Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 31, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HAPPY HALLOWEEN....A couple of years ago I posted a Dick Cheney pumpkin for Halloween. This year, reader GS sends me a cat pumpkin:

In honor and friendship to our true masters, whose priorities are most wise of all.

Quite so, despite my inexplicable decision to Photoshop the picture he sent. Just felt like playing around, I guess.

Needless to say, all the real cats will stay safely indoors tonight. As for us human types, trick-or-treating has dropped to such meager levels in our neighborhood that we're going to head out to dinner and skip the whole thing this year. Why? Because the neighborhood across the street from us puts on such a spectacular Halloween show every year that kids are drawn to it like a magnet. The rest of us can't compete anymore.

Kevin Drum 6:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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By: Kevin Drum

ECCENTRIC BLOG RECOMMENDATION OF THE DAY....One of my longtime discontents with modern life has been the accelerating professionalization of everything. This is not quite the same thing as homogenization or corporatization, though it's obviously related, and I blame it for sucking much of the life out of marketing, media, retailing, political campaigning, product design, etc. etc. I certainly enjoy the fact that my car doesn't fall apart and my supermarket is well stocked, but still, it can get kind of oppressive at times.

Maybe someday I'll try to explain what I really mean by this, but since I'm not entirely sure myself, it won't be today. I only bring it up because it seems somehow related to this conversation about James Scott's Seeing Like a State between Brad DeLong and Henry Farrell — though, honestly, I'm not quite sure how. And you should be warned that both posts are long and a bit abstract. But even though the underlying conversation about how markets and institutions interact is fairly prosaic, they intrigued me anyway. If I can figure out why, I'll let you know later.

Kevin Drum 3:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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PILING ON....This critique has been bubbling below the surface on a bunch of blogs, but Garance Franke-Ruta distills it nicely:

It actually does a disservice to Democratic voters when a moderator like Tim Russert becomes a debate participant and makes a show of only pressing one candidate severely. Part of the point of these debates is to show how the various candidates respond to pressure, and to learn about their thoughts on various issues. If only one candidate is being pressed about differences with other candidates, it is unfair to the voters who are also trying to evaluate the rest of the pack

For example, it would have been interesting and illuminating to have heard from John Edwards and Barack Obama on the Peru trade deal, given how hot a topic trade is in Iowa, and how they clearly disagree with each other on this issue — and also since Hillary Clinton is still on the fence about the deal. But Peru didn't even come up, because the course of the debate questioning, at least in the first hour, was dictated by and echoed the course of various candidate attacks on Clinton over Social Security and Iran, and then a G.O.P. one on Obama, rather than by questions that would illuminate policy differences between any of the other candidates. After that, the questions were an odd-mix of open-ended softballs to the non-frontrunning candidates and attempts to press Clinton over things other members of the New York delegation support.

Before last night's event all the talk was about how the attacks on Hillary Clinton were going to be turned up a notch. That's the life of a frontrunner, so no problem. But when you combine that with the fact that the moderators also seemed to be aiming most of their fire at Clinton, the whole thing started to look more like a witch hunt than a debate. I'm not sure if questions about the Peruvian trade deal would have been the answer, but Garance is right: the moderators need to figure out a way to illuminate the differences between the candidates, not just play gotcha against one of them.

First step: get rid of Tim Russert. Ugh. He's a terrible interviewer and a terrible moderator. Second step: put together a panel of Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Greg Mankiw to moderate a debate on economic issues. Find equally eminent subject matter experts to moderate debates on other subjects. Ditch the pundits and news anchors entirely. Third step: I'm not sure. But there has to be a third step, right? It's the law.

Kevin Drum 1:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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CATASTROPHIC?....Kate Sheppard defends Hillary Clinton's tap dance on the issue of Elliot Spitzer's program to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants:

While others have criticized it, I think she gave a decent response to what was posed as a "gotcha" question. It would be hard — catastrophic even — for Clinton to come right out and say that she wants all illegal immigrants to have drivers' licenses.

I don't understand this. Obama straightforwardly said he supported Spitzer's program. Does this mean his candidacy is doomed?

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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FRED AND THE GUN NUTS....Fred Thompson says the UN wants to take away your guns. Mark Goldberg counters with logic and facts, but it's a hopeless task. Thompson is just pandering to Higher Wingnuttia here. For the straight stuff on this, let's turn the mike over to conspiracy theory central:

National Rifle Association Vice President Wayne LaPierre insists the U.N. is concerned about more than illicit arms in African hot spots. He says the global body wants the firearms of American citizens — and much more.

"So, after we are disarmed, the U.N. wants us demobilized and reintegrated," says the NRA's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, according to the Economist magazine. "I can hear it now: 'Step right this way for your reprogramming, sir. Once we confiscate your guns, we can demobilize your aggressive instincts and reintegrate you into civil society.' No thanks."

The illustration on the right, complete with reprogrammed American family blissfully Heil Hitlering the UN headquarters, comes from "Freedom in Peril," an NRA comic book that graphically explains all the various forces conspiring to take your guns away and turn us into a nation of slaves. Or, to use their own words: "Second Amendment freedom today stands naked in the path of a marching axis of adversaries far darker and more dangerous than gun owners have ever known. Acting alone and in shadowy coalitions, these enemies of freedom are preparing or a profound and foreboding confrontation in which they will not make the mistakes of their predecessors."

Your logic and your facts will get you nowhere here. Fred is just telling social conservatives, "I'm one of you. And I'm not afraid to look like a complete loon if that's what it takes to prove it."

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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WHERE WAS MIKE?....About halfway through last night's debate I suddenly noticed that Mike Gravel was missing. What happened?

Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Gravel was forced to withdraw from the Oct. 30 Drexel debate after being unable to meet the required criteria for polling and fundraising. The criteria to participate are set by NBC news and include sufficient and polling requirements, as well as an actively documented campaign.

"There was no record that Gravel made more than five separate appearances in New Hampshire [and] Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held," NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd said. Gravel's campaign committee claims that he has made more appearances, but that his schedules were not released.

Thank God. I know lots of people support Gravel's appearance in the debates based on some inchoate belief that "he deserves to be heard," but not me. He's not seriously running and he never has been, and the point of the debates is to give the public a look at actual candidates, not to give equal time to any crank who has a burning desire to mouth off to a national audience. That's what blogs are for.

Good riddance, Mike. The court jester routine got stale a long time ago.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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ECONOMIC UPDATE....GDP was up 3.9% last quarter, well ahead of expectations. BEA press release here. If not for the housing slump, it would have been up 4.9%.

Things just get mysteriouser and mysteriouser. Where's all this dough going? I await macroeconomic analysis from the big brains of the econosphere.

Kevin Drum 11:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY AND THE DRIVER'S LICENSES....I was in and out of the room during Tuesday night's debate, and one of the times I left the room was just as Tim Russert started asking a question about Elliot Spitzer. Turned out he was asking Hillary Clinton about Spitzer's plan to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and if blogo-buzz is anything to go by it was the question of the night. Here's the nickel summary: Hillary gave a rambling response explaining what Spitzer was trying to do but without really taking a position. Dodd disagreed with the Spitzer plan ("I think it's troublesome") and Hillary then stepped in to muddy the waters some more: "I did not say that it should be done," she said, "but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it." That was followed by some crosstalk between Dodd and Clinton, and then by Russert pressing her to give a firm answer ("Do you support his plan?"). Hillary hedged, and never really answered. Video here. Kit Seelye of the New York Times provides the play-by-play:

Both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama called her on what seemed to be a shift in her statement. Mr Edwards said, "Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago." And Mr. Obama uttered a devastating phrase for anyone who remembers the 2004 campaign: he said he couldn't tell if she is "for it or against it."

On the license issue, Mr. Obama said that he thinks Governor Spitzer's plan is "the right idea."

There's no question that Hillary's answer was unusually spineless, especially since she had had plenty of time to think about this. Maybe two solid hours of being a punching bag had gotten to her by that point.

Still, is this really a killer moment? If it is, the bar has really gotten pretty low. I doubt very much that Hillary is going to win or lose the election based on straddling the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. In a Republican primary maybe, but not a Democratic one.

But I could be wrong! Consider this an open thread to chat about the debate.

Kevin Drum 1:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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October 30, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

JUST SHOOT ME....Words you hope never to hear at a Democratic debate:

And now, Tim Russert is going to take us into a segment on Social Security.

Time to switch channels to Jeopardy.....

UPDATE: OK, I stuck with it anyway. Hillary's answer on Social Security wasn't really very persuasive, but still, it was nice to hear both her and Obama flatly say that SS is not in any kind of crisis. Other miscellaneous observations:

  • Good riff from Joe Biden on Rudy Giuliani. Maybe Hillary will choose him as her running mate, and he'll fulfill the traditional veep role of being the attack dog who says stuff the president herself can't afford to say.

  • Tim Russert really needs to stop hauling out Bill Clinton quotes and trying to hang them on Hillary.

  • Yes, Bill (Richardson, that is), we know you've negotiated a bunch of stuff. The schtick is getting old, and frankly, I'm not sure it was even all that great a talking point in the first place.

  • I know that politicians live to talk, but I wonder if any of them realize that in a format like this, sometimes shorter is better. I'll bet most listeners start to lose the plot at about the 45-second mark.

  • Was this the new, more aggressive Obama? Yes it was! I'd say he landed a few jabs, but nothing serious. He needs to work on his aggression skills.

  • On the other hand, the constant attacks did seem to keep Hillary back on her heels a bit. She was definitely even more ambiguous and turgid than usual.

Kevin Drum 10:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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QUOTES OF THE DAY....Housing prices are spiraling downward and consumer confidence plunged four points in September. But that's dry and analytical. For an earthier view of what this means, here's a summary from a set of focus groups run by Democracy Corps:

In the focus groups, we handed people a page of positive facts about the economy....These swing voters — about half non-college and half college graduates — nearly attacked the moderator because many are on the edge: "Over half of Americans are what? Two paydays away from living on the street"; "absolutely"; "that's me." Nobody except the super-rich has seen salary increases in years; not if you are in a "straight regular job"; "people don't make any raises," and if you are lucky, your spouse gets 2 percent in some years. Some are working 2nd and 3rd jobs because they "can't make ends meet"; "I've never known so many people to have two jobs or more than I have lately." Still, "they are cutting back on everything." They are struggling to fill up the gas tank twice a week; and they fear a visit to the hospital will wipe them out. They are watching their own companies, even the large ones, reduce and freeze hiring.

The full report is here.

Kevin Drum 6:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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SCARED....More "scheduling difficulties" from the Republican presidential field. These guys sure are spooked at the prospect of taking questions from non-straight-non-white folks, aren't they?

Kevin Drum 5:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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FAREED ZAKARIA = NEVILLE CHAMBERLAIN?....Normon Podhoretz actually sounds crazier in this transcript than he does watching the video. I'm not sure what that says about him, but it's kind of weird.

Kevin Drum 4:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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MORE ON HILLARY....Here's an email about the Dem race from Virginia reader JH, with whom I correspond frequently:

Although I disagree with very little you say, the problem is that Hillary is despised throughout the South. Virginia is a relatively moderate red state but she is intensely disliked here. I know a lot of it is irrational hatred and most people in the Southern states have no idea what her policies or philosophy really are, but the truth is they've already made up their mind about her and will never vote for her. Once most people make up their mind about a candidate, it's almost impossible to get them to reconsider.That's the entire problem with Hillary. In the South a majority has already made up their mind about her.

It is almost impossible for a Democratic candidate to write off the South and win the general election by "running the table." If Hillary's the nominee, I think either Giuliani or Romney would crush her in the South and pick up enough battleground states to easily win.

So, for me, it simply boils down to practical politics. I too had high expectations for Obama and now I don't think he's got what it takes. I will vote for Edwards in the Virginia primary because he's the only one of the top three who I think can carry enough Southern and other red states to win the general election. However, it will probably be over by the time Virginia has its primary. If we nominate Hillary, a year from now I think we will be deeply regretting it.

Two things. First, I think Hillary might very well be able to pick up one or two border states. Second, and more important, I don't think any Dem is likely to win in the South, Edwards included. Basically, Democrats need to win the states Kerry won plus a few more in the Midwest and Mountain West, and all three of the leading Dems are equally capable of doing that.

On a broader note, I almost consider this a reason not to support Edwards. One way or another, Democrats have to get away from the trap of believing that the only way to win the presidency is to nominate a Southerner. There just aren't enough of them, and it means that 90% of the most qualified people in the party are automatically excluded. It's time to put this particular piece of conventional wisdom to bed.

Kevin Drum 3:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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A MODEST PROPOSAL....Ezra Klein, after a full day of prostate blogging yesterday, says today that David Brooks is right when it comes to the big picture in healthcare policy:

He correctly identifies the central reality of health care politics, which is that most Americans are basically happy with what they have, but worried about keeping it. Policies that guarantee their futures are quite popular. Policies that radically change their presents are not.

Well, if that's the case, then here's an idea: expand Medicare (or create a similar program) to cover every person in America under the age of 21. And then let them keep it as they grow older. In ten years everyone under 31 would be covered. By 2050 at the latest the whole country would be covered — and probably earlier than that once the program reaches a critical mass. Taxes would rise slowly to cover each new cohort, employer healthcare would gradually go away, union contracts would have decades to adjust, and no one would have to give up anything they have now.

This is just watercooler conversation. I've given it no serious thought at all. But why not?

Kevin Drum 3:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THE PRESS AND THE DEMS....Bob Somerby is convinced that liberals will never get anywhere until they truly understand the media's loathing of Democrats. Not the conservative media's loathing of Democrats, but the mainstream media's loathing of Democrats. He's further convinced that the key to this is understanding the press corps' "War on Gore" during the 1999-2000 campaign, a subject he discusses on pretty much a daily basis.

As it happens, I disagree with him on the second point. Bob thinks liberals are obtuse for not discussing the Gore story more vigorously, but the fact is that bloggers and columnists don't talk about any past events with any frequency. They talk about current events, with occasional nods to the past when it happens to illuminate some point they want to make. Like it or not, obsessing over the past just has limited utility.

Why bring this up? Just in the mood, I guess, after writing my previous post. Bob has a post on the subject today in which he takes on Josh Marshall, E.J. Dionne, Chris Matthews, and me in his usual, um, restrained fashion. So here's an open thread topic: go read Bob's piece and then discuss it in comments. Is his diagnosis right? Half right? How and why? Talk to me.

UPDATE: Second paragraph modified because I realized that it didn't really make sense. Sorry.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (153)

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THE DEMOCRATIC RACE....Barack Obama's decision to allow "reformed gay" singer Donnie McClurkin to preach at a series of campaign events in South Carolina has obviously not gone down well in the liberal blogosphere. But how about in South Carolina itself? Ed Kilgore reports:

Well, the Columbia State, which features massive political coverage every day, didn't bother to cover Obama's Columbia event. It did publish an AP story with the title: "McClurkin Wins Cheers At Obama Event Despite Gay Protests," which gives you an idea how seriously the writer took the cataclysmic-disaster interpretation of Obama's gospel tour.

These different optics reflect the very different issues Obama's campaign was dealing with in putting on this kind of event. On the one hand, it deeply offended not only gays and lesbians, but many progressive activists who want to support Obama as an alternative to Clinton, but suspect his commitment to the kind of ideological rigor and partisan zeal they consider essential in a nominee. On the other hand, it might have done him some good in SC, where his candidacy may ultimately rise or fall based on his ability to wrest a sizable majority of African-American votes away from HRC.

If anything, this puts the whole thing in an even worse light, because it makes it seem more likely that teaming up with McClurkin was a deliberate decision, not just a staff mistake. There's no telling, of course, but it's either a case of horrible judgment or a case of horrible vetting and planning. Those are both pretty bad signs.

It's funny. I was talking to a friend over the weekend and asked if he'd decided who to support. Hillary, he said. We talked about that for a while, and he went through several possible problems with her candidacy and why he'd decided they weren't really big things to be concerned about. But I didn't really find myself convinced. In fact, the conversation mostly just reminded me of a bunch of reasons to be concerned about her candidacy.

When you get down to it, I guess I'm sympathetic toward Hillary but really, really wishing that Obama would give me a good reason to change my mind and support him instead. But he just never does. Domestic policywise he's been fairly cautious and mainstream. On the foreign policy front he's better than HRC, but only by a couple of notches. And his Kumbaya campaigning schtick leaves me cold. Worse than that, in fact: it leaves me terrified that he just doesn't know what he's up against with the modern Republican Party and won't have the instinct to go for the jugular when the inevitable Swift Boating commences. (Needless to say, I have no such doubts about Hillary.)

At the same time, I've also never had the visceral hatred of Hillary that some people do. I've always liked her fine. Sure, she's calculating and political, but every politician is calculating and political. Her only problem is that she isn't quite as good as hiding it as some of the others. What's more, I think she'd make a good president, one who could hit the ground running and get a lot done in Congress. In fact, potentially she could be a great president, though I suspect she's rather too cautious to ever reach her full potential.

This is turning into a ramble, and as long as I'm rambling I guess I should ramble about John Edwards too. In a way, my reaction to him is even murkier. I voted for him in the 2004 primary, and on a policy level I like him better than either Hillary or Obama. He's also a very good speaker and campaigner. And yet, I somehow can't shake the feeling that he's basically running for vice president. Not literally, mind you, but in the sense that he doesn't quite seem to be fully fired up about the prospect of running the country. I think maybe I still haven't shaken my memory of his 2004 debate against Dick Cheney, where he seemed content to go through the motions and not really make a fight of it.

Hell, this is kind of a sucky post, isn't it? Several hundred words about how I can't make up my mind. But in a way, I guess I have. I'm really not in a Kumbaya mood right now, so despite my fear that Hillary will never be willing (or maybe able) to break out of the mainstream box she's painted herself into, I think she's my favorite. Obama's had six months to seal the deal with me, and he's done nothing but make me ever more nervous about him with every passing month. Hillary's too much of a conventional lefty hawk for my taste, but aside from that her policy instincts are good, her experience has taught her some valuable lessons, she knows her own mind, and she's not afraid of a fight. And I'd be delighted to finally have a woman in the Oval Office. I'll keep my eye on Obama, but I guess I'm officially leaning toward Mrs. Clinton at the moment.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (112)

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October 29, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THICKER THAN WATER....Brad Plumer hits on one of my pet peeves today: the fact that drought policies (and drought press coverage) inevitably focuses on residential water use even though it's, literally, a drop in the bucket:

As [Jon] Gertner notes in passing, it's farming, and not residential areas, that consumes the vast majority of water in the [Southwest] (90 percent of Colorado's water goes toward agriculture). You'd think, then, that inefficient agriculture practices would get most of the scrutiny here. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, most irrigated farmland in the area — in California, Colorado, and Wyoming — is watered via flood irrigation, the least efficient method out there. Basically, farmers dig a bunch of trenches and dump water in them. In the short run, it's cheap and easy; in the long run, it tends to waste water and deplete topsoil.

Subsidies are part of the problem here: Large farms often qualify for taxpayer-subsidized irrigation water, paying as little as 10 percent of the full cost. That, in turn, discourages conservation: "A 1997 study by researchers at Cornell University suggests that more than 50 percent of irrigation water never reaches crops because of losses during pumping and transport." The subsidies also encourage farmers to grow water-guzzling crops like alfalfa, a crop that sucks up about 20 percent of California's water but comprises only a tiny part of the economy (it's mostly used to feed cows). I'd like to see more on the subject, but this seems like a major place to focus on, no?

Unfortunately, this is an almost impossible problem to address. Reducing agricultural water use by 20% would basically solve all our problems, but it can't be done because water rights are controlled by an almost impenetrable maze of local water districts, Spanish land grants, English common law, multi-state compacts, acts of Congress, court rulings at every level imaginable, overlapping jurisdictions, and local, state and federal environmental regulations. And that's not even counting the vast corporate lobbying forces that would be at work even if the legal Gordian knot weren't.

So it's hopeless, I guess. But that doesn't stop me from bitching about it. And it sure doesn't justify this massive Bush administration giveaway to California agribusiness, which has to be read to be believed.

Kevin Drum 9:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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SCHOOL VOUCHERS....Credit where it's due: this is a thorough and righteous demolition of the anti-voucher forces.

And yet, despite its thoroughness, it somehow fails to address the single biggest problem with school vouchers: oversight. If you're going to receive taxpayer dollars, then you have to agree to taxpayer oversight. That means that NCLB applies to you. It means that minimum state curriculum requirements apply to you. It means that teacher union rules apply to you. It means you have a lot less authority to pick and choose which kids you're willing to accept. And, yes, it means you can't use taxpayer money to proselytize for whichever religion your board of directors happens to favor. Like it or not, that's a no-no for public funds, especially when kids are involved.

But as near as I can tell, this is anathema to people who run private schools. They won't accept any oversight, let alone the level of oversight that's inevitable with any widespread voucher program. Taxpayers simply aren't willing to shower money on anything that calls itself a school without having some say in how the money is used. And rightly so.

Roughly speaking, this is why I tentatively favor charter schools but not voucher schemes. Charter schools allow for experimentation, which is good, but also accept state oversight. I don't really see how things can work any other way.

UPDATE: A couple of emails have convinced me that I screwed up the introduction to this post. For the record: I didn't mean to imply that the linked post successfully argued in favor of vouchers. Far from it. I just wanted to point out that even though it was long and passionate, it mysteriously failed to address the one argument against vouchers that I think is the strongest. Funny how often that happens, isn't it?

Sorry for the confusion.

Kevin Drum 8:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (155)

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BAYARD UPDATE....I knew he'd like it. But has he read it?

Kevin Drum 7:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (4)

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GIULIANI'S LATEST....The Washington Post notes that Rudy Giuliani will be running a new radio ad in New Hampshire starting today:

In the radio spot, Giuliani mentions his battle with prostate cancer and notes that his chances of surviving the disease in America were 82 percent, while in England his chances would have been 44 percent.

"You and I should be making the decisions about what kind of health care we get with our doctors, not with a government bureaucrat," Giuliani says in the ad.

You will be unsurprised to learn that Giuliani is full of shit. As you can see from the chart on the right, Britain and the United States have virtually identical mortality rates from prostate cancer. The only reason the U.S. has a higher survival rate is because we diagnose way more prostate cancer than Britain in the first place. In other words, the difference probably isn't that we're any better at prostate cancer surgery than the Brits, but that we aggressively screen for even mild cases of prostate cancer that probably aren't life-threatening in the first place — and then, unsurprisingly, we go on to survive all these non-threatening cancers regardless of treatment. So not only is Giuliani's statistic bogus, but it might actually reflect poorly on U.S. practices. British mortality rates from prostate cancer are just as good as ours, and they manage this without wasting time, money, and emotional distress on overdiagnosis or overtreatment.

Steve Benen complains that "The WaPo piece simply passes along [Giuliani's] claim as if it were true, and then inserts the ad into the horserace narrative." That's exactly right. I suppose Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray would say that they were just writing a short blurb on campaign tactics, not a policy piece, but the fact remains that they've passed along a bogus statistic because it was too complicated to explain what's really going on behind Giuliani's scary-sounding numbers. We'll see if someone else picks up the slack.

In the meantime, read Jon Cohn for more on this. It's several paragraphs long and doesn't pretend that we know for sure everything that's going on here, but that's life. Sometimes it takes more than a single sentence to explain things.

Kevin Drum 3:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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SOCIAL SECURITY FOR DUMMIES....Robert Ball, the grand old man of Social Security, explains patiently to the Washington Post editorial board yet again that Social Security is (a) a rather modest program, (b) more necessary than ever in an era of shrinking private pensions, (c) shouldn't be cut, (d) has only minor long-term financial problems, and (e) can be fixed with a small number of fairly trivial revenue changes a decade or two down the road.

I know, I know, it's a boring subject. But the number of people who either don't understand (or pretend not to understand) just how insignificant Social Security's problems are and how easily they can be repaired is really staggering. A decade ago I used to be one of them, but all it took was a very modest amount of reading on the subject to convince me that I was off base. Considering how simple the math is, I really don't understand why so many otherwise bright people continue to be fooled by all this.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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MEDICAL TOURISM....Andrew Sullivan is being properly chastised for claiming that the rise of medical tourism is somehow an indictment of Britain's national healthcare system, since, in fact, the U.S. is a bigger user of medical tourism than Britain. Here's an outfit, for example, that offers you the choice of having your major medical operation performed in Brazil, Thailand, India, Malaysia, South Africa, or Argentina. "MedRetreat was created to fill a very important and personal void in the US healthcare market," they burble. "It all began when our co-founder's mother was searching for affordable, quality elective medical procedures, not covered by her insurance company. After getting numerous quotes ranging from $20,000 to $30,000, she knew there had to be a more viable option."

I began reading about medical tourism quite a few years ago, and immediately became fascinated. Here's a typical puff piece from 60 Minutes a couple of years ago. I figure it's more likely than not that eventually I'll need heart surgery of some kind or another, and getting it done in India sounds splendid. Dirt cheap, private room, world class facilities, attentive nurses, and after my valves are back up and running there's a bonus week for roaming around and visiting the Taj Mahal. Almost makes me want to have a couple of Big Macs for lunch just to help things along.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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THE ANTICHRIST SYNDROME....Via Matt, Michael Hirsh points out that the Bush administration has now taken to blaming Iran for practically everything:

Today the administration is casting Iran as America's biggest bogeyman on every front. National missile defense? Once Kim Jong Il of North Korea was identified as the target of this expensive project. No longer. In a speech Tuesday at National Defense University, Bush declared that "the need for missile defense in Europe … is urgent" because "Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles." Mideast peace? Never mind that the Palestinians are mixed up in a civil war of their own making and blaming the Israelis. Much of it is really the fault of "Iranian aggression," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared on Wednesday. "To see Iranian actual penetration now of these more radical elements of the Palestinian terrorist groups is really quite troubling," she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. U.S. generals are now routinely trotted out to blame Iranian interference and arms shipments for the continuing Islamist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, though Tehran plays at best a minor role there.

Nothing new here. I had a friend many years ago who was a friendly but obsessive fundamentalist Christian who spent his time searching for signs of the antichrist. For a while during the early Reagan era he was convinced it was Konstantin Chernenko. Then it switched to Moammar Qadafi. Then it was Saddam Hussein. (He actually wrote a book on the subject at that point, which in a weak moment I agreed to read.) We lost touch after that, but my guess is that during the 90s he migrated to Slobodan Milosevic, then Osama bin Laden, then back to Saddam Hussein, and perhaps is now on the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bandwagon.

In a way, he reminds of me of America. It's not enough for us to have countries out there that we don't like. Even countries that we really don't like. There always has to be someone who's basically the antichrist, and whoever it is is responsible for everything. When people who believe stuff like that are dressed in rags and yelling at passersby from street corners, we call them crackpots. When they dress in suits and, say, edit the Weekly Standard, we call them foreign policy analysts. Weird, huh?

Kevin Drum 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLISH AND PERISH....One of the lead articles in the November issue of the Monthly is a piece by Avi Klein about Lyndon LaRouche. Here's how it starts:

One of the LaRouche movement's longest-serving loyalists was Ken Kronberg. A handsome classics scholar and drama teacher, Kronberg owned and managed PMR Printing, the outfit that has generated the idiosyncratic propaganda that sustains LaRouche's entire enterprise.

....On April 11, 2007, Ken sat in PMR's offices in Sterling, Virginia, forty-five miles northwest of Washington, to read the "morning briefing," a daily compendium of political statements that reflect the outcome of the executive committee meetings held at LaRouche's house in the nearby town of Round Hill....At 10:17 a.m., Kronberg sent an e-mail to his accountant instructing him to transfer $235,000 held in an escrow account to the IRS. He got in his blue-green Toyota Corolla and drove east. He mailed some family bills at the post office, then turned around onto the Waxpool Road overpass. Just before 10:30 a.m., Kronberg parked his car on the side of the overpass, turned on his emergency lights, and flung himself over the railing to his death.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire piece. It has nothing to do with mainstream politics or the current presidential campaign, and it won't provide you with any red meat attacks on either Democrats or Republicans. It's just one of those intensely fascinating articles you come across occasionally that explains the workings of a particular subculture better than anything you've ever read before. Once you start reading it, you'll have a hard time stopping.

And when you get to the part about the evil grain cartel, click here to see a vintage LaRouche campaign commercial from 1984. You'll learn things about Walter Mondale that you never suspected before.

UPDATE: Thirsting to learn more? Scott McLemee runs down LaRouche's latest folly, the LaRouche Youth Movement, here. It also includes a bit of detail about LaRouche's obsession with mandating the correct pitch for tuning musical instruments.

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE....This particular passage from David Greenberg's (very good) piece about Rudy Giuliani's illiberal instincts is getting a lot of play in the lefty blogosphere:

Beyond religious issues, a second conservative trait defined Giuliani's tenure: his Cheney-esque appetite for executive power. In 1999, for example, he directed (without the City Council's permission) the police to permanently confiscate the cars of people charged with drunken driving — even if the suspects were later acquitted.

That's a bad deal, but in fairness to Giuliani it's hardly unique to him. Civil asset forfeiture became all the rage among law enforcement during the 90s, and Giuliani was just riding the wave. The idea behind it is that even if someone is acquitted of a criminal act, the state can still seize their property based on mere probable cause that the property was criminally used. The defendant, even though he was found innocent of the underlying crime, can't get his property back unless he goes to court and wins a civil case against the state. There's no presumption of innocence and no need for a unanimous verdict.

Years ago, when I first heard about this, I was appalled. I still am. Even now that I've read enough to understand the legal theory that supports it, I remain appalled. It's the kind of thing that's almost enough to make a libertarian out of me.

(But not quite. Don't get excited, my libertarian friends.)

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October 28, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THEY LIKE US, THEY REALLY LIKE US....The healthcare industry is switching horses:

In all, the Democratic presidential candidates have raised about $6.5 million from the industry, compared with nearly $4.8 million for the Republican candidates.

....At this point in the 2004 presidential race, President Bush had $4.4 million in donations from the industry, or about $1 million more than the Democratic candidates seeking their party's nomination to challenge him. And in the first nine months of the 2000 presidential campaign — when there was no incumbent in the White House running for re-election — the Republican presidential candidates took in $3.9 million from the health care industry, compared with $1.7 million raised by the Democrats, campaign finance records show.

So Democrats have gone from 30% of all health industry donations in 2000 to 44% in 2004 to 57% this year. This is, obviously, good news and bad news. The good news is that lobbyist money follows winners, and the healthcare lobby seems pretty confident that a Democrat will become president next year. The bad news is that they might just get what they paid for.

Kevin Drum 8:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

WAR DRUMS IN TURKEY....Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is sounding eerily similar to the way George Bush sounded in March of 2003. The subject is a possible Turkish military assault on Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq:

"The moment an operation is needed, we will take that step," Erdogan told a large flag-waving crowd in Izmit. "We don't need to ask anyone's permission."

....Turkey has massed up to 100,000 troops, backed by fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks, and mortars, on the border for a possible offensive against about 3,000 rebels using Iraq as a base from which to carry out attacks in Turkey.

....Erdogan took a swipe at western countries for not cracking down on the PKK and said calling it a terrorist group, as the United States and European Union do, was not enough. "We want action, and if you can't show action, you fail the sincerity test," he said. "Those who overlook terrorism are in cooperation with terrorism," he told a conference earlier.

It's hard to back down when you've gotten to the point of deploying 100,000 troops and both the public and the legislature are baying for blood. All Erdogan needs now is an incident, and what are the odds that there won't be an incident sometime in the next couple of weeks? Furthermore, what are the odds that once 100,000 Turkish troops are unleashed, they'll only stay for a month or two and then get out?

Slim and none. I sure hope Bush has some serious magic up his sleeve for his meeting with Erdogan a week from Monday.

Kevin Drum 7:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

FACEBOOK....A few days ago I read that Microsoft had purchased a 1.5% stake in Facebook that valued the company at $15 billion. The 90s are back, baby! Eyeballs are king!

Well, maybe. I have my doubts. In any case, I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about. The only way to do that was to sign up for an account and play around, so that's what I did. Took a couple of minutes. But then what?

Well, start searching for people I know, I suppose. So I sent out a couple dozen requests asking people to be my friends. The next day I had a couple dozen friends. Now what?

Hard to say, really. Help me out here, people. I can "poke" someone, but what does that mean? Turns out it means nothing. If you poke someone, they get a notification telling them that Kevin Drum has poked them. That's it — though Wikipedia helpfully informs me that "some users construe it as a sexual advance." Guess I'd better watch that.

Soon, though, other people discovered I had a Facebook account and were sending me requests to be their friend. But what's the etiquette here? Or is there one? Should I just accept all comers? Within a day I had already gotten three or four requests from people I had never heard of, including someone in China. Are they blog readers? Facebook spam? Or what?

Let's try something else while I think about that. Someone (I forget who) had signed up for Flixster, so I did too. It asked me to rate 43 movies so I could see how compatible I was with various of my other friends. Turns out I'm 65% compatible with Garance Franke-Ruta. But wait! One of the 43 default movies was Revenge of the Sith, not Return of the Jedi. (I don't care what George Lucas says, to me "Episode 3" is the movie that came out in 1983.) Better lower my rating. Oddly, this changes my cinematic compatibility with Garance to 63%, even though she has a low opinion of RotS. Not sure what's going on here. In any case, I'm already suspicious of the rating system since it tells me that I'm 58% compatible with Scott McLemee, even though he hasn't actually seen or rated a single movie on the list. I think Flixster's algorithm assumes a little too much. (In another example of taking a bit too much for granted, Flixster apparently notified all of my friends that I wanted to compare movie taste with them, even though I answered No when it asked me if I wanted to do this. That's really a bit much.)

