonder how much back and forth there was, that the Israel Project had multiple prepared statements.

Christina Larson 10:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATS vs. DEMOCRATS....Dan Drezner and Brad DeLong point us today to Clive Crook writing in the Financial Times. Crook spends his whole column telling us that he's dismayed over the recent outbreak of populism among Democrats and suggests instead the following policy agenda:

There is an excellent centrist case to be made for tax reform, to lift the burden of income and payroll taxes from the low-paid and to increase the burden on the better-off. Universal healthcare is long overdue, a shameful state of affairs in so rich a country. Americans pay more than they should for their medicines. More generous and more imaginative assistance for Americans who lose their jobs because of trade — or because of changing tastes and technology — is needed.

One of the weirdest tics of mainstream columnists is to disparage liberal Democrats while simultaneously endorsing policies that every liberal Democrat I know would sell their grandmother into white slavery to achieve. It's the damnedest thing. For years Democrats have been complaining that free trade agreements hurt the middle class and should therefore be paired up with policies that help take some of the sting out of increased globalization. Needless to say, we never get any of these policies, so over time our distrust of trade agreements has grown. But believe me: if Crook's "centrist" agenda were on offer as the quid pro quo for supporting trade agreements, we'd snap it up in a heartbeat.

Surely Crook knows this? If, in return for supporting the Doha round and other free trade agreements, we got (a) a more progressive tax system, (b) universal healthcare, (c) the ability to bargain for lower pharmaceutical prices, and (d) serious assistance to workers displaced by all those trade agreements — well, do you think there's a liberal Democrat in the country who wouldn't jump at the deal? If that's what Crook wants, Democrats aren't his problem. His problem is with Republicans, who would rather have their big toes cut off than allow so much as a conversation about universal healthcare and higher taxes on the well-off. Why not write a column about that instead?

Kevin Drum 5:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WAR CZAR....Steve Benen poses a good question today: Whatever happened to our war czar? Answer here.

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By: Kevin Drum

LEAVING IRAQ....Michael Duffy of Time makes me bang my head on the wall:

What's needed is not the sloganeering of certain politicians but a clear-eyed, multifaceted policy. That would involve making plain to the Iraqi government our intention to pull back, followed by an orderly withdrawal of about half the 160,000 troops currently in Iraq by the middle of 2008. A force of 50,000 to 100,000 troops would dig in for a longer stay.

....[The Levin-Reed Amendment calls] on the Administration to begin withdrawing the bulk of U.S. troops within 120 days and leave an unstated number behind to go after terrorists and protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad....But even if Congress approved Levin-Reed, military logistics experts say it would take far longer than 120 days to redeploy even half of U.S. forces. The reality is that it's difficult to get out fast....

For starters, I'm going to ignore Duffy's self-congratulatory suggestion that his split-the-difference arm waving is self-evidently a "clear-eyed, multifaceted policy." Honest. I'm just going to ignore it. See? Ignoring it. Ignoring it. Ignoring it.

OK then. Riddle me this. How is it that Duffy can correctly state that Levin-Reed requires withdrawal to begin within 120 days and then, two sentences later, imply that Levin-Reed requires withdrawal to be finished within 120 days? WTF?

But really, it's even worse. It's true that the current text of Levin-Reed requires all but a residual force to leave Iraq by April 2008. But Duffy knows perfectly well that if Republicans were seriously willing to discuss withdrawal, Democrats would change that date in a heartbeat based on military counsel. Duffy knows this. No Democrat wants to withdraw any faster than military planners say is safe. So why does he imply otherwise?

A better piece would have simply told the truth: nobody is in favor of a "reckless U.S. departure." Everyone agrees that withdrawal needs to be handled prudently and safely. That would have taken a paragraph or two, and then Duffy could have devoted the rest of the article to the real issue: whether we should (a) withdraw completely or (b) withdraw partially and leave 75,000 troops in Iraq forever. As it is, he dismisses total withdrawal in a couple of sentences, despite the fact that plenty of experts think it's a perfectly feasible option, and mentions none of the drawbacks of his favored policy of partial withdrawal. It's practically a hymn to an idea that's almost certainly unsustainable, unnecessary, and counterproductive. Nice job, Time.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE INSURGENCY....The Guardian reminds us today that the major source of attacks on U.S. troops — by a wide margin — is still the guerrilla war waged by Sunni insurgent groups, not suicide attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq. These insurgent groups have long stayed underground, communicating mainly through internet postings, but now, motivated by a belief that U.S. troops are going to begin withdrawal within the next year, they're starting to go public. Marc Lynch comments on what this means:

These moves by the major insurgency factions over the last several months don't fit well within the preferred American narrative. Their actions are not motivated by the 'surge', but rather by the belief that the US will soon leave. Their hostility to the Islamic State of Iraq/al-Qaeda does not translate into support for the United States or the current Iraqi government. They vow to continue armed struggle until the US forces leave, and to stop the violence when they do. And they have clear demands for changes to the Iraqi political system on behalf of Sunni interests — demands which may be unacceptable to other Iraqis in their current form but at least offer a starting point for real political talks.

These factions have been articulating these positions very clearly and consistently for several months now. But they repeatedly seem to be marginalized or discounted because they don't fit the American narrative, in which al-Qaeda is the primary enemy and most Sunnis and insurgency groups are switching to the American side. I really hope that American officials don't really believe their own propaganda and are paying attention to the really significant developments on the Sunni side — because if not, then the political resolution which everyone seems to agree is needed will never be achieved.

I also noticed this interesting tidbit from the Guardian interview, which is apparently the first time insurgent leaders have talked to the Western press:

A couple of years back, Zubeidy says, Iran offered the Islamic resistance groups weapons, money and also help with stopping attacks from the Shia militia, but while he believes al-Qaida accepted, the others did not. "We do not trust Iran."...."We are the only resistance movement in modern history that has received no help or support from any other country," Omary declares.

If this is right, it means Iran might indeed be funding AQI activities in Iraq. At the same time, it also means they aren't funding Sunni insurgent activities. Food for thought.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

WAITING FOR SEPTEMBER....Spencer Ackerman surveys the lay of the land following the Senate's all-night debate on Iraq and concludes with this:

5. Stop this equivocating! Who won?

The GOP won — today, at least. Sen. Mitch McConnell prevented the crucial ten Republican defections. Much of the media is portraying the Democrats as either obstructionists — which must rankle them, since they weren't the ones filibustering the defense bill — or as losers. And since the Dems didn't break the filibuster, that last part is true enough.

I think this is about right. Unfortunately, Reid's gambit was simply too labyrinthine for most people to understand. I pay a ton of attention to these things, and even I was (and still am) confused about exactly what happened. For the ordinary schmoe it was hopeless. Was the GOP filibustering? Really? Then why were both sides giving speeches? Was Reid trying to force some kind of action? Then why were he and McConnell pleasantly agreeing at midnight about exactly what they were going to do eleven hours later? And what was that 11 o'clock vote all about, anyway?

Obviously there are answers to all these questions, but nobody but the junkiest of the political junky set cares enough to figure them out. Political theater rises and falls based on whether it makes a clear, simple point, and the all-nighter didn't.

On the other hand, although Reid's decision to pull the defense authorization bill from the floor isn't something designed for public attention, it's likely to have a bigger impact down the road because it prevents Republicans from voting on compromise amendments related to withdrawal. Spencer again:

Without the option of supporting such amendments, Republicans can't plausibly claim to constituents to have done anything to stop the war. In turn, that increases the pressure on them to support the only available option left — i.e., a binding measure mandating withdrawal, such as the one favored by Dems.

....By forcing the discussion now, Dems forced Republicans into the fall-back position of saying, "The war should begin to end not now, but in September." That means it will be tougher for Republicans to continue to back the war come September — Petraeus report or no.

Two weeks ago, it was hardly clear that September would be the beginning of the end, as opposed to a potential rallying point for Republicans when Petraeus comes to Washington. But thanks to how the July debate unfolded, come September the GOP's victory today could look like a Pyrrhic one.

This sounds plausible. And the defense authorization bill is clearly the place to stage a genuine fight, since it can't be filibustered and President Bush will have a hard time successfully blaming Democrats if he vetoes it. The public wants out of Iraq, and if Dems force a veto fight, the public will probably side with them. So we wait.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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WAR....The Washington Post recommends declaring war on Pakistan:

If Pakistani forces cannot — or will not — eliminate the [al-Qaeda] sanctuary, President Bush must order targeted strikes or covert actions by American forces, as he has done several times in recent years. Such actions run the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan. Yet those risks must be weighed against the consequences of another large-scale attack on U.S. soil. "Direct intervention against the sanctuary in Afghanistan apparently must have seemed . . . disproportionate to the threat," the Sept. 11 commission noted. The United States must not repeat that tragic misjudgment.

This is a shameless dodge. "Targeted strikes" and "covert actions" are nice buzzwords, but they won't eliminate or even seriously dent al-Qaeda's sanctuaries in Pakistan and the Post knows it. Only continuous, large-scale strikes and troops on the ground have the slightest chance of doing that. If this is really what the Post supports, they should have the backbone to say so.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE TRADE....If you're interested in some more free trade bloggery, Dan Drezner has responded to the questions I asked on Monday. Here's his take on why he's so adamant about pushing free trade even though trade is already pretty darn open:

The trouble with populism is (mostly) not about the remaining 10% of barriers to trade (though see below), it's about efforts to f$%& up the 90% of barriers that have been dismantled. The Baucus-Grassley-Schumer-Graham bill, for example, isn't about halting new trade openings — it's about finding new ways to clamp down on existing openness.

Furthermore, this is never going to go away. Protectionism is a great way to reward concentrated interests with diffuse costs, so members of Congress will always have an incentive to act in this way.

There's something to this. The Baucus bill doesn't get me all that excited, though. It's all about China bashing, a perennial favorite among politicians for at least the last 20 years, and it rarely goes anywhere. It probably won't go anywhere this time either. (Though, granted, that's partly because of people like Dan.)

In any case, the big issue is what to do to mitigate the effects of trade agreements on the working class, and Dan has some good suggestions. However, I asked for things that "conservatives wouldn't assault like mad dogs until the last breath was torn kicking and screaming from their bodies," and I'm not sure any them qualify. Conservatives should feel free to set me straight if I'm wrong about that.

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July 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SADR RETURNS....AGAIN....I missed this yesterday, but apparently the bloc of legislators headed by Moqtada al-Sadr has returned to the Iraqi parliament. Eric Martin discusses what this means (Sistani is still calling the shots, Shiites still aren't likely to buddy up to Sunnis) here and here.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE J-WORD....Matt Yglesias, in an aside to a post about cultural context, says:

To a Muslim, something that's "jihad" is by definition a good thing, so when US officials refer to adversaries as "jihadists" we're implicitly accepting their definition of the conflict as one pitting Muslim holy warriors against enemies of the faith.

I assume Matt is suggesting this is a bad thing, but I'd disagree. We called Nazis "Nazis" and we called communists "communists," and those were both things those groups called themselves. We didn't feel like we had to make up some weird, portmanteau name like "Islamofascist" because otherwise we'd be tacitly accepting the worldview of our enemies.

Now, there are other possibilities, like "Salafist" and "takfirist." And when I use the j-word I usually prefer "violent jihadist" since (a) I don't have a problem with Muslims peacefully trying to convert people to their religion and (b) it makes it clear that we're objecting to military jihad, not the internal struggle for your soul. But in any case, I don't see a problem with using the word that radical Islamic militants use for themselves. That seems like a feature, not a bug. Our job is to convince Muslims that violent jihadism is a bad thing, not to pretend that it doesn't exist.

Kevin Drum 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHENEY REDUX....In the previous post I suggested that Dick Cheney's secrecy regarding his energy task force meetings was genuinely based on his belief that it was important to reassert the prerogatives of the executive branch. Just for the hell of it, though, here's the devil's advocate view.

Cast your mind back to early 2001. It was before 9/11, before Abu Ghraib, before the signing statements and the suspension of habeas corpus. George Bush had just spent the previous year campaigning as a compassionate conservative. He had promised to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. He had won a bitter recount in Florida and the conventional wisdom suggested that the closeness of his victory meant that he'd need to adopt a moderate, bipartisan tone. And, in fact, he was doing just that, inviting Ted Kennedy to screenings in the White House theater while they worked together like old friends to pass No Child Left Behind. It's hard to believe now, but at the time spring was in the air.

Today, this is all long gone. We look at the people Cheney met with and our reaction is "Eh. What else did you expect?" But back in early 2001, that wasn't what people expected. They still believed in Bush the bipartisan moderate consensus builder, the new kind of Republican who wasn't solely beholden to the usual corporate interests. Making the list of task force meetings public would have put something of a crimp in that image, wouldn't it?

In the end, I think Cheney's stubbornness over this really was just stubbornness based on his belief in a strong executive. But there was plenty of self-interest involved too. Bush wanted the country to believe that he was an environmentally sensitive guy, and letting the public know who his energy task force was meeting with would have deep sixed that image pretty quickly. So they kept it secret.

Kevin Drum 2:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE IMPERIAL VICE-PRESIDENCY....Brad Plumer, after looking over the names of the people Dick Cheney's energy task force met with back in 2001, reacts with the same question a lot of other people have been asking:

Everyone knew he was taking marching orders from the American Petroleum Institute. Everyone knew about Ken Lay. So why did Cheney keep these names classified for six years — citing executive privilege and going all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent Congress from knowing what went on. What difference would it have made? Was he just being secretive for the hell of it?

Actually, I think the record on this is crystal clear. Ever since he was Gerald Ford's chief of staff Cheney has believed that the post-Watergate Congress stripped far too much power from the presidency and that someone needed to restore it. That someone turned out to be him. Obviously he has a considerable amount of self-interest in this project now that he's vice president, but I also don't think there's any question that he genuinely believes this as a matter of principle. His refusal to release the energy task force schedule was almost certainly driven primarily by a belief that he needed to reassert the prerogatives of a strong executive and that this was the best place to start.

So: not quite just for the hell of it. But close.

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By: Kevin Drum

KRISTOL BALL....In response to Bill Kristol's untethered-from-reality op-ed in the Washington Post last Sunday, David Corn takes us on a trip down memory lane:

On Sept. 18, 2002, he declared that a war in Iraq "could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East." A day later, he said Saddam Hussein was "past the finish line" in developing nuclear weapons. On Feb. 20, 2003, he said of Saddam: "He's got weapons of mass destruction.... Look, if we free the people of Iraq we will be respected in the Arab world." On March 1, 2003 — 18 days before the invasion of Iraq — Kristol dismissed the possibility of sectarian conflict afterward. He also said, "Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president." He maintained that the war would cost $100 billion to $200 billion. (The running tab is now about half a trillion dollars.) On March 5, 2003, Kristol said, "We'll be vindicated when we discover the weapons of mass destruction."

You'd think that would have been enough to embarrass Kristol into lying low for a while. But, of course, you'd be wrong. Very, very, wrong.

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By: Kevin Drum

HARRY POTTER ANTI-BACKLASH....Tired of Harold Bloom and his literary ilk trashing Harry Potter? Charles Taylor has your back in the LA Times today:

In Bloom's world, it's his way or nothing. He claims to have the divine foresight to know that no child who ever reads Harry Potter will ever go on to "The Wind in the Willows" or Lewis Carroll.

....Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, took a similar tone during a visit to Borders with his chum, Maureen Dowd. Dismayed about the profusion of chick lit, Wieseltier mused that "these books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels. And when we're at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America's reading women could do a lot worse than to put down 'Will Francine Get Her Guy?' and pick up 'The Red Badge of Courage.' "

It's the same insufferable mixture of pompous instruction and baseless certainty. If people are reading a pop novel, it follows that they must be disengaged from the social and intellectual and political life around them.

Jeebus. Did Wieseltier really say that we should all be reading The Red Badge of Courage because we're at war? Does he think that's what everyone was reading during WWII?

The whole Harry Potter backlash continues to mystify me. I mean, I guess it's inevitable when anything becomes as popular as the Potter books have become, but do the anti-Potter hordes really think the alternative is James Fenimore Cooper and Rudyard Kipling? When I was a kid I read The Happy Hollisters and Tom Swift, and I gotta tell you: J.K. Rowling is better. But I survived even those blights on my childhood.

Anyway, who cares? Let 'em scratch their chins somberly and gripe about the downfall of western civilization all they want. I just want to know what happens to Snape.

Kevin Drum 12:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHENEY UNPLUGGED....Six years after it happened, the Washington Post has finally gotten its hands on the top secret list of everyone who met with Dick Cheney's energy task force back in the early days of 2001:

One of the first visitors, on Feb. 14, was James J. Rouse, then vice president of Exxon Mobil and a major donor to the Bush inauguration; a week later, longtime Bush supporter Kenneth L. Lay, then head of Enron Corp., came by for the first of two meetings. On March 5, some of the country's biggest electric utilities, including Duke Energy and Constellation Energy Group, had an audience with the task force staff.

British Petroleum representatives dropped by on March 22, one of about 20 oil and drilling companies to get meetings. The National Mining Association, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America and the American Petroleum Institute were among three dozen trade associations that met with Cheney's staff, the document shows.

This is no surprise or anything, but it's nice to finally know. The full list is here.

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By: Kevin Drum

LIVEBLOGGING THE ALL-NIGHTER....Just tuned in to the Senate all-nighter to see what's going on. It's 12:22 am and they're doing a quorum call. Basically, a bunch of people in suits are milling around and the clerk is calling names ver-r-r-r-r-y slowly. Exciting stuff.

Kevin Drum 12:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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July 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MEET THE NEW BOSS....Last October, after an investigation of the House Intelligence Committee's role in the Duke Cunningham scandal had been completed, Chairman Peter Hoekstra refused to release it. No surprise there. Hoekstra was hardly eager to publicize a fellow Republican's wrongdoing a few weeks before an election.

Today Hoekstra is no longer chairman, but the LA Times reports that nothing has changed:

Democrats complained bitterly a year ago when Republicans blocked release of a declassified version of the final report. But two weeks ago, several Democrats joined Republicans to block the report's release only to other members of Congress. Five Democrats objected to keeping the report secret.

....Congressional sources said [Chairman Silvestre Reyes] and other Democrats had initially voted to let other members of Congress see the document, but reversed course after a fierce protest by the panel's ranking GOP member, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.

"They are so nervous about this report being out," said one congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Members oppose putting this thing out because you read this and the natural question is: 'Did you know this, and what did you do about it?' I don't think any members wanted that scrutiny."

....One top committee aide, Michael Meermans, told investigators that "on probably two or three occasions [Cunningham] figuratively put a finger in my forehead and said, 'You are going to make this into the bill, right?' "

....Current and former intelligence committee officials said staffers facing such pressure would almost certainly call the issue to the attention of their elected bosses.

And yet, their elected bosses apparently did nothing. Greg Miller's full account is here.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW NIE....The U.S. intelligence community released a new NIE today about terrorist threats, and it turns out to say....nothing. Really. It's less than 800 words long, and basically says that al-Qaeda's operational capability is "constrained" but they still hate us and will mount an attack on the American homeland if they can. That's about it. Read it yourself if you think I'm exaggerating.

So what's the point? I'm not sure, but I have a feeling the whole thing might be nothing more than a setup for the final paragraph:

The ability to detect broader and more diverse terrorist plotting in this environment will challenge current US defensive efforts and the tools we use to detect and disrupt plots. It will also require greater understanding of how suspect activities at the local level relate to strategic threat information and how best to identify indicators of terrorist activity in the midst of legitimate interactions.

Translation: we need more surveillance capability, more data mining capability, more federal control, and expansions of the Patriot Act that lower the bar for searches and seizures. That's my guess, anyway. But maybe I'm just being paranoid.

Also worth noting: No mention anywhere of Iran as a source of terrorist threats. Pakistan is mentioned, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is mentioned, but that's about it. In other words, the main continuing threats to the American homeland come from (a) tribal areas near Afghanistan that became al-Qaeda strongholds due to our failure to prevent their retreat five years ago, and (b) AQI, which is largely a creation of the invasion of Iraq. Our war plans aren't going so well under President Bush, are they?