What else can I do? How about looking for a simpatico group? "Tennis" or "blogs" would probably return a bazillion people, so let's try something obscure: the German card game skat. I used to play it when I couldn't find a fourth for bridge. Turns out there are three or four skat groups, but none with more than half a dozen people. I guess some things are too obscure even for Facebook.

Other than that, my front page is full of news of other people who have become friends with other people, along with various widgets they've installed and their status at the moment ("sleeping on an airplane," "in a perpetual state of transit," "hearing Murray Perahia tonight," "using her long layover to sample airport sushi," etc.). Not sure how useful this really is.

So now I'm a little flummoxed. As a contact manager, Facebook is undeniably useful. And the screen layout is surprisingly clean and corporate looking, though I'm having some trouble intuiting the location and purpose of various features. Somehow, though, I gather that Facebook is mostly useful if it's essentially your homepage, someplace that you hang out at all the time. I'm not likely to do that, so I'm unsure just how useful I'm going to find it. But I guess time will tell.

Kevin Drum 6:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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IRAQ'S WARLORD FUTURE....Marc Lynch writes that we should stop paying attention to body counts and instead focus on the long-term political realities of Iraq:

I was surprised at the consensus on our panel yesterday (among three people who have never discussed the issue before, and from much of a very knowledgeable and experienced audience based on post-session conversations) about where Iraq was heading: towards a warlord state, along a Basra model, with power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state.

....This kind of fragmentation might help the US in its tactical maneuvers at the local level, and buy local stability in the short term. But it is absolute anathema to any kind of national deal....Whether such an outcome, if combined with a local Sunni power structure hostile to al-Qaeda, would pose a threat to American national interests is a debate worth having. It would certainly mean a major climbdown from initial American goals, but, then, a lot has happened over the last four years and it's quite clear that the US doesn't have the power to achieve its original goals. And it would hardly be optimal for Iraqis, since they would be condemned to live in a Hobbesian environment, and the refugee crisis would likely never be resolved. Should the US simply acknowledge the reality of the institutional and political environment it has created in Iraq, or maintain its current radical disconnect between its stated objectives and what it is actually doing?

Based on past experience, I'd say we're going to stick with the radical disconnect model of doing business. At least for the next 15 months, anyway.

Marc also has an interesting post about the latest bin Laden tape. Apparently the jihadis are seriously pissed at al-Jazeera for airing only the part of the tape that makes it sound like bin Laden was criticizing al-Qaeda in Iraq and calling for reconciliation. Turns out he wasn't. ("It's as if Bush gave a speech bashing Congress, and then CNN had only run clips suggesting that he had attacked Republicans, driving an entire news cycle dominated by "Bush attacks Republicans" — and then nobody changed their story after the whole tape aired elsewhere.") More here.

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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October 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CF BULBS....A year ago Marian and I replaced about 20 bulbs around the house with CF bulbs. Hooray for saving energy! But one of them just burned out, and it occurred to me as I was replacing it that this is the fourth or fifth one I've had to replace. The first one I figured was just bad luck. Nobody has a perfect manufacturing record. The second one seemed like more bad luck. The third one made me think something was going on. Now I'm up to four. Maybe five, if I've forgotten one.

Now, maybe this has nothing to do with the bulbs. Maybe the wiring in my house sucks — though ordinary incandescent bulbs have never given out on me like this. And the CF bulbs are supposed to last practically forever. It's one of their selling points.

A 20% failure rate over the course of a year sure seems excessive, no? Anybody else have the same problem?

UPDATE: We don't turn the CF bulbs on and off a lot, so I don't think that's the issue. And we've used several different brands, so I don't think that's it either. (Though I haven't kept track of what brands we've purchased and which ones have failed, so who knows?)

However, I'm pretty sure that the failues have almost all been in recessed ceiling fixtures, not in table lamps. I wonder if that has something to do with it?

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA ON THE ATTACK, REVISITED....So what kind of new campaign idea could Obama come up with that would (a) be simple enough to resonate with a lot of people, and (b) force Hillary Clinton onto the defensive? To tell the truth, I can't think of anything. But here are a couple of ideas anyway.

(1) Propose that the United States unilaterally offer to reopen its embassy in Tehran. Ditto for Cuba and North Korea (and Bhutan, I suppose, though I don't really know what the deal is with them). Make the point that we live in dangerous times, and diplomatic relations should be used as a way of more effectively dealing with the world, not as a way of making self-righteous statements of approval or disapproval about specific regimes.

(2) Propose a specific list of Bush administration executive orders that he would rescind. No shilly-shallying, just a flat promise to revoke them. Possibilities include the orders governing torture, military commissions, and FISA. If he wanted to be even bolder, he could categorically promise to halt the use of presidential signing statements.

Like I said, I don't really know if either of these things would resonate strongly (and I don't know if Obama thinks they're good ideas, anyway). But they're simple, they appeal to the same instinct that Obama is appealing to in his campaign, and Hillary would oppose them. Worth a try?

POSTSCRIPT: Obviously, an unqualified promise to pull all troops out of Iraq and shut down all American bases by, say, January 20, 2010, would also be big, bold, and something Hillary would oppose as naive. Unfortunately, Obama has already taken a stand on this issue. A sudden spine stiffening on something he's been asked about hundreds of times before would probably generate as many questions as it would answer.

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA ON THE ATTACK....Barack Obama says he's about to dial up his campaign a notch:

Senator Barack Obama said he would start confronting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton more forcefully, asserting Friday that she had not been candid in describing her views on critical issues, as he tries to address mounting alarm among supporters that his lack of assertiveness has allowed her to dominate the presidential race.

....Asked if Mrs. Clinton had been fully truthful with voters about what she would do as president, Mr. Obama replied, "No."

"I don't think people know what her agenda exactly is," Mr. Obama continued, citing Social Security, Iraq and Iran as issues on which she had not been fully forthcoming.

This is good, but I have my doubts that trying to be "clear with the American people" on these particular subjects is going to do the trick. As Obama says, Hillary Clinton is "very deft politically," and I don't think that's going to change. We've already seen Obama try to get some mileage out of the rather narrow differences he has with Hillary over Social Security, Iraq and Iran, and there's just no there there. There are differences, but they're too small to build a campaign on.

What Obama needs is a brand new issue. If you've been following British politics for the past couple of months, you have an idea of what I'm talking about here. Up through the summer, prime minister Gordon Brown was riding high. The Labor Party was polling seven or eight points ahead of the Conservatives, and Labor's prospects looked so bright that Brown was seriously thinking about calling for a snap election this fall.

But then a funny thing happened. Conservative leader David Cameron plucked a brand new issue out of nowhere (assuming you agree that a report of the "Competitive Challenge working group" counts as nowhere). In August he began calling for abolition of the inheritance tax for estates under one million British pounds, making the proposal official a month later at the annual party conference in Blackpool. The idea took off, catching Brown and the Labor Party off guard, and within a month the tables had been turned. Not only were the Conservatives polling higher than Labor, but plans for the election had been called off and the Labor chancellor was forced to respond with a lame me-too proposal (but with a cutoff of £600K instead of £1 million — bold!). Labor was entirely on the defensive.

I don't know what kind of issue might have the same effect here, but Obama needs something like this. Continuing to hammer on the same issues he's been talking about for the past six months, even if he does it more aggressively, isn't likely to gain him more than a few points in the polls, and there's just not enough time left for that to do him any good. Instead, he needs something that comes out of left field and blindsides Hillary. Something small, perhaps (Cameron's inheritance tax proposal wasn't really that big a deal), but with a lot of broad, symbolic appeal. Any ideas?

Kevin Drum 3:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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CAMP ARIFJAN....War profiteering in a time of war? Don't these guys know there's a war on? Blue Girl has an update on the Kuwait contract fraud scandal

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCAL WEATHER REPORT....Rain! Hooray! Not much, mind you, but rain is rain.

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By: Paul Glastris

COLBERT REPORT REPORT... With Stephen Colbert out running for president, Comedy Central has been running repeats of his show all this week. The result is that the episode that I was on, touting the Washington Monthly's college guide, got rebroadcast the last couple of nights.

So what's it like going on the Colbert Report? Well, it's taped in New York, at a small, funky studio on West 54th Street. When I got there last Monday at about 6:30 pm, four hours before the broadcast, there was already a line of people waiting for studio audience tickets. I was led inside, through a warren of offices, to a dressing room, on the doorframe of which was taped a paper sign with my name superimposed over a star (I made a mental note to grab the sign as a souvenir). Inside the dressing room were a couple small couches and a swivel chair in front of a vanity, with a plate of cheese and crackers and fruit to nibble on. There was also a cloth bag tote bag emblazoned with the show's name and filled with swag: perfume, lotions, fancy coffee, a bottle of high-end vodka (I made a mental note of which items to give to which family members of work colleagues).

After settling in with some friends from New York, I got to go inside the studio to watch Colbert rehearse. He was sitting behind his desk and had on his usual get-up--pinstriped suit, frameless glasses, slicked-back hair. He and his first guest, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, ran through a fairly complicated sketch, which involved the Ohio congressman pulling various items out of his pocket (tasks which Kucinich performed flawlessly during the actual taping). The way Colbert carries himself is hard to describe: he's at once taut and loose, intense and relaxed. You could tell from the way he directed the cameramen and producers that he is very much The Boss. But he was pretty gentle with everyone, and during pauses in the action he would crack jokes, make faces, put his pen in his ear, and generally exhibit a comedian's irrepressible urge to entertain.

Then I was taken to the makeup room, where my face (and bald spot) was covered up with gunk, and then back to my dressing room. A few minutes before the taping, Colbert came by and introduced himself. He was quite personable as he gave me what I presume is his standard prep talk. The character I play, he said, is extremely opinionated and extremely ignorant. Don't get thrown off by the ridiculous questions I ask you. Just focus on making the points you want to make. (His producers had given me very similar advice: don't respond to his jokes, and for God's sakes don't try to joke back, just concentrate on getting your message out).

I mentioned to Colbert that he had gone to my alma mater, Northwestern. Yes indeed, he said, but remember, "My character went to Dartmouth." We also chatted about how he first studied comedic acting at the Improv Olympics in Chicago, where he got to know one of the troupe members, my friend and frat brother Noah Gregoropoulos. Among the cognoscenti, Improv Olympics is considered the more purist and less commercial form of Chicago-style improv comedy. There are no pre-written sketches built into the show, as is the case at Second City (where Colbert also performed). Improv Olympics specializes in "long form," meaning the sketches, inspired by audience suggestions, can go on as long as the actors can manage to keep them going. Pretty good training, I guess, for a guy whose whole show is basically an extended riff on one conceit.

Anyway, Colbert then went off to start the taping, and I was brought into the studio half an hour later, just as the Kucinich segment was finishing up. As they led me to the part of the set with the little table where the author interviews are done, I noticed Colbert at his desk, furiously editing the list of pre-written questions he was going to ask me (the improv impulse kicking in). As the taping began, I tried to ignore the lights and the audience and Colbert's out-of-nowhere questions and just focus on the task at hand. The only other person I know who's been on the show, journalist James Fallows, once told me that it's a bit disconcerting to be twelve inches away from a guy who's doing a very believable impression of a total lunatic. I had a similar experience, though in truth I think Colbert went relatively easy on me.

After the show, I got to meet Kucinich (who was smaller and more charming than I expected) and to chat more with Colbert. It was the day before Colbert was to announce for president--though I didn't know that at the time. I would have loved nothing more than to continue the conversation. Alas, I had to catch a plane back to DC. In my haste, I forgot to grab the little paper sign with my name on it. I did remember to take the bag of swag, but the TSA guards at the airport stripped me of all the fine liquids. I also managed to bring home for my daughter's 18th birthday a copy of Colbert's new book I Am America (And So Can You!) signed by the author. It reads "Dear Hope, Be strong! Stephen Colbert."

Paul Glastris 9:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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October 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

A WILD HERR....A crucial question from the previous post: is the proper idiom "wild hair up his butt" or "wild hare up his butt"? The latter sounds unlikely, but what do I know?

But hold on a second. I know a lot. Or at least, my auxiliary brain does. Let's check Google!

First check: "wild hair" + "ass" or "butt" returns 78,000 hits. "Wild hare" returns only 25,000 hits.

Second check: what do other people have to say? Roy Edroso is confused about the whole thing, but here is some fellow named John Dyson:

There are two expressions, wild hare and wild hair. The first refers to or compares someone or something to the natural skittishness of breeding hares in spring, especially in March (ergo Lewis Carroll's inclusion of that creature in the Mad Hatter's tea party). To have a wild hair (up one's butt) is a vulgar expression indicating an obsession or fixation of some sort. "Wild" in the first instance denotes erratic behavior like that of hares in rut. In the second instance "wild" characterizes a stray or unruly strand whose indelicate lodgment is the figurative cause of someone's perceived mania.

Disagreeing, in a typical Usnet digression from a discussion of Python programming minutiae, is James Stroud:

I think most Americans say "wild hare up your ass". We do not, in fact, say "wild hair up your ass". Many of us can testify that a hair up one's ass would be nothing terribly unusual and would go completely unnoticed under most circumstances.

[One day later:] We say "wild hare" down in Texas. I think I've heard "bug" before, but I wanted an excuse to vent about the hair v. hare issue in some of these American idioms. I guess I have a <insert idiom here> about it.

And finally, voting for "wild hair," here is word maven Doug Wilson:

The mystery here (at least to me) is how this expression came to be. Lighter gives examples only since the 1950's, but "A Wild Hare" was the title of one of the earliest Bugs Bunny cartoons, 1940 I think, and I'm sure it was a play on the above expression or at least on some conventional expression of that time. Sometimes it is said that the "wild hair" in the rude expression is an ingrown inflamed perianal hair, but this seems retrospective and bogus to me. There is/was an expression "get hared up" meaning something like "get startled" and I wonder whether this mutated into "get a hair up" which was then augmented and clarified in a rude fashion (or maybe it went the other way!). Maybe there also was once a conventional metaphor like "wild hare" = "irresponsible person" or so? Or maybe "a wild hare" = "a wild idea" [for some reason] or even "a wild run"?

Later in the same thread, Rick Kennerly presents the case for the phrase's origin in "wild hare," with references back to Chaucer and Erasmus. Other hints: The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English lists only "wild hair." As Wilson notes above, the first Bugs Bunny cartoon, "A Wild Hare," came out in 1940. The Wikipedia entry, with no source cited, says "The title is a play on 'wild hair.'" Reference.com has no entry for either term. The readers of a Chronicle of Higher Education forum voted 45% to 17% for "wild hair." Cheating a bit and going to my actual physical reference shelf, none of my four slang dictionaries has a listing for either phrase.

That's it. For now, I'm sticking with "wild hair." But it is remarkable what a fantastic timewaster Google can be, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 9:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....I'm too far away from the fires to offer any dramatic pictures, but the picture of Domino on the left gives you an idea of how ruddy the sunlight was around here a couple of days ago, what with all the smoke and ash in the air. Flee the devil cat!

Inkblot, for some reason, got a wild hair up his butt last night and was zooming around upstairs chasing after God knows what for about half an hour. The picture on the right came near the end of his evening frolic, after he jumped in the bathtub to see what was in there. A few minutes after I took this picture, he was finally tuckered out and was purring his furry little face off as Marian scratched his tummy while he stretched out in the tub. All was well in the world.

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By: Kevin Drum

WOMEN IN POLITICS....Zephyr Teachout and Kelly Nuxoll take a look at senior campaign staffs to see who's got good gender balance and who doesn't. Nickel summary: Clinton, Richardson, Romney, and Huckabee are pretty balanced. Obama, Edwards, and Thompson favor men. Giuliani heavily favors men (his usual gaggle of "Yesrudys," no doubt). McCain, for some reason, isn't listed, perhaps because he no longer has a campaign staff left.

Of course, if you really want to see a testosterone imbalance, check out each candidate's list of foreign policy advisors: a grand total of 7 women out of 148 advisors. I didn't break this down when I first commented on it earlier this month, but here are the details based on the Washington Post's list:

  • Hillary Clinton: 2 of 21

  • Barack Obama: 4 of 23

  • John Edwards: 0 of 11

  • Rudy Giuliani: 1 of 33

  • John McCain: 0 of 35

  • Mitt Romney: 0 of 25

It's time to try a little harder, folks.

Kevin Drum 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

BEAUCHAMP UPDATE....Does Scott Thomas Beauchamp stand by the "Baghdad Diarist" pieces he wrote for the New Republic or doesn't he? In his September 6 conversation with TNR's editors, which was leaked to Drudge by the Army a couple of days ago, he declines to say anything at all. Today, TNR offers more:

The next day, via his wife, we learned that Beauchamp did want to stand by his stories and wanted to communicate with us again. Two-and-a-half weeks later, Beauchamp telephoned [TNR editor Franklin] Foer at home and, in an unmonitored conversation, told him that he continued to stand by every aspect of his story, except for the one inaccuracy he had previously admitted. He also told Foer that in the September 6 call he had spoken under duress, with the implicit threat that he would lose all the freedoms and privileges that his commanding officer had recently restored if he discussed the story with us.

....The New Republic is deeply frustrated by the Army's behavior. TNR has endeavored with good faith to discover whether Beauchamp's article contained inaccuracies and has repeatedly requested that the Army provide us with documentary evidence that it was fabricated or embellished. Instead of doing this, the Army leaked selective parts of the record — including a conversation that Beauchamp had with his lawyer — continuing a months-long pattern by which the Army has leaked information and misinformation to conservative bloggers while failing to help us with simple requests for documents.

More to come on this, I'm sure. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOP LUNACY....Ron Brownstein looks at the ongoing Republican interest group panderfest from a slightly different angle:

On problems ranging from health care to energy, they have retreated to a reflexive denigration of government and praise of unfettered markets aimed squarely at hard-core conservatives. Tellingly, the GOP hopefuls have broken with Bush primarily on the policies — comprehensive immigration reform and the Medicare drug benefit — that he consciously formulated to expand the party base. "It is a tired party and an uncertain party, and it is trying to reach back to ... the tried and true," frets Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House director of strategic initiatives who is now at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

After being routed in 2006, many Republican leaders argued that the party lost voters in the middle because it had not been conservative enough, particularly on spending. That's the view the presidential candidates are now reflecting. Giuliani, even with his recent concessions to party conventions on such issues as taxes and guns, pushed against that consensus by stressing national unity and inclusion in his riveting speech to the social conservatives last weekend. But he is a (qualified) exception in a party that seems committed to betting 2008 on the high-risk proposition that the way to recapture the center is to turn further to the right.

Every two years the losing party has this exact same conversation: (a) move to the center to appeal more to swing voters, or (b) move left (right) in order to stay true to the party's liberal (conservative) heritage? My sense is that (b) is almost always the choice after the first loss or two, after which (a) finally wins out.

This year, though, we're in a historically odd position. The Republican Party is still in stage (b), but to a smaller extent, the Democrats are back there too. The Democratic Party spent so long in stage (a) during the 90s, moving aggressively to the center after years in the wilderness, and the GOP moved so far to the right under Gingrich and Bush, that Democrats have the luxury of being able to move modestly to the left and yet still be moving relatively closer to the center than the Republican Party. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's like the GOP is moving right from 8 to 9 while the Democratic party is moving left from 4 to 3.5. The lunacy of the conservative base is providing a huge amount of cover for liberals to make some modest progress this year.

Said lunacy, of course, is best demonstrated by the fact that Brownstein — correctly — identifies Rudy Giuliani as the overall most moderate major candidate in the Republican field. Rudy Giuliani!

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE....Ezra Klein sings the praises of Google:

Google's like the brain I never had, the knowledge I never acquired. Its continued existence seems utterly implausible. But so long as it's around, I don't need to really read anything. I just need to catalogue the existence of things I might one day read. I don't so much study web sites as scan for impressions, for markers, for key words I'll need if I want to return. I don't need the knowledge so much as a vague outline of what the knowledge is and how to get back. Now, if only all books were searchable on Amazon.

Is this (a) a profound insight into 21st century existence, or (b) a sign of the decline of Western civilization? Discuss.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE NEW RIGHT-WING SMEAR MACHINE....The left may own the blogosphere, but the right owns chain email. Chris Hayes explains the pedigree of the "smear forward" in this week's Nation cover story:

The smear forward has its roots in two distinct forms of Internet-age communication. First, there's the electronically disseminated urban legend ("Help find this missing child!"; "Bill Gates is going to pay people for every e-mail they send!"), which has been a staple of the Internet since the mid- '90s. Then there's the surreal genre of right-wing e-mail forwards. These range from creepy rage-filled quasi-fascist invocations ("The next time you see an adult talking...during the playing of the National Anthem--kick their ass") to treacly aphorisms of patriotic/religious uplift ("remember only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you, Jesus Christ...and the American Soldier").

....From the beginning, the vast majority of these Internet-disseminated rumors have come from the right. (Snopes lists about fifty e-mails about George W. Bush, split evenly between adulatory accounts of him saluting wounded soldiers or witnessing to a wayward teenager, and accounts of real and invented malapropisms. In contrast, every single one of the twenty-two e-mails about John Kerry is negative.) For conservatives, these e-mails neatly reinforce preconceptions, bending the facts of the world in line with their ideological framework: liberals, immigrants, hippies and celebrities are always the enemy; soldiers and conservatives, the besieged heroes. The stories of the former's perfidy and the latter's heroism are, of course, never told by the liberal media. So it's left to the conservative underground to get the truth out. And since the general story and the roles stay the same, often the actual characters are interchangeable.

"A lot of the chain letters that were accusing Al Gore of things in 2000 were recycled in 2004 and changed to Kerry," says John Ratliff, who runs a site called BreakTheChain.org, which, like Snopes, devotes itself to debunking chain e-mails. One e-mail falsely described a Senate committee hearing in the 1980s where Oliver North offered an impassioned Cassandra-like warning about the threat of Osama bin Laden, only to be dismissed by a condescending Democratic senator. Originally it was Al Gore who played the role of the senator, but by 2004 it had changed to John Kerry. "You just plug in your political front-runner du jour," Ratliff says.

Read the whole thing to learn the genesis of this year's biggest smear forward (so far): the Obama-is-a-Muslim smear. Turns out it involves "people in London."

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

BOMBING IRAN....The Washington Post front pages a story today about the possible effects of a U.S. attack on Iran, and unsurprisingly, spoon feeds us the usual doom-and-gloom narrative favored by the effete liberals in the mainstream media:

A U.S. military strike against Iran would have dire consequences in petroleum markets, say a variety of oil industry experts, many of whom think the prospect of pandemonium in those markets makes U.S. military action unlikely despite escalating economic sanctions imposed by the Bush administration.

The small amount of excess oil production capacity worldwide would provide an insufficient cushion if armed conflict disrupted supplies, oil experts say, and petroleum prices would skyrocket...."If war breaks out, anticipate that all hell will break loose in the oil markets," said Robin West, chairman of PFC Energy, a District oil consulting firm.

Apparently the Post failed to contact the Heritage Foundation about this story. Typical MSM. But if they had, they would have discovered that the Heritage boffins completed a detailed study three months ago demonstrating that a strike against Iran would actually be good for the U.S. — as long as we carefully follow their policy prescriptions when we do it, that is. Lower taxes, reduced energy industry regulation, drilling in ANWR, and the end of tariffs on ethanol figure prominently. Too bad the liberal media doesn't want you to know about this. Why is the Post trying to hide the truth?

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October 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SYRIA UPDATE....So was that site near the Euphrates river that ISIS located a couple of days ago really the target that was bombed by Israeli forces in September? Today ISIS has new imagery of the same site taken yesterday, and apparently it was:

ISIS has obtained commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe taken on October 24, 2007 that shows the suspected reactor construction building completely removed and the ground scraped....The pump house and secondary structure still remain in the October 24, 2007 imagery, but the suspected reactor building has been razed to the ground. Dismantling and removing the building at such a rapid pace dramatically complicates any inspection of the facilities and suggests that Syria may be trying to hide what was there.

This doesn't prove it was a nuclear site, of course. But it's sure looking more and more like it was. Whatever the case, though, "They are clearly trying to hide the evidence," ISIS president David Albright told the Washington Post. "It is a trick that has been tried in the past and it hasn't worked."

The full report has more pictures, along with a discussion about whether this constitutes a breach of Syria's obligations to the IAEA under the Nonproliferation Treaty. Short answer: maybe.

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By: Paul Glastris

AMERICA'S BEST POLITICAL BLOG?... Over at Occam's Razor, Mark asks who is the best political blogger, and concludes that it's Kevin Drum. "His blog on the Washington Monthly web site offers what I consider the best mixture of insight and content, much of which either cannot be found elsewhere, or which ordinary blogs do not deem worthy of comment...If you are a political animal like me, you too should be reading Kevin's Political Animal blog regularly. In fact, if your time is very limited Kevin's blog should be the only one you read. He is that good."

No argument here.

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY ON WATERBOARDING....Rudy Giuliani on whether waterboarding is torture:

It depends on how it's done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.

Italics mine. So that's that: when bad guys torture, it's bad. When good guys torture, it's good. Apparently that's the modern Republican Party's version of moral clarity.

Earlier today, Josh Marshall suggested that this kind of thing feeds into Rudy's popularity:

For all his problems of temperament, authoritarianism, ignorance and general ridiculousness, I know most people don't see him that way. The sheen of 9/11 is real for Rudy. And many otherwise sensible people see him as a generally moderate guy on social policy who couldn't be as stupid as Bush in managing the country's foreign policy but would still be ready to kick some ass to keep everyone safe. He's the only one of their crew who could put even a few reliably Democratic states into play.

Actually, I suspect it's Rudy's other campaign plank that really explains his popularity. Sure, 9/11 is a big part of his persona, but his crime reduction record in New York City might be an even bigger one. Think about it: in the eye of the public, he's literally the only presidential candidate who's actually accomplished anything concrete. He made New York City livable. It doesn't matter whether this is true; it only matters that this is what people think. And no other candidate has anything close to it. All they can say is that they sponsored a bill or survived Vietnam or ran a company. Big deal. But Rudy, regardless of how he did it, can say that he actually governed a political entity and made it better. Considering the low opinion most people have of politicians, that's a helluva powerful asset.

By the way, also note how smoothly Rudy turned the waterboarding question into an attack on the liberal media. He really knows how to hit the base's hot buttons. The guy's good.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE HEALTHCARE ENIGMA....From an LA Times poll on healthcare, an interesting finding:

In one of the most politically significant results, the poll finds that independents and moderates were generally lining up with Democrats in the healthcare debate.

The survey also suggested an explanation for the emerging alignment: Independents were most likely to complain about "job lock" — the view that they are stuck in jobs they don't like solely because of health benefits. In all, 20% of independents said they or someone in their household were forced to stay in a job because it provided healthcare, compared with 13% of Democrats and 5% of Republicans.

The "job lock" argument has always seemed like a persuasive one to me, but I've long wondered whether it really had concrete salience for very many people. This survey suggests that it does, but then adds a further layer of mystery. Why, after all, should political independents suffer from it more than Democrats or Republicans? Very odd.

Elsewhere in the story, we get further evidence that Americans basically have completely incoherent views about healthcare:

The poll found that Americans were divided on one of the basic questions surrounding the healthcare debate: who should bear the main responsibility in securing health insurance.

Twenty-nine percent said it is the responsibility of government; 23% said employers; 24% said individuals should take care of themselves, without help from government or employers; and 19% said it is a shared responsibility.

....The survey found that 53% supported the idea of extending Medicare to cover all Americans, creating a government-run system; and 36% opposed it. But Blendon, the Harvard expert, said that finding was suspect because the poll question did not make clear that such a system would be financed by taxes.

So 29% think government should be responsible for providing healthcare, but 53% approve of extending Medicare to cover everyone. Uh huh. And then this Blendon fellow suggests that maybe this contradiction is the result of people not realizing that Medicare is paid for with taxes. That's completely crazy, of course, but it's also quite possibly true.

So what to think? Two things: (a) Support for national healthcare really isn't as strong as a lot of liberals would like to believe. (b) People really are confused on this subject, and their opinions are shallow and malleable. Genuine leadership could change a lot of minds.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE AGE GAP....Pew's global surveys always have plenty of interesting tidbits in them, and browsing around in the survey I linked to yesterday will reward you with plenty of worthwhile nuggets. One of them is on the right.

There's nothing all that surprising about these results, but they confirm on a broad scale that the struggle for gay rights is essentially inevitable. In every country in the Americas and Europe (though not Africa and Asia), those under 40 were substantially more tolerant of gays than those over 40. The United States, to our shame, is near the back of the pack, but even here there's a difference of five points between the generations. Every year, as a younger cohort replaces an older one, that number probably shifts by another couple of points. That's good news, and I'm posting it just because I feel like posting good news once in a while.

The other half of the chart is a little more intriguing, solely by virtue of its novelty. I've never seen a poll that asked quite that question ("Do you have to believe in God in order to be moral?") across such a wide audience. Again, it's not all the surprising to see that younger cohorts are less invested in God as the sole source of morality than older cohorts are, but still interesting to see how widespread it is.

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By: Kevin Drum

WISHING CHINA AWAY....James Joyner reports on John McCain's latest foreign policy brainstorm:

In a conference call with bloggers this morning, Senator John McCain argued that the United States should convene a League of Democracies to get friendly nations to put more severe pressure on Iran.

I was able to get in the first question and followed up on this idea, asking whether he was talking about a "NATO Plus" organization or something else. McCain replied that he envisioned something more along the lines of ASEAN or the G-8....that NATO was a military alliance whereas his League of Democracies would focus mostly on non-military solutions such as economic sanctions, trade, diplomacy, and public relations....The main advantage of McCain's proposal is that it includes states not currently in NATO such as Japan and Australia.

This is an idea that has a lot of instinctive appeal to Americans, who are tired of being hamstrung by a UN that gives Sudan and Libya as big a voice in the General Assembly as Germany and the United States. But here's the problem: when you get down to cases, what an organization like this really means is "everyone except China." And that's just not going to work. Nobody, least of all China, is going to be fooled, and any global organization focused on Asia and the Middle East that excludes both China and every Middle Eastern country is doomed to irrelevance. Like it or not, we really have to move beyond this idea. China isn't going away just because we'd like them to.

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By: Kevin Drum

SOCAL WEATHER....I don't know how widespread this is, but in my little patch of Southern California the weather this morning is cool, damp, and still. That's good news.

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By: Kevin Drum

BOMBS AWAY....USA Today reports that airstrikes are way up in Iraq this year:

The U.S. military has increased airstrikes in Iraq four-fold this year, reflecting a steep escalation in combat operations aimed at al-Qaeda and other militants.

....More precise targeting and smaller bombs have made it easier for the Air Force to support ground troops in counterinsurgencies, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We're hitting within 15 feet of where we're aiming," [Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen] Mueller said.

Really? Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan takes a closer look at the numbers and reports that although airstrikes have been on the upswing all year, they only really started to skyrocket this past June. Did U.S. bombs really get 10x more precise in the span of a single month?

Probably not. The more likely explanation, Kaplan thinks, is that airstrikes are being used to keep U.S. casualties down — despite the fact that standard counterinsurgency doctrine recommends against operations that result in large number of civilian casualties:

Since the surge began and Gen. Petraeus shifted the strategy to counterinsurgency, the number of U.S. airstrikes has soared....More telling still, the number of airstrikes soared most dramatically at about the same time that U.S. troop fatalities declined.

....It is a natural temptation to try to fight the Iraqi insurgents from the air. The fact is, the "surge" — an extra 30,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq on top of the existing 130,000 — was never enough to make a decisive difference. As the troops assumed a more aggressive posture against the insurgents, it was expected that they would find themselves in difficult spots, that they would take more casualties; and one thing American soldiers are trained to do in such circumstances is to call in air support. No one can blame them for protecting themselves.

....However, air support has its limits....The old adage about warfare — that it's easy to kill people, hard to kill a particular person — is doubly true of aerial warfare. And in counterinsurgency warfare, the consequences are counterproductive.

This leads to the critical question: How, in recent months, are the Iraqi people perceiving the U.S. military presence? How are they gauging the chance of success? Do they welcome the troops, or do they want them to leave?

Kaplan promises more on this tomorrow.

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October 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE NATIONAL SECURITY DILEMMA....Publius defends the Democratic Party leadership here. He makes some pretty good points. If you don't have the votes, you don't have the votes (though the whole Armenian genocide thing was pretty amateurish). Then he says this:

Granted, FISA is a different story. I strongly disagree with the leadership, but I also recognize it's a much thornier political issue in the swing districts and swing states that determine political power.

OK, so what do we think about this? The liberal blogosphere shares several widely held principles, and two of them come into conflict here:

  1. As political realists, we should give some breathing room to centrist Dems in reddish districts. Ideological straitjackets don't build majorities.

  2. The Democratic Party needs to get a spine. Nobody respects a weakling.

National security is where this particular rubber hits the road most conspicuously. The reason we can't defund the war is because Dems in swing districts think they'll lose their seats if a Republican opponent can club them over the head next year with a 24/7 barrage of grainy black-and-white commercials accusing them of not supporting our troops. Ditto for FISA, Kyl-Lieberman, the "General Betray-us" ad, shutting down Guantanamo, the Military Commissions Act, and a host of other related issues.

So here's my question: when we blogosphere types complain about this weak-kneed attitude, are we complaining because (a) we think the centrists are wrong; they could keep their seats in marginal districts even if they toed the progressive line on national security issues. Or (b) because we don't care; they should do the right thing even if it means losing next November?

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By: Kevin Drum

GOD AND MAMMON, PART 2....This is indeed an interesting chart (via Sullivan) from a Pew global survey that was released earlier this month. It's interesting, of course, because it's a graphical demonstration of something I've long figured was true, and like most of us, I just love it when I see confirmation of a preexisting belief.

Motivation aside, though, it's still interesting, even if it's not surprising. As people get less religious, they get wealthier. Or perhaps the other way around. Or perhaps there's something else behind both trends.

But whichever it is (probably a bit of all three), the United States, as usual, is an outlier. The United States is always an outlier on these kinds of things. Which reminds me: I'd love to see this same scatterplot for states or counties within the U.S. Has anyone ever done that?

The full Pew report is here.

UPDATE: Ask and ye shall receive. Reader Chris T. emails a chart he created from 2000 state data, using number of churches per capita as a proxy for religiosity (raw data here). That's not a perfect equivalent by any stretch, but it certainly captures the rough-and-ready bloggy spirit. Feel free to interpret as you will.



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By: Kevin Drum

WAGE GROWTH....Tyler Cowen suggests that U.S. wage growth hasn't been quite as bad as liberals make it out to be:

It is true that median wage growth has been slower than usual over the last thirty years. But it's not quite the grim picture it is often made out to be....For the last thirty years, twenty-eight percent growth in median wages is the best available estimate. Don't let anyone tell you it is zero or negative.

Well....sort of. It's true that the overall median wage has increased modestly over the past three decades, and if you add in benefits the increase is a few points higher still. But as the chart above shows, even the sluggish increase Tyler talks about is entirely due to one thing: the improving status of women in the workplace. That's good news on its own account, of course, and it's also good news for family incomes, but there's a flip side: the incomes of men really have stagnated. If you compare apples to apples — men aged 35-44 working full time — median income doubled in the three decades after WWII and has declined in the three decades since then. If you add in benefits, growth has been about zero.

Interpret this how you will. But for a very large segment of the population — and the one for which long-term trends depend most strongly on economic fundamentals — wage growth has indeed been "zero or negative." We should be trying to figure out why.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE BEAUCHAMP....Drudge has more on the Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair:

On August 10, the editors at [The New Republic] accused the Army of "stonewalling" their investigation into the stories by preventing them from speaking with Beauchamp. The DRUDGE REPORT has since obtained the transcript of a September 7 [actually September 6 –ed] call between TNR editor Frank Foer, TNR executive editor Peter Scoblic, and Private Beauchamp. During the call, Beauchamp declines to stand by his stories, telling his editors that "I just want it to end. I'm not going to talk to anyone about anything really." The editors respond that "we just can't, in good conscience, continue to defend the piece" without an explanation, but Beauchamp responds only that he "doesn't care what the public thinks." The editors then ask Beauchamp to cancel scheduled interviews with the WASHINGTON POST and NEWSWEEK.

It's hard to judge whether this is damning or not. On August 10, the Army was stonewalling TNR. They didn't get to talk to Beauchamp until nearly a month later. And the fact that after a month of browbeating from his chain of command Beauchamp "just want[ed] it to end" is hardly surprising either. We still don't know whether Beauchamp was telling the truth the first time around when he wrote his pieces for TNR or the second time around when he recanted under pressure from the Army.

Still, this seems like something TNR needs to respond to. And if Drudge really has a transcript, he should put it up. Let's see the whole thing, not just the snippets he finds most titillating. (This is especially desirable since Drudge seems to have Beauchamp talking about himself in the third person in one of his quotes, suggesting a less than completely faithful transcript.)

UPDATE: Oh hell, the transcript is here and here. Since Drudge underlines stuff all the time, I didn't realize that those particular underlines indicated a hyperlink. Sorry about that.

UPDATE 2: Although the Army says its investigation discredited Beauchamp's stories (via interviews with other soldiers in his unit), Beauchamp himself has never recanted. I got that wrong. He's not speaking to the media, but neither is he saying that the incidents he wrote about in TNR aren't true.

UPDATE 3: Jeez, the story was posted at Drudge about 12 hours ago, but it's already gone. That was quick. I've reposted the transcript here and here. The Army report is here.

UPDATE 4: TNR editor Frank Foer talks to Howard Kurtz about Beauchamp:

Despite the contentious conversation [on September 6], Foer continued to defend the article days later. He did so again yesterday, reiterating that other soldiers whom the magazine would not identify had confirmed the allegations.

While Beauchamp "didn't stand by his stories in that conversation, he didn't recant his stories," Foer said in an interview. "He obviously was under considerable duress during that conversation, with his commanding officer in the room with him."

While the discussion "was extremely frustrating and engendered doubts," Foer said, Beauchamp defended his story in a subsequent conversation that was conducted with no superiors present.

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By: Kevin Drum

COURAGE....Glenn Greenwald on statements from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about filibustering a bill that would retroactively provide immunity to telecom companies that cooperated with the NSA's domestic spying program:

Obama said only that "if the bill comes to the Senate floor in its current form, he would support a filibuster of it" — a transparent hedge given that it is virtually certain that the bill (being marked up this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee) will not come to the floor in its "current form."

....Clinton's statement was just incoherent — claiming first that she hasn't seen the bill (which has been available for many days now) and thus "can't express an opinion about it," then vowing (so inspirationally) that she is "going to study it very hard."

Jonathan Turley on the statement from George Bush's nominee for attorney general that he couldn't say whether waterboarding was torture or not because he really didn't know what waterboarding was:

There are only two explanations for this answer, either of which should compel the senators to vote against confirmation. The first is that Mukasey is the most ill-informed nominee in the history of this republic....The second possibility is, unfortunately, the more likely explanation: Mukasey is lying.

....What is truly astonishing is that the Democrats on the committee are apparently willing to look beyond the nominee's evasive, misleading testimony....Democrats hope to win the World Series without ever leaving the dugout: They want to denounce torture but won't expend the political capital it would take to fight a time-consuming and risky confirmation battle.

Matt Yglesias on the general phenomenon at work within the high councils of the Democratic Party:

Talk to people on the Hill or people involved in messaging, and there's just no confidence that they could win a big high-profile standoff with Bush on pretty much any issue related to terrorism. There's a critical margin of members who just won't back any position that can't also attract substantial Republican backing to provide "cover."

See also Paul Krugman about ending the war in Iraq.

UPDATE: Obama clears up his earlier ambiguity. Good for him.

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By: Kevin Drum

SYRIAN REACTOR UPDATE....David Albright and Paul Brannan of ISIS have produced a short report based on digital imagery from August that claims to have located the Syrian site that was bombed by Israel in September. Their conclusion: it looks pretty similar to a North Korean reactor:

This site is approximately 145 kilometers from the Iraqi border and situated 11 kilometers north of At Tibnah in the Dayr az Zawr region of Syria.

....In comparing the five megawatt-electric (or 20-25 megawatt- thermal) reactor building at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility to this suspected Syrian reactor building, the length of the outer walls of the structures are approximately the same (see Figures 4 and 5). The taller roof of North Korea's reactor measures approximately 32 meters by 24 meters on its sides. There also appears to be a faint square on top of the Syrian building's roof. It is unclear whether something would be built there, but its dimensions, 24 meters by 22 meters, are consistent with the subsequent construction of an upper roof. From the image, the Syrian building is similar in shape to the North Korean reactor building, but the Syrian building is not far enough along in its construction to make a definitive comparison.

If the design of the reactor is similar to a North Korean reactor, it is likely a small gas-graphite reactor of the type North Korea built at the Yongbyon nuclear site north of Pyongyang. The Syrian building size suggests that the reactor would be in the range of about 20-25 megawatts-thermal, large enough to make about one nuclear weapon's worth of plutonium each year.

This is, obviously, raw data with an emphasis on "raw." Albright is a relatively straight shooter, but North Korean reactors don't have a distinctive design, so all we've got here is a group of squarish buildings that are roughly the same size as a group of squarish buildings at Yongbyon. We also don't have imagery of this site from September, which would tell us if this is really the location that was bombed by the Israelis. The Washington Post has a bit more:

"You can look at North Korea's [reactor] buildings, and they look like nothing," said John E. Pike, a nuclear expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org. "They're just metal-skinned industrial buildings." The proximity of the building to a water source also is not significant by itself, Pike said.

....The International Atomic Energy Agency has acquired its own aerial photographs but has not finished analyzing them, according to an IAEA source.

In an interview published yesterday, IAEA director and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei expressed anger at the Syrians, Israelis and foreign intelligence agencies for not providing information about a suspected nuclear program.

"We have said, 'If any of you has the slightest information showing that there was anything linked to nuclear, we would of course be happy to investigate it,' " he told the French newspaper Le Monde. "Frankly, I venture to hope that before people decide to bombard and use force, they will come and see us to convey their concerns."

As always, this is just information at this point. It's not spin from Dick Cheney's shop, which is a point in its favor, but it's also a million miles from conclusive. I still don't know what's going on any more than anyone else.

Kevin Drum 11:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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RUDY AWAKENING....What would Rudy Giuliani be like as president? In our November issue, Rachel Morris looks for the answer by digging around in the nooks and crannies of his two terms as mayor of New York City. Here's an excerpt:

In 1996, Doug Criscitello, a former federal budget analyst, started work as the first director of the Independent Budget Office. Criscitello expected to put his auditors to work immediately, but then he received a surprising communication from the mayor's office. It was a memorandum informing him that all the IBO's requests for data had to be referred to City Hall — despite plain language in the city charter stating that the IBO could get information directly from municipal agencies. Puzzled, Criscitello contacted Giuliani's lawyers, who reaffirmed the message. "They weren't nasty about it. They were very matter-of-fact," said Criscitello. " 'Here's how we've decided to interpret the charter, and if you disagree there's a legal process you can go through and we can get a judge to rule on this.'" Eventually, the IBO sued the mayor's office for the data, and in 1998 a state judge ruled that City Hall had violated the city charter and ordered it to start cooperating. Meanwhile, Giuliani had bought two years of time.

Criscitello had run into what was becoming a signature feature of Giuliani's governing style. Chafing against the limits of his authority, Giuliani was taking an increasingly instrumentalist view of the law: it was only as good as how well it was enforced, and should be overstepped when doing so served his ends. His administration tussled in court not only with the IBO but also with numerous interest groups, the state comptroller, the public advocate, and the city council. "All of those were effectively cases that said, he's gone beyond the restraints on executive power," said Eric Lane, director of the 1989 charter commission and a law professor at Hofstra University. By 1999, the city council was forced to allocate money specifically for the purpose of suing City Hall, which had 685 lawyers on its payroll and had increased its legal budget by 41 percent since Giuliani took office.

....New York State's comptroller, H. Carl McCall, had a similar experience to Criscitello's when he tried to undertake routine audits of how well the city had provided services in areas ranging from restaurant inspections to policing. First, City Hall refused to provide the information. Then, in 1997, Giuliani booted McCall's auditors out of city agencies. McCall issued seventeen subpoenas in one month alone, all of which the mayor's office ignored. After two years, the state's highest court ordered his administration to turn over the information. By that time, however, Giuliani had already succeeded in the effort that mattered most to him: significantly delaying the comptroller's efforts. Not until 2000, for instance, would McCall be able to produce an audit of crime statistics, and when it finally appeared, the auditors noted that they were still unsure whether they had received all of the relevant material. As a "matter of policy," they wrote, City Hall had decided not to provide the customary document confirming that the data was accurate and complete.

Choosing the best presidential candidate among the 2008 contenders is a tough job. Picking the worst is easy. Rudy Giuliani is the guy you'd get if you put George Bush and Dick Cheney into a wine press and squeezed out their pure combined essence: unbounded arrogance and self-righteousness, a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood, a studied contempt for anybody's opinion but his own, a vindictive streak a mile wide, and a devotion to secrecy and executive power unmatched in presidential history. He is a disaster waiting to happen.

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October 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HIGAZY AND TORTURE....Jim Henley, who has been blogging longer than me, and therefore dealing with the right-wing blogosphere longer than me, posts a few links today to pieces he wrote back in 2002 about the Abdallah Higazy story. But first, there's this reminder about how the torture debate used to break down:

The pieces date from the years I self-identified as "right wing," too, which colors my thinking and my conception of the audience. There were plenty of "right-wingers" in those days pleased to be against torture because Alan Dershowitz was for it, and because it was as yet an abstract question (so far as we knew). Also, I later realized, it dovetailed with the desire to launch a war against Iraq. "Saddam's torture state" was a common epithet for the place in hawkish blog and legacy-media circles throughout 2002 and 2003. You were supposed to hate Saddam Hussein because he tortured, and to want to stop torture in Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein.

Later, we all had to choose whether to be against actual existing torture or to enable it in various now-familiar ways. Options included, redefine the term so that whatever we knew the US wasn't doing fell outside the new definition; theatrically declare the whole question of "What is torture?" frightfully complicated; simply stop talking about the issue altogether; argue that torture is, in fact, awesome when we do it.

Just thought I'd share this little stroll down memory lane.

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FUNDRAISING WRAPUP....Our pledge drive is over, so let me take a minute to thank everyone who contributed last week. We won't have final numbers until all the snail mail checks roll in, but we raised well over $30,000, which exceeded our expectations and goes a long way toward keeping this blog running for another year. Huge thanks to everyone who helped out.

And if you're not fundraised out, you might want to head over to Uncertain Principles, where Chad Orzel and the rest of the science bloggers are raising money for DonorsChoose, an organization that provides small grants for student projects at public schools. You've missed your chance to donate enough money to get Chad to stab himself with a fork, but you can still take the manliness quiz!

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SNEAK PREVIEW....Ah, yes, Mitt Romney just "misspoke." Twice in ten seconds. Sure he did.

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IRAQ AND THE KURDS....Under threat of military action from Turkey, Iraq says it's willing to crack down on the Kurdish terrorists who have been making raids on Turkish soil for more than 20 years:

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement in Baghdad promising to close the offices of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, news services reported.

"The PKK is a terrorist organisation and we have taken a decision to shut down their offices and not allow them to operate on Iraqi soil. We will also work on limiting its terrorist activities which are threatening Iraq and Turkey," the statement said.

....[President Bush] held a videoconference yesterday with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, after telephone calls from Rice and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to Iraqi Kurdish leaders on Sunday. The United States is not prescribing a specific formula, U.S. officials said, but wants to see Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq take tough measures, such as securing the borders to prevent guerrilla incursions, interdicting rebel operatives, arresting the group's leaders or putting Iraqi forces around the PKK camps in the rugged Qandil mountain range.

Isn't something missing here? I'm not super savvy about the weedy details of Iraqi politics, but even I know that Maliki has something close to zero influence over anything that happens in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Iraqi" troops aren't going to do a damn thing about PKK guerrillas, and everyone knows it.

And while this might just be an oversight, it's telling that this story doesn't include anything about PUK leader (and Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani or KDP leader Massoud Barzani, the two guys who might at least theoretically make a difference here. Ditto for both the New York Times writeup and the LA Times account (though the LAT at least mentions Talabani's name). By contrast, here's Juan Cole's take:

The fact is that the PKK is being coddled by Massoud Barzani and his Peshmerga, who could stop them hitting Turkey if they so desired. The other fact is that the US only has one really reliable ally in Iraq, which is the Kurds, and their paramilitary or the Peshmerga is the only element in the new Iraqi army that fights with any spunk or initiative. The US cannot afford to alienate Barzani or the Peshmerga; hence it is forced to try to wheedle Turkey into inaction in the face of a rather dramatic set of provocations.

Three newspapers, three thousand words, but not even a paragraph or two about the political realities governing the Kurdish region of Iraq? Why do I have to go to the blogosphere to get any real sense of what's going on?

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NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING....James Joyner agrees with Dave Weigel that Republicans need to do more than haul out the Hillary Clinton boogey man if they want to win next November:

While negative campaigning and pointing out the weaknesses of one's opponent can be quite effective, there hasn't been a presidential election in my lifetime decided on that basis. (Off the top of my head, I can't think of an example of that happening, period.)

Obviously, when a candidate loses, there are a hundred different reasons for the loss. But I don't think you have to go back any further than 2004 to see an example of negative campaigning winning an election. Is there any doubt that the Swift Boat ads that ran virtually nonstop in Ohio managed to switch at least a hundred thousand votes and thus swing the state — and the election — to George Bush?

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THE MISQUOTATION OLYMPICS....It would appear that Commentary's Gabriel Schoenfeld is trying to compete for the world title in selective misquoting. Original quote here. Schoenfeld version here. Dismayed reaction here.

On the other hand, Schoenfeld has some serious competition from Stanford's David Kennedy, who opened his review of Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal with an obscure century-old quote that was not just gratuitously insulting, but actually meant exactly the opposite of what he said it meant. Brad DeLong explains here.

Is this the latest thing in opinon writing? Not to merely misquote, but to twist meanings a full 180 degrees? Sounds like a fun game. Maybe I'll give it a try myself.

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THE WORLD'S PROBLEMS....Tom Friedman is concerned that 20-somethings today are a little too quiet. "If they are not spitting mad, well, then they're just not paying attention," he says. Courtney Martin responds:

When Friedman was young and people were taking to the streets, there were a handful of issues to focus on and a few solid sources of news to pay attention to. Now there is a staggering amount of both. If I read the news today with my heart wide open and my mind engaged, I will be crushed. Do I address the injustices in Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Pakistan, the Bronx? Do I call an official, write a letter, respond to a MoveOn.org request? None of it promises to be effective, and it certainly won't pacify my outrage.

....We can't be you, because we don't live in your time. We don't have the benefit of focus, the cushion of cheap rent, the luxury of not knowing just how complicated the world really is. Instead we have corporate conglomerates, private military contracts, the WTO and the IMF, school debt, and no health insurance. We are savvy and we are saturated and we are scared.

Ezra Klein agrees that kids are overwhelmed today because the scale of our problems is so immense. Brian Beutler thinks "We're overwhelmed because we're losing."

As a 40-something (and only barely that), I can't say what's really going on here — but then, neither can Tom Friedman, can he? But I can say that I heard pretty much the exact same complaint about quiet kids in the 80s and then again in the 90s. Michael J. Fox's Alex Keaton was the supposed icon of the Reagan era, when kids just wanted to head to Wall Street and make money, and we all remember the generic "slacker" who was the icon of the 90s.

But look: it's not the 80s, 90s, or 00s that are unique here. What's unique was a single period of about ten years from the early 60s to the early 70s. The kind of activism we saw from young people during that decade hadn't been seen for a century before that and probably won't be seen for a century after it. It was sui generis, and pretending otherwise is silly.

Activism almost always carries with it a sense of struggle against long odds. Occasionally, if you're lucky, you'll be part of a movement that just happens to catch fire at the exact moment you're most involved in it, but aside from that it's like war: long stretches of routine slogging punctuated by occasional bursts of triumph. The 60s generation was in the right place in the right time, and had more than its share of triumph — or a feeling of triumph, in any case — but by any other standard today's generation of 20-somethings seems to be doing fine to me. Maybe better than most, in fact. The 60s are not the measure of all things, after all.

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FIRE UPDATE....Quick note: since a bunch of people have asked, I'm fine. The Santiago Canyon fire is five or ten miles from my house, but it would basically have to burn down the entire city of Irvine before it got to me. It's causing a lot of damage, but it's all in the canyon and we're in no danger. I'm keeping the cats inside, but that's about it.

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A WEE QUIZ....Can you match up the neocon with his description from the recently published journals of Arthur Schlesinger?

  1. Marty Peretz

  2. Norman Podhoretz

  3. Charles Krauthammer

  1. "Writes particularly obnoxious neo-conservative trash"

  2. "Unprincipled egomaniac"

  3. "Odious and despicable"

Gideon Rose supplies the answers here.

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SANTA ANA WINDS....This post is for readers in Southern California. A couple of hours ago Jeralyn Merritt put up a passage from Joan Didion's "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" about Santa Ana winds, part of which I excerpt here:

We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks....The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called "earthquake weather." My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days....In Los Angeles some teachers do not attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become unmanageable.

....It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination....Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.

I'm curious about something. I've lived in Southern California my entire life, and this just doesn't bear any resemblance to anything I know about the place. Santa Ana winds are just....Santa Ana winds. They do whip up brush fires, as Didion says, but otherwise her description seems way, way over the top. Sure, the weather feels a little weird when Santa Anas kick up, but teachers don't cancel classes, pets don't go nuts, people don't stay inside their houses, and Los Angeles doesn't get gripped in crime waves. At least, not as far as I know.

So what's the deal here, fellow Southern Californians? Is Didion being overdramatic? Or is the drama really there and I've just been oblivious to it?

UPDATE: Fellow SoCal resident Matt Welch has more:

This, I believe, gets close to the heart of the Joan Didion Problem. She is such a gifted descriptive writer that she often can't resist the temptation to wrap her otherwise keen observations with some Chandleresque hyperbole, just to see how the language turns out. It's delightful to read, and leaves lasting impressions on your brain, but many of the impressions are, regrettably, not true. Not only that, but they advertise some near-secretive knowledge — hey wait, all this time I've been living here and I didn't realize that the Santa Anas were the primordial force unleashing the dark side of human desire?? — allowing readers to congratulate themselves on being among the minority to break the SoCal code. It's like when postgrads first stumble upon the sunshine/noir dialectic, or when yet another searing cultural critic sees a book-length metaphor in the fact that (gasp!) Brian Wilson couldn't surf.

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October 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DEBATE VENTING....I know this is almost too obvious to bear repeating, but are we really all so stupid that we judge participants in presidential debates by who gets off the best prepackaged zingers? I mean, we do all understand that these things are written ahead of time by staffers and then desperately plugged in by the candidates come hell or high water, regardless of whether they actually make sense in context, right? And that they're about as genuine as a 70s-era laughtrack?

No need to reply. I know the answers are (a) yes, (b) yes, and (c) yes. I'm just venting.

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HIGAZY REVISITED....Is there really as little interest in the Higazy redaction story, from both left and right, as a quick search of Google Blog indicates? Long story short, the FBI screwed up, forced a confession out of an innocent man, and then the evidence of the forced confession was redacted from the court opinion on the case. That sure seems like a juicy story, but it's not getting much play today. I guess last night's Republican debate must have been more fascinating than I thought.

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SKIN IN THE GAME....Back in the 1970s, RAND did a massive healthcare study that tried to determine whether copays affected health outcomes. Several thousand people were randomly assigned to groups that either got free healthcare or else had to shoulder varying amounts of copay, and they were tracked over five years. Long story short, they concluded that people used less healthcare if they had to pay for it, and that this didn't affect health outcomes. Hooray for copays!

As I've become more familiar with the arguments about national healthcare over the past few years, I've been startled to learn just how much impact this study has had. Even though it's one study that was conducted three decades ago, it's widely considered a "gold standard" among both liberals and conservatives. Everyone cites it. It's almost totemic in its influence, partly because it's genuinely considered to have been very well designed and partly for the simple fact that it's the only one of its kind ever done. Among conservatives, especially, it's widely viewed as proof that healthcare costs can be reduced without adverse effect simply by forcing patients to "put some skin in the game"

But one study is still one study, and the reason you don't normally rely on only a single study is because there might be hidden, nonobvious biases that skewed the results. Followup studies with different methodologies could unmask these problems, but no followup to the RAND study was ever done. It's just too expensive.

But guess what? It turns out that there might have been a simple but devastating flaw in the RAND data. What would happen if the people who were randomly assigned to the high-copay group simply left the experiment and returned to their regular insurance plan if they got seriously sick? Answer: It would make it look like the high-copay group made fewer claims. Not because the high copay made them think twice about getting care, but simply because they dropped out of the program entirely. It appear that this is exactly what happened.

Ezra Klein has a bit more detail about this, along with some links if you're interested in reading more. As far as I know, the RAND researchers haven't responded to this yet, so it should be considered a tentative criticism, not necessarily a knockout blow. But it's probably going to provoke quite an interesting wonkfest among healthcare geeks. If it turns out the RAND study was faulty, there's a whole lot of subsequent bloviating about healthcare that's going to turn out to be misguided too.

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CHENEY vs. MULLEN....Dick "Five Draft Deferments" Cheney on Sunday:

The Iranian regime's efforts to destabilize the Middle East and to gain hegemonic power is a matter of record. And now, of course, we have the inescapable reality of Iran's nuclear program; a program they claim is strictly for energy purposes, but which they have worked hard to conceal; a program carried out in complete defiance of the international community and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. The world knows this.

....The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences. The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

He rejected the counsel of those who might urge immediate attacks inside Iran to destroy nuclear installations or to stop the flow of explosives that end up as powerful roadside bombs in Iraq or Afghanistan, killing American troops.

With America at war in two Muslim countries, he said, attacking a third Islamic nation in the region "has extraordinary challenges and risks associated with it." The military option, he said, should be a last resort.

For what it's worth, there's nothing really very remarkable about this. For the past six years, at nearly every step along the way, the uniformed military has been more cautious about the use of military power than the White House. So will they finally figure out this time around that it takes more than gentle pressure to get these guys to recognize reality on the ground? Fred Kaplan has some thoughts.

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REDACTIONS....Shortly after 9/11, an Egyptian national named Abdallah Higazy was rounded up by the FBI and told to confess that he had been part of the plot. If he didn't, he was warned, things would go badly for his family. So he confessed. But then it turned out the FBI had made a mistake. He wasn't part of the 9/11 plot after all.

So he sued the FBI. On Thursday the Second Circuit Court issued an opinion in the case, but a few minutes later the decision was pulled down from the court's website. Steve Bergstein tells the story:

The next day, the Court of Appeals reissued the Higazy opinion. With a redaction. The court simply omitted from the revised decision facts about how the FBI agent extracted the false confession from Higazy. For some reason, this information is classified. Just as the opinion gets interesting, when we are about to learn how an FBI agent named Templeton squeezed the "truth" out of Higazy, the opinion reads at page 7: "This opinion has been redacted because portions of the record are under seal. For the purposes of the summary judgment motion, Templeton did not contest that Higazy's statements were coerced."

Obvious lessons here: (a) forced confessions aren't worth the tape they're recorded on, and (b) redactions for national security reasons often aren't for national security reasons at all. But you already knew that, didn't you?

Read the full story at Bergstein's blog, complete with many links and a copy of the redacted portion of the opinion. (Via Howard Bashman via Patterico via Instapundit.)

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October 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EVIDENCE....Why is the FBI working so vigorously to "reconstruct" the legal case against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and 14 other accused Al Qaeda leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay? Josh Meyer of the LA Times explains the genesis of the investigations:

They were requested by the Defense Department shortly after legal rulings indicated that Mohammed — the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and the other Al Qaeda suspects probably would win some form of trial in which evidence would have to be presented, according to senior federal law enforcement officials.

Indeed. Trials in which "evidence would have to be presented" are a bothersome problem, aren't they? Needless to say, torture is at the bottom of all this:

By mid-2002, several former agents and senior bureau officials said, they had begun complaining that the CIA-run interrogation program amounted to torture and was going to create significant problems down the road — particularly if the Bush administration was ever forced to allow the Al Qaeda suspects to face their accusers in court.

...."Those guys were using techniques that we didn't even want to be in the room for," one senior federal law enforcement official said. "The CIA determined they were going to torture people, and we made the decision not to be involved."

A senior FBI official who since has retired said he also complained about the lack of usable evidence and admissible statements being gathered. "We knew there were going to be problems back then. But nobody was listening," he said. "Now they have to live with the policy that they have adopted. I don't know if anyone thought of the consequences."

But it wasn't all for nothing. We got plenty of false confessions out of the deal too.

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LAST GASP FUNDRAISING....The final numbers are in from pledge week, and we raised about $34,000. That's so close to our goal I can taste it! So even though I said Friday's post was my last one, I'm going to do one more to see if we can put ourselves over the top.

Huge thanks to everyone who contributed during the week, and for those who didn't, here's one more chance. A couple hundred more donations will do it, so please help out if you can. To make a donation, click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page, or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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ONSHORING....Dan Drezner will love this story:

In a twist on offshoring that Northrop has dubbed onshoring, the global defense and technology corporation has been shipping computer work to small-town America, shunning India's Bangalore and Mumbai.

Century City-based Northrop picked Corsicana and six other small cities, including Lebanon, Va., and Helena, Mont., as locations for employees who develop software and troubleshoot technical problems for clients hundreds or thousands of miles away. It costs Northrop about 40% less to have the work done in Corsicana than in Los Angeles — savings similar to what would be achieved by sending jobs overseas.

....Onshoring, in fact, is becoming trendy. Some U.S. companies have recently pulled back from India to set up shop in rural areas where access to high-speed broadband connections isn't the problem it was just a few years ago, and where lower rents and wages are attractive.

Xpanxion, an Atlanta-based software developer, relocated its test operations to Kearney, Neb., from Pune, India, because the time difference was hampering communications. Computer maker Dell Inc., once at the forefront of outsourcing to foreign countries, opened a technical support center in Twin Falls, Idaho, after customers complained about overseas workers' English-language skills.

The story doesn't give any indication of how big this trend is, and at this point it's probably still pretty small. But it wouldn't surprise me if it picks up. My own experience with offshoring is that labor rates have to be way lower for it to be cost effective, so if overseas costs go up a bit and domestic costs go down a bit, that's all it takes to change the calculus for a substantial number of firms. Welcome to the broadband revolution, rural America.

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PLAYING POLITICS....The chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo military commissions, who resigned his position a couple of weeks ago, explained Saturday why he did it:

Senior defense officials discussed in a September 2006 meeting the "strategic political value" of putting some prominent detainees on trial, said Air Force Col. Morris Davis...."There was a big concern that the election of 2008 is coming up," Davis said. "People wanted to get the cases going. There was a rush to get high-interest cases into court at the expense of openness."

....Davis abruptly resigned after complaining that his authority in prosecutions was being usurped. He argued that Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, a new legal adviser to the convening authority for military commissions, should remain a neutral and independent party and should leave prosecuting cases to prosecutors.

....Part of the new focus, Davis said, was to speed up cases that would show the public the system was working. Davis said he wanted to focus on cases that had declassified evidence, so the public could see the entire trial through news coverage. That would defuse possible allegations that the trials were stacked against defendants.

But Hartmann said he was satisfied with putting on cases that included closed sessions, because the law allows it.

"He said, the way we were going to validate the system was by getting convictions and good sentences," Davis said. "I felt I was being pressured to do something less than full, fair and open."

Sounds like a phony soldier to me. Hopefully Davis has been replaced with a real American attuned to the needs of the Republican Party in the 2008 elections.

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October 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE BIG ORANGE BALLOON....So what did you do on your birthday, Kevin? Answer: not that much, really, but Marian and I did head out to the wilds of Irvine and take a balloon ride. Sort of a faux balloon ride really: it's a big orange balloon that's tethered to the ground by a cable. Every few minutes it's unreeled about 400 feet into the air and then reeled back in. Best part: it's free!

And why does Orange County have a giant orange balloon ride? The answer is in the picture below that was taken from the balloon. See that long stretch of asphalt that looks like a runway? It is a runway, formerly part of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. When the Navy announced in 1993 that MCAS would be decommissioned, local residents rushed into action to fight the powers-that-be who wanted to turn it into a commercial airport. Their chosen alternative was to turn the land into a "Great Park," and eventually that's what happened. After a decade of initiatives, court fights, and grassroots campaigning, the airport idea was finally struck a death blow. In the end, a development company bought the land and handed over 1,347 acres for development of a huge park. The balloon is there as a sort of placeholder until the Great Park is open for business.

So there you have it. More about the Great Park here. Balloon info here. Note to OC residents: the balloon is free through the rest of 2007, and the place was practically empty when we went on Friday afternoon. Just drive up, get a boarding pass, and walk on.

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A FAVOR....Can someone please read this Michael Kinsley column about the Alternative Minimum Tax (exciting!) and tell me what his point is? I genuinely can't figure it out.

Is he actually in favor of jettisoning the current tax code and replacing it wholesale with the AMT? He sort of implies this but doesn't really say so. Nor does he make even an attempt to figure out what effect this would have on tax revenue, even though a few paragraphs earlier he was mocking Republicans who take the same attitude toward eliminating the AMT. Likewise, in one paragraph he bemoans Bush's tax cuts for the rich, and in the next he claims that the AMT is pretty good because it "resembles the 'flat tax' of many reformers' dreams." So what's going on here? Is he in favor of more progressivity or more flatness?

Or is he just rambling without any real point to make? Happens to the best of us, I guess.

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MORE MUKASEY....Neil makes the case for swallowing hard and confirming Michael Mukasey as attorney general:

If someone can make a case that the next nominee will be any better (Ted Olson is worse), or that rejecting all nominees and keeping Peter Keisler as Acting Attorney General is a better plan, I'll be happy to change my mind.

If this were the first year of the Bush presidency, I'd think differently. It'd be valuable to send Bush a message that he can't nominate jackasses who claim not to know whether waterboarding is torture. But we're just a year from elections and Bush is close to gone. What matters is making sure that the 2008 elections are free from Gonzales-style interference. If the Attorney General is a GOP fixer (Ted Olson), plotting dirty tricks to help his friend of 25 years, Rudy Giuliani, win the presidency, it'll be a greater blow to the cause of freedom than if Mukasey is permitted a year as AG under a lame-duck president.

Sadly, there's much truth in this. The plain, dismal fact is that no modern Republican is going to make the kind of straightforward denunciation of torture and indefinite detainment that we'd like to see. So the choice is either Mukasey or a long stonewall that leaves Peter Keisler as acting AG for the next 15 months.