UPDATE: Richard Clarke says you have to understand what's missing from the report to understand what it's really saying:

The 2006 version of the National Intelligence Estimate claimed U.S. efforts had "seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa'ida and disrupted its operations."

"That's no longer the case in 2007, and you have to read between the lines to understand how we have lost ground," Clarke says.

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By: Kevin Drum

TELEPHONE KVETCHING....The LA Times solves a mystery, sort of:

Millions of Californians will start paying several dollars a month more for land-line phone service after AT&T's second price increase for custom-calling features since the state lifted rate caps last year.

....Many customers used to paying $6.17 for caller ID in December, who had already seen one price increase to $7.99 a month, will now pay $9. Call waiting, speed dialing and other features that cost $3.23 in December now run $5 after two price hikes.

A few weeks ago my friends suddenly started complaining that whenever they called me they were forced to identify themselves before their call was put through. After a few days we figured out that Caller ID Blocking had been turned on for us, even though we didn't want it. So we called AT&T to find out what was going on.

The first two times, they hung up on us after we'd been on hold for 20 minutes. The third time, I got transferred to about nine different people, including twice to India, before someone finally transferred me to "AT&T California," where I learned, among other things, that my phone service had been switched from "Legacy AT&T" to "The New AT&T." Fine. Whatever. But I don't want all these new services (caller ID blocking turned out to be just one of many new services I now had), so can I get rid of them?

Long story short, the answer was no. I could get rid of them all and just pay for the two or three I wanted, but that would actually cost more. More? Yes indeed. OK then, I'll keep them. But how do I turn off this annoying caller ID stuff? The customer service rep didn't know, but ten minutes later after making several internal calls, she decided she could do it. No more caller ID blocking.

Whew. But then she told me that this was just the beginning. Eventually my long distance service was bound to get switched to The New AT&T™ as well. Did I want to just go ahead and make the switch now? Sure. I guess so.

But then she sighed and asked a question she had obviously asked a thousand times before: did I have a fax machine at home? Yes I did. Well, you're not allowed to use a fax machine on The New AT&T's long distance service. If their computers detect a fax tone on your line, they'll automatically drop you from the flat rate plan and start charging you ten dollars a minute for all subsequent calls. Or something.

By this time, I was laughing. Even the customer service rep was sort of laughing along. She then made a desultory pitch for AT&T internet service and AT&T television service, and we hung up. But I suppose this means that eventually I'm going to have to switch my long distance to a phone company that allows me to use my fax machine.

The customer service rep I eventually talked to was actually extremely nice, but overall this was by a long margin the most annoying customer service experience I've had in years. And just like you, I've had lots of annoying customer service calls over the years. To recap: AT&T switched my service without telling me; added some new features I didn't want; hung up the first two times I called; was flatly unable to figure out who in their vast empire I needed to talk to on the third try; eventually told me there was no way to eliminate a feature unless I wanted to pay more; and then told me that sometime soon I wouldn't be able to use my fax machine anymore. And by the way, would I like to sign up for their internet and TV service today?

Welcome to the brave new world of telecom competition. It's working out well, don't you think?

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUORUM CALL....Over at The Corner, David Freddoso of the Evans-Novak Inside Political Report says that Harry Reid's plan to keep the Senate in session Tuesday night isn't going to work:

Right now, there are only 50 working Democratic Senators (Tim Johnson D, S.D. hasn't cast a vote yet this year), and there are only 49 if you don't include Joe Lieberman.

....You need 51 senators for a quorum, in the event that someone makes a quorum call — which any senator can make at any time. So all it takes is one Republican to stay in the chamber, object to anything the Democrats try to do, and then note the absence of a quorum. When the quorum is called, and only 50 senators are present, the Senate adjourns (or at least it can't come out of the quorum call without unanimous consent), and the whole stupid stunt is over before Senator Byrd can even begin his outraged four-hour speech.

Hmmm. Obviously I don't have the parliamentary chops to know if this is true, but it sounds disturbingly plausible. Just thought I'd toss it out for the hive mind to chew over.

UPDATE: In comments, larrybob points out that this all depends on Republicans unanimously boycotting Reid's all-nighter in the first place (except for one senator to call for a quorum). True enough. But as Freddoso points out, even Republican senators who oppose the war don't have much incentive to help Reid out by showing up for this. It might not be hard to derail it.

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By: Kevin Drum

MAKE IT STOP....From the front page of The Politico on Monday:

Romney spent $300 on makeup 'consulting'

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recorded $300 in payments to a California company that describes itself as "a mobile beauty team for hair, makeup and men's grooming and spa services."

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden confirmed that the payments — actually two separate $150 charges — were for makeup, though he said the former Massachusetts governor had only one session with Hidden Beauty of West Hills, Calif.

Seriously. Can we just stop this stuff? Does anyone really think that the problem with presidential campaign coverage is that it isn't vapid and half-witted enough already? Jeebus.

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By: Kevin Drum

SPARE ME....Today, Anne Applebaum takes to the Washington Post to sniff at all the people who have offered ideas about what we should do in Iraq. Apparently, they are all unserious:

More troops? I hardly need to elaborate on what's wrong with that plan.

....Fewer troops?....So, in the midst of a vast civil war, small groups of Americans will withdraw to some neutral outposts and announce that they would no longer like to be shot at, please?

....No troops?....How many of the people who clamor for intervention in Darfur will also be clamoring to rush back into Iraq when full-scale ethnic cleansing starts taking place?....I'm not saying there will be such a catastrophe, but there could be.

Well, we have to do something, don't we? The least serious approach of all is to sit back, pretend that no one else recognizes the gravity of the situation, and then explain patronizingly that "there are no obvious solutions in Iraq." Thanks for the tip, Anne.

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July 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTER FOLLOWUP....I'm confused about what's actually going on here, but here's a followup to my previous post about forcing Republicans to engage in a real filibuster on the Iraq war.

First, the background: The Reed-Levin amendment, currently before the Senate, would force a drawdown of troops in Iraq. Republicans have signaled their intent to filibuster the amendment, which means it needs 60 votes to pass. As usual with these things, they don't need to actually stand up on the floor of the senate and talk for hours on end. They just have to declare a filibuster and the word is taken for the deed.

And now, the news: A couple of hours ago Harry Reid announced that unless Republicans withdraw their filibuster he will force an all-night session on Tuesday, followed by a vote on Wednesday. During the all-night session Democrats will (presumably) continue debating and will force Republicans to stay in the chamber via quorum calls. Result: a bunch of sleepy senators.

Like I said, I'm not quite sure what's going on here. Reid isn't forcing Republicans to engage in a genuine filibuster. In fact, it's Democrats who are going to be doing the talking. And when it's all over on Wednesday, he'll hold a vote and.....what? Probably he'll get about 55 votes for Reed-Levin and the amendment will fail.

So there's some political theater here, which might or might not work, but as far as I can tell Reid isn't forcing a filibuster. More here from Bob Geiger. If things become clearer later, I'll add an update.

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTER WATCH....Last week I mentioned that Republicans are basically filibustering everything they can get their hands on but aren't paying a price for it because filibusters are no longer filibusters. Thanks to a gentleman's agreement reached several decades ago, you no longer have to actually take to the Senate floor and talk until you drop. You just announce your intent to filibuster, the majority leader takes you at your word, and shortly thereafter schedules a cloture vote. No muss, no fuss. All you have to do is write a note and the bill in question suddenly requires 60 votes to pass, not 51. As a result, if the minority party feels like it, they can pretty easily force every bill to require 60 votes.

But this isn't a law, and if the majority leader wants to require actual filibusters, he can do so. On Friday, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks asked Sen. Kent Conrad (D–ND) about this:

Uygur: Is it possible that you guys can get together and say, "Hey you know what, if you're going to filibuster an incredibly popular bill, whether it's stem cell, minimum wage, or perhaps something having to do with the Iraq war"....We're actually going to make you physically filibuster it. Go ahead and give speeches for 24 hours a day....

Conrad: Yeah, I think there's a growing consensus that we ought to do that....I think that we could do a better job making our points, and one part of that is to let the American people see just how obstructionist this Republican minority is being. The leader has had to file cloture now over 40 times already this year. And cloture, as you know, is a special procedure to stop debate, to stop filibusters, in order to reach conclusion on legislation. I had a Republican colleague tell me it is the Republican strategy to try to prevent any accomplishment of the Democratic Congress. That is set in their caucus openly and directly that they don't intend to allow Democrats to have any legislative successes, and they intend to do it by repeated filibuster.

The downside to this, of course, is that a genuine filibuster shuts down the Senate and prevents it from considering other business. That's what prompted the gentleman's agreement in the first place. But if Republicans have decided to abuse this agreement by invoking it as a routine measure, maybe it's time to let the American public know what they're doing. And the way to do that is to make 'em haul out the cots and diapers and start filibustering bills the old school way. I suspect the public wouldn't be amused.

Kevin Drum 12:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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By: Christina Larson

CHINA'S GAMBLE, OUR FUTURE.... Reporting this spring in China, I became convinced that the western impression of Big Brother Beijing needs serious revision. Yes, China can at times crack down with terrible ferocity. But when it comes to routine maintenance and oversight, the ordinary business of running a government (read: ensuring Beijing's laws are followed in the hinterlands), the central government often stumbles.

I know some folks will be skeptical: After all, isn't China an authoritarian regime with the power to silence free media and execute top officials? Yes, but keep in mind that although Beijing's crackdowns are highly publicized, they are nowhere near comprehensive.

BusinessWeek's current cover story, "Can China Be Fixed?" tackles the same question. It's well worth a read:

Why, then, is it so hard for this same government to crack down on exporters of dangerously tainted seafood, toothpaste, and medicine, despite years of warnings by local and foreign experts? .... Product safety is just one aspect of Beijing's inability to enforce needed regulation in everything from manufacturing and the environment to copyrights and the capital markets.

It's not all gloomy news, though. Desperation breeds experimentation. On the environmental front, the central government is opening a rare window for citizens to play a role. A little over a dozen years ago, civil society was nonexistent. Today there are over 3,000 citizen-run environmental groups operating legally in China. Yes, restrictions exist. But the concept of public participation, a radical departure from the recent past, is gathering momentum. As China's deputy environmental director, Pan Yue, the most vocal advocate for public-involvement, said in June:

The public is the most interested party when it comes to the environment and has the biggest incentive to protect it. Therefore, people should be given the right to know, to express, to participate and to supervise.

As for global warming, the pertinent question now is not only whether Beijing adopts carbon caps — a big if — but whether the Chinese government, perhaps with the help of unlikely partners, can find a way to convert its edicts into reality.

UPDATE: Here's the link to my Monthly piece, with more details.

Christina Larson 12:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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By: Kevin Drum

FREE TRADE....Rep. George Miller (D–Ca) admitted to the New York Times recently that "Trade may not be the reason, or the number one reason, [people are] losing their jobs, but they think it is." Dan Drezner comments:

Kudos to Miller for at least being honest that much of the Democrats ire is wildly misplaced.

The Democrats are right to focus on stagnant wages and health care concerns — those are their bread-and-butter issues. Conjuring up a trade bogeyman as the primary source of all of this.... well, let's just say it fuels Dani Ridrik's barbarians quite nicely.

Well, OK. I'm basically a free trader myself. But I have a few questions:

  • Thanks to many decades worth of trade agreements, trade is pretty darn free already. So while trade agreements may not be huge sources of job loss, signing additional trade agreements to get that last 10% of free trade isn't a likely source of huge economic gains either, is it? It seems as though both sides may be making mountains out of molehills here.

  • How come free traders always yell and scream about, say, labor clauses or environmental requirements being inserted into trade agreements, but don't seem able to muster up the same passion when it comes to special treatment for favored industries? Seems to me that if it's a choice between forcing a trade partner to institute some kind of minimal child labor protection and forcing a trade partner to accept oppressive IP regulations favored by the U.S. content industry, the labor regulations are actually more justified and produce less economic distortion. Dan?

  • If Dems should be concerned about stagnant wages but shouldn't be demagoging it with trade, what should they be doing? That is, what should they be doing that conservatives wouldn't assault like mad dogs until the last breath was torn kicking and screaming from their bodies? Stronger unions? Higher minimum wage? Expanded EITC? More progressive taxation? Vastly increased assistance to help people displaced by trade agreements? Throw me a bone here. Anything?

Trade agreements aren't really my first choice of issue when it comes to economic populism, but unfortunately Lou Dobbs doesn't seem to be interested in devoting a hundred hours of airtime a year to reviving private sector unions in the United States. But if there are any conservatives out there willing to help steer the conversation in that direction, I'm all ears.

Kevin Drum 12:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SINS OF AFFLUENCE....Hoo boy. James Galbraith has jumped headfirst into the Ancient and Hermetic Order of the Shrill (™Brad DeLong). Here he is in the current issue of the Monthly reviewing Bill McKibben's new book, Deep Economy. The subject is global warming and its effect on the world:

The climate collapse — which may bring the flooding of New York, Boston, London, Calcutta, and Shanghai — will be a calamity next to which the end of the Soviet Union will seem very small. Long industrial chains, for jet aircraft, automobiles, telecommunications, electricity, and much else, will crumble, as they did in the USSR and Yugoslavia, particularly if new interior boundaries form and countries break up. And interior boundaries will form, as those on the high ground seek to defend it. The demographic effects will be similarly dire: Older, urban males (like me) with no survival skills will die. Rural New England will turn into a deforested exurban slum.

....This is bleak news not only in the present climate of thought, but also given the decay of the public sphere since at least 1981. Whatever government might have been (or seemed) capable of in the 1940s or the 1960s, it plainly is not capable of today. A government that cannot establish a functioning Homeland Security Department in half a decade, a government that is capable of creating the Coalition Provisional Authority or Bush's FEMA, is no one's idea of an effective instrument for climate planning. Plainly the destruction of government — the turning over of regulation to predators, military functions to mercenaries, the Justice Department to a vote-suppression racket, and the Supreme Court to fanatics — has been the price of tolerating the Bush coup of November 2000. Soon we will face the aftermath of all this, with the fate of the earth in the balance.

In other words, Galbraith thinks McKibben is a bit of an optimist, certainly not something that would have crossed my mind after reading "Reversal of Fortune," a piece in Mother Jones a few months ago that was based on his book. But I guess optimism in the eye of the beholder. Read both pieces and make up your own mind.

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By: Kevin Drum

PAKISTAN WATCH....Compare and contrast:

From the New York Times: The United States plans to pour $750 million of aid into Pakistan's tribal areas over the next five years as part of a "hearts and minds" campaign to win over this lawless region from Qaeda and Taliban militants.

From the Washington Post: A controversial peace deal between the Pakistani government and local tribal leaders in an area where al-Qaeda is known to be regrouping appeared to collapse Sunday....On Sunday, local Taliban fighters proclaimed the deal dead and announced the start of an all-out guerrilla war against the Pakistani army.

Do we have a Plan B?

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July 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW GILDED AGE....What a depressing story this is from Louis Uchitelle in the New York Times today. I mean, it's nice to know that there are a few rich people who aren't complete assholes, but it seems safe to say that the majority fall pretty safely into this category. Do they seriously believe that American executives in the 50s and 60s just coasted along on waves of cash while they not only had a world red in tooth and claw to tame, but were responsible for personally taming it without help from any other human being on the planet? Apparently so:

The new tycoons describe a history that gives them a heroic role. The American economy, they acknowledge, did grow more rapidly on average in the decades immediately after World War II than it is growing today. Incomes rose faster than inflation for most Americans and the spread between rich and poor was much less. But the United States was far and away the dominant economy, and government played a strong supporting role. In such a world, the new tycoons argue, business leaders needed only to be good managers.

....That changed with the arrival of "the technological age," in [Lew] Frankfort's view. Innovation became a requirement, in addition to good management skills — and innovation has played a role in Coach's marketing success. "To be successful," Mr. Frankfort said, "you now needed vision, lateral thinking, courage and an ability to see things, not the way they were but how they might be."

Oy. Where do these people come from? I'm at least moderately sympathetic to this kind of argument when it comes from a genuine entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Sam Walton, but when it comes from some guy who thinks he practically risked life and limb by climbing to the top of the corporate ladder and then engineering a couple of big mergers, it almost makes me want to retch. These guys wouldn't know risk if it hit them in the kneecaps with a two-by-four.

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By: Kevin Drum

VACATION....Ezra Klein is in the LA Times today griping yet again about the fact that people in other countries get more vacation time than we do:

This is strange. Of all these countries, the United States is, by far, the richest. And you would think that, as our wealth grew and our productivity increased, a certain amount of our resources would go into, well, us. Into leisure. Into time off. You would think that we'd take advantage of the fact that we can create more wealth in less time to wrest back some of those hours for ourselves and our families.

But instead, the exact opposite has happened. The average American man today works 100 more hours a year than he did in the 1970s, according to Cornell University economist Robert Frank. That's 2 1/2 weeks of added labor. The average woman works 200 more hours — that's five added weeks. And those hours are coming from somewhere: from time with our kids, our friends, our spouses, even our bed. The typical American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sleeps one to two hours less a night than his or her parents did.

Lazy punk. Listen up, Ezra: When I was your age I worked six days a week for 50 weeks a year and I was thankful for the opportunity. And everyone knows that young people don't need more than five hours of sleep anyway. So suck it up.

Joking aside (Ezra actually strikes me as almost scarily non-lazy), I remember this as one of the most pervasive areas of head-nodding culture shock between Americans and Europeans back when I traveled to Europe fairly frequently. Almost to a person, the Europeans I dealt with literally thought we were crazy when I told them that, no, this wasn't just an urban legend: Most Americans really do get only two weeks of vacation a year. And this wasn't just in stereotypically easygoing countries like Italy or Spain. Hardworking Germans and Swiss had the same reaction. Basically, they just felt sorry for us, the way we might have felt sorry for some poor schlub from the Soviet Union back in the 80s, toiling away in some gray, endless job with nothing more than a few shots of vodka to dull the pain at the end of each day.

Of course, I'm hardly one to talk. In theory, I agree with Ezra, and I would have preferred a job that paid 10% less but provided 10% more vacation. In reality, I rarely even used the two weeks of vacation I got. Partly this was because I was caught up in the work ethic feedback loop that's spiralled almost insanely out of control in America, but also, ironically enough, because I only got two weeks of vacation. So I hoarded it. You never know when you might need it, after all! Maybe if I'd gotten six weeks of vacation time I would have actually used more of it.

But I was hardly the worst. The really disheartening cases were the people I'd call into my office and practically order to go on vacation. They had accumulated, say, 300 hours of vacation time and weren't allowed to accumulate any more. Take a couple of weeks off, I'd urge. If you don't, you'll be working for free, burning through vacation hours you're no longer earning. Sometimes my exhortations worked, sometimes they didn't. Very sad.

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By: Kevin Drum

CROSSWORD UPDATE....In case you're wondering (and you are, aren't you?) I'm still doing crossword puzzles 12 months after I started. But I'm still not doing them very well. As usual with things like this, my learning curve was admirably steep at the beginning but then plateaued fairly quickly. In the case of crossword puzzles, the problem is that not only do I have a bad memory, but I apparently don't have a burning desire to really improve it either. So I'm constantly running across words that I've seen before and should know, but don't. Blecch.

Anyway, Saturday's NYT puzzle stumped me this week. DORA MAAR? HANK Snow? MARANTA? Aunt ELLER? NINONS? Never heard of 'em. And what was up with MICR clued as "Minute: Prefix"? I mean, MICRO, sure, but MICR? Isn't that the stuff at the bottom of your checks? Blecch again.

Now, what I usually do when a puzzle stumps me is click over to Amy Reynaldo's Diary of a Crossword Fiend to see if she had any trouble too. ("Trouble" in her case defined as taking about 60 seconds longer than usual, of course.) If she did, then I don't feel so bad. But this time, no dice. Saturday's puzzle didn't seem to give her any particular heartburn.