There's really no good solution here — and like it or not, we don't have the votes to defeat Mukasey anyway. But as an unsatisfactory compromise, I'd recommend that Democrats simply vote present as a bloc when Mukasey's nomination comes to the floor, allowing the GOP to confirm him using only their own votes. It's one way of letting the American public know clearly that although we'll let the president choose his own advisors, they're his advisors and he's responsible for them. It may not be feasible to block Mukasey's nomination, but there's no reason any Democrat needs to actively approve of it.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

PANDERING REVISITED....The splintering of the GOP continues apace. Mel Martinez has resigned as head of the Republican National Committee because, according to the New York Times, "he was increasingly uncomfortable as the face of the party." Peter Wallsten of the LA Times explains a little less delicately:

A statement by Martinez released by the RNC did not mention the immigration issue or the courtship of Latino voters....But Martinez's frustration was well known. He had warned that a continuation of the GOP's 2006 tactics — airing anti-illegal immigration television ads that many believed used ethnic stereotypes — could doom the party's hope of competing for the country's fastest-growing voter bloc.

....The top Republican candidates for president, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are promising to be tougher on illegal immigration.

The big immigration debate earlier this year has blown over, so why resign now? The answer is in the last paragraph: if you were one of the party's few Hispanic leaders, how would you feel watching the leading Republican presidential candidates practically tripping over each other week after week to declare undying fealty to the GOP's angry white guy nativists? It's yet another of the special interest checkboxes I mentioned yesterday: kept under wraps back in the heady days of the Republican Revolution, but now on full, ugly display and demanding ever greater obeisance as a litmus test for being a true conservative. Martinez had had enough, so he quit.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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October 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

VALUES....Kate Sheppard reports on Mitt Romney's performance at the Value Voters Summit:

Romney was right on target for what this crowd wanted to hear. Nothing about Iraq, nothing about reinstating the gold standard, nothing about S-CHIP — just abortion, marriage, porn, and families.

Romney is nothing if not focused. He even managed to work in a shout-out to the all-important ankle-bracelets-for-pedophiles constituency. Brave lad.

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SYRIA UPDATE....ABC News has dug up a "senior U.S. official" who says there's no question that the Syrian target hit by the Israelis last month was a nuclear facility designed by North Korea:

A senior U.S. official told ABC News the Israelis first discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility early in the summer, and the Mossad — Israel's intelligence agency — managed to either co-opt one of the facility's workers or to insert a spy posing as an employee. As a result, the Israelis obtained many detailed pictures of the facility from the ground.

....The official described the pictures as showing a big cylindrical structure, with very thick walls all well-reinforced. The photos show rebar hanging out of the cement used to reinforce the structure, which was still under construction.

There was also a secondary structure and a pump station, with trucks around it. "It was unmistakable what it was going to be. No doubt in my mind," the official told ABC News....The official said the facility was a North Korean design in its construction, the technology present and the ability to put it all together.

Is this the same "official" who told the New York Times that the Israeli target was a nuclear facility? Or a different official? No telling. Nor does the ABC report suggest how long the facility had been under construction or how far away from completion it was. It does say, however, that (a) there was no actual nuclear material at the site and (b) the United States decided against striking the facility itself.

This whole story still doesn't quite add up, but someone is sure going to a lot of trouble to leak about it. Either this really was a nuclear site or else there's a genuinely remarkable disinformation campaign being conducted. My guess is that it's real.

UPDTE: Cernig continues to think the whole thing is just garden variety bullshit from Cheney's office. Posts here and here. It's hard to argue with that, but it still doesn't explain (a) why Israel would have bombed a conventional weapons site or (b) why Syria is being so cagey about the whole thing. If it's just a building full of Scuds, why not scream blue murder and invite every journalist in a thousand mile radius to come take a look?

There are possible answers to both those questions, but they don't strike me as all that persuasive. In any case, read everything and make up your own mind. Speaking for myself, I continue to be confused.

Kevin Drum 7:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Ah, kitties. Let's forget the cares of the world for a moment, shall we?

On the left, Domino looms out of the darkness into the lovely, lovely sunshine. On the right, Inkblot is up on my desk helping me out by scratching all the pencils in my pencil jar. This is not a view from my window, but a view looking into my window. Perhaps a new schtick for Andrew Sullivan?

And with that, pledge week is over. Almost over, anyway. If today's catblogging has loosened your hearts or — perhaps more importantly — loosened your wallet, there's still time to contribute a few dollars to our fundraising drive. To make a donation, click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page, or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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GRAYISH FRIDAY....Great. Another big stock selloff on my birthday. Technical traders, take note.

Actually, there are really starting to be some bad signs out there. Last quarter, corporate earnings kept the stock market in decent shape despite the subprime mortgage meltdown, but this quarter it's looking like earnings are going to be weak in addition to continuing turmoil in the mortgage market and the related collapse of the housing market. Oof.

And oil prices keep rising. The current conventional wisdom says the recent rise is basically a bubble driven by futures trading, and there's certainly something to this. At the same time, global oil production levels plateaued in 2005 and haven't risen since even in response to relentlessly rising prices — an odd occurrence indeed if there were truly any spare capacity left in the world. And if there isn't, then this is no bubble.

So....I dunno. Makes me nervous, that's all. Better get some cats posted ASAP.

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THE MACHINE....For any Paul Krugman readers looking for the Nick Confessore piece he mentioned in today's column, here it is: "Welcome to the Machine: How the GOP disciplined K Street and made Bush supreme." The machine itself may be a bit rusty and pitted-looking these days, but Nick's article is still a great read.

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DEMENTIA IN THE DESERT....Via TalkLeft, check out this Phoenix New Times story about their bizarre, multi-year run-in with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County nutcase best known for making his prisoners wear pink underwear. It's too long to excerpt, and you have to read all the way to the end to really appreciate the grassy knollishness of the whole thing, but if you've got a few minutes to spare, it's well worth your time to read.

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MUKASEY ON TORTURE....It's the details that keep coming back to haunt us. Last week I wanted fewer caveats from Hillary Clinton regarding torture of detainees in American prisons, and this week I'd like fewer from attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey. Mukasey had a good start the other day, telling the Senate that we didn't liberate Nazi concentration camps "so we could then duplicate it ourselves." Unfortunately, when the questioning got a little more specific, it turned out he wasn't entirely sure what counted as torture and what didn't. Mark Kleiman:

I understand Mukasey is supposed to be a reasonably good guy, by comparison with the run of Bush appointees. But if Mukasey won't say that waterboarding is torture and claims that the President has some undefined power to violate statute law — even criminal laws, such as the ban on torture and other war crimes — under his "Article II powers," then why should the Senate Judiciary Committee even bring his nomination to a vote? If he says he hasn't read the latest torture memos or decided whether waterboarding is torture, Sen. Leahy ought to tell him to read the memos and observe a waterboarding session and come back when he's done his homework.

Andrew Sullivan:

An attorney general who believes a president has a permanent right to ignore the rule of law because peacetime is now wartime for ever, is an attorney-general defending the rule of one man over the rule of law....I think we're in denial about this. Following Mukasey's statements with confirmation would set a precedent we may well deeply regret. Think of another terrorist attack. Think of the Cheney precedents. Think of Giuliani in the White House. Now think of what would be left of democracy and the Constitution the day after.

This just shouldn't be hard stuff. It's a sign of the moral decay of the Bush era that we even find ourselves arguing about it.

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PRIORITIES....Want to know how different the political culture of France is compared to that of the United States? The LA Times reports today that there was "plenty of speculation" in France yesterday that President Nicolas Sarkozy had announced the "juicy details of an imploding marriage" in order to divert attention from a one-day transit strike. Betcha Rudy Giuliani never thought of that.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, KEVIN!....Kevin turns 49 today, and I'm sure we can all appreciate the wisdom of age he brings to the Washington Monthly. I hope you'll join me in sending him congratulations on this happy day, and saying "thank you" for the top-notch blogging he does. And what better way to say thanks than to make a $49 donation to our fundraising drive today?

A few years ago, print magazines suddenly discovered this new land of opinion online, the blogosphere. Seemingly overnight, every magazine was attempting to turn their star reporters and veteran editors into the next big thing online. The Washington Monthly, however, had no big-name veterans on staff, so in what turned out to be the best default decision we've made in years, we looked toward bloggers who were already making a name for themselves.

A friend of the magazine suggested we look at Kevin's blog, Calpundit, and immediately we knew we had found the right match. His wonky curiosity fit perfectly with the Monthly's editorial sensibility, and we admired the same traits all of you expect from his blogging: his fairmindedness, vernacular clarity of writing, and the measured skepticism with which he reads the daily papers. And of course, the many charts and graphs.

So thank you, Kevin. We're grateful for your contribution and continually proud of the work you do.

And thank you, Kevin's readers. You've already contributed over $20,000 during pledge week, a truly phenomenal amount. If you haven't done so already, I hope you'll consider making a donation in appreciation of Kevin and help us reach our $40,000 goal. To make a donation, click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page, or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

Paul Glastris 1:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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CHINATOWN....The LA Times is trying really, really hard to uncover campaign contribution irregularities among donations to Hillary Clinton from the immigrant Chinese community:

Dishwashers, waiters and others [in New York's Chinatown] whose jobs and dilapidated home addresses seem to make them unpromising targets for political fundraisers are pouring $1,000 and $2,000 contributions into Clinton's campaign treasury. In April, a single fundraiser in an area long known for its gritty urban poverty yielded a whopping $380,000. When Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) ran for president in 2004, he received $24,000 from Chinatown.

....The tenement at 44 Henry St. was listed in Clinton's campaign reports as the home of Shu Fang Li, who reportedly gave $1,000....A tenant living in the apartment listed as Li's address said through a translator that she had not heard of him, although she had lived there for the last 10 years.

A man named Liang Zheng was listed as having contributed $1,000. The address given was a large apartment building on East 194th Street in the Bronx, where no one by that name could be located.

Census figures for 2000 show the median family income for the area was less than $21,000. About 45% of the population was living below the poverty line, more than double the city average.

In the busy heart of East Broadway, beneath the Manhattan Bridge, is a building that is listed as the home of Sang Cheung Lee, also reported to have given $1,000. Trash was piled in the dimly lighted entrance hall. Neighbors said they knew of no one with Lee's name there; they knocked on one another's doors in a futile effort to find him.

There are no smoking guns in the Times story, but they're sure doing their best to find one. Hillary's people better be keeping their hands mighty clean.

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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PANDERING....Matt Yglesias comments on the dynamics of the 2008 Republican presidential race:

There's really something bizarre about the growing number of constituencies to which your modern-day Republicans must pander in order to succeed in primary politics. That's all I think you can conclude from something like Mitt Romney calling on the US to boycott a UN panel we're already boycotting.

This is something that's always bugged me. Ever since the 70s, Democrats have had a reputation for being more a collection of special interests than a real party. Basically, if you wanted to win you had to check off all the right boxes: abortion groups, environmental groups, labor unions, trial lawyers, various ethnic minority groups, etc. etc. There was, needless to say, more than a little truth to this reputation.

For some reason, though, Republicans never shared this reputation, despite the fact that they had plenty of special interest checkboxes of their own: tax cutting groups, the NRA, pro-life groups, evangelicals, the chamber of commerce, etc. etc. I was never quite able to figure out why, but Republicans managed to make it look like all these groups were somehow related by a set of core conservative principles, while Democratic box checking somehow always looked like pure pandering.

But Matt is right: this year, for the first time, the interest group pandering is looking a lot more obvious on the Republican side and a lot less obvious on the Democratic side. Why? I suppose it's more the changing fortunes of the parties than any actual substantive change. With Dems looking like big winners, liberal interest groups are all willing to settle down and just work for victory. Divvying up the spoils can come later. On the GOP side, it's just the opposite: with the party doing so poorly, every group is suddenly way more worried about getting its own scrap of attention than in the past. This means that subtle, dog whistle appeals aren't enough. Conservative interest groups are insecure enough that they want full-on panders, so that's what the candidates are giving them. There aren't any more conservative check boxes than there have ever been, but the pandering demands are so much greater that their existence is way more obvious than it has been in the past. It doesn't help that many of the leading candidates really aren't natural allies of all the conservative interest groups, which means that they have to pander even more obsequiously than usual in order to prove their bona fides (cf. Mitt Romney, above).

Anyway, just goes to show what winning a few elections will do for you. Now if we can only get Dems to stop having nervous breakdowns whenever they hear the words "soft on terror," maybe we'll really start getting somewhere.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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October 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THURSDAY PLEDGE BLOGGING....We've got one more day left in our fundraising drive! One short little day to raise the rest of the money to meet our goal. So please help out if you can. Any amount helps.

Click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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SHOWING YOU CARE....Harold Meyerson notes the lack of substance from the current crop of Republican presidential candidates:

President Giuliani, Romney, McCain or Thompson can reliably be counted on to be against whatever Clinton is for. Beyond that, if we total up their domestic and economic policy proposals, they intend to do almost nothing at all.

Romney will punt to the states the problem of the decreasing willingness of employers to provide health insurance. Giuliani says everybody should just buy their own policies — and if the insurance companies don't want to sell to the sick or middle-aged, that's just too bad. John McCain focuses on the rising costs of treating chronic diseases rather than the declining level of coverage. Fred Thompson wants to take a whack at Medicare.

I thought maybe Meyerson was being unfair. So I went to Mitt Romney's website to look at his healthcare plan. Here it is: "The health of our nation can be improved by extending health insurance to all Americans, not through a government program or new taxes, but through market reforms." That's the whole thing. The rest of the page has a pair of quotes from two years ago, a single short video taken at a campaign event, and a couple of outside links. Sounds like it's a real priority for him, isn't it?

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SCHIP FAILS....A few moments ago the House failed to override President Bush's veto of the SCHIP children's healthcare bill. Not unexpected, of course, but still a shameful piece of partisan vindictiveness. And as usual, a big shout out to the fever swamps for their role in keeping sick kids uncovered. Nice work.

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RUDY AND THE EVANGELICALS....Salon emails to draw my attention to Michael Scherer's latest piece, which tells us that this weekend evangelical leaders will be holding a followup to their September meeting in which they threatened to support a third-party candidate if Republicans nominate Rudy Giuliani:

"There will be further exploration of what is to be done," said Howard Phillips, the president of the Conservative Caucus, who participated in the Salt Lake meeting. "And there will be some discussion of who would be a viable independent candidate."

....Ever since the September meeting in Salt Lake, conservative Christian leaders have been increasing their public protests of a Giuliani candidacy, arguing that it would sever the coalition between evangelical voters and the Republican Party that dates back to Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign. "The establishment just doesn't get it," said Dr. Richard Land, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, in a recent interview. "I cannot vote for a pro-choice candidate as a matter of conscience."

The Land quote is especially telling. Despite the fact that (a) presidential candidates are chosen via primary and (b) opinion polls all show wide rank-and-file GOP support for Giuliani, Land is convinced that it's "the establishment" that's screwing with evangelicals. These guys just can't escape a mindset in which they're a besieged minority constantly battling powerful elites who are determined to shut them down.

Of course, what really terrifies Land and the others is that they know, in their hearts, that just the opposite is true. The power brokers of the Republican Party are desperate to keep evangelicals on board. They'd dump Rudy in a heartbeat if they could. But the grassroots, after six years of George Bush, is no longer quite so happy with the devil's bargain they made with evangelicals all those decades ago. It's ordinary voters, not the establishment, who have gotten tired of the single-minded obsession over abortion and gays that the evangelical leadership has foisted on them. It's no coincidence that a socially moderate candidate is their favorite right now, and that's way more threatening to the evangelical stranglehold on the GOP than the opinions of a few party leaders.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....Glenn Reynolds on opposition to the war:

The problem is that our political and journalistic classes lack sufficient patriotism to promote self-discipline, or perhaps sufficient self-discipline to allow them to act patriotically.

Wait a second. I thought conservatives didn't make accusations of non-patriotism? I'm confused. I guess now it's OK. Does that mean I get to accuse conservatives of being baby killers again?

Anyway, I'm certainly glad to see that that whole stab-in-the-back thing was just a figment of my liberal imagination. That's a relief.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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RUSSIA AND IRAN....A day after after telling the United States to back off on Iran, Vladimir Putin is in Tehran talking to none other than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei:

Russia's president, Vladimir V. Putin, proposed a new way to help resolve the standoff over Iran's nuclear program during an extraordinary meeting with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the country's chief nuclear negotiator on Wednesday.

The negotiator, Ali Larijani, told reporters that Mr. Putin, who was granted an audience with Ayatollah Khamenei on Tuesday evening, "offered a special proposal." Neither the Iranians nor the Russians would disclose any details, but Mr. Larijani said the Iranian side was studying it.

This may or may not go anywhere. Maybe Khamenei is meeting with Putin just to annoy the U.S. Maybe Putin is just offering up a slight variation on his previous proposal to supply Iran with enriched nuclear fuel. Who knows? But Khamenei doesn't meet with very many people, and both Russia and Iran seem to be feeling their way toward common ground resisting American influence in the Middle East. Yippee.

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WARRANTLESS WIRETAPPING UPDATE....It looks like House Democrats have caved on the NSA spying bill. "It was total meltdown," says the director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union. No details yet on exactly what's in the Senate bill that takes its place, but it doesn't look good. More later.

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DONATE TO THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY OR THESE CATS WILL NEVER EAT AGAIN....Just kidding, of course. Ellen DeGeneres is providing us with enough domestic pet drama already. (In fact, I had to dump out the cat food that was already in the bowl to get this picture. The cats weren't interested because they knew it was close to dinnertime and they were hoping that a pitiful look would speed up their daily fix of wet food.)

However, our food bowl could use some filling up too. So if you haven't donated already, please think about sending a few bucks our way during pledge week. It's a small way of showing that you value your daily fix of Political Animal.

Click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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A FEW WEE QUESTIONS....What did Ann Coulter mean when she said Christianity is "more like Federal Express"? What did George Bush mean when he suggested that Iran's nuclear program might bring on World War III? What did Rudy Giuliani mean when he told an Iowa audience, "If we are not careful and you don't elect me, this country will be to the left of France"? Why is John McCain upset about the amount of money we're spending studying the DNA of Montana bears?

Submit your guesses in comments.

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SHIELD LAW FOLLOWUP...Atrios comments on the federal shield law for journalists that recently passed the House:

I don't really like any shield law which attempts to define journalism as a class rather than an act, I don't like that such law uses an income test to define that class, and I certainly don't understand why the emphasis is on protecting the journalists from testifying rather than the whistleblowers who need protecting.

Yay whistleblower protection. Boo defining journalism based on whether it makes you money.

I agree in part and disagree in part. I agree that defining "journalist" as someone who makes a sufficient amount of money doing journalism is a lousy idea. This was almost certainly done as a way to prevent abuse (i.e., mob figures starting up blogs and then claiming they don't have to testify in court because they disseminate information), but it's a dumb way of addressing the problem. There are perfectly good ways of defining the activity of journalism, and judges are perfectly capable of then making common sense rulings about someone's bona fides. They do it all the time.

But I disagree on the whistleblower thing. I don't have any issue with strengthening whistleblower laws (though I think enforcing the ones we already have is probably a better place to start), but that really doesn't solve the journalism problem. When reporters get leaks from anonymous sources, those sources don't want to know that they'll be "protected." They want to know that they won't be revealed. Period. Nothing else even comes close to providing the security they need against an administration (anyone's administration) that will do whatever it can to ruin their career, law or no law.

Bottom line: the Senate version of the bill is better. But even if the definition of journalist doesn't end up being exactly what bloggers would like it to be, it's still a worthwhile piece of legislation to get on the books. Once the principle of a reporter's privilege is established, it's always possible to make changes later. Getting the privilege established in the first place is the hard part.

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October 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

MORE FUNDRAISING....Just a quick afternoon reminder: we're now halfway through pledge week here at Political Animal. Only 2.5 days to go and then I'll leave you alone again. In the meantime, though, if you haven't contributed anything yet, why not do it now? Your donations help keep me on the air.

Click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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PUTIN AND IRAN....If we attack Iran's nuclear facilities, will Vladimir Putin get sufficiently annoyed with us that he starts turning over nuclear technology to the mullahs in an effort to speed up their quest for an atomic bomb? Judah Grunstein offers a corrective:

Guys, nobody just gives away nuclear weapons. Desperately isolated states (ie. North Korea) sell them, as do desperately greedy individuals (ie. AQ Khan). A unilateral strike against Iran will certainly make it more difficult to use diplomacy to stave off an eventual Iranian second push for nuclear capacity, thereby locking us into a cycle of military intervention. But no one's going to just hand over the atomic goody bag to Tehran just to get back at us.

Agreed. Russia learned its lesson on that score 50 years ago. Handing over nukes to a next-door neighbor isn't really a likely scenario.

What is likely, however, is a lot simpler. Human nature being what it is, nation states all too often react to insecurity by resorting to crude balance-of-power principles — sometimes openly and deliberately, Congress of Vienna style, other times more organically and subtly. The more threatening and unilateral the United States continues to seem, the more likely it is that foreign states will decide that a few guys in caves aren't nearly as big a deal as a country with a $500 billion military budget and an itchy trigger finger. We would be wise to elect a president next year who's figured that out.

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ONE CLICK....Appeals are still possible, but apparently the U.S. Patent Office has rejected Amazon's application to patent "one-click shopping." As near as I can tell, the claim was rejected mainly because it was a trivial and obvious extension of prior art. Maybe there is a God after all.

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MUKASEY ON TORTURE....Michael Mukasey, George Bush's nominee for attorney general, testifies about torture:

Mukasey also sharply criticized a Justice Department legal opinion issued early in the Bush administration, and since rescinded, that narrowly defined the acts that constitute torture and laid the legal groundwork for the use of harsh interrogation techniques on U.S. detainees.

Calling the memo "a mistake" and "unnecessary," Mukasey said that torture violates U.S. laws and pointed to the role of American troops in liberating Nazi concentration camps following World War II. "We didn't do that so we could then duplicate it ourselves," he said.

Good for him. It's refreshing to hear some genuine moral clarity from a high-ranking Republican these days.

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KEEPING IT REAL....Slate has a new blog, The XX Factor, written entirely by women. Over at Tapped, Dana Goldstein says "I look forward to reading it," but also has reservations:

Yet I'm discouraged that another mainstream publication has put its feminist blogging in a separate space. The XX Factor launched just a few weeks after another new Slate blog, Trailhead, which covers the 2008 election and is written by Christopher Beam, and occasionally other male contributors. "Safe spaces" to talk among other feminists are very important online — that's why I keep my own blog, where the comment arena is decidedly more sympathetic to gender analysis. But if we want feminism to penetrate into broader conversations about politics, especially during such a crucial election year with a female front-runner, we need to also encourage mixed spaces. So many male bloggers and journalists I know have never heard of Broadsheet, or rarely visit Feministing, but are totally clued in to the feminst debates taking place at TAPPED and other integrated blogs. I think high-traffic sites like Slate have an important role to play, not in doubling down on "no boys allowed!" blogs (that's the tagline on Slate's front page right now), but in showing that feminist anlysis is mainstream political analysis.

I have exactly the same mixed reaction. It's similar to the problem of the various "studies" departments at liberal arts universities, which provide a space to do research on topics like gender and race that probably wouldn't get done anywhere else, but at the cost of making it ever easier for everyone outside those departments to ignore race and gender issues. The resulting ghettoization effect can be pretty unhealthy, I think.

For my money, I'd prefer issues of race and gender to be treated as fully mainstream issues, discussed at the same political table as every other political issue. Obviously there's plenty of room for specialist blogs of all stripes, but overall, I like Tapped's approach better than Slate's.

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PAY FOR PERFORMANCE....More from Ezra on pay for performance:

I'm always amused by well-paid journalists and pundits complaining that teacher's compensation isn't closely enough linked to performance. Is Megan hauled into James Bennet's office once a week, presented with updated traffic numbers where traffic boosts and drops are disaggregated from intra-Atlantic links and general noise, and then paid less or more depending on her performance?

Funny he should ask. Via Chris Hayes, this is from Vanessa Grigoriadis's article in New York magazine about Nick Denton's snarky gossip site, Gawker:

Until recently, most Gawker bloggers were paid a flat rate of $12 per post for twelve posts a day, with quarterly bonuses adding to the bottom line; these bonuses could be used to buy equity in the company, which took two years to vest. Now, Denton is moving to a pay-for-performance system. He has always tracked the page views of each individual Gawker Media writer, thinking of them like stocks in a portfolio, with whoever generates the most page views as his favorite. If each writer was only as valuable as the page views he drew, then why shouldn't Denton pay him accordingly?

[Alex] Balk, the site's primary troublemaker, quickly posted an item on Gawker about this change with the slug "Like Rain on Your Wedding Day, Except for Instead of Rain It's Knives." Denton wasn't amused. "Your item makes the argument for performance pay even stronger," he responded in the post's comments. "This awesomely self-indulgent post — of interest to you, me, and you, and me — will struggle to get 1,000 views. Which, under the new and improved pay system, Balk, will not even buy you a minute on your bourbon drip." (Balk gave notice two weeks later.)

Moral of the story: watch what you ask for (or talk about). You might give James Bennet ideas.

This was just an excuse, by the way, to link to Grigoriadis's article, which was fascinating in a train wreck kind of way. The vast emptiness at the core of what these people do is almost unfathomable, and their self-loathing ranks right up there with crack addicts and pole dancers at seedy nightclubs. That may not sound like a recommendation, but it is. I couldn't stop reading.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PARTY LINE....The point of the Laffer Curve, in a nutshell, is that sometimes tax rates can be so high that they seriously disincentivize people from working at all. Ronald Reagan was a Laffer acolyte because of his days in Hollywood during the era of 90% marginal rates, when actors would sometimes forego making a third or fourth movie during a year because, why bother? Once you hit the 90% level, you're only going to take home a few thousand bucks for your effort. But if you reduced the top rate to, say, 50%, maybe Reagan would go ahead and make that third movie, and then both he and the government would end up making more money. That's Laffer in action.

However, the current top marginal rate in the United States is 35%, and no one in their right mind thinks that's anywhere near high enough to have a serious Laffer effect. When top rates are that low, lowering them further just reduces tax revenue. However, when Megan McArdle, who is in her right mind, said exactly that recently in an otherwise scathing review of (I assume) Jon Chait's The Big Con for a conservative magazine, her review was promptly bounced. So, since she was arguing a few weeks ago that kooky supply-sidism didn't have a hegemonic hold on American conservatism, she's now willing to concede defeat:

I suppose I ought to have known, but I didn't. Go ahead liberals, pile on: you told me so. The Laffer Curve and the supply siders pushing it seem to be the teacher's unions of the right.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Ezra Klein leaps to the intellectual defense of liberals vis à vis teachers unions:

Indeed, it often seems that there's nothing safer in Democratic circles than criticizing the teacher's unions. Just about every Democrat in the media establishment makes it their favored point of heterodoxy.

True enough — though when you get to the level of, say, politicians running for president, Megan has more of a point. Barack Obama, for example, was praised to the skies a few months ago simply for making a (very) brief and (very) oblique reference to merit pay in a speech that otherwise was just a gigantic slab of red meat for teachers.

Still, is there really any comparison? In fact, is there any subject among liberals that has the same totemic appeal as tax cutting does to conservatives? As near as I can tell, every single Republican running for president publicly says that cutting taxes always raises revenues — even though the idea is as absurd as Ron Paul's gold standard crankiness. Ditto for the Heritage Foundation, AEI, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, etc. etc. Deviate from the party line, as Bruce Bartlett has, and you're quickly excommunicated.

Liberals agree on lots of things, but I just can't think of anything that's enforced quite as ruthlessly as the conservative party line on tax cuts. Any ideas?

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O CANADA!....A reader from the chilly climes of Canada emails with some fundraising advice:

With the Canadian dollar now at par with the American dollar, it should be easier than ever to fork over a few loonies for the kind of writing you serve up every day. Cajole and tease us — we love that shit! — and I will bet you'll see a whole bunch of donations from your gentle northern neighbors.

Cajole and tease, eh? Fine. Want to know where your precious Stanley Cup is, folks? Right here in Orange County, California. Want proof? Here you go: "A Day With Hockey's Holy Grail," courtesy of the LA Times.

Is that enough to get all my Canadian readers to send us some money? How about all my German and British and French and Mexican and Danish readers? Your credit card company will happily convert your euros and pounds and pesos and kroner into dollars in a trice. And you Americans, too: don't think this lets you off the hook. If you haven't contributed yet, now's your chance. If you enjoy reading this blog, help keep it alive by throwing a few bucks our way.

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PAUL GLASTRIS ON COLBERT.....(Bumped from yesterday morning.) I don't know if he was as funny as Dennis Kucinich, who pulled a pocket Rosetta Stone out of his pocket, but our editor, Paul Glastris, was on the Colbert Report last night talking about our college rankings issue. Among the pressing questions: How does Stephen's alma mater rate? How good is Harvard really? What's up with Texas A&M?

And if you missed our 2007 College Guide last month, you can still check it out. National rankings are here. Liberal arts colleges are here. Community colleges are here. Or just click here to read the entire package.

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SYRIA UPDATE....Over at Mercury Rising, Charles has a short post that offers some fairly persuasive reasons to think that whatever it was the Israelis bombed in Syria last month, it probably wasn't any kind of nuclear facility. I'm confused enough about this whole affair that I don't really have an opinion of my own, but I wanted to pass this along anyway as an antidote to some of the recent reporting in the New York Times — which, as we know, is not exactly the world's most reliable source when it comes to WMD news.

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October 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

STAYIN' ALIVE....Don't forget about our fundraiser! If you haven't already, donate now and help keep this blog on the air. Ten bucks, twenty bucks, fifty bucks, whatever you can afford. We appreciate everyone who helps us out. And don't forget my offer to write a post on the subject of your choice if you donate a thousand dollars! (Note: political campaigns need not apply.)

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FEDERAL SHIELD LAW....Nancy Pelosi's office just emailed to let me know that the House passed a federal shield law today by a veto-proof margin of 398-21. Good. I hope the Senate follows suit.

One way or another, this is long overdue. Regardless of what you think the rules should be — and in my case I think this legislation probably doesn't go far enough — the fact is that we ought to have some rules. Right now all we have are Department of Justice "guidelines" for when reporters can and can't be compelled to testify about their sources, and I just don't like relying on DOJ guidelines. They're too easy to change and too easy to abuse.

But even if this bill isn't ideal, it's a start. 49 states have shield laws and they work well. We should have one at the federal level too. At least then everyone knows what the ground rules are.

And just to forestall the usual complaint: Yes, I know that journalists sometimes abuse anonymous sources. That's life. But think of the big picture: overall, protecting the right of reporters to dig into government corruption without fear of going to jail is far more important to the cause of liberalism than the fact that occasionally this protects sources we'd like to see revealed. The executive branch already has plenty of tools for protecting its secrets. It doesn't need more.

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BREAK THROUGH....I've been putting this off, but I suppose I really ought to offer up some comments about Break Through, the critique of global warming activism published recently by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. I've been avoiding it, I think, because rarely has a book left me more schizophrenic. I loved the first half, but hated the second.

I'll start with the high points. In the first half of the book, N&S make a number of trenchant criticisms about our current approach to global warming:

  • Poor people don't care about environmentalism. They're too busy caring about their next meal, keeping a roof over their head, and staying employed.

  • Partly because of this, and partly for nationalistic reasons, we're never going to get poor countries like India and China to agree to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions via regulation. It's just wishful thinking to suppose otherwise. In fact, the only way we'll ever get poor countries to care about environmentalism is to make them rich countries first. That means supporting economic growth all over the globe, which in turn means more energy production, not less.

  • However, even in rich countries like ours, it's hard to sell people on making any kind of serious sacrifice to cut down on carbon emissions, especially when the most damaging effects of global warming are fairly far in the future and will most strongly impact other countries.

  • What's more, as liberals themselves acknowledge, fear is fundamentally a conservative weapon. People who are afraid usually turn inward: They don't take chances, they look first toward their own safety, and in cultural matters they tend to revert to traditional norms. Apocalyptic global warming scenarios have the same effect. Rather than inspiring people to support change, they tend to make people feel fatalistic and ungenerous — precisely the opposite of what we want.

These are good points, supported by some interesting narratives, and you don't have to buy every single one of them in every detail to see that, as a whole, they add up to a powerful case that current global warming activism could benefit from some refocusing. So what should we do instead?

This is where the book falls apart. For starters, way too much of the second half devolves into an idiosyncratic mix of New-Agey jargon and weird eco-speak. Take this, for example:

As the earth warms, forests disappear, and the Arctic melts into the oceans, new natures will emerge all over....Just as modernity has replaced the question "Who are we?" with "Who shall we become?," the ecological crises will replace the reductionist question "What must we do to save the environment?" with "What new environments can we imagine and create?"

Pluralizing singular categories is a simple way to free ourselves from essentialism. In abandoning Nature, we can embrace the multiplicity of human and nonhuman natures. In abandoning Science, we can embrace the various kinds and practices of the sciences. In leaving behind the belief in a single objective Reason, we can better understand that we have multiple ways of reasoning about the world. In rejecting an essentialist view of the Market, we can embrace the power of markets to achieve our social and ecological goals.

There's an awful lot of stuff like this, and it just left me cold. Your mileage might vary, of course, but I guess I was hoping for a little less dorm room philosophy and a little more in the way of practical advice. As in: what should we do about global warming?

Which, it turns out, they never answer. I was fully ready for N&S to offer up a fairly weak policy brew, but I wasn't ready for them to literally offer up no policy suggestions at all. In fact, their entire prescription can be summarized in one sentence: we should spend $30 billion per year developing new, green energy technologies. They spend an entire chapter telling us that complex problems require complex systemic solutions, but when it comes to global warming, that's all they have. One sentence.

But it's even worse than that, actually. Working to bring down the price of green energy production is, at least, an idea, even if N&S don't flesh it out. But how about the other side the equation, making dirty energy sources more expensive (with carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes, for example)? N&S support this, but unless I missed a hurried paragraph or two somewhere, it gets precisely one sentence on p. 119. Instead we get pointless critiques of The End of History and the Last Man and A Tale of Two Utopias that basically left me mystified. I never did figure out what they were doing there, frankly. Ditto for much of the rest of the final three chapters.

The authors may have more substance to offer elsewhere, but Break Through isn't an 800-word op-ed, it's a book. There are no space restrictions. Instead of a few sentences, Break Through needed some genuinely persuasive arguments about conquering global warming via government-directed basic research. The fact that it never really makes those arguments makes it, in the end, a disappointment.

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MICHAEL CLAYTON....I saw Michael Clayton yesterday, and there was something bugging me thoughout the movie that I didn't quite put my finger on until it was over. It involves slight spoilers, so I'll put the rest below the fold.

Here it is. Michael Clayton is a "janitor" for a gigantic law firm. He's the guy who knows the underbelly of the law, the one who cleans up the dirty messes other guys leave behind. Basically, we're told that he's amoral, relentless, and extremely good at what he does. A "miracle worker," one colleague calls him.

Now, the fact that Clayton develops a conscience by the end of the picture is fine. All part of the plot. But at any point in the film does he actually seem like someone who is supremely competent at cleaning up problems? Not to me. He seems completely at sea the entire time, and not just because he's having personal difficulties. He offers no practical help to the hit-and-run client he meets in the opening flashforward; he has little success dealing with Arthur; he handles Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) so amateurishly you'd think he'd never dealt with a corporate client before; he has no clue how to deal with the mob folks he owes $75,000 to; and it never even occurs to him that Crowder might hire some muscle to deal with the Arthur situation. Basically, he just doesn't seem like a guy who's spent the past 15 years learning all the angles and dealing with the seamy side of the law.

If Clayton had been portrayed as a mediocre fixer, it might have made more sense. But the best in the business? I don't think so.

And as long as I'm on the subject, did anyone else buy the car bomb thing? After all the care the hit men took to make Arthur's murder look like a suicide, didn't it occur to these guys that car bombing Clayton might look a wee bit suspicious? Especially coming just a day or two after Arthur's convenient "suicide"? And that maybe, just maybe, Clayton's NYC detective brother might be expected to take bit of interest in the whole thing? Sheesh.

Despite this, I liked the film. The disconnect between Clayton's supposed talents and his actual conduct during the events of the movie niggled at me while I was watching it, but didn't really spoil anything. And the car bomb was just a standard issue dumb plot device. Overall, it was a decent popcorn flick.

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GOD AND MAMMON....Hmmm. The Christian Right may be having trouble finding a candidate it likes, but when they do, they're going to have a lot of money to spend. Details from Steve Benen.

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CRYSTAL BALL UPDATE....Byron York summarizes some recent Gallup poll results:

Rudy Giuliani's favorable rating has dipped below 50 percent for the first time ever. He is at 49 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable in the new poll. That's a significant drop from a few weeks ago, when he was at 54 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable. In August, he was at 59 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable.

....Hillary Clinton's favorable rating has been slowly ticking up and is now the equal of Barack Obama's. She is at 53 percent favorable, 44 percent unfavorable in the new poll. Beginning in August, her favorable ratings have gone from 47 to 49 to 51 to 53, while her unfavorables have gone from 48 to 46 to 44.

Hah! Just as I predicted nine months ago!

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AROUND THE WORLD IN 90 SECONDS....Turkey has warned us that if Congress passes a resolution calling the 1915 Armenian genocide a genocide, "military ties with the U.S. will never be the same again." Russia and the other states surrounding the Caspian Sea are cozying up to Iran and warning us not to even think about launching an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. China is "furious" because President Bush is meeting with the Dalai Lama. India is having "certain difficulties" approving its nuclear deal with the U.S. Britain is pulling out of Iraq, the Iraqis are pissed off at us over Blackwater, Afghan leaders are angry over our poppy spraying program, and Pakistan continues to provide a safe haven for the Taliban.

Other than that, though, how are things going for us?

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NO TOTE BAGS....We don't have any tote bags to give away, but that's because every cent we raise in our fundraising drives goes to putting out the magazine and maintaining this blog. We've raised nearly $10,000 so far, which puts us on track to hit our $40,000 goal by the end of the week if you guys keep contributing. So to all of you who have donated so far: Thank you. Really. This is your site as much as it is mine (something you remind me of in comments every day!) and your support is what keeps me on the air. For those of you who haven't donated yet, Tuesday is a great day to do it. Why? Because Tuesday donations go straight into the Kevin Drum Graphs and Charts fund, and I know everyone loves graphs and charts as much as I do. Right?

Click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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HILLARY AND THE WAR....I read this last night and wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I thought a good night's sleep might clear the cobwebs, but it hasn't really. Over at FDL, here is looseheadprop's gloss of a speech Hillary Clinton gave in New York to Eleanor Roosevelt's Legacy Committee:

What I do know, is that I heard her say that she would end the Iraq war immediately upon taking office. Lots of heads snapped up when she said that (and there was plenty of applause, even a little whooping) and the very politically plugged in person sitting next to me remarked that the statement was "completely new". She went on to say that the troops had already done everything they had been asked to do: got rid of Saddam, created a situation where elections could take place, surged to create political stability so the elected Iraqi government could do some legislating and work out a political solution (which she said they have not done) and that it was unfair to ask our troops to stay in Iraq and "play referee to an Iraqi civil war." She said there is no military solution.

I assume Hillary's actual phrasing was careful enough that she wasn't really saying anything new or binding. Perhaps "ending the war" isn't the same thing as "pulling our troops out." But I'll be curious to see if this heralds a shift in her war rhetoric. Stay tuned.

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THE 14th GRAF....Here is today's winner of the crappy journalism award. It comes from the front page of the LA Times:

Retirement season hits GOP hard

This is crunchtime for members of Congress who must decide whether to seek reelection next year or leave office, and so far Republicans seem to be lunging for the exits. While 16 GOP lawmakers have decided to throw in the towel on their Capitol Hill careers, only two Democrats so far have called it quits — and they both are seeking higher office.

...."I don't like being in the minority," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who was first elected in the 1994 GOP landslide and will retire after this term. "It's not that much fun, and the prospects for the future don't look that good."

Wow! What a bunch of weenies. A couple of years in the minority and they're all bailing out. But if you read past the jump and down to the 14th paragraph, you get this:

The fact that at this early stage, 11 House Republicans have announced retirement — and one is leaving the chamber to run for Senate — is not out of line with past years. What is more unusual is that almost all Democrats are staying put.

In other words, the headline, the lede, and the accompanying artwork are all deceptive. Nice triple play, guys.

The conventional narrative buzzing around Washington says that Republicans are retiring in droves. According to the Times, though, that isn't true: retirement rates aren't actually much different from the past. So why wasn't that the lede? Or maybe the fact that Democrats are staying in higher numbers than usual. Isn't the fact that the conventional narrative is wrong more interesting than a strained effort to pretend that it's right?

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BEGGING WEEK CONTINUES....It's me again, rattling the begging bowl. If you haven't contributed to our fundraising drive yet, please think about doing it now. If you get a couple of dollars of value from reading me each month, you can let my bosses know by making a $20 donation. What a deal! Click on the thermometer over on the right to go to our contribution page or just click here. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card.

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ROMNEY AND THE EVANGELICALS....I don't know for sure how important this is in the great scheme of things, but Mitt Romney got an interesting endorsement on Monday:

A top official at Bob Jones University, the Evangelical Christian school with a history of anti-Mormon rhetoric, plans to throw his weight behind Mormon presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

Robert R. Taylor, dean of the university's college of arts and sciences, said he believes the former Massachusetts governor is the only Republican candidate who both stands a chance of winning the White House and will reliably implement the anti-abortion, antigay marriage, pro-gun agenda of Christian conservatives.

....Taylor's endorsement, which he said he plans to announce in the near future, marks a stunning move for such a high-placed academic at Bob Jones University. In 2000, Bob Jones III, then president of the university, wrote a public letter that referred to Mormonism and Catholicism as "cults which call themselves Christian."

Problems with the evangelical community, much of which does indeed think of Mormonism as a "cult," have been one of the big reasons why Romney seems like such a longshot to win the GOP nomination. Taylor's endorsement, however, is just the latest sign that some evangelical leaders are starting to see him as their best bet, theological differences or not. If more of them follow Taylor's lead, it could improve Romney's fortunes considerably.

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October 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TRIAD....Earlier today I linked to Matt Cooper's Portfolio piece about Fred Thompson's poor showing during his 1997 investigation of campaign finance abuse in the 1996 election. However, Cooper didn't answer a key question: why did Thompson end the hearings before he was able to dig up any serious dirt on the Democrats? Was he really bucking his own party by shutting things down?

Well, maybe. But here's what the Democrats themselves had to say about the hearings:

One of the most unfortunate aspects of this entire investigation was the decision by the Majority to unilaterally reverse its pledge to the Minority that the Minority would be afforded three hearing days in October or November, 1997. The Minority was prepared to use the promised hearing days to educate the American people about Triad.

Hmmm. Triad. Wuzzat? And why was Thompson so eager to prevent the Dems from taking testimony about it? Media Matters has more.

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MONEY, MONEY, MONEY....If you haven't contributed to our fundraising drive yet, why not do it now? We'd love to get a hundred bucks from you, and for a thousand bucks I'll promise to write a post on any subject you name. But even if that kind of money is a little out of your league, ten or twenty dollars is a big help too. A few dollars each from a few thousand people who enjoy reading this blog will get us to our goal.

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FOREIGN POLICY....Matt Yglesias wants more detail, dammit:

I've noted this before, but reading Hillary Clinton's foreign policy manifesto in Foreign Affairs is once again a reminder of how nice it would be for politicians to give us some idea of what they mean by terms like "vital interests." When, for example, Clinton says that she will "use force to protect . . . our vital interests" she's not telling me very much. I'm pretty sure all the candidates would use force to protect the interests that they consider vital. The thing they're going to disagree about is which interests those are.

Well, yeah, that's the problem, isn't it? It's pretty easy to take a look at domestic issues like Social Security or healthcare or whatnot and decide which candidates are on your side and which ones aren't. But foreign policy? Not so easy. Sure, there are concrete areas of disagreement here and there, but for the most part it all comes down to attitude and judgment. I can't tell you in advance exactly what deal I think our next president should strike with, say, Iran or Pakistan, but I can tell you that I want someone who actually believes in hardnosed, persistent diplomacy; who doesn't have an itchy trigger finger; and who doesn't think of herself as a lonely, world historical figure bestriding the globe like a colossus. Figuring out which candidate is best able to deal with whatever the world delivers over the next eight years is just a lot harder than figuring out which candidate is mostly likely to pass domestic legislative programs I like. It's the main reason I remain profoundly undecided about which Democratic candidate I prefer this year.

In any case, I haven't yet read Hillary's manifesto, which is here. Matt's gloss doesn't suggest I'm really going to learn much from it when I do, but I'll get around to it later today. In the meantime, comments are open.

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THE GROUND SLOWLY SHIFTS....Apparently congressional Republicans are planning to introduce a universal healthcare plan of their own. It's almost certain to suck, but as Steve Benen says, that's not what really matters. What matters is that, apparently, Republicans are finally being forced to agree that, yes, everyone should have access to healthcare coverage. All by itself, that's a game changer.

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CRIES AND WHISPERS....In 2000, the whisper campaign that sunk a candidacy was the South Carolina push poll about John McCain's illegitimate black baby. This year's big whisper campaign might be one that we all thought had run its course months ago: Barack Obama's supposed radical Muslim upbringing. The Politico reports:

Rather than vanish, the whispered smear campaign appears to have gone underground, and in its purest form: Obama himself, according to a pair of widely circulated anonymous e-mails, is a Muslim.

"Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background," warns an e-mail titled "Who Is Barack Obama," that was circulating in South Carolina political circles this summer and sent to Politico by a South Carolina Democrat.

"The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out; what better way to start than at the highest level?"

....There are at least two indications that the whispers are being heard.

First, "barack obama muslim" is the third most popular Google search for the presidential candidate's name, behind "barack obama" and "barack obama biography," according to Google Suggest, which tracks the frequency of word searches.

Second, a CBS News poll in August found that, in response to an open-ended question about Obama's faith, 7 percent of Americans identified him as a Muslim — more than any other response. The right answer, Protestant, was second at 6 percent. (Most didn't know or wouldn't say.)

Lovely. What is it about South Carolina, anyway?

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PUBLISH THE TRANSCRIPT!....Every week Deborah Solomon publishes a zippy little Q&A with some famous person in the New York Times Magazine. I've always wondered just how she manages to make them so zippy, and it turns out the answer isn't related entirely to Solomon's skill as an interviewer. Clark Hoyt, the Times's public editor, explains:

Her sharp, challenging questions elicit pithy, surprising answers — a disloyal comment about an employer, a confession to a Diet Coke habit, what's in Jack Black's iPod.

That is the illusion of Solomon's column. The reality is something else: the 700 or so words each week are boiled down from interviews that sometimes last more than an hour and run 10,000 words. Though presented in a way that suggests a verbatim transcript, the order of the interview is sometimes altered, and the wording of questions is changed — for clarity or context, editors say....And, Solomon told me, "Very early on, I might have inserted a question retroactively, so the interview would flow better," a practice she said she no longer uses.

[Summary of seemingly justified complaints about creative editing from Ira Glass, Tim Russert, and Amy Dickinson.]

I think editors made a mistake by not publishing an editor's note with Russert's letter, acknowledging error and explaining the reforms. Now, I believe, if they want to preserve the illusion of a conversation, they should publish with each column a brief description of the editing standards: the order of questions may be changed, information may be added for clarity, and the transcript has been boiled down without indicating where material has been removed.

I have a different idea: publish the entire transcript of the interview on the web. It's not a big expense, there are no space constraints online, and it forces the interviewer to do an honest job of condensing. If there's a specific piece of the interview Solomon wants to redact for use in some future piece, that's fine. But if she's doing these Q&As for the Times, then the Times ought to have the right to print the whole thing.

The Times, like most media outlets these days, publishes the complete results of polls they conduct, which makes it easy for readers to dig down and see what's really going on. We don't have to rely solely on short summary articles anymore. The same ought to be true of pieces that rely largely on interviews with public figures. Publish the whole transcript on the web and show us what they really said. Newspapers, after all, are supposed to be in the business of providing information, not hiding it.

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FRED THOMPSON AND THE CHINESE CONNECTION....Back when Fred Thompson was first being taken seriously as a possible 2008 presidential candidate, one of the memes making the rounds was the fact that Thompson had fallen on his face in the only high-profile activity of his entire tenure in the Senate: his 1997 investigation into Chinese attempts to "buy" the 1996 election. I haven't seen much about that since, but today Matt Cooper has a short piece on Thompson's misfire in Portfolio:

When the campaign-finance hearings opened on July 8, 1997, Thompson, the actor-senator, showed his flair for the dramatic. He announced that the proceedings would reveal the Chinese government's effort to manipulate America's elections through an elaborate scheme of financing campaigns.

....The charge made headlines but so too did the immediate rebuttal from Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and the committee's ranking Democrat. Glenn had seen the same intelligence that Thompson had and remained less than convinced. During the next several months, as the hearings progressed, a number of campaign-finance abuses were uncovered, but the explosive charge with which Thompson began the hearings — that the Chinese government had manipulated American elections — was never proved. Indeed, it was disputed. Imagine if the Warren Commission had split over whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

When the committee issued its final report, in March 1998, Thompson had failed to forge the kind of bipartisan consensus that dominated the Watergate hearings....In the end, as newspapers noted at the time, Thompson wrapped up the hearings under enormous pressure from Senate Republicans to end them, lest he start probing too deeply into G.O.P. campaign woes.

Now, you may think that Thompson failed because, in fact, the Chinese weren't trying to steal the 1996 election. But no. The real problem was that Thompson wasn't enough of a showman. After all, at practically the same time that Thompson was holding his soporific hearings, William Roth was inviting witnesses wearing black hoods (to protect them from retaliation, natch) to testify about jackbooted IRS thugs who "kicked down doors and held guns to young girls' heads while forcing them to undress." Roth was, if anything, even more full of shit than Thompson, but he didn't let a little thing like that stop him. In the end, not only did he manage to get some legislation passed anyway, but to this day lots of people still believe all those old IRS abuse stories, not realizing that they were virtually all completely debunked. The IRS's ability to audit the returns of rich people has been hobbled ever since.

Come to think of it, then, maybe this episode is actually a point in Thompson's favor. Maybe it shows that there are limits to what he's willing to do for his party. That would be a refreshing change.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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WAR....Over at The Corner, they are — seriously — discussing whether we should have continued WWII by turning around after we took Berlin and mounting a massive assault on the Soviet Union, a topic most of us thought was put to rest about 60 years ago. "Settling Soviet hash," they call it. I guess they must have temporarily run out of current wars to promote. Tomorrow's topic: Should Britain have invaded Argentina after regaining the Falklands?

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FUNDRAISING WEEK!....As you all probably know, the Washington Monthly is a nonprofit organization. Ad revenue only covers a small part of our expenses, which means that we depend on contributions from readers to keep this blog alive. So here's this week's pitch: if you like this blog and you like the Washington Monthly, please help us out. Ten bucks, twenty bucks, whatever you can afford. We're trying to raise $40,000 to cover the expense of maintaining the blog, and if we can get $10 from 10% of our readers, we'll get there.

Bonus incentive: Friday is my birthday. So think of your contribution as a birthday present!

Extra bonus incentive: On Monday night, our editor, Paul Glastris, will be on the Colbert Report. Tell him what you want him to do on the show, and if your contribution is big enough, maybe he'll do it! You never know.

Click on the cat-festooned thermometer on the right to go to our contribution page. Or just click here if you're not a cat person. You can donate via check, PayPal, or credit card. Your contribution helps us to keep doing what we're doing, so please help us out. We can't do it without you.

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PLANET GORE...Paul Krugman on conservatives and Gore Derangement Syndrome:

If science says that we have a big problem that can't be solved with tax cuts or bombs — well, the science must be rejected, and the scientists must be slimed. For example, Investor's Business Daily recently declared that the prominence of James Hansen, the NASA researcher who first made climate change a national issue two decades ago, is actually due to the nefarious schemes of — who else? — George Soros.

Which brings us to the biggest reason the right hates Mr. Gore: in his case the smear campaign has failed. He's taken everything they could throw at him, and emerged more respected, and more credible, than ever. And it drives them crazy.

As Krugman notes, the extent to which conservatives have turned opposition to global warming science into a personal jihad against Al Gore is breathtaking. He's "hectoring." He's "lecturing us." He's "holier than thou." Conservatives naturally oppose any government action to combat global warming, but as the childish campaign against Gore shows, they also oppose any effort to simply persuade people as well. Their excuse? Gore and other campaigners are hypocrites unless they themselves live in caves and cut their own carbon footprints to zero. It's the kind of argument you'd expect to hear from a six-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.

For more on this, see pretty much any Bob Somerby post from the past seven or eight years.

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (120)

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October 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ON FORGETFULNESS....On Friday I received in the mail a copy of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read1, which, it turns out, doesn't really offer much in the way of practical advice on its putative subject. Rather, it's a rumination on the idea that when we talk about a book, we're often talking not so much about the book itself as we are about the author of the book, other books written by the same author, what other people are saying about the book, the controversies surrounding the book, the historical context of the book, etc. etc. This frankly strikes me as such an obvious point that I'm not sure it's really worth devoting an entire book to, but that bit of crabbiness aside, Bayard does manage to be both engaging and erudite on the subject, plucking lots of interesting little examples from literature of people discussing books they've either merely skimmed (Bayard's preferred mode of reading) or not read at all. He also has the good sense to keep the book nice and short.

What interested me much more, however, was something very specific: the discovery that my own sieve-like memory for books was shared by no less a literary trailblazer than Michel de Montaigne. In the chapter on "books I have forgotten" (one of Bayard's four categories of books; the others are "books I have skimmed," "books I have heard about," and "books unknown to me"), he quotes from Montaigne's Essays2:

I leaf through books, I do not study them. What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else's. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.

....To compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory, so extreme that it has happened to me more than once to pick up again, as recent and unknown to me, books which I read carefully a few years before and scribbled over with my notes, I have adopted the habit for some time now of adding at the end of each book (I mean of those I intend to use only once) the time I finished reading it and the judgment I have derived of it as a whole, so that this may represent to me at least the sense and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it.

What's more, Montaigne admits that his memory is so poor that not only can't he remember other people's books, he often can't even remember books that he himself has written. Bayard summarizes: "Following Montaigne, we should perhaps use the term unreading rather than reading to characterize the unceasing sweep of our forgetfulness. This process involves both the disappearance and the blurring of references, and transforms books, often reduced to their titles or to a few approximate pages, into dim shadows gliding along the surface of our consciousness."

You're singing my song, Montaigne! My retention level has gotten so bad that I literally barely remember the beginning of a book by the time I've finished the last chapter. Like Montaigne, it is only "the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued" that stick with me. Books affect how I think about things, but once that's happened the actual details of what I've read disappear almost instantly.

And my own writing? Just as bad. I can read through my own blog archives from six months ago and it's like reading someone else's blog. Sometimes I'm impressed by what I apparently wrote earlier in the year and other times I cringe, but generally speaking it's as if I'm reading it for the first time.

And forgetting entirely that I've even read a book? Check. Last year I bought a copy of George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails3, and thought it was a nice little story. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to clean up a bit and shelve all the piles of books lying around, and when I got around to shelving WGF I discovered I already had a copy. One that gave every sign of having been thoroughly read (I'm pretty tough on book spines). But I didn't have even a clue of this when I was (re)reading it last year. Not even a single sentence, character or scene rang a bell with me.

This forgetfulness is one of the banes of my life. It drives me nuts. But now I feel slightly better. Instead of calling myself forgetful, I shall now begin referring to myself as Montaigne-esque. Much better.

(And I have something Montaigne lacked: Google. All hail Google, the amnesiac's best friend!)


1SB+ (++ for Tyler Cowen)
2HB++
3SB and, apparently, FB+

Note: I'm following Bayard's usage here. He believes that we should all be honest about which books we've read and which ones we haven't, and that we should not allow non-familiarity to prevent us from expressing an opinion about books. So, SB = skimmed, HB = heard of, UB = unknown to me, and FB = read once but forgotten. There are no other alternatives. Opinions are expressed using + and –.

Kevin Drum 8:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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GOOD TIMES....This won't come as news to anyone, but it never hurts to rub it in. Here is the LA Times relating Dan Bartlett's experience dealing with Dick Cheney:

Years before, Bartlett had faced another bad-news hunting incident when Gov. George W. Bush was photographed shooting a bird, which upon closer examination by the photographer, turned out to be a protected species.

As soon as he got that news, Bartlett sprang into action, and by the time newspaper presses ran that night with the photo, the incident had already been officially reported to state authorities, a fine was paid and Bush had issued an apology. The result: a one-day story that you, in fact, probably never heard before reading this.

The way Bartlett describes the Cheney incident, it took forever to reach anyone with Cheney, and the White House aide discovered to his horror that the hunting party had already been strategizing for 24 hours. They planned to give the story to a Corpus Christi reporter, except that, it being the weekend, no one could find him.

Bartlett finally reached the vice president and urgently presented another option: getting him on the phone with a national press pool to explain the entire incident in his own words ASAP. There was dead silence. Then, the vice president intoned he would handle it his way. Which Cheney did.

And, not coincidentally, his hunting story is still the subject of talk show jokes.

Ladies and gentlemen, the vice president of the United States.

Kevin Drum 2:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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DEPARTMENT OF THE OBVIOUS....Item #1 comes from hawk's hawk Victor Davis Hanson, commenting on Lt. Gen. Rick Sanchez's recent speech about the Iraq war:

A final point. What is depressing is that a host of formal civilian and military officials, who during their tenure assured everyone that victory over the insurgents was in sight, then, upon leaving in the wake of criticism (one thinks of Bremer, Franks, Sanchez, etc.), post facto lambasted the effort. The net effect is a lack of credibility among the military and civilian overseers — sort of 'why should I believe you now, since when and if you are relieved, you will only retroactively tell us how bad was what you now say is good.'

Item #2 comes from David Ignatius, suggesting that the United States needs a "dignity agenda" as much as it needs a "democracy agenda":

A final item on my dignity reading list is "Violent Politics," a new book by the iconoclastic historian William R. Polk. He examines 10 insurgencies through history — from the American Revolution to the Irish struggle for independence to the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation — to make a stunningly simple point, which we managed to forget in Iraq: People don't like to be told what to do by outsiders. "The very presence of foreigners, indeed, stimulates the sense first of apartness and ultimately of group cohesion." Foreign intervention offends people's dignity, Polk reminds us. That's why insurgencies are so hard to defeat.

Italics mine. In tomorrow's edition of DOTO: our foreign policy should probably consist of more than war, the threat of war, and contempt for anyone who questions war. There will be a quiz at 11.

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KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES....Friday night, when the Rockies and Diamondbacks went into extra innings, the LA Times didn't have the final score in the next day's paper. Odd, I thought, since that game ended a little after 11:30. The Times gets put to bed before midnight these days?

Today it's worse: the Sunday paper doesn't have the final score of the Sox-Indians game, which ended at 10:37 pm Pacific time. Apparently the sports section had to hit the presses at 10:02 pm.

10:02? Seriously? Is that really the sports section deadline these days in Los Angeles? Is this a joke?

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THE CATS OF WAR....John Burns writes about the impromptu cat shelter maintained by the New York Times's Baghdad bureau in 2005:

Soon, our compound was home to as many as 60 cats at a time, their numbers carefully tallied by Younis and Saif, the enthusiastic young Iraqis who prepared heaped platters of rice and lamb and beef — and, as a special treat, cans of cat food trucked across the desert from Jordan, over highways synonymous with ambushes, kidnappings and bombings. As The Times's bureau chief, part of my routine was to ask, each night, how many cats we had seated for dinner. In a place where we could do little else to relieve the war's miseries, the tally became a measure of one small thing we could do to favor life over death. The American military command has a battery of "metrics" to gauge progress, and the nightly headcount of the cats became my personal measure, my mood varying as the numbers went up and down.

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October 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE BICAMERAL MIND....I dunno. Now matter how hard I look, the dancer only goes clockwise. Supposedly that means I'm right-brained, which is pretty laughable if the site's left brain/right brain list of attributes is anything to go by. Is this thing for real, or some kind of trick?

Go check it out and leave your results in comments. Via Alex Tabarrok.

SUNDAY MORNING UPDATE: Hooray! I finally got her to change direction. For me, the trick is to cover up everything but her legs and stare for a few seconds. Then the direction switches. Do it again, and I can get it to switch back. So far, no luck doing this while looking at the entire picture.

I have no idea what this says about my brain. Nothing good, I imagine. Maybe in the morning I'm left-brained and in the afternoon I'm right-brained?

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SYRIA UPDATE....The New York Times has more on the Israeli strike against Syria last month:

Israel's air attack on Syria last month was directed against a site that Israeli and American intelligence analysts judged was a partly constructed nuclear reactor, apparently modeled on one North Korea has used to create its stockpile of nuclear weapons fuel, according to American and foreign officials with access to the intelligence reports.

...."There wasn't a lot of debate about the evidence," said one American official familiar with the intense discussions over the summer between Washington and the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel. "There was a lot of debate about how to respond to it."

....While the partly constructed Syrian reactor appears to be based on North Korea's design, the American and foreign officials would not say whether they believed the North Koreans sold or gave the plans to the Syrians, or whether the North's own experts were there at the time of the attack. It is possible, some officials said, that the transfer of the technology occurred several years ago.

The story repeats earlier suggestions that Rice and Gates were opposed to the air strike while Cheney and his gang were in favor. No surprises there. The Times' sources also confirmed that the Syrian reactor was several years away from completion. The raid, according to one Israeli official, was meant primarily to "re-establish the credibility of our deterrent power."

Kevin Drum 7:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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CYBER-FOOTBALL UPDATE....So I'm watching the pregame show today and the announcers say that USC is ranked #7 in both the coaches poll and the Harris poll, but their "projected" rank in tomorrow's BCS poll is #13. Say what? Since the computers only make up one-third of the BCS rankings, that must mean these guys think USC's computer ranking is going to be about #20, or maybe even worse. What's up with that? Why do our silicon overlords hate USC?

(Two notes. First, this is a longstanding gripe with the computers. They hate us. Why? Second, I'm not really all that upset about this since I think USC got off pretty lightly in the human polls. Anyone can have a bad week and lose a close game, but USC has had two bad weeks in a row and is currently so bruised up they're lucky they can field a team. I'd be hard pressed to keep them in the top ten, myself.)

Anyway, the game starts in a few minutes. Go Trojans!

UPDATE: Woo hoo! A 20-13 victory at home over an unranked opponent. That's showing 'em.

Kevin Drum 3:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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REVENGE OF THE NSA?....I got busy yesterday and failed to post about former Qwest CEO Joseph Nacchio's claim that he lost some juicy government contracts six years ago because of his refusal to cooperate with the NSA's secret domestic wiretapping scheme. The problem is that companies win and lose federal contracts for all sorts of reasons, so it's hard to judge whether Nacchio has a legitimate complaint here — and it's especially hard because Nacchio is trying to avoid jail time for insider trading and obviously has an axe to grind. But regardless of that, Atrios and Steve Benen are right to highlight this as a key factual claim:

Details about the alleged NSA program have been redacted from the documents, but Nacchio's lawyer said last year that the NSA had approached the company about participating in a warrantless surveillance program to gather information about Americans' phone records.

....Nacchio's account, which places the NSA proposal at a meeting on Feb. 27, 2001, suggests that the Bush administration was seeking to enlist telecommunications firms in programs without court oversight before the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Unlike, say, MoveOn ads or Rush Limbaugh shows, this really does seem like a worthy object of congressional investigation, doesn't it? At a guess, I'd say that the program Nacchio objected to was one that involved data mining of telephone network metadata (see here and here for more). Interestingly, it's this program, rather than the NSA's actual domestic eavesdropping, that might have been the provocation for the great Justice Department showdown in John Ashcroft's hospital room in 2004.

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SANCHEZ AND THE PRESS....Matt Yglesias takes note of former Lt. Gen. Rick Sanchez's Friday blast at everyone but himself over our failure in Iraq, but then says:

Still, it's very telling that a person in Sanchez's position has decided that the self-serving thing to do is to explain why the disaster is someone else's fault rather than sticking with the right-wing orthodoxy that it's actually all fine and everyone would know it if only the liberal media would report some of the good news.

Actually, not quite. It's true that Sanchez didn't pretend that things are going well in Iraq, but he spent the entire first half of his speech ripping the press corps several new orifices — and in an undoubtedly shocking turn of events, the press corps barely even reported it! (Among the LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and AP, only the Post even mentioned it. They gave it two sentences in the final paragraph.)

So, are you curious what Sanchez had to say about the press? Here's an excerpt (all italics mine):

Let me review some of the descriptive phrases that have been used by some of you that have made my personal interfaces with the press corps difficult:

  • "Dictatorial and somewhat dense,"

  • "Not a strategic thought,"

  • Liar,

  • "Does not get it," and

  • The most inexperienced LTG.

In some cases I have never even met you, yet you feel qualified to make character judgments that are communicated to the world. My experience is not unique and we can find other examples such as the treatment of Secretary Brown during Katrina....For some, it seems that as long as you get a front page story there is little or no regard for the "collateral damage" you will cause.

....Your unwillingness to accurately and prominently correct your mistakes and your agenda-driven biases contribute to this corrosive environment. All of these challenges combined create a media environment that does a tremendous disservice to America. Over the course of this war tactically insignificant events have become strategic defeats for America because of the tremendous power and impact of the media and by extension you the journalist.

....The death knell of your ethics has been enabled by your parent organizations who have chosen to align themselves with political agendas. What is clear to me is that you are perpetuating the corrosive partisan politics that is destroying our country and killing our service members who are at war.

....For some of you, just like some of our politicians, the truth is of little to no value if it does not fit your own preconcieved notions, biases and agendas. It is astounding to me when I hear the vehement disagreement with the military's forays into information operations that seek to disseminate the truth and inform the Iraqi people in order to counter our enemy's blatant propaganda. As I assess various media entities, some are unquestionably engaged in political propaganda that is uncontrolled.

.... Praise be to the Lord my rock who trains my fingers for battle and my hands for war.1 Thank you.

Anyway, just thought I'd share. Sanchez pretty definitely seems to accept the right-wing view that the press shares some blame for our problems in Iraq, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't talking about Fox News there. Maybe later he'll name some names along with all the other names he's planning to name.

1Psalms 144:1-2: "Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under him."

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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SANCHEZ SPEAKS....The stakes keep getting higher: Friday brought the harshest criticism we've heard yet of the Iraq war from a retired military commander:

In a sweeping indictment of the four-year effort in Iraq, the former top commander of American forces there called the Bush administration's handling of the war "incompetent" and said the result was "a nightmare with no end in sight."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, who retired in 2006 after being replaced in Iraq after the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, blamed the Bush administration for a "catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan" and denounced the current addition of American forces as a "desperate" move that would not achieve long-term stability.

...."There has been a glaring and unfortunate display of incompetent strategic leadership within our national leaders," he said, adding that civilian officials have been "derelict in their duties" and guilty of a "lust for power."