In fact, it was worse. Staring out at me from Amy's site today, almost as if it knew that I had come by because of torment over my feeble crossword skillz, was something else: her new book. I vaguely knew she was writing one and figured it was just a book of puzzles. But no. It's called How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle: Tips, Tricks and Techniques to Master America's Favorite Puzzle. Precisely what I allegedly need. And only $9.95!

So I guess I should buy a copy. Back when I first started doing crossword puzzles I remember browsing through my local Barnes & Noble thinking there ought to be a book dispensing advice about solving puzzles, but I didn't find a thing. There were hundreds of different collections of puzzles themselves, but no advice. So this seems like a book whose time has come. I'll let you know what I think after I've read it.

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July 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PERSONALITY DISORDERS....Over at Watching Those We Chose, Blue Girl has the latest on personality disorder discharges, the military's way of dumping soldiers who sustain psychiatric damage during war by claiming that their problems are merely preexisting conditions that they'd had all along. Discharged soldiers are denied all future benefits and VA care, and in some cases are even required to pay back reenlistment bonuses they've previously received.

Republicans in general still aren't willing to investigate to see if personality discharges are being abused, but Kit Bond and Claire McCaskill of Missouri have managed to set aside partisan differences long enough to cosponsor an amendment that would suspend personality discharges temporarily until the whole process has been thoroughly reviewed. Good for them. More here.

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By: Kevin Drum

PROGRESS REPORT....So how are we doing on training the Iraqi security forces? Compare and contrast:

September 2005: The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday....Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at "Level 1" readiness than there were a few months ago.

Today: The number of Iraqi army battalions that operate independently, with no assistance from U.S. forces, has dropped from 10 to six over the last two months, the top U.S. general said on Friday.

So over the past 24 months the number of Iraqi battalions capable of fighting on their own has increased from three to six. At this rate we'll be able to turn security over to the Iraqis sometime around 2067. Yippee.

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July 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Today is Friday the 13th, and bad luck or not, Inkblot and Domino are demanding that this space be returned to its rightful owners. Today we have cats staring at things. I don't know what Inkblot was staring at last night, but he saw something out the window, probably one of those fifth-dimensional specters that only cats can see. Domino, on the other hand, is clearly staring at me, hoping that I'll go away soon so that she can burrow back into the blankets and continue snoozing. I think she's still up there as I type this.

Elsewhere, Tyler Cowen blogs on The Economics of Cats. I'm not sure I actually follow his logic, but since his conclusion is that "we have too few cats in the world, relative to dogs," I declare his logic impeccable anyway. Inkblot and Domino heartily agree.

UPDATE: Another blog has been seduced to the dark side. Heh heh.

UPDATE 2: Did you know that "Friday Cat Blogging" returns 240,000 hits on Google? Wow.

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LAFFING IT UP....The Wall Street Journal editorial page is really getting desperate. Even for them. In an editorial today they present data on corporate tax rates around the world and, like those people who find an outline of the Virgin Mary in a potato chip, they discover a Laffer Curve! It's a miracle!

This comes via Mark Thoma, who draws a more plausible straight line through the data over at his site and finds that as tax rates go up, so does tax revenue. Shocking, I know. That is, it would be shocking unless you knew that the effective corporate tax rate in America isn't 35%, it's about 26%, and there's not an economist on the planet who thinks the Laffer effect kicks in at anywhere near that rate. But we all knew that, right?

And one more thing. Just for laughs, take a look at what the Journal's barmy graph drawing implies: Norway, with a corporate tax rate of about 29%, generates enormous amounts of corporate tax revenue. But then, since it's the only way to get an upside-down U out of the data, the graph goes nearly vertical. Even the Journal's editorial writers, normally a pretty barefaced bunch, were apparently too embarrassed about this economic singularity to follow the right side of their graph to its logical conclusion, but we can: at a rate of about 33% corporate taxes produce no revenue at all. An increase of a mere four percentage points destroys tax revenue entirely! Mirabile dictu!

A junior high school geometry student would be embarrassed to produce work like this. But not the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Or the American Enterprise Institute, which created it in the first place. They apparently think their readers are too dumb to see what they're doing. Why their readership puts up with this obvious contempt for their intelligence is a question for another day.

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WAITING....OK, OK, I'll never complain about having to wait three months for a dental checkup again. Mark Kleiman, who nearly died thanks to waiting times for his cancer diagnosis, sums up his post about his experience this way:

The claim that replacing the current insurance mishmash with a better-integrated payment and decision-making process would mean more rationing, or even more rationing-by-queuing, is the sort of palpable falsehood that people who are perfectly honorable in real life are only too willing to utter in ideological conflict, especially if paid to do so. Under a single-payer system we'd have an idea who was waiting how long for what, while under the current system no such data are available. In all my waiting, I was never in a formal "queue," and if the cancer had gotten me before the pathologist figured out what it was no one would have counted that death as the result of rationing. But only in wingnut health-policy fantasyland is not measuring a problem the same as not having a problem.

This is a point that's worth keeping in mind when you hear about waiting times in other countries. The only reason we even know they have waiting times is because they measure it. We don't. That doesn't mean we don't have waiting times. It just means we don't know how long they are, which in turn implies that we don't have any interest in reducing them. After all, if we did, we'd measure them, wouldn't we?

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By: Kevin Drum

HEDGE FUND WATCH....As you may know, hedge fund managers don't like to pay taxes. To facilitate this desire, they've decided that their management fees aren't really management fees. They're capital gains and should be taxed at the capital gains rate of 15% instead of the 35% rate that you and I would have to pay if we earned several million dollars a year.

This is an absurd loophole, and Congress is now dithering about whether to close it. (The fact that they're dithering, instead of competing with each other to express outrage and then closing it immediately on a unanimous vote, is yet another demonstration of the immense stranglehold that the rich have on American politics right now, but that's another story.) However, David Cay Johnston tells us today that even if this loophole gets closed, there's another one waiting in the wings.

It's much too complicated to explain, but the end result is that hedge funds that go public are able to avoid taxation on a huge chunk of the money they raise for their principals. In fact, it's even worse: in the case of the $4.75 billion Blackstone IPO, the principals may actually get a tax refund on $3.7 billion of their bounty. This stuff really is capital gains, but they aren't even willing to pay capital gains rates on it. They want us to pay them.

Ain't that sweet? Don't you wish you didn't have to pay taxes either? It's a grand time to be rich and powerful in America, isn't it?

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, this one is at least slightly personal for me. In the 90s I worked for a software company that went public and then got acquired. I owned stock options in the company and made money when the deal went through. Not $4 billion, but a pleasant little chunk, and I paid capital gains taxes on that money. All of it. I think the guys who make $4 billion ought to be required to do the same.

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By: Kevin Drum

STORM WORLD....I completely spaced on this until just now, but I'll bet a few of you are still wondering what happened to Chris Mooney, who was supposed to be guest blogging here while I was on vacation last week. The short answer is that I ran into some technical difficulties on my end and wasn't able to create a guest account for him. So no guest blogging.

However, I did read his new book, Storm World, while I was on vacation, so let me take this chance to recommend it highly. The focus of the book is straightforward: is global warming producing more (and more intense) hurricanes? The answer, though, is probably not quite what you'd expect if you've read Chris's previous work, The Republican War on Science. Unlike RWS, there's nothing partisan about Storm World: it's a detailed, evenhanded, and deeply reported book about a topic of genuine contention in the scientific community. Not to give anything away, but the conclusion is that we really don't know yet what effect global warming is having on hurricanes.

Storm World contains a fair amount of history as well as a fair amount of technical discussion of hurricane science, and what surprised me the most was the fact that, apparently, we still aren't entirely sure about what causes hurricanes in the first place. We aren't completely clueless, of course, but there's still an awful lot we don't know. I guess I had always vaguely assumed that we had long since figured out the fundamental dynamics, given the years of hurricane flights and satellite photos and so forth that we've collected. But no. And needless to say, without that it's hard to say for sure what effect a warmer ocean will have on hurricane frequency and intensity. It's probably not a good effect, but it's still genuinely an open question.

So: good stuff. Storm World is a serious book, but also lively and lots of fun to read. Highly recommended.

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July 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

KEYBOARDS....James Fallows tells us about his computer:

This spring I bought a new laptop, as I end up doing every two years or so. By that time, the older one is showing its road wear, after being hammered on and toted around all day, every day. Defective pixels start to pock the screen. Half the keys on the keyboard have had their lettering worn off, the N always first to go....

OK, stop right there. Why is the N key always the first to go? It's the same for me, but I can't figure out why. The home row keys obviously get touched a lot more and there are other keys that get pressed more often (N is only the sixth most frequently used letter in the English language.) Does it have something to do with my right index finger, the finger that us touch typists use to press the N key? Maybe: the M usually takes a beating too, and it's a right index finger key. On the other hand, H is nearly as frequently used as N and way more frequently used than M, but I never have any problems with it.

Another thought: it has something to do with N and M being on the lower row of the keyboard. The letter decals are at the top of the key, so my fingers actually brush the decals more on the lower row keys than any other. But then, what about C? It's on the lower row, it's more frequently used than M, but it never shows any wear.

I'm stumped. Anyone know what's going on?

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By: Kevin Drum

SURFING THE NET....The Britannica Blog sure is weird. For example, a couple of weeks ago contributing editor Gregory McNamee decided to write ten rules for separating the wheat from the chaff during online searches. This is an extremely worthy topic, and McNamee started out with a fine suggestion: don't always trust the first result from Google. Check out a few other results too. But then comes #2:

Interrogate your sources as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday would interrogate a hippie....And interrogate the facts themselves, relentlessly. Spend a portion of each day asking, Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I don't know, but I do know this: In 1960 humans consumed 6 billion chickens. This year the number will be around 45 billion. And since the 1930s chickens have doubled in weight while eating half as much feed. This has implications. Think chemicals.

Whoa. Dude. You're, like, blowing my mind. Later (suggestion #8) McNamee advises "condensing facts to their most essential form" and offers this:

Here, by way of example, is the shortest fact I know: fish fart.

I can do better than that. How about: "I am." Maybe you don't consider it a fact, but I sure do. Certainly a factoid at the very least.

But this did get me thinking: McNamee's list is a little too Delphic for my taste, but it really would be a service to humanity to provide some sound advice about the pitfalls of doing research online and how to avoid them. The best answer, of course, is to go to college and then read widely for a couple of decades so that you have loads of context and background you can use to evaluate what Google turns up. Lacking that, though, a Top Ten list of pithy prescriptions about Internet research would be good too. Maybe we should come up with one.

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PAKISTAN....Responding to the recent news that a resurgent al-Qaeda has "stepped up training and worldwide operations from safe havens in Pakistan," a congressional staffer tells Laura Rozen, "It strikes me that we are in an eerily similar situation to 1999 and 2000." We know that al-Qaeda is openly operating training camps, we're getting distinct signs of increasing activity, and there's an internal debate about what to do about this. The staffer continues:

In 1999 and 2000, we were talking about Afghanistan. Today, it is Pakistan. The Clinton Administration was savaged after 9/11 for "treating terrorism as law enforcement", excessively taking into account the diplomatic sensitivities of other nations, and too much regard for civilian lives when we could have killed the bad guys with a missile strike. The Bushies said that would not happen on their watch.

So why is it happening again? At least the Clintonites did not have "the lessons of 9/11" as a backdrop.

The reason it's happening again is that the only military solution available is to invade Pakistan. It would be nice to think that a missile strike here and an occasional special ops mission there will fix things right up, but does anyone really believe that? I doubt it. Conversely, does anyone really think that invading Pakistan would be a good idea? I doubt that too. Surely Iraq has taught us something?

As usual, our military options are very tightly constrained by reality. They always have been. Best to keep that top of mind and instead apply our brainpower to other possibilities.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE....Shorter (and yet also expanded) Matt Yglesias: Both the American public and the Iraqi public want us to leave Iraq. However, both the American government and the Iraqi government want us to stay. So we're staying.

This is called "democracy promotion."

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HEALTHCARE RATIONING....This is how it's done in the United States. I doubt there's anyone over the age of 25 who doesn't have extensive experience with this.

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IRAQ UPDATE....Non-insane conservative James Joyner has read the White House's latest assessment of the war in Iraq and is distinctly unimpressed:

So, essentially, despite [Al-Qaida in Iraq] comprising something like five percent of the insurgency, we have diverted most of our resources to combating it. And we're failing. Not only is AQI stronger but, as another report being released today suggests, al Qaeda in general is enjoying a resurgence.

Meanwhile, the [Iraqi Security Forces] continues to be an undependable, lackluster fighting force four years into the game. That, despite their training having been headed up by the counterinsurgency guru who's now in charge of the whole shebang.

To be fair....

Click the link if you, too, want to be fair. I'm not in the mood.

Actually, I think things are considerably worse than James suggests. Despite what the White House says, we're fighting AQI not because they're "high profile" or because they're actually a genuine branch of al-Qaeda, we're fighting them because we don't have any choice. Who else are we going to fight? The Badr Organization? The Mahdi Army? The Sunni insurgents? The Iraqi Security Forces themselves? Hell, we're allied with the Sunni tribes these days. We're training the Iraqi Security Forces, making them into an ever more efficient sectarian killing machine. We're supporting a government that supports the Badr Organization and we've apparently got back channel negotiations taking place with Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army too. This leaves us with distinctly limited options.

We're not fighting AQI because they're the real problem in Iraq. We're like the drunk looking for his car keys under the street lamp. And we're doing about as well.

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By: Kevin Drum

OVER DRAFTED....A friend of mine was recently telling me the story of how he had been automatically signed up in the fine print of a new credit card for some sort of insanely abusive overdraft protection from his bank. He eventually got rid of it, but then was forced to construct some kind of monstrous Rube Goldberg scheme to protect him from overdrafts without bankrupting him. I think it involved three linked credit cards, two checking accounts, a savings account with a permanent balance of five dollars, and a signed note from Alan Greenspan.

Anyway, this story is for him:

Consumers are paying huge fees on short-term loans that cover them when they overdraw their checking accounts, under programs that banks and credit unions often enroll customers in without their knowledge, a new study says.

....The study, released hours before a House hearing on a bill that would require clear disclosure of overdraft charges, estimated that the programs cost consumers $17.5 billion in fees last year, up sharply from $10.3 billion two years earlier....The fees now exceed the $15.8 billion a year that banks temporarily lend customers via the overdraft programs, according to CRL, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.

Did you catch that? Last year banks levied finance charges fees of $17.5 billion on short-term loans of $15.8 billion. And they did this via programs most people don't even know they're enrolled in.

So: why are overdrafts up? Because use of debit cards is up, and a lot of people assume that a debit card transaction will be denied if the account has insufficient funds. And why is use of debit cards up? Because, as anyone who watches teevee knows, the banking industry has been pushing them with about the same zeal as a street corner crack merchant.

Still, times are tough. $7 billion in additional overdraft fees is probably barely keeping the industry afloat. That's why they needed the extra couple of billion they got from the passage of 2005's bankruptcy bill. That should keep the corporate jets fueled for another few months.

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By: Kevin Drum

OVER STATED....Ezra Klein has a piece in the current issue of the Washington Monthly about (surprise!) universal healthcare. But this one's a little different. Massachusetts recently passed a universal healthcare law and California is seriously thinking about one, and this has provided liberals with the hope that maybe by starting at the state level they can eventually build a consensus for a full-blown national healthcare system. But Ezra suggests this is a fool's errand:

The idea of giving universal health care a little more time in the laboratories of democracy may sound tempting to certain cautious, bipartisanship-loving Beltway observers. But letting states continue to take the lead would be disastrous, for one very simple reason: providing health care for all citizens is one of those tasks, like national defense, that the states are simply unequipped to manage on their own. The history of state health reform initiatives (and there's quite a history) is a tale of false hopes and great disappointments....Universal care advocates must be realistic about that, and think hard about how to convert the energy in the states into a national solution before the current crop of novel experiments fail — because fail they almost certainly will.

The rest of the piece explains what happened when Washington, Hawaii, Tennessee, and Oregon tried implementing universal healthcare plans in the early 90s (they all fizzled) and suggests that this failure is inherent in anything done at the state level.

This strikes me as correct. The Massachusetts and California plans are politically helpful because they're the brainchildren of Republican governors, which makes it harder for Republicans to demonize the concept itself. The danger, though, is that failures do nothing but set back the cause, and the problems with state level plans are unfortunately pretty numerous. For starters, they're almost inevitably cut back during recessions when costs grow (because more people are out of work) and state finances are strapped (because tax receipts are lower) — and the cutbacks usually provoke a death spiral that's irreversible. State plans also attract the chronically ill in disproportionate numbers, a version of adverse selection that prompts death spirals every bit as effectively as recessions. Finally, most states don't have the clout to make the necessary regulations work. Insurers can simply pick up their ball and go elsewhere — and they do.

None of these problems affect a national program. The federal government can run deficits during recessions; there's no adverse selection because the entire country comprises the risk pool; and insurers have no choice but to play by the rules. There's nowhere else for them to run off to.

The state programs currently underway or under consideration might provide useful data points for a future federal program. But the odds are heavily stacked against genuine success. Caveat emptor.

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STRAW MEN....David Ignatius today:

Getting into Iraq was President Bush's decision, and history will judge his administration harshly for its mistakes in the postwar occupation. But getting out of Iraq is now partly in the hands of the Democrats who control both houses of Congress. History will be equally unforgiving if their agitation for withdrawal results in a pell-mell retreat that causes lasting damage.

Can we please cut the crap? There are virtually no Democrats — and certainly none with any real influence — who are advocating a pell-mell retreat. But for some reason every columnist in the world seems to find it necessary to warn us against this nonexistent straw man. Why?

Those of us who want to leave want to do it in an orderly way. If the Pentagon says it will take 12 months, that's fine. 18 months? Also fine. It just needs to be real. Nobody wants to endanger any American lives by ignoring legitimate force protection issues, and I'm really, really tired of lazy writers who continually imply otherwise on no basis at all. Knock it off.

POSTSCRIPT: The rest of the column is about whether we should withdraw completely or whether we should leave a residual "training force" in Iraq. That's fine. It's a genuine argument. It would, however, be a far more genuine argument if Ignatius and others explained how the residual force actually had any chance of accomplishing anything. As Stephen Biddle persuasively argued yesterday, it's one of those things that's politically attractive but militarily untenable. In fact, I'd say it's the worst possible option available.

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July 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EMERGENCY ROOMS....A reader emails to draw my attention to this quote from George Bush, highlighted in Dan Froomkin's column today:

"The immediate goal is to make sure there are more people on private insurance plans. I mean, people have access to health care in America," he said. "After all, you just go to an emergency room."

Did somebody actually write that line for him? Was it ad libbed? I mean, WTF? Does Bush really believe that emergency rooms are a great way of providing medical care for poor people?

And as long as we're on the subject, it's worth noting that emergency rooms have only been required to treat all patients regardless of ability to pay since the 1986 passage of the EMTALA Act. The Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, unsurprisingly, did little to enforce it. Bill Clinton tried to step up enforcement in 1994, but in 2003, after Bush Jr. became president, he approved new rules that loosened EMTALA regulations. And of course Republicans routinely complain about EMTALA to this day, calling it a "hidden tax" on the insured and railing against the fact that it doesn't allow hospitals to dump illegal immigrants with heart attacks in the gutter. Long story short, the GOP is not exactly a stronghold of support for emergency room care for the poor. Bush might want to keep that in mind.

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTER WATCH....Apropos of my comment yesterday about filibusters becoming standard operating procedure in the Senate, Steve Benen points out that Republicans have just killed an amendment sponsored by James Webb and Chuck Hagel that would have standardized military rotations. It actually passed 56-41, but since you routinely need 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate these days, it fell four votes short.

I think that one reason this hasn't made as big an impression as it should is that the press has an odd habit these days of referring merely to "Congress" in stories about the fate of legislation. Now, granted, very few votes are purely party line. Still, if 80% of Republicans oppose something while 80% of Democrats favor it, and the measure fails, I think it would be fair to write a headline that says "Republicans Block Vote on X." (And vice versa when Dems do it.) Instead, we usually get a headline that says merely "Congress Votes Down X." This is a disservice to readers, who then have to wade through the story to find out what's really going on.