Between the New York Times account and the Washington Post account, it seems that Sanchez attacked (a) the Bush administration, (b) the Pentagon, (c) Congress, (d) the National Security Council, (e) the "inter-agency process," (f) the State Department, and (g) the media. I don't doubt they all deserve it, but at the same time that's a suspiciously sweeping indictment for a senior guy who says he realized the war was FUBAR the day he took command in 2003 but didn't speak out about it until now.

In any case, Sanchez promised "more to follow later" and said he would make further public statements in which he names names. Pass the popcorn.

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BIG BROTHER....Here's some overkill for you. After a Marin County website was hacked to redirect users to a pornographic Web site, the GSA stepped in and obstructed every state and local website in the state of California:

Federal authorities, who have ultimate authority over most local and state Web sites, attempted to block all domains ending in ca.gov Tuesday, [state spokesman Jim Hanacek] said. State agencies across California experienced rolling e-mail and Web site outages for about seven hours, and Internet users had trouble pulling up some state Web sites, he said.

...."GSA is responsible for the integrity of all the .gov Web sites it manages," the agency said in a statement. "The potential exposure of pornographic material to the citizens and tens of thousands of children in California was a primary motivator for GSA to request immediate corrective action."

Weird. I guess we're lucky they didn't try to shut down the other 49 states too.

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NISOOR SQUARE UPDATE....Yesterday the Washington Post reported that an Army investigation of last month's shooting in Nisoor Square had found no evidence that Blackwater guards were shot at. In fact, just the opposite:

At least two cars, a black four-door taxi and a blue Volkswagen sedan, had their back windshields shot out, but their front windshields were intact, indicating they were shot while driving away from the square, according to the photos and soldiers. The Volkswagen, which crashed into a bus stand, had blood splattered on the inside of its front windshield and windows. One person was killed, soldiers said.

U.S. soldiers did not find any bullets that came from AK-47 assault rifles or BKC machine guns used by Iraqi policemen and soldiers. They found evidence of ammunition used in American-made weapons, including M4 rifle 5.56mm brass casings, M240B machine gun 7.62mm casings, M203 40mm grenade launcher casings, and stun-grenade dunnage, or packing.

A white sedan, carrying a doctor and her son, had not entered the Nisoor Square traffic circle, where the Blackwater vehicles had stopped, when it was fired upon, according to the aerial photos. News reports have said the guards shot at the car because they believed it approached them in a threatening manner.

"I was surprised at the caliber of weapon being used," said Capt. Don Cherry, 32. "My guys have 203s with nonlethal rounds we use as warning shots. It's a rubber ball that bounces off the windshield."

"This is a hand grenade you are flying out there," he added.

Today, the New York Times gets corroboration from three Kurdish observers who saw the entire incident:

The three witnesses, Kurds on a rooftop overlooking the scene, said they had observed no gunfire that could have provoked the shooting by Blackwater guards. American soldiers who arrived minutes later found shell casings from guns used normally by American contractors, as well as by the American military.

The Kurdish witnesses are important because they had the advantage of an unobstructed view and because, collectively, they observed the shooting at Nisour Square from start to finish, free from the terror and confusion that might have clouded accounts of witnesses at street level....The Kurdish witnesses said that they saw no one firing at the guards at any time during the event, an observation corroborated by the forensic evidence of the shell casings. Two of the witnesses also said all the Blackwater vehicles involved in the shooting drove away under their own power.

.... As events unfolded and the Blackwater guards unleashed a storm of gunfire into the crowded square, Mr. Waso and Mr. Ali both said, they could neither hear nor see any return fire. "It was one-sided shooting from one direction," Mr. Waso said. "There wasn't any return fire."

Mr. Waso said that what he saw was not only disturbing, but also in some cases incomprehensible. He said that the guards kept firing long after it was clear that there was no resistance. People were shot while trying to flee, he said. One man ran from a Volkswagen and the guards shot him in the head from behind, Mr. Waso said.

I haven't yet read a single account that provides any backup for Blackwater's side of the story. Every single witness and every piece of forensic evidence suggests that the Blackwater guards panicked at a car that got a little too close, and then opened fire on everything they could see. "If our people had done this," said an American military official, "they would be court-martialed." The Blackwater guards, conversely, will apparently pay no price at all. All part of George Bush's freedom agenda, I guess.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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October 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Revenge is a dish best served cold, no? Since last week's catblogging included Marian in the background, she decided that this week's catblogging should include me in the background. So here I am, yesterday morning, snoozing away with all my critters. Official excuse for this photo: "You looked so cute! If I didn't take a picture, I didn't think you'd believe me." Right.

Anyway, despite appearances, I'm not really asleep in this picture. I'm actually deeply in thought, planning out what I'm going to say on the blog for the rest of the day. The cats, as always, think the day's main subject should be the basics: food, sleep, and warm blankets. I'm thinking the subject should be the bankruptcy of modern conservatism. I won, because I was the only one with the initiative to get up out of bed and actually go down to the computer.

So how are you sleeping these days? Or, more to the point, how are your critters sleeping these days? Blissfully?

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COLLEGE RANKINGS....Note to all my readers in the Washington DC area: CAP is sponsoring a panel discussion on Tuesday about college rankings that features both Paul Glastris, the Monthly's editor, and Kenneth Terrell, Assistant Managing Editor of Education at U. S. News and World Report. Here are the details:

Date:

October 16, 2007

Time:

12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Place:

Center for American Progress
1333 H Street NW, 10th floor
Washington, DC 20005

If you're interested in attending, click here to RSVP.

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BUZZWORD WATCH....Matt Yglesias watches Mitt Romney's latest TV ad and is embarrassed by the "rank ignorance" it displays. But Romney isn't ignorant. He's just randomly stringing together the national security buzzwords currently required of any Republican candidate:

  • This century's nightmare: jihadism

  • A single jihadist caliphate

  • Freedom loving nations

  • Strengthen our intelligence services

  • Increase our military

  • Monitor calls

  • Stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons

This is the foreign policy version of what Steven Pearlstein was talking about earlier on economic policy. There are no actual proposals or serious thoughts here. It's just a puerile contest to see who can stuff the most World War IV bullets into a single 30-second spot.

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WHO LOST TURKEY?....This is just not an area in which I have anything of substance to add, but Juan Cole has some thoughts.

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AL AND OSAMA....National Review, classy as always:

Who Else Should Al Gore Share the Prize With? [Iain Murray]

How about that well known peace campaigner Osama Bin Laden, who implicitly endorsed Gore's stance — and that of the Nobel committee — in his September rant from the cave.

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By: Kevin Drum

SWITCHBOARD TO THE WORLD....Via Instapundit, Wired has an interesting piece this week about why it's so productive for the NSA to monitor telephone traffic going through U.S. switches. Short answer: thanks to international tariff agreements (warning: irony alert for conservatives opposed to multinational treaties), it's often cheaper for small countries to route calls through the U.S. than it is to simply send them directly next door:

International phone and internet traffic flows through the United States largely because of pricing models established more than 100 years ago in the International Telecommunication Union to handle international phone calls. Under those ITU tariffs, smaller and developing countries charge higher fees to accept calls than the U.S.-based carriers do, which can make it cheaper to route phone calls through the United States than directly to a neighboring country.

....The United States, where the internet was invented, was also home to the first internet backbone. Combine that architectural advantage with the pricing disparity inherited from the phone networks, and the United States quickly became the center of cyberspace as the internet gained international penetration in the 1990s.

....While nobody outside the intelligence community knows the exact volume of international telephone and internet traffic that crosses U.S. borders, experts agree that it bounces off a handful of key telephone switches and perhaps a dozen IXPs in coastal cities near undersea fiber-optic cable landings, particularly Miami, Los Angeles, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

....For voice traffic, the NSA could scoop up an astounding amount of telephone calls by simply choosing the right facilities, according to Beckert, though he says NSA officials "make a big deal out of naming them."

"There are about three or four buildings you need to tap," Beckert says. "In L.A. there is 1 Wilshire; in New York, 60 Hudson, and in Miami, the NAP of the Americas."

The map below shows global data traffic flows. But it won't last forever: "Exchanges in Hong Kong and London are emerging as local hubs for Asian and European traffic, while new fiber cables running north and south from Japan around to Europe will divert traffic from the trans-America route. Meanwhile, more countries are building their own internal internet exchanges." How long will it be before people are willing to pay a premium to a telecom company willing to guarantee that its traffic doesn't flow through the United States?

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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By: Kevin Drum

PEARLSTEIN ON THE MODERN GOP....Brad DeLong points me to Steven Pearlstein's column on Wednesday, which I missed when it first ran:

For two hours yesterday, the nine white men who would be president were each peddling the Big Lie that the only way to ensure economic growth is by cutting all the taxes ever created — and when you're finished with that, cutting them some more.

Two hours, nine candidates, each one vowing to slash federal spending, but only one (Mitt Romney) able to mention a program whose funding he would cut (some advanced technology program).

....Romney, for example, issued a 23-point economic plan yesterday that, if you didn't know better, you might think was a parody written by Jon Stewart for "The Daily Show." In addition to proposing additional cuts in every major revenue source (income, inheritance and corporate taxes), he would effectively eliminate all taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains; make all health-care spending tax-deductible; give additional tax breaks to make America "energy independent"; and provide a rebate to businesses for tax payments that might be "embedded" in the cost of anything they export. He opposes raising the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax.

....As hackneyed as it is, however, the Romney plan is a four-course meal compared with the policy pu-pu platter offered so far by Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and even the straight-talking McCain.

Read the whole thing. It really captures what's most bizarre about the GOP field this year: its complete lack of seriousness. If you watch the debates (an exercise recommended only for seasoned professionals) you'll strain for hours trying to hear anything of actual substance. It's like watching a bunch of nervous teenagers reciting talking points they don't really understand, but which they're afraid to stray from because they think that's what their teacher wants them to say. Substitute "conservative interest groups" for "teacher" and you get the idea. It's a real spectacle.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

GORE'S NOBEL....Obviously I'm late to the party since I operate on Pacific time, but consider this an open thread to chat about the Nobel Peace Prize awarded today to Al Gore and the IPCC.

Think I'll amble over to The Corner and see if their heads are exploding.....

Kevin Drum 11:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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A RECORD-SETTING ECONOMY....Remember the dotcom bubble? Well, the good times are back:

The wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 21.2% of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. That is up sharply from 19% in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8% set in 2000, at the peak of the previous bull market in stocks.

....The IRS data go back only to 1986, but academic research suggests the rich last had this high a share of total income in the 1920s.

President Bush's response? "Our society has had income inequality for a long time." Roger that.

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OBAMA AND IRAQ....After noting several difficult votes that Barack Obama has missed in his career — including the recent resolution declaring Iran's armed forces a terrorist organization — Garance Franke-Ruta drops a tactical nuke into Obama's lap:

All told, these episodes have started to make me wonder if maybe Obama would have somehow managed to be absent from the Senate the day of the 2002 vote on authorizing the use of force in Iraq, as well. It is a harsh thing to suggest, but his own campaign is now arguing that "we're seeing history repeat itself" when it comes to the power of a vote he decided to skip, and his track record on missing controversial votes is increasingly disturbing....If Obama really thinks Clinton said just yes to war with Iran, he needs to explain why he couldn't be bothered to say no.

Hoo boy. If this becomes a talking point in the campaign, it means that the gloves are finally off. Stay tuned to see if it gets picked up anywhere else.

For the record, it seems completely baseless to me. Lots of politicians waffle on a few inconvenient votes here and there, but there's simply no reason to suspect Obama would have missed the most important floor vote of the entire year if he'd been a senator in 2002. Considering that all 100 senators were there, he would have been rather conspicuous by his absence.

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TAX POLICY FOR OUR TIMES....Ramesh Ponnuru analyzes a new tax cut proposal from three House conservatives:

The big winners under this plan are childless affluent couples living in high-tax states. As written, that is, it's a great tax cut for the blue states. But it could be modified to address this concern.

Indeed. Can't have that, can we? Perhaps the plan's architects can address this by doubling the mortgage tax deduction for double-wides?

Kevin Drum 12:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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October 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GOP UPDATE....The Republican presidential race just keeps getting weirder. The Christian Right seems to be gearing up for a full-scale war against Rudy Giuliani, and it's hard to believe he can win the nomination in the face of this onslaught. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, still has his whole Mormon problem, and it doesn't seem to be going away. Meanwhile, John McCain is languishing in nowheresville, Fred Thompson is impressing no one (and he's already been blackballed by James Dobson anyway), and no one else is a serious contender. It's really hard to see how anyone wins this thing.

In fact, even though I guess I don't really believe this, it sure seems as the Republican Party is heading for a brokered convention this year. A battered, bloody, and bruised brokered convention. It's the prediction that never comes true, but who knows? Maybe dark horse Mike Huckabee will win on the 27th ballot?

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MID-LEVEL OFFICERS....The Washington Post reports that the Army is offering $35,000 re-enlistment bonuses to captains and majors as part of an intensive effort to keep them from leaving for civilian life. James Joyner, who calls it "bribing," is unimpressed: "While I support bonuses to get young enlisted troops to re-up, I'm leery of doing so for the Army's leaders." Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias takes a crack at figuring out why the Army needs to offer bonuses in the first place:

Obviously, the "lengthy and repeated war-zone tours" are a hardship, but not more of a hardship than what was endured during the world wars or the Civil War or what have you. What you're seeing with these shortfalls, however, is officers responding to the fact that unlike in those previous grand conflicts the political class in the United States clearly doesn't actually regard the war in Iraq as a key battlefield in an existential conflict for the ScaryIslamoBoogieFascists. There's no mobilization on the home front that remotely suggests that George W. Bush or Michael O'Hanlon or anyone else really sees this mission as worth giving up anything for. So officers are responding in the same way.

This sounds temptingly correct. But is it? Or is this a problem with every war that lasts more than three or four years?

Unfortunately, it's hard to say since the number of U.S. wars that have lasted more than four years is vanishingly small. The Civil War and World War II (for the U.S., anyway) came in just under the four-year mark — and people were getting pretty tired of both of them by the time they ended. The Korean War lasted three years. No other big war in the past century or so has even come close.

Except for Vietnam, of course. And guess what? We had the same retention problem with mid-level officers during that war.

So: Iraq and Vietnam were both long wars. They were also both unpopular wars that required little real sacrifice on the home front. It's hard to say which is really at fault for officer corps itchiness, but frankly, I'd probably put my money on "long." Greatest Generation hoohah to the contrary, I'll bet that if they'd had a choice, lots of mid-level officers would have been getting out of Dodge in 1944 and 1945 too. But they didn't have a choice, and then the war ended. So we don't really know.

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GLOBAL WARMING ADS....In Break Through, one of the things that Nordhaus and Shellenberger talk about is the unfortunate tendency of environmentalists to rely on apocalyptic, eco-tragic narratives that do more to induce fatalism and gloom than they do to spur people to action. Ezra Klein glosses it like this:

The whole nut of the N&S view of the world is that their survey research has shown that human nature requires a lot of happy talk to muster the courage for positive reforms, and we should trust their scientific data on how humans react rather than our own intuition/political experience. So yeah, consider me unconvinced.

Now, there's a good question about whether N&S are attacking a straw man (see Kate Sheppard's critique here), and I don't have a firm opinion about that. The apocalyptic strain certainly exists within the environmental movement, but I'm not plugged in enough to say for sure how widespread it is.

Instead, I just want to collect some opinions. N&S's critique may have hit home with me more than Ezra because the state of California happens to be blanketing the airwaves right now with a series of ads about global warming. Now, obviously, the "environmental movement" isn't responsible for these ads and shouldn't be blamed for them. Still, they're not untypical, and my reaction to them is that they make me want to slit my wrists every time I see one. I think they're exactly the kind of thing N&S are talking about.

So: help me set some kind of baseline for this stuff. Watch the ad and tell me what you think. Am I just having a weird, idiosyncratic response to it? Or is it really as depressing as I think it is? The full set of ads is here if you want to watch them all.

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I DON'T NEED NO STINKIN' SOCIAL SECURITY CARD....DO I?....Matt Yglesias keeps us informed of his whereabouts:

Off to the local Social Security Administration office to try to get a replacement Social Security card, hopefully this won't take too long....

Really? What for? I suppose I must have gotten a Social Security card back in the day, but I lost it almost immediately and never replaced it. Why would you? Are there circumstances where you need the actual card itself, not just the number? Have I been living dangerously for the past few decades? Just curious.

UPDATE: California must be more different than I ever realized. Loads of commenters are telling me that in various other states you must present an actual Social Security card if you want to get a driver's license, apply for a job, etc. etc. I had no idea. No one has ever even asked me for mine.

Of course, this makes the whole "National ID Card" frenzy even more ridiculous than it is. If a physical Social Security card is something you already have to have in most states, then why not ditch it and just give everyone a different and more reliable national ID card? What's the harm?

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WAGES AND WORKERS....Mark Thoma reminisces about growing up in a working class family:

I can't imagine the workers at a peach canning factory going on strike now, but it was fairly routine at that time (early 1960s) for workers to picket. It seems like there was always one group or another marching with signs announcing unfair business practices and demanding better wages or conditions, and I was taught as a kid to respect those lines.

There was also a difference in the employee-employer relationship, at least as I observed it growing up in a working class family (my dad worked at a parts counter at a tractor store at that time). There seemed to be an understanding that workers had families to raise. Somehow, my parents — a worker at a parts counter and a peach factory worker — owned a house in a decent neighborhood and while it was tough some months, we had health care through my dad's job and most of the middle class trappings.

....I know the empirical evidence doesn't give a lot of weight to the union story for preventing inequality, but looking back it's hard not to believe that the evidence somehow misses an ethic that was present then, something larger than unions alone, something that is less present today, a social relationship between employers and employees that kept employers from pushing wages as low as they possibly could go. Things weren't all rosy and wonderful then, far from it, and there's some chance I'm remembering "good old days," but I do believe society's expectation of what an owner is obligated to do for workers has changed.

Well said. Whether unions were responsible for that "social relationship" or a result of it is hard to say, but there's not much question that both have declined in sync, and it's hard to believe that's merely a coincidence.

Even at their height, unions represented only a smallish fraction of private sector workers in America, but, like Mark, I think their cultural and political influence was far greater than econometric estimates give them credit for. Unions certainly played a direct economic role in keeping middle class wages robust and CEO wages earthbound up through the 60s, but in the end, the more important thing was probably the non-measurable component of their influence: even non-unionized executives felt a certain amount of pressure in postwar America to treat their workers decently and keep their own compensation at reasonable levels. But that was due more to tradition than anything else — along with a bit of political fear — and the decline of unions and the pressure they exerted on both politicians and public opinion loosened those traditions until, eventually, they were gone. Working class wage stagnation followed quickly on its heels.

I don't know if unions are the way to get those traditions back or not. Maybe we need something else for a postindustrial age. But warts and all, America was a better country with them than without them.

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THE FEVER SWAMP....A plainly disgusted Karen Tumulty recaps Graeme Frost's introduction to the modern conservative fever swamp in Time magazine and concludes with this:

Politics has never been a gentle game. As far back as 1895, satirist Finley Peter Dunne's fictional saloonkeeper Martin Dooley observed that women, children and prohibitionists would do well to stay out of it, because "politics ain't beanbag." But surely, even Mr. Dooley could never have imagined a day would come when a mere seventh grader could be swift-boated.

But of course, that's the whole point. The slavering hordes of Malkin-land might or might not have made a difference in the ongoing S-CHIP debate, but they've certainly driven their real point home: The next time the Democrats ask a private citizen to do a radio address they're going to think twice, aren't they?

But who knows? After this latest affair, maybe being a target of the slime machine will become a badge of honor. Maybe ordinary families will start lining up at the door to give radio addresses that enrage the mouth-breathers. If the Democratic Party is smart, maybe it will happen this very Saturday. Who's on deck for this week's broadcast?

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October 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SYRIA UPDATE....Now the Syrians are saying — what? That there was no Israeli attack last month at all? That there was an attack, but it did no damage? "You see — around us are farmers, corn, produce, nothing else." WTF?

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WHY POLICY MATTERS....The latest dispatch from George Bush's America: richer dentists, but more untreated cavities. You can't make this stuff up.

And speaking of healthcare, have you been keeping up on the latest in the Graeme Frost wingnut frenzy? For the sober version (warning: includes policy wonk talk), here's Jon Cohn. For the more fun version, here's John Cole. Be sure to read the comments too!

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FISCAL WIZARDRY....Larry Kudlow applies his keen intellect to our overcomplicated tax system:

For example, we don't need six income-tax brackets. Here's a thought: Take the 33 percent bracket that starts at $188,450 and get rid of it. Ditto for the 28 percent bracket at $123,700 and the 25 percent bracket at $61,300. Get rid of them. Collapse it all down into one simple 15 percent tax bracket. Then figure out what kind of spending cuts are necessary to finance it.

What an innovative idea! As part of a "middle class tax offensive," cut the tax rate on millionaires from 33% to 15%! I wonder why no one else has ever thought of that?

But here's my proposal. My back-of-the-envelope calculation says Larry's fiscal brainstorm will cost us about $250 billion. So now that I've figured that out for him, how about if he games out the spending cuts first and then we take a look at his revenue ideas? It's funny that no one ever wants to do that, but $250 billion in cuts to the non-defense, non-security, non-Medicare, non-Social Security, non-interest categories of the federal budget ought to be pretty easy for a bunch of fiscal barracudas like the modern GOP, shouldn't it? And I think the Republican presidential field would be pretty pleased to run on all these spending cuts once somebody puts them on the table. So let's hear it.

On the bright side, at least Larry is conceding that these tax cuts would require spending reductions in the first place. In his usual alternative universe he would have just said they'd pay for themselves and no reductions would be necessary, so I guess that's progress. Then again, maybe he just momentarily forgot his talking points today.

Kevin Drum 7:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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THE POLITICS OF RAGE....I'm still not sure how I'm going to come down on Nordhaus and Shellenberger's specific environmental arguments in Break Through, but in a way it's too bad the book is being sold as an environmental manifesto in the first place. It's really about liberal politics writ large, and they have a lot of interesting things to say about it. Here's the conclusion of Chapter 7:

In America, the political left and political right have conspired to create a culture and politics of victimization, and all the benefits of resentment and cynicism have accrued to the right. That's because resentment and apocalypse are weapons that can be used only to advance a politics of resentment and apocalypse. They are the weapons of the reactionary and the conservative — of people who fear and resist the future. Just as environmentalists believe they can create a great ecological politics out of apocalypse, liberals believe they can create a great progressive politics out of resentment; they cannot. Grievance and victimization make us smaller and less generous and can thus serve only reactionaries and conservatives.

Granted, this makes more sense if you've read the rest of Chapter 7 first, but it's still something that ought to be etched onto every liberal forehead in the country: we can't beat conservatives at their own game. Appeals to besiegement and rage make people more sympathetic to conservatism — "smaller and less generous" — no matter what words happen to be coming out of our mouths at the time.

I forget this too often. We all forget it too often. We shouldn't.

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PAUL KRUGMAN, NON-RADICAL....Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman's new book, The Conscience of a Liberal:

Krugman calls for single-payer health insurance, tax hikes, and raising the minimum wage. He doesn't come off as all that radical.

But that's the whole point. Krugman isn't that radical. Neither am I. Neither is most of the liberal blogosphere. Just ask Max Sawicky's ghost.

This isn't like the 90s, when a small group of clearly unhinged nutbags hijacked the public discourse and led an idiot's crusade against Bill Clinton. This time it's moderate squishes like me and moderate non-squishes like Paul Krugman carrying the pitchforks. Anyone who doesn't understand deep in their bones why this has happened doesn't really understand what's been going on in America for the past decade. I'd put about half the press corps in that category. Your mileage might vary.

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CLINTON ON TORTURE....Yes, Andrew Sullivan suffers from Clinton Derangement Syndrome, but I'll still join him in gagging over this nauseating piece of evasion from Hillary:

Clinton was similarly vague about how she would handle special interrogation methods used by the CIA. She said that while she does not condone torture, so much has been kept secret that she would not know unless elected what other extreme measures interrogators are using, and therefore could not say whether she would change or continue existing policies.

"It is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn't doing. We're getting all kinds of mixed messages," Clinton said. "I don't think we'll know the truth until we have a new president. I think [until] you can get in there and actually bore into what's been going on, you're not going to know."

Politics is politics. Spin and ambiguity are part of the game. But if you can't even take a full-throated, non-weasely position against torture and abuse of prisoners in American custody, what the hell good are you?

UPDATE: Want to know how efficient the Clinton campaign is? Twenty minutes after I posted this I got an email from Peter Daou, their internet director, telling me that Hillary hadn't been fully quoted. He promised a transcript ASAP. I didn't get one, but Peter did send one to Greg Sargent, who posted Hillary's full answer on his site:

HRC: Well I think I've been very clear about that too, we should not conduct or condone torture and it is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn't doing, we're getting all kinds of mixed messages. I don't think we'll know the truth until we have a new President. I think once you can get in there and actually bore into what's been going on, you're not going to know. I was very touched by the story you guys had on the front page the other day about the WWII interrogators. I mean it's not the same situation but it was a very clear rejection of what we think we know about what is going on right now but I want to know everything, and so I think we have to draw a bright line and say "No torture — abide by the Geneva conventions, abide by the laws we have passed," and then try to make sure we implement that.

Well, OK. I like the "bright line" comment, but "what we think we know about what is going on right now" isn't exactly a ringing denunciation. I think we have a pretty good idea of what we know right now.

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GRAZER-GATE UPDATE....Patterico and I don't find ourselves in agreement all that often, but I think he's right on target with this. If the LA Times investigated the moronic Andres Martinez pseudo-scandal and concluded that, in fact, Martinez did nothing wrong, shouldn't they have the guts to say so publicly?

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, consider yourself lucky. But if you want the background anyway, it's here.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Michelle Malkin:

"You can't win with the unhinged mob."

Quite so. Anyway, it's really all about asset testing, isn't it?

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RATING THE FIELD....Longtime Bush confidant Dan Bartlett is apparently less than excited about the Republican presidential field:

A former adviser to President Bush has a brutally candid analysis of the Republican presidential nomination contest: Fred D. Thompson is the campaign's "biggest dud," Mitt Romney has "a real problem in the South" because of his religion, Mike Huckabee's last name is too hick, and John McCain could pull a repeat of his 2000 performance by winning New Hampshire yet losing the battle.

....Although he and the White House both emphasized yesterday that he was speaking for himself, Bartlett spent 14 years channeling Bush, so his views may be seen as a revealing look at the thinking within the president's inner circle.

....The only top-tier candidate Bartlett did not criticize was Rudolph W. Giuliani, who he said has the "best message," particularly because the former New York mayor has focused on attacking Democrats, not Republicans.

Giuliani might well be the only candidate who could eventually make us all look back fondly on Bush as a sober and thoughtful president. So from a legacy standpoint, I suppose it's no surprise that Giuliani might be Bush's favorite.

Alternatively, all Bush cares about is which candidate promises to kick the most Middle Eastern ass. I think Giuliani comes out on top in that contest too.

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SYRIA UPDATE....The New York Times has a bit of further reporting on that Israeli airstrike in northern Syria last month. It turns out that even the White House isn't sure whether the Syrian target was a nuclear weapons development site:

The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.

By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.

....Besides Ms. Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.

This is really the damnedest thing. But one thing is sure: the Israeli evidence must have been pretty far from a smoking gun if there's this much confusion even among the top mucky mucks. Very peculiar.

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THE WORLD IS SORT OF FLAT....Remember my post yesterday about the progressivity of the tax system? Well, it turns out that I didn't have to go to the trouble of digging up my own graphs to demonstrate that the overall tax system is only moderately progressive after all. All I had to do was go to the same think tank that was being quoted in the first place about the federal income tax.

The Tax Foundation may be a conservative outfit (they're the ones who bring you "Tax Freedom Day" every year), but they emailed to let me know that they produced a report of their own last year showing overall tax rates at various income levels. It shows that federal taxes are progressive, state taxes are about flat, and total taxes are modestly progressive. Basically, the tax rate for the average worker is 28% while the tax rate for the richest taxpayers is 34% (and probably a bit lower than that for the very richest taxpayers). That's not exactly a socialist hell.

Anyway, you can never have too many tax graphs, can you? I can't vouch for how accurate this one is (the methodology for this stuff is pretty tricky), but their numbers look like they're in the right ballpark to me. Just thought I'd pass it along.

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October 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IRAN'S TRUCE?....The recent truce between leaders of Iraq's two biggest Shiite militias — the Badr Organization's Abdel Aziz Al-Hakim and the Mahdi Army's Muqtada Al-Sadr — has generally been chalked up to the good offices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But Stratfor suggests that a different knocker of heads may have been responsible:

Sources in Iraq said in September that Al-Sadr had been in Iran, and it appears that this latest truce was signed in Tehran on Oct 3, when Al-Sadr was there to meet with al-Hakim. The Iranians have made clear to Al-Sadr that he must either cooperate and get his militia in line or face a massive purge led by Al-Hakim's Badr group. Al-Sadr appears to have complied.

....The Iranians are also heavily invested in al-Hakim's SIIC, which they view as the main vehicle to extend Iranian influence into Iraq. Iran has traditionally played Al-Sadr and al-Hakim's factions against one another to ensure that both depend on Tehran's good graces-but that policy has been more destructive than intended. Recognizing that Al-Sadr is a force to be reckoned with, Iran has decided it will be more worthwhile to co-opt him than to challenge him in the long run — though several obstacles will prevent Tehran from doing so.

This comes via Cernig, who is skeptical. Me too. Still, as rumors go this one isn't bad, and it's far from inconceivable that this is how things played out — though it doesn't necessarily mean that Sistani wasn't involved too. The truce could have had multiple brokers.

As for what it means, I'll leave that to smarter people than me. Just seemed worth passing along.

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THIRD-PARTY EVANGELICALS....If the Republican Party nominates abortion-friendly, gay-friendly Rudy Giuliani for president, will James Dobson make good on his threat to support a third-party nominee? Steve Benen says yes:

These religious right leaders are making bold threats, but they really don't have any choice. Dobson & Co., not to mention their loyal followers, believe they have enormous influence in Republican circles, and can dictate the party's direction. If the Republicans nominate a pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-gun control, thrice-married serial adulterer who wants to invest in stem-cell research, the religious right's masquerade will be over. It will be obvious that the movement is practically powerless in the party, and the groups' benefactors will have far less reason to keep writing the checks that keeps the movement afloat.

This sounds right to me, though there's a good counterargument: judges. Dobson might be pissed, but what he really cares about is judicial appointments, and he knows that even Giuliani will appoint judges that he likes. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, by contrast, certainly won't. So in the end, even if Rudy gets the GOP nomination, he'll swallow hard and endorse him.

Really, though, it's almost impossible to predict whether the religious right will follow through on this threat. My guess is that they don't know themselves. But here's my question: If they do follow through, who will be their candidate? It has to be somebody willing to bolt the party, and with at least enough name recognition not to be a joke. Alan Keyes won't cut it. Has there been any buzz about this in evangelical circles? So far I haven't heard anything.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE LOONY BRIGADE....As near as I can tell, the right-wing blogosphere has spent the past three years fantasizing obsessively about uncovering a new Rathergate. It was their great triumph (Blog of the Year from Time magazine!), and now it seems like hardly a month goes by without the hysterical discovery of yet another faked photo, planted note, or lying liberal. Almost without fail, though, they turn out to be.....wrong. Embarrassingly, completely, unquestionably, flat-on-their-faces wrong.

But they don't give up. The latest example is 12-year-old Graeme Frost, whose great sin was to tape a radio address supporting expansion of the SCHIP children's health program. Unsurprisingly, the latest crackpot loony brigade is headed up by the chief crackpot, Michelle Malkin, who has distinguished herself by staking out Graeme's house and grilling his father's friends. Other members of the brigade have dug up property records, scoured wedding announcements, checked out school websites, and when trash day comes will probably be rooting through their garbage barrels.

And the point of all this? To "prove" that the Frosts are secret zillionaires who don't deserve government help with their medical bills. In this, the loon brigade is, as usual, embarrassingly, completely, unquestionably, flat-on-their-faces wrong. I'll give you one guess about whether that's going to stop them.

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By: Kevin Drum

STATE SECRETS....Khaled el-Masri, who was mistakenly abducted, tortured, and held for weeks in a case of mistaken identity, will not have his case heard in U.S. court:

The Supreme Court today declined to hear the case of a German citizen who said he was kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured by the CIA.

....The American Civil Liberties Union had taken up Masri's case. Lawyers for the group said the Bush administration was using the state secrets privilege too broadly, invoking it to stop lawsuits relating to wiretapping and whistle-blowers as well as terrorism cases.

In this case, they argued in asking the court to take the case, "the entire world already knows" the information the government said it is seeking to protect.

But government lawyers said comments from officials are different from the specific details the administration would need to expose in order to litigate the case. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement called it an "extravagant request" that would overturn the precedent set by the court more than 50 years ago in denying a lawsuit brought during the Cold War about a downed war plane.

This is unfortunate. Far from being "extravagant," this was an ideal opportunity to take a fresh look at a badly-constructed precedent that cries out for reexamination. The Bush administration has invoked the state secret privilege at triple the rate of any previous administration, and they don't use it solely to get specific pieces of evidence tossed out. They use it, as they're doing with el-Masri case, to keep cases from coming to trial at all, and they're almost certainly doing it as much to prevent the release of merely embarrassing information as they are to prevent the release of genuine secrets. Henry Lanman explained in Slate last year:

Despite the burgeoning use of this privilege and the way it's been used to gut entire cases, the most disturbing aspect of the Bush administration's expansion of the state secrets privilege may well be this: More and more, it is invoked not in response to run-of-the-mill government negligence cases but in response to allegations of criminal conduct on the part of the government. These are not slip-and-fall cases. They are challenges to the administration's broad new theories of unchecked executive power. By using the state secrets privilege to shut down whole lawsuits that would examine government actions before the cases even get under way, the administration avoids having to give a legal account of its behavior. And if this tactic persists — if the administration continues to broadly assert this privilege and courts continue to accept it — the administration will have succeeded in creating an insurmountable immunity that can be invoked against pretty much any legal claim that the "war on terror" violates the law. The standard and winning response to any plaintiff who asserted such charges would be, quite simply, that it's a secret.