(And even this doesn't always help. I'm continually surprised at how many stories don't include clear partisan vote breakdowns, even though partisan differences are at the core of the American legislative system. It's really weird.)

However, at least on the "filibuster everything" front, the Washington Post has a piece today that gives us a bare glimpse of the issue before backing off without really explaining what's going on:

Facing crumbling support for the war among their own members, Senate Republican leaders yesterday sought to block bipartisan efforts to force a change in the American military mission in Iraq.

But the GOP leadership's use of a parliamentary tactic requiring at least 60 votes to pass any war legislation only encouraged the growing number of Republican dissenters to rally and seek new ways to force President Bush's hand.

....Beyond the war of words are serious legislative efforts to force change — despite the 60-vote requirement that Republican leaders are banking on as a barrier.

It's a start, I guess. The point of the story is merely that the 60-vote minimum is actually encouraging GOP defections, but at least it states the issue plainly. That's more than most stories do.

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WAITING TIMES....Business Week finally runs an article stating the obvious: for all the conservative shrieking about wait times for medical care in countries with universal healthcare systems, the United States has considerable waiting lists itself:

If you find a suspicious-looking mole and want to see a dermatologist, you can expect an average wait of 38 days in the U.S....Got a knee injury?....Nationwide, the average is 17 days. "Waiting is definitely a problem in the U.S., especially for basic care," says Karen Davis, president of the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, which studies health-care policy.

All this time spent "queuing," as other nations call it, stems from too much demand and too little supply. Only one-third of U.S. doctors are general practitioners, compared with half in most European countries. On top of that, only 40% of U.S. doctors have arrangements for after-hours care, vs. 75% in the rest of the industrialized world. Consequently, some 26% of U.S. adults in one survey went to an emergency room in the past two years because they couldn't get in to see their regular doctor, a significantly higher rate than in other countries.

There is no systemized collection of data on wait times in the U.S. That makes it difficult to draw comparisons with countries that have national health systems, where wait times are not only tracked but made public. However, a 2005 survey by the Commonwealth Fund of sick adults in six nations found that only 47% of U.S. patients could get a same- or next-day appointment for a medical problem, worse than every other country except Canada.

Anyone who's ever dealt with the healthcare system in the United States — and that's almost all of us — knows perfectly well that we often have long waits to make appointments. As in other countries, emergency care is generally pretty quick, but nonemergency care is queued up based on the seriousness of the problem and the availability of doctors. Our wait times are generally pretty good in the specific category of nonemergency surgeries like hip replacements (though the numbers are inflated because we don't count the people who can't get nonemergency surgery at all because they're uninsured), but this is hardly surprising since we also spend twice as much money per patient as anybody else. Combine our spending levels with a more rational universal system and we could do even better.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN AND THE WAR....I meant to link to this yesterday but forgot. It's Jay Carney at Swampland explaining why press coverage of John McCain has been so much more negative this year than in 2000:

The tone of McCain's press did change — but not because he made peace with Jerry Falwell or voted in favor of extending tax cuts that he'd previously voted against or because of any of the other midsize transgressions cited in all the stories documenting McCain's rough transition from insurgent candidate to establishment frontrunner. The coverage changed, I think, almost entirely because of Iraq.

....There is a serious national debate over whether Bush's invasion of Iraq is the biggest foreign policy fiasco in more than a generation, if not since the dawn of the Republic. At the moment, Bush (and, by extension, McCain) are on the losing side of that debate. The expectation that the press would acclaim McCain's steadfastness on Iraq and leave it at that was misguided. The issue is simply too monumental, especially for a candidate basing his campaign in large part on his national security credentials.

I don't really have any comment on this. I just wanted to link to it because I think it's basically correct and probably underappreciated. Karl Rove may claim that Iraq won't be an issue in the 2008 election, but that's just jive and he knows it: it will be the biggest issue by a huge margin. If you're a dead-ender on the war, you'd better expect a bumpy road.

Kevin Drum 12:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

MERIT PAY....Ruth Marcus heaps faint praise on Barack Obama for daring to mention the words "merit pay" at a teachers union meeting:

"If you excel at helping your students achieve success, your success will be valued and rewarded as well," he says — but he hastens to add that this must be done "with teachers, not imposed on them, and not based on some arbitrary test score."

This is whispering truth to power. But for the teachers, Obama's words are fingernails on a chalkboard. They fall silent, except for scattered boos, as he mentions a modest new program in Minnesota.

You know, I'm fine with merit pay for teachers. But that's because I'm basically fine with merit pay for everyone. The problem, which merit pay advocates never really seem to want to address, is: How do you actually calculate merit?

If teachers could get the same deal as CEOs, for example, they'd probably be ecstatic. The comp packages laughingly referred to as "incentive-based" in the executive world are usually carefully designed to guarantee huge payouts for all but the most catastrophic results. The teaching equivalent would be big bonuses merely for getting your students to do better at the end of the year than at the beginning. I'll bet most of them would eagerly sign up for a pseudo-merit deal like that.

But who knows? Maybe somebody has a bright idea about this. My guess is that merit pay wouldn't really increase the quality of teaching all that much (the literature suggests that merit pay doesn't actually increase performance in most other professions either), but it might do some good. So let's hear it. What's your plan?

Kevin Drum 12:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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July 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SiCKO....As threatened, I saw SiCKO this afternoon. Great film. Everybody is right: it's Michael Moore's best picture yet, a genuinely moving and effective piece of policy evangelism. The Cuba stuff at the end was hardly necessary since he'd already rammed his point home by then, and the film probably would have been better without it on both artistic and political grounds. Still, top marks. Go see it.

Interesting side note: I have a review of Jon Cohn's book Sick in the Columbia Journalism Review this month (not online, sorry), and the nickel version is: great book, but too bad somebody can't give Cohn a grant to head over to Europe and report on their healthcare system the same way he's reported on ours. Moore's movie really drives this point home, because its great strength comes from comparing our healthcare system directly to European and Canadian healthcare systems, which most Americans have been scared into believing are basically third-world hellholes. Needless to say, the truth is just the opposite. It would be nice to have a book version of that story in addition to the movie/polemic version.

Kevin Drum 8:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (146)

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By: Christina Larson

INTERMITTENT IRON FIST....As the New York Times reported today:

China executed its former top food and drug regulator today for taking bribes to approve untested medicine as Beijing scrambled to show that it is serious about improving the safety of Chinese products.

This might sound like extreme law and order. But severity of punishment should not be confused with an effective system to prevent future lapses. China today has a sort of 18th century legal system, in which a handful of people are punished very severely while most get off scot-free. Draconian punishments are heavily publicized. The official doctrine is that such examples will send a chill through the countryside, scaring people into reform. But corruption continues unabated. As storied legal reformer Cesare Beccaria noted, a system to ensure certainty of punishment is a much more reliable stick than serendipitously harsh sentences.

Christina Larson 7:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN DERAILS....I guess the Straight Talk Express is finally melting down. After returning from a trip to Iraq — something hardly likely to have lifted his spirits — John McCain apparently blew up at campaign manager Terry Nelson and chief strategist John Weaver over their out-of-control spending. In the end, he fired Nelson and Weaver then resigned:

Weaver's resignation was the most surprising. He has been McCain's chief strategist and confidant for many years, playing a role as central to the Arizonan's political operations as White House senior adviser Karl Rove has played in President Bush's.

The only other person in McCain's inner circle as close to the candidate is Mark Salter, McCain's longtime top Senate aide as well as the co-author of his best-selling books and all his major speeches.

Whew. So at least he still has Salter, right? Marc Ambinder reports:

One Republican directly connected to today's events said that Mark Salter, McCain's long-time chief of staff and co-author of his five books, had also left the campaign payroll. But Salter will remain as an adviser.

Oops. More from Ambinder here.

Kevin Drum 2:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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By: Kevin Drum

SELLING NATIONAL HEALTHCARE....Matt Yglesias on one of the upsides of a national healthcare plan:

There seems to me to be decent evidence that labor market flexibility leads to employment growth. It also seems clear that America's health care system generates substantial labor market rigidities as people with medical histories need to maintain a seamless web of insured-ness in order to remain insurable. [The] economic costs here seem potentially quite large, but obviously you'd need some really smart people to take a look at it.

I don't know the size of this effect either, but I certainly know of people who are basically stuck in their jobs forever because they have an expensive, chronic condition that wouldn't be covered during their first year at a new job. Policies vary, but it's not uncommon for pre-existing conditions to get limited (or no) coverage during an initial period under a new group health plan. As for taking a year off to go to school, or leaving to start a new business, you can just forget it if you have a chronic condition that's too expensive to risk losing coverage for.

It's this, by the way, not cost, that I think is the strongest argument for national healthcare. My own belief, based on looking at the numbers, is that national healthcare might reduce overall healthcare costs in America by a bit, but probably not by much (and maybe not at all). A French-style system that paid doctors and nurses at American levels, for example, would be only moderately less expensive than our current system. In the end, given the political realities of constructing a universal plan, we'd probably save some money on administration, spend some extra money to insure all the uninsured, and end up with total costs only a bit less than we have now.

Which is fine with me. A system that works better and doesn't cost any more strikes me as a huge win for everyone. Rather than overall cost, then, which doesn't matter to most people anyway (as far as most employed people are concerned, healthcare is essentially free right now) the selling point of national healthcare is freedom from the endlessly gnawing problems of our current jury rigged system. For example: HMOs that make it hard to see a specialist. High and rising copayments. Fear of losing coverage if you lose your job. Long waits for non-urgent care. New (and usually worse) healthcare coverage every time your HR department is told to find a cheaper plan.

And more: Small businesses that have a hard time attracting good employees because they can't afford to offer health coverage. Big business that are on the verge of bankruptcy because of skyrocketing health costs. Lack of choice in physicians because you're limited to whichever medical groups have signed contracts with your company's insurance carrier. Losing your longtime family doctor because your company switches insurance carriers and you can only see doctors on your new carrier's approved list.

And yet more: Fear that preexisting conditions won't be covered if you take a new job. The risk of financial ruin if someone in your family has a truly catastrophic illness. Crowded emergency rooms that have essentially become clinics of last resort for the poor. Being forced to go on strike year after year because your employer relentlessly tries to gut your healthcare benefits every time your union contract gets renegotiated. 43 million people who lack health coverage of any kind.

Reducing healthcare costs ought to be a goal of any national healthcare plan, and a truly national plan is probably the only way we'll ever accomplish that. But that's not the way to sell it. Freedom from fear, freedom from pain, and freedom of choice are the ways to sell it.

So: maybe I should take the afternoon off and finally see SiCKO? I think I might just do that.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEAD AND TERRORISM....Yesterday I got an email from a reader tying together my terrorism and lead abatement posts. "Maybe the terrorist threat would subside if only we would work to remove lead worldwide?" he joked.

Ha ha. But here's Brad Plumer:

Another place where a massive lead-abatement really needs to happen is in the developing world. In Pakistan, some 80 percent of children have dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream, which in turn affects childhood development and, presumably, intelligence.

"Affects childhood development," of course, is a euphemism for "makes them dumb and violent." Maybe not such a joke after all.

Brad also reports something else I didn't know: namely that the Bush administration is apparently in favor of loosening lead regulations in the United States, a transparent bit of industry pandering that makes the Iraq war look like a sober and prescient piece of public policy. Here's Mark Kleiman on that:

Lead was banned from gasoline during the 1980s. The job was done by the Reagan Administration. Vice President George H.W. Bush and his "regulatory reform" task force had proposed loosening lead limits, but a brilliant analysis spearheaded by my friend Joel Schwartz (then at the EPA, now at the Harvard School of Public Health) managed to turn the proposal around; even the folks at OMB couldn't deny the data when they had their noses rubbed in them. Such deference to fact would be unthinkable today.

That's the difference between old reactionary Republicans and contemporary reactionary Republicans. As a friend of mine at DoJ said to me in the summer of 2001, "I never thought I'd look back on the Reagan Administration as the good old days."

Somebody please just make these people go away.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

GET OVER IT, FOLKS....It's astonishing, really, that conservatives are still exercised about FDR and the New Deal 70 years after the fact. Not just in a historical sense, mind you, but in the same kind of immediate, visceral sense that you and I might be outraged by the war in Iraq or yet another tax cut for the rich. Pejman Yousefzadeh, for example, reports that a passage in George Will's column today "made me spring out of my chair and pace around in abject disbelief and not a little anger." Here it is:

Some mornings during the autumn of 1933, when the unemployment rate was 22 percent, the president, before getting into his wheelchair, sat in bed, surrounded by economic advisers, setting the price of gold. One morning he said he might raise it 21 cents: "It's a lucky number because it's three times seven." His Treasury secretary wrote that if people knew how gold was priced "they would be frightened."

Dude: That was 74 years ago. What's more, there was even a reason for it. Roosevelt scholars should feel free to jump in and correct me if I get this wrong, but my recollection is that FDR wanted to raise the price of gold as a way of inducing inflation — a policy that, correct or not in hindsight, was certainly defensible given the farm crisis he was dealing with at the time — but that he wanted the price to rise gradually and erratically so that speculators couldn't take advantage of predictable movements. Lots of people were appalled by Roosevelt's apparent casualness about the gold price, but as usual, there was method to his madness. I, for one, am glad that he was president in 1933 and not George Will.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (189)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE GREEN LEAP FORWARD....In the current issue of the Monthly, Christina Larson reports that people who worry about whether China will agree to caps on greenhouse gases are missing the point. China's government, she says, genuinely wants to tackle its horrific pollution problem. The problem is that it can't:

The dilemma is enforcement. The central government's decision to open up the country's economy has simultaneously undermined its ability to impose its will on far-flung provinces. Since 1980, China's economic strategy has been one of decentralization. State-owned enterprises have been partially privatized; provincial governments have been given more authority; entire sectors of the economy have been deregulated.

In economic terms, this strategy has been wildly successful. But it has also diminished the central government's reach....Although laws are promulgated in the capital, provincial authorities are responsible for implementing them. But provincial governments depend on tax revenue from local industries, so shutting down polluters often runs counter to their interests.

....To deal with this predicament, Beijing has invited help from an unexpected corner: civil society. Citizen groups can help spread information, provide oversight, and put some pressure on local authorities. The government granted legal status to NGOs in 1994, and green groups were the first to flood into this new space. Initially, they focused on innocuous campaigns like environmental education and trash pickup. In 2003 and 2004, however, environmental activists gained a major wedge in the door of the public policy process with the passage of a series of laws and accompanying regulations. One law, for instance, required environmental-impact assessments to be conducted before construction projects could be approved, articulating for the first time the principle that the public has a right to participate in the process. Another gave members of the public the right to request a hearing when an administrative ruling — for instance, one that granted a license for a construction project — would impact them substantially and directly. Given the Communist Party's long-standing preference for secrecy, these measures represented a fairly dramatic departure from the past.

Corruption is so endemic in China's provinces, and central government authority so weak, that environmental whistleblowers are now welcome. A dramatic departure indeed.

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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July 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OPTOMETRY UPDATE....So I went to the optometrist this afternoon and they had a whole bunch of new machines. One of them performed a retina inspection test, which they said would cost $35 and wasn't covered by insurance. However, it replaces the eye dilation business, which lots of people don't like, so maybe I wanted to spring for it anyway?

Nah. The eye dilation thing has never bothered me. They always tell me to wear dark glasses afterward, but I don't bother because my eyes don't seem to care. So I figured I'd save the $35 and get my retinas checked the old fashioned way.

Big mistake. Are my eyes getting old? Did the doctor use an extra heaping helping of dilation stuff, just to teach me a lesson? Or what? All I know is that when I stepped out into the sunshine I could barely see, and then I spent some time at a red light fumbling around trying to put on the plastic dark glasses they gave me, and then they broke and fell off, and by the time I had gone to market and then home I had a splitting headache.

That's never happened before. I guess next time I won't be such a cheapskate.

POSTSCRIPT: It was also time for new frames. I'll soon be wearing semi-fashionable small rectangular frames because, basically, that's all you can get now. At least, that's all you can get from the optometrist I go to. I figure I'm now only five years out of style instead of ten years.

Kevin Drum 9:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW BLOG WATCH....A bit of laziness on my part combined with my vacation last week has prevented me from drawing your attention to some new blogs that are worth a look. I've already bookmarked them and will probably be linking to them in the future. Here they are:

  • The Daily Strategist, new home of Ed Kilgore, who has moved there from his old home at New Donkey. Ed writes lots of provocative stuff and brings lots of practical experience to the table as well.

  • Interesting Times, a new blog by one of my favorite writers, George Packer. It's updated only intermittently, but still worth checking out. It appears that Packer has finally been seduced by the dark side.

  • Open Left, from Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers, formerly of MyDD. It's a brand new community blog that is "trying to bring progressive activists and professionals from 'inside' and 'outside' the political establishment into regular, thoughtful, and active connection with one another."

UPDATE: Yes, yes, this one too:

  • Brian Beutler, the official blog of, um, Brian Beutler. I've been reading Brian's blog regularly for the past few weeks but forgot about it when I wrote this post. Sorry, Brian!

So when do I become a Beutler Approved Site, anyway?

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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By: Kevin Drum

iPHONE THREAD....I'm not much of a phone person, and I really hate cell phones in general, so my opinion of the iPhone should obviously be taken with a gigantic nugget of salt. But still, I have to ask: What's the big deal?

Seriously. It's a clunky phone. It's an OK PDA. It's a little bitty web browser connected to a slow, crappy network. And it's a straightforward iPod. But there are other phones on the market that already do all those things, right? My friend Professor Marc was showing me his just last week.

Now, as near as I can tell, the user interface on the iPhone is pretty slick. So points for that. But does the iPhone do anything else that other phones can't do — or, more to the point, things that other phones can't copy pretty quickly if it turns out that Apple made better compromises in various areas than they did? (Screen size is the obvious candidate here.)

I'm tossing this out because I'm genuinely curious. Is the UI really so slick that it's going to revolutionize the handheld gadget industry? Or is there something else I'm missing? I'm tempted to predict that a year from now we're all going to be wondering what the fuss was about, but I guess that would be pretty foolish, wouldn't it? Steve Jobs has a better track record than I do.

UPDATE: I almost forgot. I was originally mulling about this last week after I read this column from David Pogue. For my money (which is purely theoretical since I'm not going to spend any of my money on new phone technology anyway) this T-Mobile announcement actually sounds cooler than Apple's latest piece of UI wizardry. But no one noticed. It was spectacularly bad timing from the T-Mobile folks.

And in case you're all thinking that I'm obviously a telephone troglodyte, you're right. But — I'll have you know that while I was on vacation last week I managed to provide Marian with a new ringtone for her phone, which now plays the opening theme song to the BBC show Hustle. It was actually a remarkably complicated process since I had to create it myself instead of just buying it for a couple of bucks from the Verizon store. But thanks to Google and the internet, I eventually succeeded. We're now part of the 21st century.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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By: Kevin Drum

FILIBUSTERS....I wonder how many Americans understand that you can't pass legislation in America with 50% of the votes in Congress? How many of them understand that, outside of budget resolutions, you need 60 votes in the Senate? That a filibuster isn't a matter of Jimmy Stewart talking himself ragged for hours on end, but of merely declaring an intention to filibuster? And that this is done for all but the most routine matters? With the result that the 60-vote minimum is no longer reserved for occasional high-profile issues, but has been institutionalized for virtually all legislation of any consequence?

I figure maybe 2%. What's your guess?

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE TERRORISM....Every time I write a post like the previous one ("reducing the tolerance for al-Qaeda and likeminded jihadist groups in the Middle East is the only way we'll ever permanently reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism") I get an email from a conservative reader who's distinctly unimpressed with my non-militaristic ways. His question, basically, is: Where's the beef? How exactly are we going to reach this terrorist-free nirvana of yours?