The only silver lining to this, I suppose, is that given the current composition of the Supreme Court it might be all for the best to keep it out of their hands. For all we know, they could have ended up expanding the government's power just as easily as they could have decided to limit it. For now, maybe we're better off with the status quo.

Kevin Drum 1:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

LAUGHING THE DAY AWAY....Jonah Goldberg writes today about the possible breakup of Belgium into a Flemish-speaking north and a French-speaking south:

Here's the hilarious irony of all this: The European Union is in effect subsidizing nationalism in Belgium and across the Continent....The catch-22 is delightful....This points to why I take so much pleasure in the troubles in Brussels....But what I really like about the Belgian crisis is that it puts a dent in the myth that Europe represents some enlightened new model exportable to the rest of the globe.

As a factual matter, Goldberg is only partly correct. The EU doesn't subsidize nationalism so much as it emphasizes regionalism — or perhaps re-emphasizes is a better way of putting it, since Europe has long been a collection of "marches, limes, militärgrenze, krajina: zones of imperial conquest and settlement, not always topographically precise but delimiting an important political and cultural edge." (Tony Judt, Postwar.) Regional cultural distinctions have always been important in Europe, and in some ways the safety of being part of the EU makes it easier for regions to assert these distinctions without fear of war or isolation. But there's no single reaction to this newfound security. In certain cases it helps to contain regional desires for independence and in others it makes it more attractive.

But that's not what gets me about this passage. I understand schadenfreude. We all do. But why on earth would anyone take such great delight in the belief — mistaken or otherwise — that an experiment in building comity and economic integration had failed? If it were exportable to the rest of the world, wouldn't that be a boon? If it really is failing, where's the hilarious irony?

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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October 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

DEMOCRATS AND THEIR BILLIONAIRES....There are all sorts of arguments in favor of low taxes. Supply siders say that high marginal income tax rates reduce people's incentive to work. Liberals complain that payroll taxes are regressive. Capital gains taxes inhibit investment. Taxes on dividends are double taxation. Cigarette taxes punish the poor. Etc.

But allowing management fees for hedge funds to be taxed at capital gains rates (15%) instead of the normal income tax rate (35%)? That's a no-brainer. All the fast talk in the world can't produce even a colorable argument in favor of letting this insane loophole continue, and no one but the hackiest of Grover Norquist's tax jihad hacks should be willing to defend it.

So fixing this loophole ought to sail through Congress, right? Maybe a dozen of the most barefaced dead-enders will vote against it, but even most Republicans will realize that it's indefensible and join with Democrats to get rid of it quickly and cleanly. No muss, no fuss, shouldn't take more than a few hours of time. Right?

Wrong.

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By: Kevin Drum

BREAK THROUGH....Bjorn Lomborg took to the pages of the Washington Post Sunday to tell us — yet again — how to react to global warming. Answer: don't worry about it. We have lots of much bigger problems, and we should spend our money on those instead.

Personally, I'm pretty tired of Lomborg. He has a history of cherry picking his statistics. His whole schtick is based on the disingenuous notion that if Bangladesh gets flooded because of rising sea levels he'll be the first one banging the drums for Western countries to spend trillions of dollars to help them out. (Sure he will.) And he ignores the small but definitely non-negligible possibility of catastrophic change if global warming enters a positive feedback loop bigger than current models predict.

On the other hand, it's interesting to see him say this:

Proponents of pacts such as Kyoto want us to spend enormous sums of money doing very little good for the planet a hundred years from now. We need to find a smarter way. The first step is to start focusing our resources on making carbon emissions cuts much easier.

....We need to reduce the cost of cutting emissions from $20 a ton to, say, $2. That would mean that really helping the environment wouldn't just be the preserve of the rich but could be opened up to everyone else — including China and India, which are expected to be the main emitters of the 21st century but have many more pressing issues to deal with first.

The way to achieve this is to dramatically increase spending on research and development of low-carbon energy. Ideally, every nation should commit to spending 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product exploring non-carbon-emitting energy technologies, be they wind, wave or solar power, or capturing CO2 emissions from power plants. This spending could add up to about $25 billion per year but would still be seven times cheaper than the Kyoto Protocol and would increase global R&D tenfold. All nations would be involved, yet the richer ones would pay the larger share.

Why is this interesting? Because last night I started reading Break Through, by "bad boys of the environment" Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, and that's pretty much their message too. Environmentalists should quit guilting everyone out in an effort to accomplish the impossible, and should instead devote their energies to promoting paradigm-busting new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases without hurting economic growth.

So does this mean that N&S will be teaming up with Lomborg in an all-star global warming tour soon? They don't mention him in the book, so I don't know. But it's an interesting thought.

The book itself, by the way, is pretty good so far. N&S have an in-your-face style that, I imagine, has made them plenty of enemies, but that also makes their writing considerably more entertaining than your usual environmental tome. Plus they don't like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. much, which is a plus in my book. I won't say anything more about Break Through until I've finished it, but at the halfway mark it's a good read.

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By: Kevin Drum

TAX FOLLIES....As a blogger, here's one of my problems. I see something like this, and I think: Oh God, not that again. He can't really be that clueless, can he? Gotta do a takedown! But then: I'm tired. Can I rouse myself to take on this nonsense yet again? On the other hand: he's got a big audience! People read this stuff and believe it. And yet: None of those people are going to come over to my site and read a bunch of tediously factual tax numbers anyway. A rebuttal won't really accomplish anything.

So.....what to do? Beats me. But just in case any of Glenn's readers do hop on over here, the short answer is: there are many taxes other than the federal personal income tax. Honest. If you add them all up, everyone does pay "at least some tax," and the overall distribution is only modestly progressive. OK?

UPDATE: Back from lunch and full of energy now. Here's a chart showing part of the tax picture:

So the tax system is moderately progressive until you get up to the 5,000 richest people in the country, at which point it becomes regressive.

However, this includes only federal income tax and payroll taxes. It doesn't include excise taxes, state income taxes, sales taxes, or property taxes. If you add in all that stuff, things get even flatter. The chart below doesn't include imputed corporate incomes taxes or the employer portion of the payroll tax, so the overall numbers are lower than they should be, but it still gives a pretty good idea of the overall flatness of our tax system:

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By: Kevin Drum

KRISTOL ON BURMA....You'll be shocked to learn what Bill Kristol thinks we ought to do to help fix the situation in Burma:

What about limited military actions, overt or covert, against the regime's infrastructure — its military headquarters, its intelligence apparatus, its rulers' lavish palaces? Couldn't such actions have a deterrent effect, or might not they help open up fissures in the regime? Have we really done all we can to avert the disaster that is unfolding?

Tell me again why anyone takes Kristol seriously? Why is it that a guy who thinks U.S. military action is always the answer is any more credible than the peacenik who thinks it never is?

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH AND THE 60s....The New York Times reports today that the Bush administration is pressuring Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan to crack down on opium production via large-scale spraying of opium poppies. But even non-hippies are unhappy about this:

The British have been so concerned that on the eve of Mr. Karzai's trip to Camp David in August, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called President Bush and asked him not to pressure the Afghan premier to use herbicides, according to several diplomats here.

In something of a reversal of traditional roles, officials at the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency have also challenged the White House and State Department support for spraying, raising concerns about its potential to destabilize the Karzai government, current and former American officials said.

Of course, these concerns are all on top of the fact that the spraying program won't work anyway. So what's the point? If it's bad for the Karzai government, good for the Taliban, and won't reduce heroin production anyway, why is President Bush so gung ho about it?

This is a mystery, of course. But the most likely answer is that he's enthusiastic about it for the same reason that he was enthusiastic about sending Heritage Foundation activists to Baghdad in 2003 and believed that instituting a flat tax would kick Iraq's economy into high gear and allow democracy to bloom. As with so many things, it comes down to the fact that he has an everyman's disdain for pointy-headed policy development and a fifth-grader's appreciation for how the world works outside our borders. Remember, here's his version of "strategic thinking":

Iran's a destabilizing force. And instability in that part of the world has deeply adverse consequences, like energy falling in the hands of extremist people that would use it to blackmail the West. And to couple all of that with a nuclear weapon, then you've got a dangerous situation. ... That's what I mean by strategic thought.

So: hippies bad. Hate hippies. Drug culture bad. Hate drug culture. Drugs come from poppies. Poppies come from Afghanistan. Hulk smash.

That's about it. Too bad there isn't someone in the White House to tell him that the stability of Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban are a wee bit more important than continuing to play to his base's hatred of 60s counterculture. In a development that would be comical if it weren't so genuinely appalling, I guess we now have to rely on the CIA for that.

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By: Kevin Drum

AL'S NOBEL PRIZE....Will Al Gore win the Nobel Peace Prize this Friday, as the London Times speculates? I certainly hope so.

This isn't because I think it will prompt him to run for president. It won't. It's not even because I think he's necessarily done the most for world peace in the past year. Rather, it's because this would be a huge prospective triumph. If Gore does win, I expect it to cause a massive collective seizure among the conservative crackpot brigade, and that would do more to advance the cause of world peace than anything else I can think of. So I'm rooting for you, Al.....

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By: Kevin Drum

RECONCILIATION IN IRAQ....Joshua Partlow reports that Iraqi leaders have given up on even the possibility of political reconciliation:

Iraqi leaders argue that sectarian animosity is entrenched in the structure of their government. Instead of reconciliation, they now stress alternative and perhaps more attainable goals: streamlining the government bureaucracy, placing experienced technocrats in positions of authority and improving the dismal record of providing basic services.

"I don't think there is something called reconciliation, and there will be no reconciliation as such," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd. "To me, it is a very inaccurate term. This is a struggle about power."

Humam Hamoudi, a prominent Shiite cleric and parliament member, said any future reconciliation would emerge naturally from an efficient, fair government, not through short-term political engineering among Sunnis and Shiites.

If reconciliation depends on the emergence of efficient, fair government in Iraq, that's pretty much all she wrote. It's time to pack up and go home.

For more in a related vein, check out Dexter Filkins' profile of Kanan Makiya in the New York Times Magazine this weekend.

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By: Kevin Drum

NO HORN, NO TAIL....The LA Times explains how Hillary Clinton's polarizing reputation might actually help her:

For more than a decade, she has been attacked in a shelfload of books, on countless websites and in repeated direct-mail drives. Her detractors see her as a calculating opportunist with a crisis-ridden past.

Paradoxically, Clinton may be benefiting from that unflattering image as she reintroduces herself.

"If she showed up and doesn't have a horn and tail and speaks clearly and engagingly, people say, 'You know, she's all right,' " said Andrew E. Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire.

Indeed. For more on this, see this post from January.

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NEW FRONTIERS IN TORTURE....This is not a new story, but it's the first time I've seen it. In it, reporter Michael Hanlon tries out a machine designed to cause intense pain without leaving a mark:

I was told people can take it for a second, maximum. No way, not for a wimp like me.

I try it again. It is a bit like touching a red-hot wire, but there is no heat, only the sensation of heat. There is no burn mark or blister. Its makers claim this infernal machine is the modern face of warfare. It has a nice, friendly sounding name, Silent Guardian.

....I tested a table-top demonstration model, but here's how it works in the field. A square transmitter as big as a plasma TV screen is mounted on the back of a Jeep. When turned on, it emits an invisible, focused beam of radiation — similar to the microwaves in a domestic cooker — that are tuned to a precise frequency to stimulate human nerve endings. It can throw a wave of agony nearly half a mile.

Because the beam penetrates skin only to a depth of 1/64th of an inch, it cannot, says Raytheon, cause visible, permanent injury....In tests, even the most hardened Marines flee after a few seconds of exposure. It just isn't possible to tough it out.

....Perhaps the most alarming prospect is that such machines would make efficient torture instruments. They are quick, clean, cheap, easy to use and, most importantly, leave no marks. What would happen if they fell into the hands of unscrupulous nations where torture is not unknown?

Um, yeah. Unscrupulous nations. That would be a problem, wouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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October 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SO CAL SADNESS....Yesterday USC lost to Stanford. UCLA lost to Notre Dame. The Ducks lost. The Kings lost. Today the Angels got tossed out of the AL playoffs in the first round.

Jeez. Is this the worst sports weekend in LA history? Anybody have any other contenders?

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OBSESSION....Larry Summers famously got into trouble for suggesting that although men and women have the same mean intelligence, men seem to exhibit greater variability at the extremes. Thus, there are more men than women at the very low end of the IQ scale and more men than women at the very tippy top of the IQ scale. Megan McArdle says she's comfortable with this idea, but Brad DeLong isn't:

Put me down as somebody who is not comfortable with the idea that male distributions have "fatter tails" than female ones. The small size of the Y chromosome that makes males genetically fragile is an argument for a fat lower tail in the male distribution, not "fatter tails." The genetic argument-from-brainpower has to go something like: "male Y — genetically fragile — much greater susceptibility to autism-spectrum disorders — have no social and family life — hence don't mind working all the time." I don't think it works.

Ah, but this gets the argument subtly wrong. I think the more persuasive argument — and I should say up front that I don't know of anything other than anecdotal evidence for this — goes like this. First, men have a greater tendency to obsess over things than women: finishing their coin collections, practicing their jump shots, programming their computers, etc. Second, as anyone who's ever done it knows, abstract thinking at a high level often benefits from extreme levels of concentration — something that's not quite the same as "working all the time" — so it stands to reason that if you combine extreme smarts with extreme obsession you're likely to produce a greater range of interesting work than you would with extreme smarts alone. Third, if men exhibit this combination more than women, it might partially explain their overrepresentation in fields that reward extreme levels of concentration.

Of course, "stands to reason" is not the same thing as "is." There are several empirical questions that need to be answered here. Do men tend to obsess over things more than women? Does obsession (sometimes) produce interesting and creative breakthroughs that smarts alone wouldn't have produced? Does obsession have any basis in male biology? I don't know if any of these questions have consensus answers, but they are certainly interesting questions to ask.

POSTSCRIPT: This question of obsession (dramatized memorably by Vernor Vinge as "focus" in A Deepness in the Sky) interests me for a couple of reasons. First, boys and men really do seem to exhibit much greater degrees of obsession than girls and women in a wide variety of activities. Why? Second, as someone with a modest version of the obsession gene myself, I know what it feels like. Answer: it feels great. It's addictive. And at least subjectively, it feels like an entirely different mode of thinking than normal, everyday cogitation. Blogging doesn't lend itself to obsession (for me, anyway), and frankly, my life seems grayer without it. That might seem crazy, but it's the truth.

Kevin Drum 6:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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IRAN INTELLIGENCE....Via ThinkProgress, here is Howard Fineman on Iran:

The intelligence community over the next few months is going to come out with three different reports on Iran about internal political problems of Iran, about the economy, and about their nuclear capability.

Those are going to be key to decide what the Bush administration is going to do, and it's the intelligence community I think trying to slow down what the president, most particularly the vice president, want to do in Iran.

Italics mine.

Somehow I have my doubts about this. I assume that, as usual, the intelligence reports will be phrased carefully enough that partisans on both sides will be able to find plenty of evidence to reinforce their own views. I don't know if Bush is champing at the bit to bomb Iran or not, but I'll be surprised if the intelligence community does anything to restrain him. Stay tuned.

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IOWA UPDATE....Steve Benen has the latest poll numbers from Iowa. All usual caveats apply, of course.

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By: Kevin Drum

SYMBOLISM....Paul Waldman writes about real acts of patriotism vs. wearing lapel pins of the American flag:

Obviously, I'm a fan of substantive acts of patriotism. But I'd be eager to hear an intellectually serious defense of symbolic patriotism. This is worth discussing. And wouldn't it be nice if we could have that discussion without anyone actually charging that people whose patriotism takes a different form than theirs are not actually patriotic at all?

To be honest, I don't think the lapel pin pseudo-controversy even rises to the level of symbolism. Rather, it's just the latest example of the effluvium that wafts over our public discourse when you combine conservative cynicism with press corps ennui. To call it symbolism is to give genuine symbolism short shrift.

That said, do we really need an "intellectually serious defense" of symbolism of any kind, patriotic or otherwise? We're human beings, after all, not East African great apes, and symbolism is fundamental to our existence. We liberals use symbolism constantly — think AIDS quilts, breast cancer ribbons, and green Emmy awards. Memorable photographs are powerful symbols, like this one, this one, and this one. Great symbolism (the Boston tea party) helps to change history; bad symbolism (cardigan sweaters) provokes derision.

Good symbols turn abstract ideas into concrete action. In fact, as our messaging gurus have been telling us so insistently lately, we liberals really ought to get better at using them. Great causes are won and lost on appeals to emotion and values, and symbols of all kinds — metaphors, images, taglines, emblems, what have you — are an ancient and powerful way to tap into that.

Patriotism is no different, and symbolic patriotism can be as potent a unifying force as any other kind of symbolism. It's good to the extent that it appeals to the better angels of our nature and bad to the extent that it appeals to mere jingoism. The fact that it's been mostly the latter in recent years is the problem, not the symbolism itself.

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TRUTH AND BEAUTY....Lee Siegel is — what? Nervous? Uncomfortable? Anxious? I'm not quite sure, but he's something over the recent release of several books attacking religion:

I'm not a particularly religious person. These arguments don't offend me or my beliefs. But they make me concerned nevertheless, because I think they strike a blow against something more important (at least to me) than belief in God. In their contempt for any belief that cannot be scientifically or empirically proved, the anti-God books are attacking our inborn capacity to create value and meaning for ourselves.

....When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all....After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means.

Let me get this straight. Lee Siegel himself is "not a particularly religious person." But he nonetheless thinks that attacks on religion undermine our ability to believe in "truth, beauty, goodness and decency."

This is nuts. After all, Siegel presumably believes in all these things. If cold logic hasn't stopped him, why should it stop anyone else?

I don't happen to care one way or the other whether atheists write books promoting atheism, but surely Siegel understands the difference between believing in an actual existing deity who controls the physical universe even though there's no evidence for it, and believing that human emotions are real even though they have no physical existence? This isn't really a subtle distinction. If it were, then Siegel's own lack of religiosity would undermine his ability to engage in flights of imagination. But, as this op-ed demonstrates, it hasn't.

On a personal level, I can understand why religious believers get tired of being pilloried as irrational zealots. Conversely, though, I get tired of believers who seem to think that atheists are incapable of morality, awe, appreciation of beauty, or the ability to lead a meaningful life. It's even more tiresome coming from someone who is himself not a believer and really ought to know better.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

You seem to me to be missing Siegel's point. He's not presupposing that moral values, etc., are based in religion. Rather, he's saying that the reductionism presupposed by the atheist authors winds up undermining much more than just belief in God — including things that atheists agree are very important, such as moral values.

Sure. But Siegel doesn't even even bother presenting an argument for this. He's just saying it's so.

But is there any reason to believe this? Human beings wall off different things in their minds all the time, and an intellectual belief in a Newtonian universe has no effect on whether you love Mozart or think Keats is sublime. Nor does it have any practical effect on one's sense of morality. If anyone has any serious evidence to the contrary, I'm all ears.

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October 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

STANFORD 24, USC 23....Holy cats. USC lost to Stanford? I guess it was all for the best that I didn't get to see the game because my lousy cable system doesn't carry the podunk network that was airing it.

Sigh. Go ahead and gloat. We deserve it. LSU fans, however, might be wise to hold their fire.

UPDATE: All right, LSU fans can go ahead and gloat too. But at least there'll be no gloating from the UCLA bench tonight. I guess that's something.

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SYRIA UPDATE....ABC News reports that the United States was initially opposed to an Israeli strike against a military base in northeast Syria:

In early July the Israelis presented the United States with satellite imagery that they said showed a nuclear facility in Syria. They had additional evidence that they said showed that some of the technology was supplied by North Korea.

One U.S. official told ABC's Martha Raddatz the material was "jaw dropping" because it raised questions as to why U.S. intelligence had not previously picked up on the facility.

....Initially, administration officials convinced the Israelis to call off the July strike. But in September the Israelis feared that news of the site was about to leak and went ahead with the strike despite U.S. concerns.

But was it really a nuclear site? Here's a hint from Aviation Week:

The big mystery of the strike is how did the non-stealthy F-15s and F-16s get through the Syrian air defense radars without being detected? Some U.S. officials say they have the answer.

U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials indicated today that [the Israelis used] a technology like the U.S.-developed "Suter" airborne network attack system....The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can't be seen, they say.

....A Kuwaiti newspaper wrote that "Russian experts are studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Iran reportedly has asked the same question, since it is buying the same systems and might have paid for the Syrian acquisitions."

Obviously I'm just playing amateur sleuth here, but it doesn't seem like you'd tip your hand about the capabilities of technology like this in order to destroy a bunch of rocket launchers and North Korean Scuds. The mission had to be important enough to make it worth letting the Syrians (and the Iranians and the Russians) know that their air defenses had been compromised. They might figure out how to fix it next time, after all. So maybe there was some North Korean nuclear technology there after all.

And is it a coincidence that within weeks North Korea suddenly decided to cut a deal with the U.S. to abandon its nuclear program? It might well be. But it is something of a coincidence, isn't it?

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From a "weary" Joe Freeman, vice president of Ticketmaster:

"Hell hath no fury like the parent of a child throwing a tantrum. People who have been in this business for a long time are watching what's happening, and they say there hasn't been a demand of this level or intensity since the Beatles or Elvis."

The subject is Hannah Montana.

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OUTRAGE WATCH....Let's see. What am I supposed to be outraged about these days? MoveOn, of course, over the General Betray-us ad. Rush Limbaugh over his phony soldiers comment. Ann Coulter for disparaging women's suffrage. And Barack Obama for being a traitor who refuses to wear a patriotic flag lapel pin. Am I missing anyone? It's hard to keep track sometimes.

In other news, you'll be shocked to learn that yet another prominent evangelical preacher and his family are caught up in a scandal. Text messaging and "underage males" are involved.

And OJ's Rolex is a fake.

That is all.

Kevin Drum 12:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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October 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S JUDGMENT....Via Michael Crowley, who has some interesting comments of his own, here's Barack Obama's latest ad. Go ahead and watch it. It's good. Super slick, but good.

Here's what's interesting about it. This video is the latest shot in Obama's continuing campaign to highlight judgment as his key virtue. "Judgment is what we need from our next commander in chief," retired Gen. Merrill McPeak tells us in the ad. "The old Washington hands have let us down."

This is precisely right, I think. As long as a candidate is broadly in tune with my own ideological preferences (as all three of the leading Democratic candidates are), judgment and temperament are the most important qualities I look for. It's what all the rest of us should be looking for too. The problem is that judgment is a famously nebulous characteristic and it's really, really hard to signal it effectively. After all, in the same way that everyone thinks they're a better-than-average driver, everyone thinks they're endowed with better-than-average judgment too. That makes it tough to convince people that your judgment is really something so special that they ought to vote you into the Oval Office. What's more, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, the spiel has to be pitch perfect. If you sell it wrong it can sound more grating than inspirational.

So it'll be interesting to see how much success Obama has with this theme. It's exactly the right theme to have, but it's a helluva tough nut to crack. I wish him luck.

Kevin Drum 6:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

RON PAUL....Speaking of Ron Paul, check out the Unabomber-esque fundraising letter he recently sent out to his supporters. Hoo boy.

It really says something when a guy who drones on about "fiat money," thinks we ought to abolish the Federal Reserve, claims the UN wants to confiscate our guns, and apparently believes that Canada is conspiring to annex us, often sounds like the sanest Republican on the stage.

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HILLARY AND RUDY....Andrew Sullivan on Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani:

They need each other. So do the polarized, professionalized political and media classes. That's why this race is already over, according to Washington, MSNBC, CNN and Fox. And they all make oodles of money off the classic left-right, McGovern-Nixon, Lib-Con circus. It's win-win. For them.

Then, responding to a reader who likes Hillary because so many right-wing blowhards hate her:

This is the logic of polarization as its own reward. It is faction and dynasty placed at the core of American politics — something the founders rightly feared would destroy a rational democratic polity. It is the toxin that won't go away. And when this country is attacked again and Clinton needs the trust and support of those who didn't vote for her? What will America do then?

Andrew likes Barack Obama and Ron Paul, so he's trying to play up the problems with other candidates. That's fine. We all do it.

But there's a huge difference here. A guy like Giuliani is polarizing because he actively chooses to be. It's part of his persona. He wants people to hate him

Hillary, by contrast, is polarizing not because she wants to be, but because the right-wing attack machine made her that way. She's "polarizing" only because a certain deranged slice of conservative nutjobs detest her.

And guess what? By this standard, Jimmy Carter is polarizing. Bill Clinton is polarizing. Al Gore is polarizing. John Kerry is polarizing. Do you see the trend here?

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton. But anyone who opposes her because she's polarizing is allowing the bottom feeders of modern movement conservatism to dictate who gets to run for president and who doesn't. If we want less polarizing politics, the answer isn't to oppose Hillary Clinton, who, outside the cartoon universe invented by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, holds almost relentlessly orthodox center-left opinions and expresses them in relentlessly garden-variety politician-speak. The answer is to send the right-wing rage machine back under the rock it crawled out from. Anything else is just caving in to bullies.

POSTSCRIPT: And anyway, keep this in mind from the latest Washington Post poll:

Many Republicans have said that they are eager to run a general-election campaign against Hillary Clinton, describing her as a highly polarizing candidate who would unite and energize the opposition. But, as of now, Clinton appears to be no more polarizing than other leading Democratic contenders. Nor is there a potential Republican nominee who appears significantly less polarizing.

Forty-one percent of those surveyed said they definitely would not vote for Clinton in the general election if she were the Democratic nominee, one of the lowest "reject rates" among the leading candidates in either of the two major parties.

Hillary isn't actually any more polarizing than anyone else. She just has more unhinged enemies.

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Here is last night's domestic scene at Chez Drum. Inkblot is snoozing on the carpet waiting for someone to feed him. Domino is asserting possession of Marian's purse by the usual feline expedient of smooching herself on it. And Marian herself, blissfully unaware that her purse is the object of a power grab, is working the LA Times Sudoku puzzle.

By the way, although Domino has gotten chubbier since we first got her, Inkblot, as you all know, has lost weight ever since we switched to Hill's diet cat food. He's stabilized at about 17 pounds, down from 22, and although that's heavier than the vet would like, I figure it's a pretty good effort. And you know what? He really is more active than he used to be, though I admit you can hardly tell it from today's picture. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this, but I am. After all, when I've lost weight in the past, I haven't gotten more active. I guess cats are different. Or I am. Or something.

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SCHIP AND TAXES....By the way, since I wrote about the SCHIP expansion earlier in the day, I might as well take this opportunity to mention that I think raising cigarette taxes is a crappy funding vehicle for it. There are two pathologies at work here. First, PAYGO, which Democrats reinstated after they returned to power this year, requires that any new spending be matched with a revenue source. This typically means a tax increase, which means that every little spending increase has to be matched with some equally little tax increase. The result is an enormous hodgepodge of little tax increases that bear no relationship to a sensible tax system. (Not that we have a sensible tax system now, mind you, but this makes it even worse.)

Second, because Republicans have made general tax increases taboo, the only way to get any kind of remotely bipartisan support for a tax bill is to restrict it to weird, out-of-the-way taxes: sin taxes, excise taxes, various "user fees," and so forth. This makes no sense either, and results in both more hodgepodgey-ness and a tax burden that (often) ends up becoming more and more regressive.

Anyway, the whole thing is a mess. If Congress really thinks we need higher cigarette taxes, I don't really have a problem with that. But picking it out of a hat to fund children's healthcare because we can't get the votes for something more sensible — well, that's just dumb. Blecch.

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NO MORE GWOT....Al Kamen reports:

Seems the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Michael Mullen, has banned the use of the phrase "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) and has prohibited using it "in any future correspondence," according to a Sept. 27 e-mail from a Mullen aide.

That's interesting. I wonder what he does want to call it? Or does he simply think that it's intellectual laziness to refer to some broad kind of war at all, as opposed to something more specific?

In any case, good for him.

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SCHIP....Matt, like many others, is musing over the question of why George Bush is so hellbent on vetoing the SCHIP expansion of children's healthcare. My suggestion: take him at face value. He says he doesn't like it because it's the camel's nose under the slippery slope on the road to hell of national healthcare, and I think that really is the reason.

After all, Bush is right: we liberals really do think of things like SCHIP as building blocks on the road to universal healthcare, don't we? It's hardly a big secret. And one should never underestimate the horror with which conservatives view "socialized medicine." They've fought it like crazed lemmings for decades, and they fight it even when it conflicts their own bottom-line interests. Big business, for example, should be rapturous at the idea of getting rid of its healthcare obligations, but even today, with healthcare costs skyrocketing and no end in sight, business groups are endorsing national healthcare only tentatively and in small numbers. (In 1994 they caved in to conservative pressure and didn't support it at all.) Why? Because even though national healthcare would help their earnings and remove a huge monkey from their backs, they genuinely and truly loathe socialized medicine. It's a step on the road to weakness and decay.

I can't think of any perfect analogy on the liberal side of things, but late-term IDX abortions come close. We've fought various versions of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act for years, despite the fact that it polls pretty well and the actual number of people affected by the ban is minuscule. Why do this, even though it's a political loser? One reason is that we (correctly, I think) view it as a first step in pushing public opinion in the direction of a flat ban on all abortions. That's the same thing Bush says he thinks about SCHIP expansion, and I'll bet he's telling the truth. He says it's spinach, and he says the hell with it.

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HAPPY HAPPY, JOY JOY....Paul Krugman:

I always check out what's new in National Bureau of Economic Research working papers, and a new one, "Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?", reports that among American men, happiness reaches a minimum at the age of 49, then rises.

Holy cow. So that's what's been going on. Well, my 49th birthday is only a couple of weeks away, and I damn well expect to start getting happier as soon as I blow out the last birthday candle. If I don't, someone's going to pay.

BTW, American women bottom out at age 45. If you were born in 1962, things should start looking up soon.

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BLACKWATER UPDATE....The Washington Post reports that U.S. soldiers were present in Nisoor Square last month when Blackwater guards opened fire and killed 14 Iraqis. Apparently the American troops back up the Iraqi account of what happened:

U.S. military reports from the scene of the Sept. 16 shooting incident involving the security firm Blackwater USA indicate that its guards opened fire without provocation and used excessive force against Iraqi civilians, according to a senior U.S. military official.

....The U.S. military reports appear to corroborate the Iraqi government's contention that Blackwater was at fault in the shooting incident in Nisoor Square, in which hospital records say at least 14 people were killed and 18 were wounded.

"It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," said the U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the incident remains the subject of several investigations. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP or any of the local security forces fired back at them," he added, using a military abbreviation for the Iraqi police. The Blackwater guards appeared to have fired grenade launchers in addition to machine guns, the official said.

In related news, the House voted 389-30 to bring "all United States government contractors in the Iraq war zone under the jurisdiction of American criminal law." Under the new law, the FBI would be the lead agency investigating any accusations of wrongdoing.

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October 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA ON TORTURE....Barack Obama on torture:

The secret authorization of brutal interrogations is an outrageous betrayal of our core values, and a grave danger to our security....It's time to stop telling the American people one thing in public while doing something else in the shadows. No more secret authorization of methods like simulated drowning. When I am president America will once again be the country that stands up to these deplorable tactics. When I am president we won't work in secret to avoid honoring our laws and Constitution, we will be straight with the American people and true to our values.

Good. Actually, this statement could be even stronger, but it's still good. And it was quick. This issue is important enough to him that he released a statement immediately.

And that, despite some reservations I have about him, is why I like Obama. He gives me the sense that he really could be a game changer if he were elected president. I only wish he gave me that sense all the time, not just some of the time.

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"ON THE HOME TEAM"....Was Don Siegelman, the former Alabama governor who was planning to run for office again in 2006, maliciously prosecuted on corruption charges by Republicans intent on ridding themselves of the state's only popular Democrat? That's been the grumbling from Democrats ever since Siegelman was indicted, but the evidence has always been circumstantial. However, many of the charges against Siegelman were based on testimony from Alabama "good ole boy" Lanny Young, and today Time reports that Siegelman wasn't the only politician Young made accusations against:

According to Young, among the recipients of his largesse were the state's former attorney general Jeff Sessions, now a U.S. Senator, and William Pryor Jr., Sessions' successor as attorney general and now a federal judge. Young, whose detailed statements are described in documents obtained by Time, became a key witness in a major case in Alabama that brought down [Siegelman] and landed him in federal prison with an 88-month sentence. As it happened, however...none of the Republicans whose campaigns he fingered were investigated in the case, let alone prosecuted.

....[Young's] evidence was heard by lawyers from U.S. Attorney [Leura] Canary's office, representatives of Alabama's Republican attorney general and an attorney from the Justice Department's public-integrity unit in Washington. But in an unusual exercise of prosecutorial discretion, nearly all the payments and donations went uninvestigated.

....Several people involved in the Siegelman case who spoke to Time say prosecutors were so focused on going after Siegelman that they showed almost no interest in tracking down what Young said about apparently illegal contributions to Sessions, Pryor, other well-known figures in the Alabama GOP and even a few of the state's Democrats. "It just didn't seem like that was ever going to happen," said an individual present during key parts of the investigation. "Sessions and Pryor were on the home team."