It's worth answering this directly: I don't know. I don't think anyone else does either. But there's a simple reason for this: foreign policy isn't like domestic policy. Domestic policy, in the best case, may be based on underlying principles, but it's expressed by big concrete policies. No Child Left Behind. Healthy Forests. The Patriot Act. Tax cuts. Social Security privatization. Etc. Maybe they work, maybe they don't, but that's how the game is played.

But with a few high profile exceptions (arms treaties, for example), foreign policy just doesn't have very many big, concrete programs at its core. Rather, it has some underlying principles that depend on the president's worldview, and instead of inspiring legislative programs these principles mostly guide the president's reaction to events that unfold on his or her watch.

So that's the spirit in which I suggest that our foreign policy needs to be grounded in an effort to reduce the tolerance for violent jihadism within the Muslim world. It's not that this is something that's quick or easy to do, but that it's the only long-term strategy with any chance of succeeding. A foreign policy grounded in militarism not only won't work, since we can't kill terrorists fast enough to defeat them by main force, but is actually likely to make the problem demonstrably worse by spawning greater terrorist sympathy than we had in the first place.

Working to dry up the pool of jihadist sympathy, then, isn't a program, it's a principle. Every action we take should be guided by the question: Is this likely to increase or decrease the pool of people who tolerate or actively sympathize with violent jihadism, and without whom the jihadists can't operate effectively? This question should apply to military action, regime support, democracy promotion, economic engagement, trade agreements, public diplomacy, institution building, anti-corruption initiatives, multilateral vs. unilateral action, peacekeeping activities, and practically anything else that that affects anyone beyond our borders. Occasionally, even if we take this seriously, we'll end up using military action anyway because we don't have any choice. The world is messy. But if we ever want to put an end to terrorist violence, that better be our choice pretty infrequently. After all, we don't have a big enough army to occupy the entire world.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION AND TERRORISM....Why do Islamic radicals mount so many terrorist attacks in Europe and so few in the United States? After all, we're the Great Satan, aren't we? McClatchy reports:

Karl-Heinz Kamp, the security policy coordinator at Germany's prestigious Konrad Adenauer research center, said it was easy to understand why.

"The U.S. has a historical advantage; America is still the land of opportunity to the whole world. The people moving there believe the American dream of social mobility," he said. "In Europe, we've historically treated our immigrants as hired help, and waited for them to finish the work they arrived for and go home."

Bob Ayers, a security and terrorism expert with London's Chatham House, a foreign-policy research center, thinks that immigrants to the U.S. actually become Americans, giving the United States a huge advantage in avoiding homegrown al Qaida terrorists. Europeans encourage immigrants to retain their native cultures, causing them to be ostracized more readily.

I wish this could be stapled on the foreheads of Tom Tancredo and every one of his immigration-hating dittoheads in Congress. The traditional American approach to immigration is the most successful in the world. Why anyone would want to dump it in favor of a policy of nativist exclusion is beyond me. We should be borrowing the best of Europe's policies and rejecting the worst, not the other way around.

But I guess immigration reform is yesterday's news. So here's another lesson from these brief paragraphs: terrorist groups have a hard time prospering unless there's a critical mass of tolerance for their ideology in the surrounding population. In Europe, that critical mass exists — though only barely. In the United States it doesn't, and terrorist attacks are rare.

In the long run, reducing the tolerance for al-Qaeda and likeminded jihadist groups in the Middle East is the only way we'll ever permanently reduce the threat of Islamic terrorism. This — not military action — should be the single most important guiding principle of our foreign policy. Maybe starting in January 2009 it will be.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (96)

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July 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DEEP THOUGHTS....Michael Isikoff fills us in today on how George Bush decided to commute Scooter Libby's sentence. Turns out he did it his usual way:

Behind the scenes, Bush was intensely focused on the matter....Bush asked Fred Fielding, his discreet White House counsel, to collect information on the case....He was especially keen to know if there was compelling evidence that might contradict the jury's verdict that Libby had lied to a federal grand jury....But Fielding, [according to a White House adviser], reluctantly concluded that the jury had reached a reasonable verdict: the evidence was strong that Libby testified falsely about his role in the leak.

Same ol', same ol'. If the facts turn out to be disagreeable, then ignore them and do whatever you wanted to do in the first place. Sound familiar?

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By: Kevin Drum

LEAD ABATEMENT....YES, IT'S BORING, BUT READ THIS POST ANYWAY....In the past, I've suggested that an aggressive lead abatement program could be "one of the most cost effective social programs in the history of the country." This is based mostly on the possibility that lead abatement could raise IQs in 6 million children by about 7 points for a cost of only $30 billion or so. If these numbers are even close to correct, a crash program to radically reduce blood levels of lead in children would be one of history's all-time no brainers.

But there's more: lead exposure in children is also linked to criminal behavior later in life. Today, the Washington Post reports on research performed by economist Rick Nevin that suggests even more: namely that overall crime rates are driven more strongly by lead exposure than by any other single factor:

Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

....Lead levels plummeted in New York in the early 1970s, driven by federal policies to eliminate lead from gasoline and local policies to reduce lead emissions from municipal incinerators....The [subsequent] drop in violent crime was dramatic. In 1990, 31 New Yorkers out of every 100,000 were murdered. In 2004, the rate was 7 per 100,000 — lower than in most big cities. The lead theory also may explain why crime fell broadly across the United States in the 1990s, not just in New York.

....The centerpiece of Nevin's research is an analysis of crime rates and lead poisoning levels across a century. The United States has had two spikes of lead poisoning: one at the turn of the 20th century, linked to lead in household paint, and one after World War II, when the use of leaded gasoline increased sharply. Both times, the violent crime rate went up and down in concert, with the violent crime peaks coming two decades after the lead poisoning peaks.

The association between even minuscule amounts of lead exposure and bad outcomes later in life has become stronger and stronger over the past couple of decades. If Nevin and other lead researchers are even half right — and even if the cost of extreme lead abatement is double or triple what we think it might be — it beggars belief that we aren't willing to do it. It's time for Democrats to get hopping on this.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Ankush, commenting on today's New York Times editorial that finally endorsed withdrawal from Iraq:

For my money, the Times' latest editorial is less an argument for withdrawal than another argument for abolishing editorials.

I'm down with that. Does anybody actually read editorials anymore?

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By: Kevin Drum

SO HOW ARE THINGS GOING IN IRAQ?....Miscellaneous Iraq blogging:

  • Colin Powell is now saying that he tried really, really hard to talk George Bush out of invading Iraq in 2003. It's funny how Powell's claims about the depth of his opposition to the war five years ago seem to increase almost linearly with the level of hopelessness of the war now.

  • CBS is reporting that Sunni leaders in Iraq plan to introduce a no-confidence vote in Nouri al-Maliki's government a week from now. Juan Cole counts heads and predicts that al-Maliki will survive — for now.

  • Atrios is right: Kudos to New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt for pointing out the obvious: the media should not be mindlessly regurgitating White House spin about how the war in Iraq is now primarily a war against al-Qaeda. It's a convenient fiction for the war party, but it's not even remotely true.

In related news, the Washington Post reports that the Iraqi government is "unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals" that were set when the surge was originally announced in January. And the White House response to this? Move the goalposts, of course: "As they prepare an interim report due next week, officials are marshaling alternative evidence of progress to persuade Congress to continue supporting the war."

Kevin Drum 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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July 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SPECIAL OPS....The New York Times reports today that two years ago the CIA had some strong intelligence about the time and location of a meeting between Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda's #2, and other top al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. A special forces operation was put together to capture the terrorist leaders, but at the last second Donald Rumsfeld pulled the plug:

Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.

.... "The Special Operations guys are tearing their hair out at the highest levels," said a former Bush administration official with close ties to those troops. While they have not received good intelligence on the whereabouts of top Qaeda members recently, he said, they say they believe they have sometimes had useful information on lower-level figures.

"There is a degree of frustration that is off the charts, because they are looking at targets on a daily basis and can't move against them," he said.

It would be nice to use this as an excuse to bash Rumsfeld for being unwilling to put his money where his mouth is, but there's nowhere near enough information in this story to justify it. Operations like this aren't a game, and Rumsfeld may well have made the right decision.

Two things, though. First, the ballooning of the mission from a couple of squads to a couple of companies sounds eerily similar to what happened to Bill Clinton whenever he asked the Pentagon about special ops missions. Almost inevitably, what he got back was a battle plan involving hundreds or thousands of troops, which made it politically impossible to consider implementing. It sounds like Rumsfeld had the same experience.

And on a related note, Rumsfeld's decision to scuttle this mission is precisely the same kind of decision that Clinton has been pilloried for making under similar circumstances back in the 90s. But now it turns out that Clinton wasn't just some liberal softy after all. Even after 9/11, and even after installing a rock-jawed Republican as Secretary of Defense, the Bush administration is doing the same thing. So maybe Clinton knew what he was doing after all. And maybe the world isn't quite the game of Risk that Bill Kristol thinks it is.

Kevin Drum 8:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

THANKS, STEVE!....As always, a million thanks to Steve Benen for keeping the blog going during my vacation. As some of you noticed, there was a period last weekend when he was writing his own blog, my blog, and Josh Marshall's blog all at the same time. He's now officially the Iron Blogger.

Steve's own blog, by the way, is called The Carpetbagger Report, and you ought to be reading it every day. It's really good.

Anyway, I'm officially back on duty, but at the moment that's more in theory than in practice. Got some laundry to do first. More later.

Kevin Drum 6:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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July 6, 2007

FRIDAY SMITHERS BLOGGING....My guest posting stint is just about up, but before I go, I'd like to share this shot of my cat, Smithers, making what is clearly a powerful political statement.

Or perhaps not. I had a narrative worked out in which I'd explain that Smithers had grown to several thousand times her normal size, but the truth is my wife is a bit of a wiz when it comes to puzzles, and she recently finished a 3-D puzzle of the Capitol (which looks surprisingly good, by the way).

I'd like to think that this is Smithers' way of sharing her outrage over Republican filibusters.

Steve Benen 8:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

HIRED HAND....Fred Thompson, the conservative Great White Hope, is opposed to abortion. Completely opposed. Unrelentingly opposed. Unless someone pays him to lobby in favor of it, that is:

Minutes of a 1991 board meeting of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn. show that the group hired Thompson that year. His task was to urge the administration of President George H.W. Bush to withdraw or relax a rule that barred abortion counseling at clinics that receive federal money, according to the records and the five people who worked on the matter.

The abortion "gag rule" was a major political flashpoint at the time. Thompson's lobbying would clash directly with the anti-abortion movement that he is now trying to rally behind his campaign for president.

Thompson has apparently decided to simply deny that this ever happened, a strategy that former Rep. Michael Barnes, who recommended him for the job in the first place, calls "absolutely bizarre." But who knows? Maybe he'll get away with it. Social conservatives are so desperate for a savior this election cycle that they might be willing to believe just about anything at this point.

But this is probably just the beginning of ol' Fred's troubles. Anyone can look good before the national media starts rooting around and asking touchy questions, but those days are fading fast for Thompson. They always do. Michael Bloomberg might want to think about that too.

Kevin Drum 7:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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ODOM ON 'SUPPORTING THE TROOPS'....William Odom, a retired Army lieutenant general who was head of Army intelligence, Reagan's director of the National Security Agency, and a professor at Yale, has taken a leading role in criticizing the president's Iraq war policy. A few months ago, he wrote a devastating op-ed for the WaPo, debunking several pernicious myths bolstering war supporters' arguments.

This week, Odom follows up with a piece documenting the stunning strain the Bush administration's policies have put on U.S. troops.

To force [Bush] to begin a withdrawal before [the end of his second term], the first step should be to rally the public by providing an honest and candid definition of what "supporting the troops" really means and pointing out who is and who is not supporting our troops at war. The next step should be a flat refusal to appropriate money for [use] in Iraq for anything but withdrawal operations with a clear deadline for completion.

The final step should be to put that president on notice that if ignores this legislative action and tries to extort Congress into providing funds by keeping U.S. forces in peril, impeachment proceeding will proceed in the House of Representatives. Such presidential behavior surely would constitute the "high crime" of squandering the lives of soldiers and Marines for his own personal interest.

I'm not quite sure keeping troops in Iraq is an impeachable offense -- Congress did authorize and fund the war -- but Odom's broader point about what it means to "support the troops" is more noteworthy.

I'm just not sure he's right about how to win the argument. As Kevin explained a while back, the rhetorical key here is to emphasize that the war in Iraq is undermining our national security interests, not necessary to fight over who loves the military more.

To be clear, I don't think Odom's wrong on the facts -- the strain the president is putting on the troops is outrageous. But therein lies the rub: if the White House could somehow figure out a way to shorten troop deployments, treat PTSD, provide equipment and body armor, and give the troops longer breaks, the current war policy would still be a tragic mistake.

Dems obviously should continue to support measures that help those who serve in the Armed Forces -- and for several years now, they've done a hell of a lot better job than the GOP -- but in terms of changing the policy, "supporting the troops" isn't enough. We need to "support the superior policy," too.

Steve Benen 7:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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PAUL VS MCCAIN....As if John McCain's campaign freefall weren't embarrassing enough before, this has got to hurt.

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos Reports: Though often regarded as a longshot candidate for president, Republican Ron Paul tells ABC News that he has an impressive $2.4 million in cash on hand after raising an equal amount during the second quarter, putting him ahead of one-time Republican frontrunner John McCain, who reported this week he has only $2 million in the bank.

In an exclusive interview taped Friday and airing Sunday on "This Week," Paul said his campaign is on a better trajectory than McCain's.

"I think some of the candidates are on the down-slope, and we're on the up-slope," said Paul.

Ouch. Salt on the wound.

To be sure, I don't exactly expect mainstream campaign observers to start treating McCain and Paul as equally credible presidential hopefuls, but who would have guessed, half-way through 2007, that Paul would have more money in the bank than McCain?

Steve Benen 5:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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IN DEFENSE OF 'POLITICAL DISHARMONY'....It looks like the column of the day actually ran yesterday, with David Ignatius' piece in the Washington Post about the state of America's readiness for another possible terrorist attack. Ignatius' column believes we should all be more united. Behind who or what? Well, that's the tricky part.

[In the event of an attack,] Liberals would blame the Bush administration for making America a more vulnerable target. Didn't the war in Iraq inflame Muslim terrorists around the world? Wouldn't we have been safer today if we had focused on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan rather than embarking on a costly war that has sapped the military and CIA and added to America's enemies? These arguments aren't imaginary: We hear them every day, almost as rehearsals for the post-attack finger-pointing.

And how would conservatives respond? They would blame liberals, who, in their view, have weakened America's anti-terrorism defenses. Couldn't we have stopped the bombers if critics hadn't exposed the National Security Agency's secret wiretapping program? Wouldn't aggressive CIA interrogation techniques have yielded more intelligence that might have prevented the tragedy? Didn't congressional demands to withdraw from Iraq embolden the terrorists? I can hear the voices on talk radio and cable news right now.

Ignatius added that our divisions are so deep, we are not "politically healthy." We had a shared sense of purpose after 9/11, but it has "totally...dissipated."

I suppose some of this is true, as far as it goes. Americans have substantive policy disagreements about national security and foreign policy. The past several years have, thanks to an intentional strategy, driven people apart. Ignatius' description of what the arguments would be in the event of another attack is probably right.

But Ignatius leaves out the important parts. What should Americans with sincere disagreements do? Ignatius doesn't say. He simply wants the nation to "get serious, and to get ready."

It all sounds very nice, except for the details, which in this case are non-existent. As Ignatius describes it, Americans simply need to get unified. Unified behind what? Behind unity.

I don't doubt that Ignatius means well, but his argument is lazy and hard to take seriously. It's easy to urge Americans to get together; it's a challenge to lay out an agenda for them to rally behind. It's simple to tell people to stop arguing; it's hard to talk about solutions. The column reads like Broderism at its least persuasive.

Ignatius' column sings the virtues of national unity as if policy differences were inherently petty and parochial. They're not. Those arguments he attributes to the left and right are indicative of a serious disagreement about the direction of the country. His Post column seems to suggest that the debates simply end so that we can all get together, arm in arm, against our common foes.

But that's not "politically healthy." As Atrios put it:

It's an interesting phenomenon with people who spend much of their lives in the Beltway that they forget that disagreement is at the root of politics. It isn't a flaw. People have genuine disagreements about stuff. There's nothing wrong with that. There's no virtue in everyone agreeing about everything, even if they all happen to agree with David Ignatius. It's frightening, not delightful, when people blindly line up to support their nominal leaders.

Ignatius believes we're not prepared for the "next attack." I'm very much inclined to agree. If he wants to perhaps talk about what we should do about this in his next column, I'll be sure to take it seriously.

Steve Benen 4:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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FOR A FRINGE IDEA....Independent national pollsters rarely ever ask Americans for their opinions about impeachment. In fact, when Washington Post polling director Richard Morin started receiving questions about it from readers, he got a little snippy about it, and refused to take the questions seriously.

It's hardly a mystery -- the notion of impeaching Bush and/or Cheney is still considered a "fringe" concept that "serious" people are supposed to reject out of hand. And yet, for a radical idea, a surprising number of Americans seem to think impeachment is a good idea. From a new poll conducted by American Research Group, a non-partisan outfit:

* Do you favor or oppose the US House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush?

Among all U.S. adults, 45% support the House initiating impeachment proceedings against Bush. Among all U.S. voters, impeachment enjoys 46% support, a plurality. In all, 69% of Dems, 50% of independents, and 13% of Republicans say they favor the start of an impeachment process.

* Do you favor or oppose the US House of Representatives beginning impeachment proceedings against Vice President Dick Cheney?

Among all U.S. adults, a 54% majority support the House initiating impeachment proceedings against Cheney. Among all U.S. voters, impeachment enjoys 50% support. In all, 76% of Dems, 51% of independents, and 17% of Republicans say they favor the start of an impeachment process.

It's hard to compare these numbers against other recent polls -- news outlets are generally afraid of the "I" question -- but once an idea is embraced by nearly half the country, I think it's probably safe to stop calling it "fringe."

Steve Benen 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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APPEALS COURT ON WARRANTLESS-SEARCH CASE....Almost a year ago, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor struck down the president's warrantless-domestic search program. "In this case, the President has acted, undisputedly, as FISA forbids. FISA is the expressed statutory policy of our Congress," Taylor wrote. "The presidential power, therefore, was exercised at its lowest ebb and cannot be sustained."

Today, in a 2-1 ruling, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and dismissed the lawsuit. The ruling wasn't based on the merits, but rather, whether the plaintiffs had standing to file suit.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of journalists, scholars, and lawyers who argued the program made it difficult for them to do their jobs. They have international contacts they speak with regularly by phone, and these contacts are likely targets of Bush's NSA program.

To the two Republican-appointed judges on the 6th Circuit, it apparently didn't matter -- the ACLU's clients couldn't prove they'd been spied on, so they couldn't challenge the program.

Of course, that leads to an inconvenient hurdle, doesn't it? To hear the 6th Circuit tell it, you can't file suit unless you know you've been subject to the surveillance. And how do you know if you've been spied on? You'd have to get that information from the Bush administration, which keeps all of that information secret.

So how is it even possible for anyone to challenge the legality of the program? As lambert explained, it's a bit of a Catch 22.

To grossly oversimplify:

Bush regime: "We're going to secretly surveil all green people without a warrant, because we don't need no steenkin' court system."

The ACLU says: "Fine! That gives Kermit the Frog, here, standing to sue to get his Fourth Amendment rights back!"

Bush regime: "Oh, no you don't! Kermit may be green, but he still has to personally prove he was spied on!"

The ACLU: "It's a secret program! Kermit can't do that!"

Bush regime: "And your point is?"

The ACLU is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 1:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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MEAN OL' DEMOCRATS....Boo hoo. The poor White House was able to go six years without any administration oversight or accountability at all, voters got tired of it, elected a Democratic Congress, and all of a sudden, some checks and balances have returned to Washington.

The Bush gang has decided to whine about it.

Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters during the daily briefing that the White House has been subject to an average of about six oversight hearings a day since Democrats took control of Congress. In that time, he added, the administration has turned over 200,000 pages of documents.

Said Stanzel: "I would raise those issues because it raises the question, what does Congress want to do? Do they want to pass legislation for the American people or would they rather investigate and have politics be the course of the day?"

Fascinating, isn't it? The White House engages in legally dubious conduct, Congress decides to fulfill its oversight responsibilities by asking a few questions, and the next thing you know, Team Bush wants those mean ol' Dems to stop being such brutes.

That said, let's unpack this a little. First, there's reason for some skepticism about Stanzel's assertion about 600 hearings in 100 days. Harry Reid's office said Stanzel's numbers "are as faulty as the intelligence they used to make their case for war."

Second, this might surprise a White House that never quite got the hang of governing, but Congress is capable of conducting oversight and passing legislation. I realize it's been a while since political observers have seen a functioning legislative branch, but if the Senate GOP would stop blocking every thing that moved, we'd see a Congress that can pass bills and offer accountability at the same time.

And third, I don't know what's Texan for "chutzpah," but Republicans have a lot of nerve complaining about Dems holding a few oversight hearings.

Over the last six years of Bill Clinton's presidency, the House Government Reform Committee, led by Dan Burton (R-Ind.) unilaterally issued 1,089 subpoenas to investigate allegations of misconduct involving the Clinton Administration and the Democratic Party. Or, put another way, House Republicans issued a politically-inspired subpoena every other day for six consecutive years, including weekends, holidays, and congressional recesses.

And now the Bush White House is crying like a child about congressional Dems being big meanies. Why? Because they've held some oversight hearings for the first time in Bush's presidency.

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

Steve Benen 11:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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DOMENICI'S CHANGE OF HEART....Time will tell if Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) will have the courage to actually vote for a change in Iraq war policy. He offered some mildly encouraging comments yesterday, but we don't yet know whether the senator, who is up for re-election next year, will put his vote where his rhetoric is.

In announcing his desire for "a new strategy," however, Domenici responded to questions about why he finally gave up on Bush's status quo.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call from Albuquerque, Mr. Domenici said his change of heart came after conversations with the families of New Mexico soldiers killed in Iraq who asked him to do more to save those still serving there.

"I heard nothing like that a couple of years ago," he said. "I think that's the result of this war dragging on almost indefinitely."

That it? That's the reason? Domenici has cast his Iraq votes the way the president has told him to for five years; he's bashed Democratic proposals; and he's equated withdrawal timelines with "encouraging terrorists," but after talking with grieving families, then he started questioning the wisdom of the policy?

Domenici is on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, where he presumably has heard an update or two in recent years about conditions in Iraq. One might even assume that he's seen some kind of report or heard some kind of briefing about U.S. fatalities and our national security interests as they relate to the war.

But he refused to consider a change in the status quo until he actually talked about the conflict with fallen troops' families? What has he been doing since 2003? Did he not realize there might be some New Mexico families who wanted a change, say, last year?

Steve Benen 10:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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NATIONAL HEALTHCARE = TERRORISM....Conservatives want Americans to fear a national health care system. Conservatives also want Americans to fear Muslims. What better way to demagogue two birds with one stone than to connect the two in a transparently ridiculous discussion on Fox News?

[Yesterday] on Fox News's Your World With Neil Cavuto, National Review Online columnist Jerry Bowyer attacked Michael Moore's movie SiCKO and its positive portrayal of the health care in countries such as Britain and France. He argued that national health care systems are breeding grounds for terrorists because they are "bureaucratic." "I think the terrorists have shown over and over again ... they're very good at gaming the system with bureaucracies," said Bowyer.

The chyron, by the way, told viewers during the segment, "National Healthcare: Breeding Ground For Terror?" It was in all caps, and it wasn't trying to be funny.

Indeed, Bowyer added, "[I]f one of your guys is a jihadist, if one of your doctors is spending all the time online reading Osama bin Laden fatwas, someone's going to notice that. But the National Health Service is more like the post office, you know there's a lot of anonymity, it's easy to hide in the bureaucracy."

To which FNC personality Cavuto responded, "The fact that we may be looking to go this way in the United States, you're saying one of the potential consequences -- without judging national health care one way or the other -- is that this could happen. We have to be at least aware of the distinct possibility that in such a system, we would have to recruit outside doctors, and where we're getting the most of them these days seems to be from the Muslim world."

Of course, this was not to "judge" the merits of a national health-care plan; it was just Cavuto's way of alerting FNC viewers that advocates of such a plan are undermining national security by inviting terrorists into the country. That is not, Cavuto told us, a value judgment on his part.

What's more, this seems to be a new talking point, particularly this week, among conservatives who no longer worry about appearing credible. National Review's Iain Murray argued a couple of days ago, "The socialization of medicine in the UK is responsible for a lot of problems. The importation of terrorists is just one of them."

So let this be a lesson to all of us. National health care may offer better care to more people for less money, but that won't matter because your doctor will be an al Qaeda mole.

We've been warned.

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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July 5, 2007

PERETZ ON PLAME....I suppose if there were a competition for worst professional analysis of the Plame scandal and the Scooter Libby commutation, Marty Peretz's contribution would have to be the leading contender.

It was from the beginning a politically motivated case, as Dershowitz argues in this morning's Post, the appointment of the special prosecutor, the prosecutor's own obsessions, the case itself with the doubtful and understandably doubtful but diverse memories of many witnesses, including the defendant, the especially harsh sentence pronounced by the judge, the refusal of the appellate court to continue Libby on bail -- all of these were politically motivated. And, thus, in and of themselves, unjust.

I haven't the foggiest idea what any of this means. Libby was charged by a prosecutor appointed by a Republican administration, a criminal sentence was issued by a judge appointed by a Republican president, and Libby's appeal was heard by two more judges appointed by Republican presidents. The sentence was well within the guidelines of a Republican president's Justice Department. They're all in on some kind of partisan political scheme to undermine Bush? How? Why?

As Sullivan put it:

This is an argument? Marty does not provide a scintilla of evidence that any of these things was "politically motivated". Not one. How was John Ashcroft's appointment of a special prosecutor politically motivated? What exactly are Patrick Fitzgerald's unnamed "obsessions"? How is the sentence out of line with usual standards endorsed by the Bush Justice Department? How does Marty know that faulty memory as oposed to lying is why the jury convicted Libby of perjury? He knows none of these things. So he just repeats his assertions loudly, as if volume is a substitute for reason. It isn't.

I suppose there might be a less compelling argument than Peretz's out there, but I haven't seen it. I open the floor to nominations.

Steve Benen 10:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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DOMENICI JUMPS SHIP....As recently as a few months ago, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was just another part of Team GOP when it came to the war. He voted with the party to give Bush everything the White House wanted, he blasted Dems' proposals, he refused to ask questions, and he spurned any efforts at administrative oversight. Domenici, like practically every other lawmaker with an "R" after his or her name, went so far as to say withdrawal timelines "encourage terrorists."

The good news is, Domenici appears to have come around to embracing the Dems' policy of a year-and-a-half ago. The bad news is, the depth of his commitment is still unclear.

At a press conference in Albuquerque, Domenici said he is "unwilling to continue our current strategy," but he also he opposes "immediate withdrawal." Domenici said the U.S. "cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely," but he rejects funding cut offs. He now supports legislation that could allow for a drawdown of combat forces by March, but does not set a deadline.

For those keeping score at home, there are now two Republican senators (Hagel and Smith) who actually support the Dems' policy, and four (Lugar, Voinovich, Warner, and Domenici) who have broken with the Bush policy and expressed support for some kind of draw-down in U.S. forces. Throw Snowe, Collins, Coleman, Sununu, and Specter into the mix and we might even get to double digits by August.

That said, the Speaker's office is asking the right question.

Senator Warner's benchmarks, Senator Lugar's declaration, and the realization by Senators Domenici and Voinovich that a change is needed in Iraq demonstrate bipartisan support for an end to the war. Now the question is whether they will join in a bipartisan way in voting to change course in Iraq and to bring our troops home?

What we have here are scared Republicans who finally willing to break with the president and stop endorsing failure, but unwilling to cross the aisle. It's incremental progress, I suppose, but a) Domenici and others will probably keep voting against Democratic proposals; and b) if it took these guys all this time to get to the where Dems were a year ago, there's no telling how long it will take them to get to where Dems are now.

The momentum seems to be moving in the direction of progress, but momentum won't mean much if Republicans' votes don't match their rhetoric.

And just as an aside, Domenici is up for re-election next year. Just thought I'd mention it.

Steve Benen 8:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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'SICKO' STRIKES A CHORD....Cory Doctorow featured this interesting, first-hand account of a guy who saw "Sicko" in a suburban mall in Dallas. I can't vouch for its authenticity, but if it's true, it's the kind of story that will cause some heartburn for insurance company executives.

When the credits rolled the audience filed out and into the bathrooms. At the urinals, my redneck friend couldn't stop talking about the film, and I kept listening. He struck up a conversation with a random black man in his 40s standing next to him, and soon everyone was peeing and talking about just how fu**ed everything is.

I kept my distance, as we all finished and exited at the same time. Outside the restroom doors... the theater was in chaos. The entire Sicko audience had somehow formed an impromptu town hall meeting in front of the ladies room. I've never seen anything like it. This is Texas goddammit, not France or some liberal college campus. But here these people were, complete strangers from every walk of life talking excitedly about the movie. It was as if they simply couldn't go home without doing something drastic about what they'd just seen. My redneck compadre and his new friend found their wives at the center of the group, while I lingered in the background waiting for my spouse to emerge.

The talk gradually centered around a core of 10 or 12 strangers in a cluster while the rest of us stood around them listening intently to this thing that seemed to be happening out of nowhere. The black gentleman engaged by my redneck in the restroom shouted for everyone's attention. The conversation stopped instantly as all eyes in this group of 30 or 40 people were now on him. "If we just see this and do nothing about it," he said, "then what's the point? Something has to change." There was silence, then the redneck's wife started calling for email addresses. Suddenly everyone was scribbling down everyone else's email, promising to get together and do something ... though no one seemed to know quite what.

The account seems to have originated with Josh Tyler, who manages a movie-related site called Cinema Blend. He does not appear to be particularly political.

Again, while I can't speak to the narrative's veracity, it certainly sounds plausible enough, doesn't it? As for those who are outraged by the film's message, but are unclear about what to do next, MoveOn.org is hoping to fill the gap.

Steve Benen 6:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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A PARSING PARTY....Sometimes, these guys take all the fun out of it by making it too easy. From today's White House press briefing, with fourth-string spokesperson Scott Stenzel:

Q: Scott, is Scooter Libby getting more than equal justice under the law? Is he getting special treatment?

STANZEL: Well, I guess I don't know what you mean by "equal justice under the law."

Oddly enough, Stanzel's probably right; he and his colleagues don't know what people mean by "equal justice under the law." He is, however, supposed to pretend.

Steve Benen 4:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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WHEN IN DOUBT, BLAME BILL....Unable to defend the president's conduct in the Libby scandal, Tony Snow has embraced the well-established Clinton Misdirection Policy with both arms.

The White House on Thursday made fun of former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for criticizing President Bush's decision to erase the prison sentence of former aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

"I don't know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it," presidential spokesman Tony Snow said. [...]

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has scheduled hearings Wednesday on Bush's commutation of Libby's 2 1/2-year sentence. "Well, fine, knock himself out," Snow said of Conyers. "I mean, perfectly happy. And while he's at it, why doesn't he look at January 20th, 2001?"

Snow then proceeded to say, "I know you are but what am I," made some oblique reference to being rubber to reporters' glue, held his breath for an inordinate amount of time, and then, fingers in ears, shouted, "La la la, I can't hear you."

The amazing thing about Snow's farcical and humiliating performance today is that it concedes defeat. He wasn't explicit about it, but with repeated references to Clinton's presidency, Snow effectively admitted that the Bush White House did something spectacularly inappropriate, but justified this conduct by insisting that Clinton was just as bad. So much for "restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office."

Asked specifically, "Do two wrongs make a right?" Snow hedged for a moment and then dodged the question. Classy

But even if we play by Snow's rules, Libby's prison sentence was commuted by a president motivated by self-interest -- Libby was charged in a case in which he could implicate the president and vice president. As Dan Froomkin put it the other day, "All of this means that Bush's decision ... isn't just a matter of unequal justice. It is also a potentially self-serving and corrupt act."

No matter how suspect the Marc Rich pardon appears, unless Snow is prepared to argue that Rich was in a position to implicate Clinton in a larger crime, the comparison doesn't hold up well.

Steve Benen 3:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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'THOMPSON WAS A MOLE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE'....Fred Thompson's political resume is a little on the thin side. He was a senator who developed a reputation for avoiding hard work; he was a high-priced corporate lobbyist; and in 1973, he was minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee.

That last one is apparently a point of some pride for the actor/lobbyist/lawyer. On his exploratory website, Thompson boasts that he "gained national attention" as the "hard-charging counsel" who took the "lead" in revealing the audio-taping system in Nixon's Oval Office.

It all sounds quite impressive -- just so long as you overlook the fact that Thompson was actually relentlessly partisan and anxious to protect Nixon during the Watergate investigation.

The day before Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel Fred Thompson made the inquiry that launched him into the national spotlight -- asking an aide to President Nixon whether there was a White House taping system -- he telephoned Nixon's lawyer.

Thompson tipped off the White House that the committee knew about the taping system and would be making the information public. In his all-but-forgotten Watergate memoir, "At That Point in Time," Thompson said he acted with "no authority" in divulging the committee's knowledge of the tapes, which provided the evidence that led to Nixon's resignation. It was one of many Thompson leaks to the Nixon team, according to a former investigator for Democrats on the committee, Scott Armstrong , who remains upset at Thompson's actions.

"Thompson was a mole for the White House," Armstrong said in an interview. "Fred was working hammer and tong to defeat the investigation of finding out what happened to authorize Watergate and find out what the role of the president was."

Thompson may want to update that bio page on his exploratory website. He seems to have left out a few pertinent details.

Steve Benen 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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SNOW MAKES HIS CASE....Tony Snow wrote an op-ed for USA Today presenting a defense for the president's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence. He didn't get a lot of space -- 382 words isn't much -- but before a White House spokesperson publishes a piece like this in a national newspaper, it has to be vetted by the counsel's office, the political affairs office, the communications office, and the press office.

In other words, Snow's piece should be the best argument(s) the White House has to offer. And if that's the case, the Bush gang really hasn't been able to think of much. Let's dig in, shall we?

Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury; was fined $250,000; must serve two years probation; and will likely lose his license to practice law. That qualifies as a stern penalty for a first-time offender with a long history of public service.

Libby may not have to pay the fine himself; Libby may not get two years probation; and according to federal sentencing guidelines, his penalty was anything but "stern." For that matter Victor Rita is also a first-time offender with a long history of public service. How'd things work out for him?

The Constitution gives the president the power to grant clemency in a wide range of cases, at his discretion, with no restrictions. In the final hours of the Clinton administration, this unfettered authority was embodied in a mad rush to push through pardons with dizzying haste.

Tony Snow managed to wait until the second paragraph to say, "Clinton did it!" Let's all applaud Snow's impressive restraint. He only got six paragraphs to make his case, and he devoted one of them to a tangent.

[Bush] believes pardons and commutations should reflect a genuine determination to strengthen the rule of law and increase public faith in government.


[T]he president made clear that he would not second-guess the jury that found Libby guilty.

Actually, the president made clear he may ultimately overturn the jury's decision with a possible pardon.

Many analysts cleverly avoid grappling with either of these issues, and instead try to analyze the commutation as a raw political exercise. That sort of analysis is off-base. The president was not motivated by politics in making this decision.

No, of course not. What ever could have given us that idea? The president who has issued fewer pardons and commutations than any modern president just happened to take an interest in this case. Just a coincidence. No politics here at all.

[Bush] did what he does normally, and what makes those of us who work for him proud.

Normally? The president routinely spends weeks and weeks mulling over commutation applications that haven't even been filed?

If this op-ed is the best the White House has got, they've got nothing.

Steve Benen 12:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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AGAIN WITH THE HAIRCUT?....A year ago, John Solomon wrote a series of odd and misleading articles attacking Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), accusing him of ethical lapses. The closer one looked at the criticisms, the weaker the charges looked. Months later, Reid was cleared of any wrongdoing, while Solomon was rewarded -- in December he joined the Washington Post's national desk, heading up an investigative "team," ostensibly focusing on the intersection of money and politics.

Since then, Solomon has run an odd front-page piece on John Edwards selling his house, a bizarre front-page expose on Hillary Clinton's charitable donations, and a sloppy piece on a Nancy Pelosi earmark for a San Francisco waterfront redevelopment project.

Yesterday, however, Solomon out did himself, devoting nearly 1,300 words to the "controversy" surrounding John Edwards' haircut.

At first, the haircuts were free. But because [Joseph] Torrenueva often had to fly somewhere on the campaign trail to meet his client, he began charging $300 to $500 for each cut, plus the cost of airfare and hotels when he had to travel outside California. Torrenueva said one haircut during the 2004 presidential race cost $1,250 because he traveled to Atlanta and lost two days of work. [...]

It is some kind of commentary on the state of American politics that as Edwards has campaigned for president, vice president and now president again, his hair seems to have attracted as much attention as, say, his position on health care. But when his campaign reported in April that it had paid for two of his haircuts at $400 each, the political damage was immediate. With each punch line on late night TV his image as a self-styled populist making poverty his signature issue was further eroded.

Solomon goes into considerable detail, documenting how often Torrenueva has cut Edwards' hair, how much the various cuts cost, when the cuts started, when the cuts ended, how the two men met, what they have in common, and how Torrenueva feels about the "controversy."

I was particularly struck by Solomon's contention that the story about Edwards' hair is "some kind of commentary on the state of American politics." Solomon passively laments that this has "attracted as much attention as, say, his position on health care."

He seems oblivious to the irony. It's attracting attention because of articles like his. If Solomon thinks reflects this poorly on the "state of American politics," he could ... what's the phrase I'm looking for ... write about something else.

As Anonymous Liberal put it, "It's as if there is some sort of inexorable force at work here. The hair just attracts attention all on its own, like a magnet attracting metal objects. Journalists like John Solomon apparently have no role in this process."

Steve Benen 10:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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HISTORICAL ANALOGIES GONE AWRY....At various times, administration officials and their allies have offered a variety of historical comparisons for the war in Iraq. To hear war supporters tell it, the conflict is like World War I, World War II, the U.S. Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, and the Korean War.

Yesterday, Bush looked a little further back.

Facing renewed wrangling with Democrats -- and possibly some Republicans -- over continuing the Iraq war, President Bush on Wednesday took Independence Day as an opportunity to hark back to another bloody war with no apparent end in sight.

Reading aloud from an article about the first Fourth of July celebration, in Philadelphia in 1777, and its "grand exhibition of fireworks," Mr. Bush told the audience of Air National Guard members and their families at the base here, "Our first Independence Day celebration took place in a midst of a war -- a bloody and difficult struggle that would not end for six more years before America finally secured her freedom."

Addressing National Guard members with the 167th Airlift Wing who were gathered in a cavernous airplane hangar here, he said, "Like those early patriots, you're fighting a new and unprecedented war -- pledging your lives and honor to defend our freedom and way of life."

Alas, this isn't the first time the Bush White House has alluded to the nation's first war. Conditions in Iraq have deteriorated since the downfall of Saddam? Things were bad here for years after we broke free of the British. We're suffering tragic military setbacks in Iraq? The Continental Army lost plenty of battles. Conditions in Iraq look bleak? George Washington probably heard the same talk.

Except, as Fred Kaplan explained not too long ago, comparing Iraq to late 18th-century America "should only intensify the hackles and horrors."

Steve Benen 8:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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July 4, 2007

PRESIDENTIAL FAVES....Rasmussen Reports conducted a poll gauging Americans' attitudes towards every U.S. president in history. There weren't too many surprises.