....The controversy surrounding the case in Alabama is not that Siegelman went to prison and his Republican colleagues didn't. Without an investigation or even questions being asked, it's impossible to know whether any of them committed illegal acts. The issue is that some of the same allegations that led to Siegelman's indictment never merited so much as a follow-up when raised in connection with Republicans.

Well, I'm sure there's an innocent explanation for all this. Probably some kind of staff shortage or something. We really shouldn't let this stuff distract us from important symbolic denunciations of liberal interest groups.

Via TPM.

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BROWN AND BUSH....The Telegraph suggests that relations between the U.S. and Britain are slightly frostier than in the past now that Gordon Brown has replaced Tony Blair:

There has been a notable reduction in contact between Downing Street and the White House since Mr Blair left and US officials have remarked on how few British ministers have visited Washington in recent months.

Mr Brown and Mr Bush are understood to have spoken twice by telephone in three months since they met at Camp David in June, whereas Mr Blair and Mr Bush held video-link conferences, often weekly.

....A British diplomatic source said: "In the White House there's a sense of enormous change from Blair. They used to be on the phone to Blair all the time and that's no longer the case because Brown clearly wants to be the unBlair."

Surely this doesn't surprise anyone? Aside from the fact that Brown never shared Blair's messianic approach to foreign policy in the first place, he knows perfectly well that in 13 months it's pretty likely that America will have elected a Democratic president to replace Bush. So why would you waste energy cultivating a close relationship with a man who (a) you don't like, (b) is an electoral liability in Britain, and (c) is going to be out of office soon? Bush is already trying to pull a Hoover by inveigling his successor to adopt his policies before they even take office, and he'll probably try to do the same to Brown over the next year if he gets half a chance. If I were him, I'd keep my distance too.

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WINNING....I was watching the ABC Evening News last night and George Stephanopoulos said something like, "Bill Clinton is as valuable to Hillary as 9/11 is to Rudy Giuliani." Discuss.

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CONFUSION....Is there a substantial segment of the population that has mixed feeling about withdrawal from Iraq? I think so, but Greg Sargent summarizes a new poll today that suggests otherwise: if you give people a clear choice between quick withdrawal and the Bush/Petraeus plan, a majority choose quick withdrawal. Not a huge majority, but still a majority.

Of course, some confusion in the ranks would hardly be surprising given the reluctance of many Democrats to take a clear stand on the issue. Here's the LA Times today on Hillary Clinton:

"Are you ready to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home?" she called to the audience outside the New Hampshire statehouse over Labor Day weekend. A sure-fire applause line at Democratic rallies, Clinton works it into many of her speeches.

The New Hampshire crowd roared.

Later in her remarks, Clinton added that "we should end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home safely and responsibly and as soon as possible." But she did not lay out how much time it might take to withdraw "safely and responsibly." Nor did she mention something she had said in a debate one month earlier: that she thinks the U.S. would need to retain military forces to keep terrorists "on the run" in Iraq.

Bob Williams, 65, of Chichester, N.H., came out to the statehouse for Clinton's address. Asked whether he came away with an idea of when a full troop withdrawal might happen if she were president, Williams said: "I'm not sure." He later said he had heard little from Clinton in the way of "specific plans or commitments" for extracting the U.S. from Iraq.

Obama and Edwards are better on this score, but still not crystal clear about what they'd do. And Democratic congressional leaders have been hopelessly muddled. Frankly, with leadership like this, it's surprising the public isn't more confused than it is.

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TORTURE....The New York Times informs us today that even as the Bush White House was telling everyone publicly that it had backed away from torture as state policy, it was busily issuing brand new orders sanctioning it:

Soon after Alberto R. Gonzales's arrival as attorney general in February 2005, the Justice Department issued another opinion, this one in secret. It was a very different document, according to officials briefed on it, an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency.

....Later that year, as Congress moved toward outlawing "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard.

....Congress and the Supreme Court have intervened repeatedly in the last two years to impose limits on interrogations, and the administration has responded as a policy matter by dropping the most extreme techniques. But the 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said.

The Times says that "most lawmakers" didn't know about this secret opinion. That means that some of them did. I'd like to know which ones. I'd also like to hear each of the Democratic candidates tell us whether or not they promise to repudiate all secret Bush administration memorandums on torture and detention during their first day in office. Quickly, please.

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THE SHORT HAIRS....Despite several reservations obvious enough that I won't go into them, I'm pretty sympathetic toward Hillary Clinton's candidacy. If you want to know one of the big reasons why, read this story.

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IOWA....In the American Prospect, Paul Waldman writes about the absurdity of the fact that we allow the Iowa caucuses to essentially choose the next president of the United States:

This system is not merely curious or even unfair, it is utterly perverse. This isn't just because the rest of us get virtually no say in who the parties' nominees are. It's also because of this simple fact: No small group of Americans deserves this power, but if any does, it sure isn't the citizens of Iowa.

....If this is a typical election, somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of voting-eligible Iowans will bother to show up to a caucus. Yes, you read that right. Those vaunted Iowa voters are so concerned about the issues, so involved in the political process, so serious about their solemn deliberative responsibilities as guardians of the first-in-the-nation contest, that nine out of ten can't manage to haul their butts down to the junior high on caucus night. One might protest that caucusing is hard — it requires hours of time and a complicated sequence of standing in corners, raising hands, and trading votes (here is an explanation of the ridiculousness). But so what? If ten presidential candidates personally came to your house to beg for your vote, wouldn't you set aside an evening when decision time finally came?

What's really remarkable, though, is that Iowa has gotten more important over time, not less, even though everybody knows this is absurd. We know it, the media knows it, the party knows it, the candidates know it — hell, even the Iowans know it. And this year, as a sort of destruction test of the whole concept, we're going to see what happens when the Democratic candidates flood the cornfields with a combined total of — what's your guess? $50 million? — in an effort to find out if it's possible to actually lose votes by spending too much money. My guess: yes it is. Yee haw!

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October 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

TESTING THE LIMITS....The "Anbar Awakening" has — so far — been a considerable success for the U.S. mission in Iraq. Over the past year, as Sunni tribes in Anbar have increasingly turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, violence in the province has dropped dramatically.

Next step: recreating that success in the capital. But although the Shiite majority has mostly limited itself to periodic grumbling about the tribal strategy as long as it was limited to Sunni provinces, Baghdad is a bridge too far:

The largest Shiite political coalition in Iraq demanded Tuesday that the U.S. military abandon its recruitment of Sunni tribesmen into the Iraqi police, saying some are members of "armed terrorist groups" and are engaged in killing, kidnapping and extortion under the guise of fighting the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The statement by the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is the most direct rebuke to a policy that U.S. military officers hold up as one of their most important achievements over the past year.

....The statement went on: "We demand that the American administration stop this adventure, which is rejected by all the sons of the people and its national political powers."

Humam Hamoudi, a senior Shiite leader in the coalition: "This has provoked astonishment, rejection and rage."

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni: "I can't understand the fears. Frankly, it's people talking nonsense, that these tribes might turn into militiamen the next day and be a threat to the Shias and attack whomever."

Roger that. At this point, there's no telling how much of this is real outrage and how much is political posturing. But it's worth keeping in the back of your mind. The success or failure of this initiative will tell us most of what we need to know about whether our continued presence in Iraq has any chance of being productive.

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PULITZER BAIT....Megan McArdle quotes Scottish journalist Alex Massie on the parlous state of British press awards:

In their own way, the hacks treat these awards with the proper level of contempt and, since no-one spends all year dreaming of ways to win them we are at least spared the epic, 17-part thumb-sucking series on "Life" or "Death" or "Being a Deaf Quadraplegic" the American papers publish in a bid to win Pulitzers...

You know, I hear this kind of contempt for "Pulitzer bait" a lot. And some of it is probably justified. Still, I have to ask: is this really one of American journalism's most pressing problems? That it spends too much time on serious, detailed examinations of underreported public issues? Should we be awarding Pulitzers for "Best Advice Columnist" instead?

Of course, if you think the answer is "yes," you might be interested in my idea for changing the face of network news. I think someone should hire Billy Bush and Nancy O'Dell and have them start presenting the news the way they currently present Access Hollywood. Why not? After all, Billy has a degree in international relations and Nancy graduated summa from Clemson. They're just the ticket if we want to get the kids interested in news again.

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VSP WATCH....The Washington Post has compiled a list of all the foreign policy advisors to the major presidential candidates. Matt Yglesias comments:

On the Republican side, John McCain's list probably contains the greatest quantity of frightening crazy people. Rudy Giuliani's list, on the other hand, is completely untempered with the inclusion of any big-name non-crazy people, whereas McCain at least leavens the Kagan/Kristol/Woolsey axis with some Armitage/Eagleburger/ Scowcroft counterweights. Basically, if McCain becomes president, we're probably doomed, but if Giuliani becomes president we're definitely doomed.

Quite so. Of course, what would be more genuinely useful is a list of the people who actually have each candidate's ear on foreign policy, not a telephone book of every single foreign policy wonk who's made an endorsement. I want to know which ones are figureheads and which ones are likely to have West Wing offices in 2009.

On a related note, remember Sally Field's cri de coeur at the Emmy Awards that "If mothers ruled the world, there would be no god-damned wars in the first place"? There's not really much reason for thinking she's right, but maybe we ought to give it a shot. Out of 148 names in the Post's list, a grand total of seven are women. Maybe it's time to tamp down the testosterone level among our foreign policy elite?

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MERCS....Max Boot makes some sensible comments about Blackwater and other private contractors in Iraq:

It is outrageous that almost no American contractors have been held criminally liable for conduct in Iraq or Afghanistan, but hundreds of soldiers have been court-martialed. You can't blame this shortcoming on the security firms; they don't have the power to send their own employees to jail.

The problem is that there is a gray zone in the law when it comes to contractors on foreign battlefields. Congress has passed legislation to make clear that contractors fall within the Uniform Code of Military Justice as well as civilian law (the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act), but neither the Department of Justice nor the Judge Advocate General's Corps has shown much enthusiasm for enforcing these rules. That needs to change.

Beyond that, we need to do a better job of integrating contractors with military units so as to avoid mix-ups such as the one that occurred in 2004 when four Blackwater employees were killed in Fallouja, triggering a Marine offensive. Malcolm Nance, a veteran intelligence operative who has worked as a contractor in Iraq, makes an intriguing suggestion in the Small Wars Journal: Create a "force protection command" within the U.S. military that would be responsible for overseeing contractor operations. This would help make contractors more useful to military commanders.

At this point, we really have only two options. First, we could try to dramatically reduce our reliance on military contractors. This would require massive restructuring of our command and control operations as well as a substantial increase in the size of the Army and the other services, but it's not impossible. After all, our reliance on large numbers of combat-zone contractors is still of fairly recent vintage. They aren't that entrenched yet.

Still, it's pretty unlikely. The alternative, then, is to integrate them more thoroughly into the military command. Have them report to field commanders, not the State Department. If they're combat personnel, have them follow the same rules of engagement as enlisted soldiers. Insist that they be subject to the UCMJ and the regular rules of military discipline. Maybe outside a combat zone we don't need to insist on this. But inside a combat zone, whoever's making the decisions should know that anyone carrying a gun is going to follow orders. Right?

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NORTH KOREA UPDATE....Hmmm. A nuclear deal with North Korea? Apparently so, and it more or less removes them from the Axis of Evil too. Assuming it doesn't fall through, this is good news.

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HILLARY'S LEAD....It's still early, and people aren't paying attention yet, and it's statewide polls that really matter, and the Iowa caucuses are a strange beast, and, and, and.....

And even so, Hillary Clinton's lead (among Democrats) over Obama and Edwards in the latest Washington Post poll is pretty staggering: 53% to 20% to 13%. There isn't a single category in which she doesn't lead. Dems trust her on Iraq, trust her on terrorism, trust her on healthcare, and trust her on the economy. They even — hold on to your hats for this one — think she's more likely to reduce partisan bickering in Washington than either Obama or Edwards.

Actually, believe it or not, I think that last one might even be right. Yes, the loons are still out there, but everything I've read suggests that Hillary is a pretty effective senator and works well with her Republican counterparts, who appreciate the fact that she runs a tight ship, knows what she wants, and delivers what she says she'll deliver. They might not like her politics, but she's someone they can work with.

In any case, she's got a mighty big lead, and it's getting bigger every month. This particular poll might be a bit of a blip thanks to her Sunday chat show marathon last weekend, the recent release of Bill's book, and the Clinton Global Initiative getting so much press last week, but still. Obama and Edwards better start making a move soon. The train is leaving the station.

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DINING FOLLIES....I've never stumbled upon this particular problem myself, but that's mainly because my version of "eating out" is ordering kung pao chicken from the Chinese place down the street:

Maybe this has happened to you. It's midafternoon on a Tuesday, you haven't thought about what to do for dinner, and you decide to go out that night. You call a restaurant you've been wanting to check out (can't be hard to get in on a Tuesday, right?) and ask for a reservation at 7.

"We can do 6:30 or 8:30," the reservationist says. You take 6:30, though you really don't want to eat that early. You arrive at the restaurant at 6:30, and the place is half-empty. You sit down and order. At 7, it's still half-empty. By 8, it's three-quarters empty.

So why, you ask yourself, couldn't they take me at 7?

The reasons are hard to pin down, but there seems to be an epidemic of this kind of restaurant craziness in L.A. In the last 10 weeks, this particular reservation runaround has happened to me no fewer than six times. At a difficult time in the business, it's hard to see how this can be a good thing for restaurateurs.

Apparently this happens in virtually every restaurant in Los Angeles, and every single manager says it's ridiculous and never should have happened and they don't know what's going on. But it continues to happen anyway. More details — though no real answers — are in the rest of the story.

I'm posting this because I'm curious: I know from previous comment threads that I have plenty of readers with more refined palates than mine. So tell me: does this happen in non-busy restaurants everywhere else too? Or is it just some weird LA affectation?

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By: Kevin Drum

CZAR VLADIMIR....What's up with Vladimir Putin's decision to run for parliament after his two terms as president are over? Fred Kaplan speculates:

It's worth recalling, given the present situation, how Putin became president. In August 1999, [Boris] Yeltsin appointed him prime minister. In December, Yeltsin suddenly resigned. Under Russia's constitution, the prime minister succeeds the president in such circumstances, so Putin rose to become acting president — giving him the presumptive lead in the election the following March.

Putin inherited the supreme presidential powers of Yeltsin's constitution. If Putin does run for parliament and then becomes prime minister, he might, as some speculate, pull the strings from behind the scenes, like a puppeteer, while the president — who will no doubt be handpicked by Putin, just as Putin was handpicked by Yeltsin — only pretends to make the decisions.

That's one scenario. There's another one, though, which would reprise his earlier path to the top: His handpicked president resigns soon after the election, and, to the cheers of hundreds of thousands who throng Red Square as witnesses, Czar Vladimir once more ascends to the throne.

That sounds tailor made for a Russian spinoff of 24. But I suppose stranger things have happened.

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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October 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RSS FEEDS....Every once in a while someone asks me why we don't supply full RSS feeds here at the Monthly. Lazy slug that I am, my usual response is that I don't know. Then I lean back and eat another potato chip. But guess what? It turns out there's a reason I don't know: it's because it isn't true. We supply both partial and full RSS feeds. Here's the URL for the full feed:

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/rss2full_author.xml

I suppose the next question is why we don't publicize the full feed, and this time I really don't know. Probably a decision lost in the mists of time. But it's there nonetheless.

Speaking of RSS feeds, a few weeks ago I switched to Google Reader just like everyone recommended, and it works pretty well. Thanks! It turns out that Bloglines has a feature that was actually sort of useful to me, namely that I could just click my browser's Back button to backtrack through the various feeds I'd just read. Google Reader doesn't let you do that, which means that it's harder for me to go back and remember where I just saw something a few minutes ago. Still, the "Starred Items" feature helps make up for that, and Google is generally faster and more flexible than Bloglines. So for now, Google Reader is it.

Kevin Drum 5:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUNNING IT UP THE FLAGPOLE....Apparently Rudy Giuliani is sending his surrogates out to TV-land to try out a brand new message: Rudy is really pro-life! Seriously. Steve Benen has the details.

Kevin Drum 3:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND IRAQ....Barack Obama today:

There is a choice that has emerged in this campaign, one that the American people need to understand. They should ask themselves: who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War right, and who got it wrong. This is not just a matter of debating the past. It's about who has the best judgment to make the critical decisions of the future.

This is absolutely a fair point. Still, over at MyDD, Todd Beeton wonders whether Obama is getting anywhere by harping on this so relentlessly:

I love the fact that he's using his name and vast organization to rally thousands of people nationwide against the war....But will it really do anything to change the dynamic of the race? I'm not convinced. First off, it's quite apparent that Obama has been able to gain exactly zero momentum from his good judgment 5 years ago, so it's a big question mark in my mind as to whether he'll be able to translate the rallies into more support at this point.

I'm seeing echoes of 2004 here, when John Kerry apparently thought that if he just talked about his record as a Vietnam vet often enough it would innoculate him against charges of being soft on national security. Needless to say, it didn't work. This time around, Obama seems to think that if he tells people often enough that he was against the Iraq war back in 2002, it's going to give him a big leg up against Edwards and Clinton, who voted in favor of it.

But Todd seems to be right: there's no evidence that this is getting him anywhere. Maybe it's unfair, but being "right" five years ago just doesn't seem to be a winning pitch. In a way, that doesn't surprise me. Most people react negatively to blowhards who are always reminding their friends about how smart they were on some previous occasion, and maybe that's how this sounds to a lot of people. Especially people who themselves might have supported the war back in 2002 and don't really appreciate being reminded about it.

I don't know. I'm just guessing here. But bragging about your good judgment might be a very different thing than bragging about a concrete achievement. On this score, Hillary Clinton's decision to cosponsor legislation preventing military operations against Iran without congressional approval seems pretty smart.

Kevin Drum 2:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

SEPTEMBER FATALITIES IN IRAQ....A couple of my critics have emailed to wonder why I've been so quiet about the dramatic reduction in civilian casualties in Iraq last month. Although the summer numbers showed only a modest and equivocal decrease in deaths, the September numbers show a remarkable 50% drop compared to earlier this year. The chart on the right, created by data muncher extraordinaire Engram from ICCC data, tells the basic story. In addition, he plots a 3-month moving average in the full post as well as adding details on various categories of fatalities.

Obviously this is good news, and I hope it represents the start of a long-term trend. If Anbar stays quiet, the Mahdi Army continues to stand down, and we're able to pacify more neighborhoods in Baghdad without losing control of the ones that were the initial targets of the surge, it might be.

However, as I've said a few times before (here, here, and here, for example) I don't blog much about day-to-day activity in Iraq because it really doesn't do any good to get excited about every quiet week or depressed about every major attack. I got sucked into casualty blogging for a couple of weeks in late August, but then stopped. What's important is political and institutional progress, and on that score the surge simply doesn't seem to be accomplishing anything. Sectarian cleansing continues to be vicious, Kirkuk is still a timebomb, intra-Shiite fighting in Basra is heating up, refugees are fleeing the country at staggering rates, the Iraqi infrastructure is in ruins, the Iraqi security forces are a sectarian nightmare, and Maliki simply doesn't have the leverage to make progress on any of Iraq's critical political issues.

Bottom line: I'll continue to blog about underlying dynamics in Iraq, but not much about short-term violence, which has a habit of changing dramatically from week to week. But maybe I'll recap the numbers once a month from now on. That seems frequent enough to give us an idea of what's happening on the ground without overemphasizing either fleeting successes or fleeting failures.

Kevin Drum 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (117)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE CIVIL WAR CONUNDRUM....Barbara Walter writes in the LA Times about our experience with civil wars over the past 60 years:

Civil wars don't end quickly. The average length of all civil wars since 1945 is 10 years....This suggests that, historically speaking, Iraq's current civil war could be in its early stages, with nothing to suggest that it will be a short, easy war.

....Civil wars rarely end in negotiated settlements. In research for a book on the topic, I found that 76% of civil wars between 1945 and 2005 ended only after one side had defeated all others. Only 24% ended in some form of negotiated solution.

....One of the things learned over the last 60 years is that peace settlements in civil wars only work when backed by a third party willing to enforce the terms and to protect the weaker side from exploitation....The problem in Iraq is that no third party is likely to be willing to guarantee any settlement that is reached. Nobody believes that the United States will stay in Iraq much beyond 2009, or that the Europeans or the United Nations will step in when the United States leaves.

What does this mean for U.S. involvement? One conclusion would be that if we don't plan to stay for a very long time in Iraq, there is no added benefit in staying a few extra years. At this point, the longer we stay in Iraq, the more American soldiers will be killed and the more likely our presence will help Al Qaeda recruit more supporters.

This is what makes Iraq such a political quagmire for U.S. politicians. Iraq's civil war is even messier than average, so history suggests that it will last a long time and there's not much we can do about it. On the other hand, there might be one chance in four that we can grope our way to a negotiated settlement eventually. Those aren't great odds, but they aren't hopeless either.

But even in the best case, it's going to take a long time to reach that settlement and an even longer time to guarantee it afterward. Does anybody seriously think that we're going to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq for the next 10 or 20 years? And if we're not, is there any point in staying for one or two?

Kevin Drum 11:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGS....Apparently on the theory that it's better to have critics inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, the city of Santa Ana recently appointed several bloggers to sit on city commissions. The experiment isn't working out so well:

The bloggers, who write for www.orangejuiceblog.com, often use inflammatory language and innuendo. They have attacked the motives of city officials, questioned whether favoritism influenced the awarding of city contracts, and criticized officials who don't live in the city.

....Councilwoman Michele Martinez has asked the blog's founder, Art Pedroza, to stop his writing or resign from the Housing and Redevelopment Commission....Pedroza said he would not resign.

"They will have to dismiss me," he said. "Their complaints, for the most part, don't reflect my performance as a commissioner but their disagreement with my writings. They knew we were bloggers when they appointed us, and they knew Santa Ana was the focus on the blog."

Can you imagine? They appointed some critics to city positions and the critics remained critical! Clearly blogs are a menace to the social order.

Kevin Drum 11:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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October 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE POLLS....Another day, another poll about the war. Roughly speaking, today's new Washington Post poll just confirms what we all knew already: the country turned against the war in mid-2005 and has stayed opposed ever since.

But, as usual, a fair number of people are confused. For example, 52% think Bush's schedule for troop deployments is about right (or should be even more aggressive). However, 70% think funding for the war should be reduced. In other words, about 18% of the population supports Bush's war plan but doesn't support funding it. Or else they don't realize that the budget request and the troop deployment plan are tightly linked. Or they just reflexively support whatever the president proposes but just as reflexively want to spend less money. Or something.

Beats me. I just work here.

Kevin Drum 11:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY'S CELL PHONE....John Fund writes in the Wall Street Journal about Rudy Giuliani's habit of taking phone calls from his wife in the middle of presentations:

Mr. Giuliani's deputy press secretary Jason Miller told me the NRA incident was definitely not a stunt. Instead it was a "candid and spontaneous moment" that would humanize the tough-guy former mayor with voters.

Nice try....The fact is that people inside the Giuliani campaign are appalled at the number of times their candidate has felt compelled to interrupt public appearances to take calls from his wife. The estimate from those in a position to know is that he has taken such calls more than 40 times in the middle of speeches, conferences and presentations to large donors.

....[Giuliani] admitted he had taken calls from his wife "before in engagements, and I didn't realize it would create any kind of controversy." That's hardly possible. Giuliani staffers say he has been warned over and over again that the phone calls are rude and inappropriate and have alienated everyone from local officials to top donors to close friends.

OK. I'm sitting here trying to figure out what to say about this. But what? It's obviously nuts, but nuts in what way?

First way: Rudy genuinely doesn't realize that taking a phone call in the middle of a speech is rude. But this suggests a lack of emotional intelligence so stunning that even I don't think Rudy is capable of it — and that's saying a lot.

Second way: He knows it's rude, but has somehow convinced himself that it's a political winner despite the repeated entreaties of his staff. I dunno. I guess it's possible.

Third way: He and Judy are literally so enthralled with each other that he can't stand to shut off the phone for even a few minutes. If he were 17 I might buy it. At age 63 it suggests codependency issues so severe he ought to be on medication.

Fourth way: Judy has told him in no uncertain terms that he'd better take her calls 24/7. Rudy is so terrified of her that he's given in on this.

Fifth way: He's so enormously full of himself that he doesn't think the ordinary rules of common courtesy apply to him. This strikes me as quite plausible.

Overall, this is one of the weirdest damn things I've heard in a long time. Does Rudy take calls during television interviews? On radio call-in shows? In meetings with his staff? Does Judy really require this level of emotional sustenance? What the hell is going on?

Kevin Drum 8:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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By: Kevin Drum

PARTITION....Jonathan Rauch dubs Joe Biden the "grownup" in the Democratic presidential race because he has a plan for Iraq. Here's Biden's plan: create a federal state in which there are separate Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite regions and the central government has only limited responsibilities (for example, distributing oil revenue and guarding the borders). But even though he approves, Rauch understands the downsides:

Even an inexpert Washington columnist can come up with a dozen reasons the Biden plan might fail. What if Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds can't agree on a regional framework, or on a revenue-sharing deal? What about Baghdad and other mixed areas? What if the autonomous regions go to war? What if the Shiite or Sunni region degenerates into intrasectarian chaos? What if Iran colonizes the Shiite region?

A conversation with Biden's aide yielded answers that were plausible but iffy. The more relevant answer, however, is the one Biden gave in a speech at the Brookings Institution [PDF] in February: "To those who disagree with my plan, I have one simple question: What is your alternative?"

That's not relevant. It's fatuous. The fact that all of the other alternatives in Iraq are bad doesn't mean that Biden's alternative is good. It just means that all the other alternatives are bad. So let's recap those alternatives: First it was the movement conservatives who had a plan to make Iraq into a flat-tax paradise. It didn't work. Then it was the democracy promoters, who thought purple fingers would do the trick. It didn't work. Then the key talking point changed to security: "When they stand up, we'll stand down." It didn't work. Then it was the surge, designed to provide breathing space for political reconciliation. It didn't work. Now it's "soft partition."

But the plain fact is that support for Biden's version of federalism has no support in Iraq and no support within the region. The only people who like it are disillusioned Americans desperate for something that maintains the fiction that America is somehow in control of Iraq's fate. But regardless of whether we were ever in control, even at the start, we certainly aren't now. We simply don't have the leverage to force regionalism on Iraq, not even if we — figuratively or otherwise — "get allies and neighboring countries on board, and lock Iraqis in a room."

There are dangerous delusions at work here. The first is that we have to do something because if we withdraw from Iraq the Middle East will inevitably end up in a massive region-wide war. In fact, there's little empirical evidence to support this apocalyptic view. The second is that we can force partition on unwilling actors. But what makes us think so? We haven't been able to force action on a wide variety of much simpler issues. The third is that if we did somehow force partition, the results are likely to be better than simple withdrawal. Unfortunately, the arguments on this score are as simplistic as the ones that preceded all our previous plans. In reality, civil war is neither more nor less likely in a federal Iraq than in a unitary Iraq.

Biden is pretending he can "solve" Iraq through yet another map-drawing exercise. If we could power up our Ouija boards, Sykes and Picot would tell us this was very "grownup" indeed. The rest of us, though, should recognize this for what it is: yet another plan that will eventually morph into an excuse to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. On that score, it's time to grow up.

Kevin Drum 6:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHANGE....Andrew Sullivan on Barack Obama:

He is very, very careful not to get too angry as a black candidate. Perhaps too careful for his core message: real change. What he needs to do is find a way to explain how serious he is about change while explaining that he alone can overcome the boomer polarization that has prevented it.

I hear this a lot, but I wonder if it misreads the American mood at the moment. Sure, the public is ready for "real change," but what kind of change? There are several obvious possibilities:

  • A change from George Bush. Yes, definitely. But all three of the major Democratic candidates offer this.

  • A change from movement conservatism. Ditto.

  • A change from the the bitter polarization of recent years. This is obviously what Obama is hoping for, but how deep is the evidence for this? There's no question that Washington elites have a jones for bipartisanship — which is why this gets written about so often — and if you ask a vague poll question about whether politicians should stop squabbling, of course everyone will say yes. But beyond that, I've seen very little evidence that the American public is yearning for a round of Kumbaya. In fact, among both Democrats and Republicans, and even among many Independents, it strikes me that people want someone who will stick up for their values and fight like hell for them. Polarization is not their #1 concern.

  • Change from the "I'm on a mission from God" style of leadership. George Bush figured he could change the world by ruling from his gut. The result has been six years of ceaseless tension and drama, from Terry Schiavo to Iraq to Social Security to Katrina. In this sense, I suspect the American public wants less change. They'd like to see someone who can simply govern competently, someone who actually takes policy seriously, and someone who can restore an American consensus on foreign policy overseas. From this perspective, Hillary Clinton is the agent of change, not Obama.

The strengths and weaknesses of the three major Democratic candidates bubble just slightly below the surface, I think. All three are electable, for example, but which one is most likely to help with downballot races? (My guess: Obama.) All three have similar healthcare plans, but which one is most likely to get something decent passed into law? (My guess: Hillary.) All three kinda sorta want to get us out of Iraq, but which one is most likely to do it? (My guess: Edwards.) Take your pick.

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BOMBING IRAN....The Washington Post's Dana Priest opines that if the White House decides to bomb Iran, "the military would revolt and there would be no pilots to fly those missions." Matt Yglesias isn't convinced:

It's important to avoid overstating the degree of military opposition to a bomb Iran policy. As best I can tell, the Army is dead-set against it. But the Army wouldn't be carrying the mission out anyway. It'd be shocking for the Air Force to suddenly come to appreciate the strategic limits of air power. In their minds, bombing Iran won't compound the error of Iraq; rather, it'll show the manifest benefits of doing things their way rather than getting bogged-down into an Army-style quagmire.

A couple of things. First, my semi-understanding of the state of play here is that opposition to bombing Iran comes at the Joint Chiefs and theater command levels, not at the individual service level. Second, a lot of this surely depends on what kind of bombing mission we're talking about. A massive two-week effort deep into the heart of Iran to destroy their nuclear infrastructure is one thing, and that seems to be the mission the Chiefs have a problem with. (Assuming scuttlebutt is right and they have a problem in the first place.) But if Sy Hersh is right and Dick Cheney's latest gambit is to turn Iran into a 21st century Cambodia complete with "limited" bombing raids along the border, that's another thing entirely. I'd be surprised if anyone in the E Ring had a serious problem with that.

In fact, you might recall that a few weeks ago Joe Lieberman asked Gen. David Petraeus if it was time to give him authority to perform military missions in Iran, and contrary to the anti-Joe spin that this exchange received in the liberal blogosphere, Petraeus very decidedly didn't say he was opposed to the idea. What he said was that he personally wanted to focus on Iraq and "any kinds of operations outside the borders of Iraq would rightly be overseen by Central Command." That's not exactly stirring opposition.

Now, Adm. Fallon, based on his public statements, doesn't seem especially inclined to expand the Iraq war into Iran. Neither does Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Still, the drumbeat of reports from Baghdad implicating Iran in supplying weaponry to its various clients and allies in Iraq has been increasing considerably over the past month or two, and that kind of thing doesn't happen unless the Army wants it to happen. So somebody in Petraeus's command is happy to help Cheney's marketing program along. Maybe it's Petraeus himself, maybe someone else. And, yes, the Air Force is probably pleased at the prospect too. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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By: Kevin Drum

DICK CHENEY WATCH....AP describes the latest big thing on the conservative scene: Freedom's Watch, a massive lobbying group dedicated to shoring up support for the Iraq war:

Many in its inner circle of strategists and donors are close to Vice President Dick Cheney or held high posts at the White House....Among those who brainstormed with him this summer was Mary Matalin, Cheney's counselor until 2003....The group's donors include Mel Sembler, a friend of Cheney's and longtime Republican fundraiser. Sembler was chairman of the legal defense fund for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff who was convicted of lying and obstruction of justice in the investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity. Another donor is Kevin E. Moley, a former U.S. ambassador to international organizations in Geneva and a senior aide to Cheney during the 2000 presidential campaign.

But why stop at Iraq? According to Seymour Hersh, if Cheney has his way Freedom's Watch will have yet another war to craft ads for:

This summer, the White House, pushed by the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, requested that the Joint Chiefs of Staff redraw long-standing plans for a possible attack on Iran, according to former officials and government consultants. The focus of the plans had been a broad bombing attack, with targets including Iran's known and suspected nuclear facilities and other military and infrastructure sites. Now the emphasis is on "surgical" strikes on Revolutionary Guard Corps facilities in Tehran and elsewhere, which, the Administration claims, have been the source of attacks on Americans in Iraq. What had been presented primarily as a counter-proliferation mission has been reconceived as counterterrorism.

....A Pentagon consultant on counterterrorism told me that, if the bombing campaign took place, it would be accompanied by a series of what he called "short, sharp incursions" by American Special Forces units into suspected Iranian training sites. He said, "Cheney is devoted to this, no question."

A limited bombing attack of this sort "only makes sense if the intelligence is good," the consultant said. If the targets are not clearly defined, the bombing "will start as limited, but then there will be an 'escalation special.' Planners will say that we have to deal with Hezbollah here and Syria there."

For a bunch of folks who complain relentlessly whenever liberals compare Iraq to Vietnam, these guys sure seem hellbent on following the same playbook, don't they? The marketing campaign is very decidedly underway on this.

Kevin Drum 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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