Six American Presidents are viewed favorably by at least 80% of all Americans. Those esteemed six are led by the first President George Washington. The Father of our Country is viewed favorably by 94% of Americans. The sixteenth President, Abraham Lincoln, is the second most popular. The man who gave us the Gettysburg Address is viewed favorably by 92%.

The next four are Thomas Jefferson (89%), Teddy Roosevelt (84%), Franklin D. Roosevelt (81%), and John F. Kennedy (80%).

And who fared the worst? No big surprises there, either.

The highest unfavorable rating for any President is earned by Richard Nixon. Sixty percent (60%) of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the only President to resign from office. Thirty-two percent (32%) have a favorable opinion of the man who famously went to China.

Close on Nixon's heels for most unpopular is the current President, George W. Bush. Fifty-nine percent (59%) have an unfavorable opinion of him.

It's probably worth clarifying that the favorable/unfavorable rating was a combined score -- Rasmussen gave respondents a choice between "very favorable, "somewhat favorable," "somewhat unfavorable," and "very unfavorable." Nixon's "very unfavorable" was 25%. George W. Bush's was 40%.

I had two random questions, though. First, the only president who came close to George W. Bush for "very unfavorable" was William McKinley, who also got a 40%. Was this some kind of printing error? Does McKinley really have that many critics?

And second, who are the 6% of Americans who are reluctant to give George Washington the thumbs up? Is there some kind of anti-Washington contingent out there that's gone largely unnoticed?

Steve Benen 8:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (116)

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THE 'COALITION OF THE BILLING'....The Washington Post's Steve Fainaru had a fascinating item a couple of weeks ago in which he detailed the extent of the work private military contractors are doing in Iraq. The piece described an environment in which more than 100 private security companies operate outside of Iraqi law, providing protection for top administration officials.

Fainaru didn't nail down just how big a private force we're talking about, but today, the LA Times' T. Christian Miller adds some surprising details.

The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns.

More than 180,000 civilians -- including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis -- are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Some of this is admittedly a little fuzzy. As James Joyner noted, a majority of these civilians working in Iraq are, in fact, Iraqis. What's more, they're taking on construction and infrastructure duties, not security roles.

I'd add, however, that the 180,000 civilians also doesn't fully include thousands of Americans, financed by public U.S. funds, who are providing private security. How many thousands? According to the Times piece, somewhere between 6,000 and 30,000, all of whom are operating outside the chain of command and independent of Iraqi law.

That these ambiguities exist at all underscores part of the problem. No one seems to know how many contractors are there, what their responsibilities are, and/or how many of them are being killed.

Ultimately, uncertainties aside, it's still the biggest military outsourcing project anyone's ever seen. As Brookings' Peter Singer concluded, the numbers of private contractors "illustrate better than anything that we went in without enough troops. This is not the coalition of the willing. It's the coalition of the billing."

Steve Benen 4:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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MEET VICTOR RITA....In light of Scooter Libby's scandalous commutation this week, here's an apples-to-apples comparison that the White House may struggle to spin.

[I]n a case decided two weeks ago by the United States Supreme Court and widely discussed by legal specialists in light of the Libby case, the Justice Department persuaded the court to affirm the 33-month sentence of a defendant whose case closely resembled that against Mr. Libby. The defendant, Victor A. Rita, was, like Mr. Libby, convicted of perjury, making false statements to federal agents and obstruction of justice. Mr. Rita has performed extensive government service, just as Mr. Libby has. Mr. Rita served in the armed forces for more than 25 years, receiving 35 commendations, awards and medals. Like Mr. Libby, Mr. Rita had no criminal history for purposes of the federal sentencing guidelines.

The judges who sentenced the two men increased their sentences by taking account of the crimes about which they lied. Mr. Rita's perjury concerned what the court called "a possible violation of a machine-gun registration law"; Mr. Libby's of a possible violation of a federal law making it a crime to disclose the identities of undercover intelligence agents in some circumstances.

When Mr. Rita argued that his 33-month sentence had failed to consider his history and circumstances adequately, the Justice Department strenuously disagreed.

Both Rita and Libby are first-time offenders; both were convicted of the exact same crime. One lied about gun registration; the other lied about his role in outing a covert CIA operative during a time of war. The president believes the prior should be away for nearly three years, but believes the latter shouldn't spend a single moment behind bars.

I anxiously await the explanation from White House sycophants about Bush's deep and abiding respect for a justice system in which all Americans are equal under the law.

A few other commutation notes to keep in mind today:

* Sentencing experts cannot find a single other instance in American history in which someone sentenced to prison had received a presidential commutation without having served any part of that sentence. (Bush is quite a trailblazer.)

* Defense attorneys can't wait to take advantage of the can of worms the president has opened. One legal expert said, "I anticipate that we're going to get a new motion called 'the Libby motion.'"

* "According to federal data, the average sentence for those found guilty of obstruction of justice was 70 months, not zero.

* And Bush couldn't even thumb his nose at the rule of law competently. In his commutation order, the president said Libby should still get two years probation. The law says that "supervised release," as it is called, can only follow an actual prison sentence. Now, Judge Walton doesn't know how to reconcile Bush law with real law.

Steve Benen 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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IN THE MONEY, PART II....I had an item earlier this week on Democratic presidential candidates' fundraising in the second quarter, so it seems only fair to note the Republicans' fundraising efforts as well. For the GOP, the results are less than encouraging.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who led the Republican field in money raised in the first three months of the year, said donations to his primary campaign had dropped by a third in the second quarter, to $14 million from $20.5 million. Mr. Romney lent his campaign another $6.5 million out of his personal fortune to soften the impact of the decline in donations.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, raised more in the second quarter than he did in the first: $17 million including $2 million that he can use only if he wins the Republican nomination, versus about $15 million. But unlike the first quarter, when his fund-raising operation was just getting up and running, his campaign was fully operational in the second quarter.

As a rule, second-quarter receipts surpass first-quarter receipts, as candidates start to build a larger base of support and voters grow more engaged. Given this, those hoping for a Republican victory next year have to be rather discouraged this week.

In the first quarter, the top three Dems outraised the top three Republicans, $65 million to $50.5 million. In the second quarter, the same test showed Dems ahead, $68.5 million to $48.7 million.

Here's an even more startling detail: more Americans donated to Barack Obama's campaign than donated to Giuliani, Romney, and McCain combined.

The New York Times noted, "Put together, the results for the three leading Republicans amounted to a stark indication of a gap in enthusiasm and confidence between the two parties." That's putting it mildly.

It can't be all Bush's fault. Is the Republican field really this uninspiring to the GOP faithful?

Steve Benen 9:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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July 3, 2007

IS OUR PRESIDENT READING?...It's hardly the most important element of Peter Baker's piece on Bush's behind-the-scenes state of mind, but Baker does tackle an enduring question: Does the president read newspapers?

To an extent, Bush walls himself off from criticism. He does read newspapers, contrary to public impression, but watches little television news and does not linger in the media echo chamber.

I really would like to believe that the president reads newspapers, but there's reason for some skepticism here. Baker argues that the "public impression" of the president's reading habits is mistaken. But how was this impression shaped? By the president repeatedly telling people that he doesn't read newspapers.

Bush told Fox News' Brit Hume, for example, "I glance at the headlines just to kind of [get] a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are [sic] probably read the news themselves."

For that matter, Bush talked to the Washington Times' Bill Sammon [link no longer available] and boasted about his news-consuming habits, or in this case, lack thereof.

"I don't watch the nightly newscasts on TV, nor do I watch the endless hours of people giving their opinion about things," the president said. "I don't read the editorial pages; I don't read the columnists."

Yet Mr. Bush regularly monitors the news pages of a select few daily publications.

"I get the newspapers -- the New York Times, The Washington Times, The Washington Post and USA Today -- those are the four papers delivered," he said. "I can scan a front page, and if there is a particular story of interest, I'll skim it."

Maybe this explains the "public impression" about Bush's reading habits?

Steve Benen 10:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....NRO's Mark Levin explains his take on the president's commutation scandal.

The way I see it, Lewis Libby was about to become a political prisoner and the president prevented that.

He did not appear to be kidding.

I hesitate to respond to such foolishness with anything substantive, but Levin believes Libby would become a "political prisoner" by virtue of charges filed by a prosecutor appointed by a Republican administration, a criminal sentence issued by a judge appointed by a Republican president, and an appeal heard by two more judges appointed by Republican presidents.

For that matter, as Alex Massie noted, "Is Mr. Levin actually saying that but for the wisdom and restraint of President Bush the United States would be some kind of crackpot banana republic? Why, yes he is."

Steve Benen 9:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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A CASUAL AFFAIR....Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is considered a rising star in Democratic politics, and a likely candidate for statewide office in the not-too-distant future, so one might wonder if a personal incident like this one will undermine his long-term chances.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is in the midst of divorce proceedings with his wife, acknowledged in a statement published Tuesday that he is in a relationship with a Spanish-language television reporter.

"It is true that I have a relationship with Ms. Mirthala Salinas," Villaraigosa said in a statement published in the Los Angeles Daily News. "As I've said I take full responsibility for my actions, and I once again ask that people respect my family's privacy. For my part, I intend to stay focused on my job, and to work as hard as I can every day to be the best mayor I can be."

Villaraigosa had previously declined to comment, but issued the statement after the paper told him it was set to publish a story about his relationship with the Telemundo newswoman.

Now, I'm not going to justify Villaraigosa behavior, which I think is wrong, but any suggestion that his future political career is in trouble because of this strikes me as overstated.

Indeed, as luck would have it, Villaraigosa owes a debt to national Republicans, who effectively broke the mold when it comes to adultery and seeking higher office. An article I wrote a year ago for the Washington Monthly seems apropos, given the context.

Put it this way, if Rudy Giuliani can march with his mistress in New York's St. Patrick's Day parade, tell his wife he's leaving her via a press conference, launch a presidential campaign shortly thereafter, and then receive warm praise from TV preacher Pat Robertson, I think it's safe to say Antonio Villaraigosa should be able to run for governor in a few years without too much trouble.

I realize there may be a double-standard, and Democrats' affairs capture the media's attention more than Republicans' affairs, but there's no way Villaraigosa's future could be finished because of this incident, is there?

Steve Benen 7:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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GITMO ON THE TABLE....It looks like Defense Secretary Robert Gates is just full off ideas lately. In addition to his proposal on scaling down the surge policy, Gates is also weighing ideas on how to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Essentially, the administration would propose legislation that would result in dividing the estimated 375 Guantanamo detainees into three legal categories. The one that would call for legislative action would include detainees like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 2001 attacks, and others whose trials would risk exposing intelligence operations. This group, estimated at two dozen to 50, would be placed indefinitely in military brigs on American soil.

A second group would also be moved to the United States, most likely to face trial in military courts, but perhaps with more legal guarantees than in the current military tribunal system.

The third, and largest, group would consist of detainees to be released to their home countries.

The good news is Gates' approach would more or less mark the end of the administration's policy on denying enemy combatants due process.

Spencer Ackerman details the bad news.

Steve Benen 5:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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LET'S MAKE A DEAL?....The Wall Street Journal reports today that Defense Secretary Bob Gates has an idea in mind that he wants to bring to the Hill.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and some allies in the Bush administration are seeking to build bipartisan political support for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq by moving toward withdrawing significant numbers of troops from Iraq by the end of President Bush's term. [...]

The emerging plan would shift the U.S. mission in Iraq to a more-modest attempt to contain its civil war, rather than the current effort to end the conflict. A smaller force of American troops, operating out of large bases far from Iraq's major cities, would focus on battling al Qaeda, securing Iraq's borders and training the country's struggling security forces.

The approach represents a stark shift for many senior administration officials, who have gone from arguing to maintain existing troop levels in Iraq -- if not increasing them, as with the surge -- to embracing a large-scale withdrawal as part of a shrinking of the overall U.S. mission there.

In a nutshell, Gates wants Congress to agree to a long-term, Korea-like presence for U.S. troops in Iraq, and in return, Gates will give Congress an end to an ineffective "surge" policy.

Gates' approach has a certain logic to it, at least as far as war supporters go. Bush wants the surge to last indefinitely, which in turn exposes the tragic flaws in the existing policy, which in turn increases the likelihood that Congress will intervene and end the war and end the U.S. presence in Iraq. Gates doesn't want that, so he'll take what he sees as "middle" ground -- no more surge, but indefinite stay for a smaller troop contingent.

I suppose it's encouraging that the existing policy is losing support at the Pentagon, but it's hard to imagine congressional Dems going along with Gates' proposal. What would this smaller fighting force do for the next several decades? Would they even have a mission? How would this force improve U.S. security interests?

If Gates knows, he's not saying.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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INCOHERENCE....Tony Snow told reporters this morning that the president, in consultation with top White House aides, mulled over what to do about Scooter Libby for "weeks and weeks." With all those smart people pondering the matter for so long, you'd think they wouldn't sound so spectacularly dumb in explaining what happened yesterday.

The president, for example, deigned to answer a couple of questions this morning. After Bush said he has ruled "nothing in or nothing out" regarding a future pardon, a reporter asked whether the president is worried that his decision "sends a signal that you won't go to jail if you lie to the FBI." Bush responded:

"I took this decision very seriously on Mr. Libby. I considered his background, his service to the country, as well as the jury verdict. I felt like the jury verdict ought to stand, and I felt like some of the punishments that the judge determined were adequate should stand. But I felt like the 30-month sentencing was severe; made a judgment, a considered judgment that I believe is the right decision to make in this case, and I stand by it."

It wasn't a trick question: should Americans lie to the FBI during a criminal investigation? Apparently, Bush doesn't have an opinion on the matter.

Shortly thereafter, a reporter asked Tony Snow during a press briefing, "If there are more than 3,000 current petitions for commutation -- not pardons, but commutation -- in the federal system, under President Bush, will all 3,000 of those be held to the same standard that the president applied to Scooter Libby?"

Snow replied, "I don't know."

In other words, the White House press secretary isn't sure whether there's one standard of criminal justice for the president's friends, and another for everyone else. Maybe he can find out and get back to us? I'm sure there are thousands of American convicts and their families who would love to know why the White House no longer believes we're all equal under the law.

Snow added that this case, in which Libby didn't even request commutation, was handled "in a routine manner."

The president "routinely" spends weeks and weeks mulling over these questions? No wonder the president can't govern; the bleeding heart spends all of his time poring over commutation applications.

Steve Benen 2:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (186)

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MAKING A STATEMENT....Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has caved to White House demands on a wide variety of issues, but when it comes to presidential signing statements, the Pennsylvania senator has actually been pretty good. A year ago, he even tried to introduce legislation that would allow Congress to sue the president over his use of these legally dubious documents. He asked at the time, "What's the point of having a statute if ... the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like? ... If he doesn't like the bill, let him veto it."

Not surprisingly, Specter's Republican colleagues quickly would put the kibosh on the proposal. John McCain helped kill the bill, arguing, "I think the president will enforce the law." (Yes, McCain's child-like naivete is rather amusing in retrospect.)

Specter, however, is quite right. We have a bizarre dynamic at play: Congress passes bills, Bush signs the bills into law, and then, in several instances, after the president issues signing statements, the Bush administration decides not to do what the law mandates.

To his credit, Specter is giving his bill another shot.

Frustrated by the Bush administration's continued use of presidential signing statements to challenge or ignore provisions of Congressionally approved legislation, Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has reintroduced legislation to rein in President Bush's ability to use the tactic.

Specter, who has long been a critic of Bush's use of signing statements, quietly introduced his Presidential Signing Statements Act of 2007 on Friday.

"The president cannot use a signing statement to rewrite the words of a statute nor can he use a signing statement to selectively nullify those provisions he does not like," Specter said in a floor statement.

Specter added, "If the president is permitted to rewrite the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process designed by our framers."

To which the White House apparently responded, "Duh."

Steve Benen 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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A.Q. KHAN....Way back in 2004, during the first Bush-Kerry debate, the president was anxious to convince voters that he'd been successful in combating terrorism. Specifically, the president boasted about bringing a notorious Pakistani scientist to justice who was selling nuclear secrets -- design plans and components -- to North Korea.

"We continue to pursue our policy of disrupting those who proliferate weapons of mass destruction.... The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice," Bush said. He added, "We busted the A.Q. Khan network. This was a proliferator out of Pakistan that was selling secrets to places like North Korea and Libya."

The truth was more complicated than that. Far from bring Khan "to justice," Bush signed off on a deal in which Khan was slapped on the wrist by Pakistani officials, who were afraid of the political implications of punishing someone considered a hero in much of Pakistan. As for "busting" Khan's network, none of Khan's cohorts have even been charged with a crime.

This week, we learn that Khan is "virtually a free citizen," and has been for "several months." What's more, Spencer Ackerman noted, "Musharraf refused to allow U.S. intelligence officials to question Khan, and Congress has raised questions over whether the proliferation network Khan created is truly out of business."

I'd only add that the White House was told about Khan's nuclear-selling network almost immediately after the president took office -- but the Bush gang was slow to act on it. Indeed, British officials encouraged the administration to take Khan's network more seriously, but the administration pursued awkward and fruitless negotiations with Pakistan, which only gave Khan more time to expand his growing business.

And now, Khan is basically free. Policy towards Pakistan sure can be tricky, can't it?

Update: A reader reminds me that the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, along with the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, recently held a joint hearing: "A.Q. Khan's Nuclear Wal-Mart: Out of Business or Under New Management?"

Steve Benen 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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LIBBY AND '08....Chances are, by October 2008, the name Scooter Libby will probably not be leading the evening newscasts' coverage of the campaign. But in the meantime, I think Bush's commutation should hang around the neck of every GOP presidential hopeful. The president has not only tarnished the White House with his conduct, he's put his party's possible successors in an awkward position: they're now supposed to defend -- even applaud -- Bush's scandalous conduct.

Perhaps, then, we can start drawing up a list of questions reporters can and should ask the GOP field:

  • Would you, as president, routinely overturn criminal sentences for unrepentant convicted felons before they serve time behind bars?

  • If obstruction of justice and perjury are not serious crimes deserving of serious punishment, what other felonies are you inclined to disregard?

  • If there are two systems of justice -- one for politically-connected Republicans, and one for everyone else -- how will you decide who makes the cut?

Feel free to add your own.

Steve Benen 10:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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ABOVE THE LAW....The day after Bush gave Scooter Libby his get-out-of-jail-free card, the decision is still appalling. It's one thing to expect the worst from those who have no shame and know no limits; it's another to actually get it. Yes, this president has probably done more offensive things during his reign of error, but commuting Libby's sentence has to be the most blatant example of the president thumbing his nose at the nation and our institutions.

There are more than a handful of angles to consider as part of the broader controversy, but I think the New York Times editorial board touches on one of the key points.

Presidents have the power to grant clemency and pardons. But in this case, Mr. Bush did not sound like a leader making tough decisions about justice. He sounded like a man worried about what a former loyalist might say when actually staring into a prison cell.

Quite right. Yesterday's decision, as offensive as it is, brings the leak scandal into the Oval Office -- even more so. It necessarily gives the impression that Libby lied and obstructed justice in order to shield Bush and Cheney from their role in an even bigger crime. Even now, it's frustratingly unclear why, exactly, Libby decided to lie so brazenly, which suggests that he's covering up a more serious matter that might involve his only two WH bosses (the president and vice president). Amnesty only exacerbates these suspicions.

Taking a step back, however, I keep thinking about a 2001 quote from the president: "[W]e must always maintain the highest ethical standards. We must always ask ourselves not only what is legal, but what is right. There is no goal of government worth accomplishing if it cannot be accomplished with integrity." Six years later, the remarks sound more like a punch-line than an approach to government. It's a reminder of just how big an embarrassment the president is to himself and those around him.

The White House seems to be making a point of emphasizing that the president rejected the rule of law without input from the Department of Justice or outside allies. I'm not sure why this is supposed to make us feel better. The president and his ventriloquist VP got together and decided to fiddle with the sentence of a felonious friend? This is how the chief executive of a democracy is supposed to operate? With two cowards conspiring alone to undermine justice?

Hilzoy's perspective summarized the broader dynamic nicely.

Bush, typically, didn't bother even trying to come up with a decent explanation for what he did. He didn't address questions like: Mightn't this give people the idea that there are two different standards of justice, one for people with powerful connections and another for the rest of us? Is it OK to exempt your friends from the rule of law? Isn't it especially problematic to commute someone's sentence when you yourself might have had a hand in that person's criminal actions? And double especially when no one other than the now-free criminal has been held to account, despite your earlier promises? [...]

His words mean nothing. He wouldn't recognize honor or dignity if they sat down next to him on the bus. He's a narcissistic child with the intellectual curiosity of a limpet, a heart the size of a pea, and a hollow empty void where his character ought to be.

I don't doubt that conservatives will quickly argue that the nation, which strongly opposed Bush coming to Libby's rescue, just "get over it." And perhaps, in time, this will just be another bullet point on a long list of Bush's disgraces.

But some offenses are impossible to forgive. Manipulating the rule of law and the U.S. system of justice to serve personal and political ends is one of them. Indeed, in a reasonable political world, it's an impeachable offense.

Steve Benen 8:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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July 2, 2007

SCOOTER'S PARDON, PART II....I don't disagree with Kevin at all; Bush's decision to ignore the rule of law, disregard the criminal justice system, and overlook his own commutation guidelines shouldn't surprise anyone. The president has shown nothing but contempt for principles of justice up until now; why should today be any different?

In conservative circles, there's a standard approach to law and order: we need tougher sentences, inflexible mandatory-minimums, and harsh punishment for those found to have broken U.S. law. But if you help expose the identity of a covert CIA agent during a war, lie about it, and are convicted by a jury on multiple felony counts, those standards no longer apply. Perhaps we should call this what it is: "amnesty."

I suspect a standard conservative defense will be, "But it's not amnesty; Libby is being punished. He has to pay a fine." First, when it came to immigration policy, asking lawbreakers to pay a fine was still called "amnesty" and it was considered unacceptable. Second, Libby's fine will be paid for by his well-connected, wealthy Republican friends who generously contributed to his legal defense fund. His "punishment" is non-existent.

As for the commutation itself, expectations aside, today's decision doesn't even make any logical sense. If the White House wanted to argue that Libby's prosecution never should have happened in the first place, the Bush gang could at least try to make the case. But that's not what's happened here -- as Josh Marshall explained, the president has instead decided to "micromanage the sentence."

[The president decided] that the conviction is appropriate, that probation is appropriate, that a substantial fine is appropriate --- just no prison sentence.

This is being treated in the press as splitting the difference, an elegant compromise. But it is the least justifiable approach. The president has decided that the sentencing guidelines and the opinion of judge don't cut it.

The only basis for this decision is that Libby is the vice president's friend, the vice president rules the president and this was the minimum necessary to keep the man silent.

Way back in September 2003, as the investigation was getting under way, Bush announced, "If there's a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is.... If the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of."

As Swopa noted, "We now know exactly what he meant."

Steve Benen 9:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

SCOOTER'S PARDON....I'd just like to briefly break radio silence to say that I'm not surprised that George Bush commuted Scooter Libby's sentence. See here for reasons. The only thing I didn't foresee was that Mr. Principle would carefully read the polling tea leaves and commute only part of Libby's sentence so that he could pretend this was some kind of deeply profound Solomonic judgment, not just a craven favor for a friend. His statement along these lines is enough to make one ill. Ugh.

Kevin Drum 7:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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President Bush commuted the sentence of former aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Monday, sparing him from a 2 1/2-year prison term in the CIA leak case.

Bush left intact a $250,000 fine and two years probation for Libby, according to a senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been announced.

"My decision to commute his prison sentence leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby. The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged," Bush said in a statement. "I respect the jury's verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive."

TPMM has the full White House statement.

Remember a month ago when the White House insisted that the president was "not going to intervene"? That's no longer operative.

Steve Benen 6:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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McCAIN IN FREEFALL....About six months ago, John McCain was not only the presumptive favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, he was the GOP candidate recruiting some of the top campaign talent available. McCain even picked up some of the same people who helped George W. Bush smear him in 2000, assuming it was more important to hire the best talent than hold a grudge.

By April, the campaign was struggling, so McCain shook up his team by eliminating some non-senior staff positions and cutting some consultants' contracts. The campaign characterized the moves as "minor adjustments."

Today's moves are anything but minor.

Republican John McCain reorganized his campaign Monday, cutting staff in every department as he raised just $11.2 million in the last three months and reported an abysmal $2 million cash on hand for his presidential bid. [...]

Some 50 staffers or more are being let go, and senior aides will be subject to pay cuts as the Arizona senator bows to six months of subpar fundraising, according to officials with knowledge of the details of the shake up.

It's likely that McCain is firing at least 50 staffers to show the GOP establishment and major donors that he recognizes that there's a problem with his campaign and that he's taking steps to improve his chances. But just as April's shake-up didn't help McCain get back on track, July's will probably have about as much success.

Indeed, if the announcement was about "sending a message," it's conveying the wrong message -- McCain looks desperate and directionless today. And with a paltry $2 million cash on hand, he's not even in a position to turn things around.

Late last week, a reporter asked McCain whether he'd consider ending his presidential campaign in light of his sagging poll numbers and weak fundraising. "That's ridiculous," McCain said. "Why in the world would I want to do that?"

Once those questions start, it's often difficult to make them stop.

Steve Benen 5:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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TOO MUCH FOCUS ON COUNTER-INSURGENCY?....Given the conditions on the ground in Iraq, it's hard to imagine anyone thinking that the Armed Forces are overly focused on counter-insurgency efforts, and yet, there are apparently some military chiefs who believe just that.

"The major concern is, while we're doing all this COIN [counterinsurgency] . . . do we have battalions that can still do an attack or a major defense, or brigades that can coordinate three battalions attacking an objective?" said Dennis Tighe, deputy director of the Combined Arms Center for Training. "Maybe we've got some problems there." [...]

Gen. Richard Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, was the first to sound the alarm publicly late last year. He warned that soldiers need more than 12 months between deployments so that they can complete a full range of combat training.

"We need to reset the sergeants and send them to schools, the lieutenants and captains and send them off, so that we don't erode and become an Army that only can fight a counterinsurgency," Cody told reporters. He added that North Korea's Oct. 3 nuclear test "reminds us all that we may not just be in a counterinsurgency fight and we have to have full-spectrum capability."

Thankfully, Noah Shachtman takes these officials to task for their bizarre notion that the Army, in the midst of a massive insurgency, is too concerned with fighting insurgents: "Of course we need to have an Army that's prepared for every eventuality. But it seems to me like we should be zeroing in on the eventuality that's right in front of our faces."

Steve Benen 4:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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LIBBY LOSES ANOTHER APPEAL....If Scooter Libby is counting on a pardon to keep him out of jail, he'll need Bush to act very quickly.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, must go to prison while appealing his conviction for obstructing a CIA leak probe, a U.S. appeals court said.

Libby may be behind bars within weeks after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit today denied his request for release. The decision will increase pressure on President George W. Bush to decide soon whether to pardon Libby, 56, as the former White House official's supporters have urged.

Libby "has not shown that the appeal raises a substantial question" under federal law that would merit letting him remain free, the court said.

It apparently wasn't too close a question for the appeals court panel -- it was a unanimous decision dismissing the appeal with a one-paragraph order.

For those who keep track of such things, Bloomberg reported, "The three-judge appeals panel that issued today's order included Judges David Sentelle, nominated by President Ronald Reagan; Karen LeCraft Henderson, nominated by President George H.W. Bush, and David Tatel, nominated by President Bill Clinton."

In other words, for those keeping score, Libby was charged by a prosecutor appointed by a Republican administration, he was sentenced by a judge appointed by a Republican president, and his appeal was heard by two more judges appointed by Republican presidents. Naturally, this will lead Fox News and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page to decry the "partisan" prosecution.

As for the inevitable questions about a presidential pardon, a former senior Bush administration official recently said, "It would show a deep disregard for the rule of law if [the president] was to do it right now, when there has been no remorse shown by a convicted felon and no time has been served."

In other words, it would be entirely consistent with the White House's m.o.

Steve Benen 2:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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ALMOST LAUGHABLE....There's been ample discussion about the recent attempted attacks in Britain, the sophistication of the would-be terrorists, and the connection they may or may not have had to al Qaeda.

Former Scotland Yard Detective John O'Connor's comments on CNN this morning addressed all of these points nicely. (TPM has posted the clip.)

"I think that rather than using the all-embracing term of 'al Qaeda,' I think that you should be using the term 'jihadists,' which I think makes more sense. Because, though they may share common purposes with al Qaeda, I don't think that al Qaeda has the control to operate something like this. They could operate a major terrorist outrage, but I think it would be more professionally run. I mean this was a hopeless, incompetent terrorist attack.

"When you see the ludicrous situation where none of the bombs were able to be detonated and these guys are trying to set fire to petrol, when all they did, they didn't get a detonation at the doors of the airport lounge; all they got was a bomb fire.

"They set fire to fuel. Well, that in its own way, is not going to detonate the gas cylinders and it's not going to cause an explosion. It was just a fire. I mean, that is so incompetent as to be almost laughable."

An Andrew Sullivan reader also adds a helpful perspective about the contrast between British officials commenting on the events in London and Glasgow and those of Bush administration officials addressing various plots.

You can't watch the response of UK police authorities in their public statements without being impressed with the careful balance they strike between exorting the public to vigilance and resistance to being stampeded into premature conclusions. And particularly their restraint in talking about those who were arrested. "Out of respect for proper process, we will avoid comment," they say. And indeed, that's exactly what responsible law enforcement in a democratic society should say. It couldn't contrast more sharply with the conduct of the Ashcroft and, still worse, Gonzales Justice Department which engages in hysterical rants, leveling charges that almost never pan out, and screaming "terrorists!" at the top of their lungs - on a manifestly partisan political message. Let's call it department of calm heads vs. department of headless chickens. In any event, our friends in Britain are providing a model on this.

Steve Benen 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Christina Larson

HUNTERS AND WILDERNESS ... As the Times reports, a battle is raging in Pennsylvania to keep 44,000 acres of state-protected wilderness from becoming a National Guard target range.

The fight for conservation is being spearheaded by a coalition group that includes sportsmen who value the Stony Creek wilderness area as top notch hunting grounds. Unlike the proposed entry of Bradley fighting machines, hunting on foot and limited by state game laws does not impair ecosystems. (I know not all readers are fans of hunting; I take a more sympathetic view for reasons elaborated here and here.)

My point here is simply that these sportsmen would not be taking a leading role in conservation advocacy had they never been allowed to hunt on, and develop a connection with, these state lands. As urbanization and other factors make it harder to find good places to hunt, or hike, enthusiasts will fight harder for what's left. That's a potentially potent political force.

Christina Larson 12:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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'OUT OF TOUCH WITH REALITY'....We've been hearing quite a bit lately about the president reaching out to observers outside his inner circle for big-picture bull sessions. In April, Bush met with some "big money players up from Texas," who got out exactly one question before president launched into an extended rant about how no one understands him. In May, Bush reportedly had another gathering in which long-time friends found him "nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated 'I am the president!'"

The Washington Post's Peter Baker noted today that these conversations are apparently becoming quite common.

At the nadir of his presidency, George W. Bush is looking for answers. One at a time or in small groups, he summons leading authors, historians, philosophers and theologians to the White House to join him in the search.

Over sodas and sparkling water, he asks his questions: What is the nature of good and evil in the post-Sept. 11 world? What lessons does history have for a president facing the turmoil I'm facing? How will history judge what we've done? Why does the rest of the world seem to hate America? Or is it just me they hate?

These are the questions of a president who has endured the most drastic political collapse in a generation. Not generally known for intellectual curiosity, Bush is seeking out those who are, engaging in a philosophical exploration of the currents of history that have swept up his administration.

What's unclear is exactly what the president hopes to get out of these conversations. Indeed, through the course of Baker's piece, it's clear that Bush isn't looking for advice, because he's already convinced that he's right. He isn't looking for constructive criticism, because he doesn't want to change course. He isn't looking for historical predictions, because he's already certain that history will look kindly on his tenure.

One gets the distinct impression that Bush is arranging meetings with these scholarly observers in the hopes that one of them will confirm everything he already believes.

The Hudson Institute's Irwin Stelzer, who participated in one of these White House chats, said the president either has "extraordinary self-confidence" or he's "out of touch with reality." Stelzer added, "I can't tell you which."

Couldn't it be a little of both?

Steve Benen 11:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE?....Towards the end of a report about the Department of Homeland Security responding to possible terrorist threats over the summer, ABC News added a disconcerting tidbit of information:

As ABCNews.com reported, U.S. law enforcement officials received intelligence reports two weeks ago warning of terror attacks in Glasgow and Prague, the Czech Republic, against "airport infrastructure and aircraft."

The warnings apparently never reached officials in Scotland, who said this weekend they had received "no advance intelligence" that Glasgow might be a target.

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff declined to comment specifically on the report today, but said "everything that we get is shared virtually instantaneously with our counterparts in Britain and vice versa."

I certainly hope so.

As James Joyner put it, "It would be an outrage, indeed, if we had solid intelligence about an attack in the UK and didn't get around to warning them."

Steve Benen 10:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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IN THE MONEY....In some ways, measuring presidential candidates by their fundraising totals is just about the ultimate in political inside pool. The typical American doesn't know or care how much money a campaign raises -- but the numbers are carefully scrutinized by reporters, candidates, staffers, and major donors.

It's not necessarily fair, and fundraising conditions can change, but candidates who fall behind in fundraising are perceived, usually accurately, as struggling overall. Candidates who fill their coffers well are perceived as credible and strong.

And candidates who raise over $30 million in the second quarter the year before the presidential election are a force to be reckoned with.

Sen. Barack Obama raised $31 million for his presidential primary campaign over the past three months, surging past Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's fundraising machine by nearly $10 million for the quarter to take the lead in contributions in the crowded Democratic field.

Obama became the first Democrat to surpass $30 million in a quarter during a non-election year, a feat his campaign said was accomplished not just with help from wealthy, traditional donors but also with a strong showing among small contributors.... In addition to Obama's haul for the primary, he collected $1.5 million for the general election, for a total of $32.5 million raised over the past three months.

Hillary Clinton got a fairly significant head start on 2007 fundraising by transferring $10 million from her Senate campaign account -- and Obama still surpassed her. Over the first six months of the year, Obama raised nearly $56 million for primary spending, followed by Clinton's $50 million. Edwards is third with about $22 million, followed by Richardson with roughly $13 million, and Dodd with about $12 million.

Obama's haul, however, is clearly the big story. Marc Ambinder's analysis sounds about right to me: "There is no other way to put it: not only did Sen. Barack Obama set a record for single quarter donations by a Democratic candidate, but his fundraising total -- $31M from 154,000 new donors -- imposes an obligation on all of us who cover the race: we need to figure out why the 'national' frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, isn't generating as much excitement as her chief competitor."

And what of the fundraising for the Republican presidential candidates? No one in the GOP field has released their numbers yet, but none of the Republicans is expected to be anywhere close to Obama (or Clinton, for that matter).

In the first quarter, all the Dems outraised all the Republicans, $78 million to $53.6 million. This quarter, the disparity should grow even larger.

We're going to be hearing quite a bit about an "enthusiasm gap" between Clinton and Obama, but let's also not lose sight of the same gap between Dems and the GOP.

Steve Benen 8:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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July 1, 2007

FACT-CHECKING 'SICKO'....It's not often major news outlets fact-check documentaries, but Michael Moore's not just another documentary filmmaker, and healthcare is not just another public policy. So, I suppose it's not a big surprise that CNN would give "Sicko" some close scrutiny.

As it turns out, the network gives the movie a clean bill of health.

Moore says that the U.S. spends more of its gross domestic product on health care than any other country.

Again, that's true. The United States spends more than 15 percent of its GDP on health care -- no other nation even comes close to that number. France spends about 11 percent, and Canadians spend 10 percent.

Like Moore, we also found that more money does not equal better care. Both the French and Canadian systems rank in the Top 10 of the world's best health-care systems, according to the World Health Organization. The United States comes in at No. 37. The rankings are based on general health of the population, access, patient satisfaction and how the care's paid for.

Indeed, CNN's analysis found no substantive flaws or inaccuracies in Moore's film, but nevertheless concluded, "As Americans continue to spend $2 trillion a year on health care, everyone agrees on one point: Things need to change, and it will take more than a movie to figure out how to get there."

Perhaps, but as Matt Yglesias noted, CNN's own fact-checking piece clearly shows the way by pointing to the same deficiencies in the U.S. system that Moore identified in "Sicko."

[I]t's not that hard to figure out. France and Canada both have two difference systems of health care delivery both of which are cheaper than the US system and both of which are more effective. What's more, these aren't obscure countries. Lots of people have heard of France. Lots of people have heard of Canada. How hard is it for them to just write the words "Michael Moore is right; American health care would be improved if we adopted French methods instead"?

Good question.

Steve Benen 8:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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GEORGE W. CHAMBERLAIN....An inexperienced leader, facing a serious global threat, grows increasingly arrogant, spurns lawmakers, grabs unprecedented power, bullies skeptics, stifles the press, and decides to spurn the advice of seasoned hands and go it alone. Sound familiar?

Lynne Olson, author of a new book about the British Parliament replacing Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill in 1940, has a fascinating piece in the Washington Post today comparing our current president with the wartime British prime minister. Bush may claim the Churchillian legacy as his own -- he reportedly keeps a "stern-looking bust" of Churchill in the Oval Office -- but Olson makes the case that he has far more in common with Churchill's predecessor.

Like Bush and unlike Churchill, Chamberlain came to office with almost no understanding of foreign affairs or experience in dealing with international leaders. Nonetheless, he was convinced that he alone could bring Hitler and Benito Mussolini to heel. He surrounded himself with like-minded advisers and refused to heed anyone who told him otherwise. [...]

Like Bush, Chamberlain also laid claim to unprecedented executive authority, evading the checks and balances that are supposed to constrain the office of prime minister. He scorned dissenting views, both inside and outside government.... Likewise, Churchill almost certainly would look askance at the Bush administration's years-long campaign to shut down public debate over the "war on terror" and the conflict in Iraq -- tactics markedly similar to Chamberlain's attempts to quiet his opponents. Like Bush and his aides, Chamberlain badgered and intimidated the press, restricted journalists' access to sources and claimed that anyone who dared criticize the government was guilty of disloyalty and damaging the national interest.

Just as Bush has done, Chamberlain authorized the wiretapping of citizens without court authorization; Churchill was among those whose phones were tapped by the prime minister's subordinates.

Olson makes a point of noting that these British prime ministers have become something of a Rorschach test: "People see in Churchill and Chamberlain what they want to see. They draw parallels between the 1930s and the events of today according to their own political philosophy." That's certainly true, and the Bush-Chamberlain comparison is imprecise.

But the similarities in attitude and style are nevertheless striking. Bush fancies himself a Churchill-like figure because the former prime minister was "resolute." What the president neglects to understand is that Churchill was resolute in defense of principles and values that Bush rejects out of hand.

Rumor has it the president is reading Olson's book now. Let's hope he's reading carefully.

Steve Benen 3:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE MODERN FACE OF TERRORISM, PART II....The dramatic events in Britain over the last couple of days are a stark reminder of a terrorist threat that is likely getting worse for the West, not better.

Fortunately, no innocent people suffered any serious injuries as a result of these attacks. What's more, the attackers do not appear to have been well trained:

Several experts and officials said the technology behind the London car bombs seemed amateurish. While the attackers apparently tried to detonate the bombs using cellphones, "they didn't go off because there were not top-grade people putting them together," one Western official said.

Do you ever get the sense the West is incredibly fortunate that recent would-be terrorists lack sophistication? I'm reminded of Kevin's post after the Fort Dix arrests.

Let me get this straight: 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?

There have, of course, been far too many devastating acts of terrorism in the West (New York, London, Madrid, Oklahoma City), but there are times it seems we've been lucky that those willing to do the most harm have not been "top-grade people."

Steve Benen 8:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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