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Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2007
By: Kevin Drum


  1. Wordplay, by the creators of the documentary

  2. Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert

  3. The Infernal Machine, by Matthew Carr

  4. The Matador's Cape, by Stephen Holmes

  5. Buda's Wagon, by Mike Davis

  6. Countering Terrorism, by Michael Chandler and Rohan Gunaratna

  7. A Brief History of the Middle East, by Christopher Caldwell

  8. The Modern Middle East, by Mehran Kamrava

  9. Sick, by Jon Cohn

  10. The Health Care Mess, by Julius Richmond and Rashi Fein

  11. Through Our Enemies' Eyes, by Michael Scheuer

  12. The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright

  13. The Seven Fat Years, by Robert Bartley

  14. Reaganomics, by Bruce Bartlett

  15. How to Conquer the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, by Amy Reynaldo

  16. Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama

  17. The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford

  18. Storm World, by Chris Mooney

  19. The Political Brain, by Drew Westen

  20. The Big Con, by Jonathan Chait

  21. The Argument, by Matt Bai

  22. Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

  23. Republic.com 2.0, by Cass Sunstein

  24. Hidden Iran, by Ray Takeyh

  25. Break Through, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

  26. How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, by Pierre Bayard

  27. Daydream Believers, by Fred Kaplan

  28. The Defining Moment, by Jonathan Alter

  29. Galileo's Pendulum, by Roger Newton

  30. Not Remotely Controlled, by Lee Siegel

  31. Overtreated, by Shannon Brownlee


  1. The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi

  2. Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

  3. Iron Sunrise, by Charles Stross

  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

  5. Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross

  6. Light, by M. John Harrison

  7. Playing for Pizza, by John Grisham

  8. The Runes of the Earth, by Stephen R. Donaldson

  9. A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

Kevin Drum 11:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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RESTORING HONOR AND DIGNITY....About a year ago, Paul Mirengoff at Powerline admitted to having a poor memory. "I may be missing someone," Mirengoff said, "but the only high-profile administration offical [sic] I can think of who has faced criminal charges or had to resign in the face of scandal is Scooter Libby, who worked for the Vice President and who is not accused of corruption."

This, of course, prompted my friends at TPM to put together a handy, dandy list of all the administration officials who have faced credible accusations of corruption; and/or resigned in the midst of a scandal.

Of course, that was a whole year ago, and there have been plenty of scandals since. Fortunately, Paul Kiel has released a revised version.

Since a complete catalog of administration officials who've been accused of some form of corruption or abuse of power would be endless, we tried to maintain a high standard for inclusion. Most of those below were the subjects of criminal probes, but we also included officials who were credibly accused of acts that, if not criminal, were a corruption of office (like the U.S. attorney scandal). And even then, such officials were only included if their accusers had them dead to rights (which is why Karl Rove didn't make the cut). We also limited ourselves to officials who were either political appointees or whose actions were so political that they were effectively political appointees (like John Tanner).

It's quite a list, broken up by categories: "Indicted/Convicted/Pled Guilty" (10 Bush administration officials); "Resigned Due to Investigation, Pending Investigation or Allegations of Impropriety" (24 officials); Nomination Failed Due to Scandal (five officials); and "Under Investigation But Still in Office" (three officials).

Not too long ago, it was George W. Bush who promised Americans, "We will ask not only what is legal, but what is right; not what the lawyers allow, but what the public deserves." It was part of his vow to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House.

In retrospect, his assurances are almost quaint.

Steve Benen 8:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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MCCAIN'S LOBBYIST ARMY....John McCain's website tells visitors, "Too often the special interest lobbyists with the fattest wallets and best access carry the day." It sounds like a compelling sentiment from a one-time reformer, and might even be impressive, just so long as you don't peek behind the curtain.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a break from the presidential campaign trail in March to fly to a posh Utah ski resort, where he mingled with hundreds of top corporate executives assembled by J.P. Morgan Chase for its annual leadership conference.

McCain's appearance at the Deer Valley event, arranged by J.P. Morgan Vice Chairman James B. Lee Jr., a top McCain fundraiser, put him in a room with the chief executives of companies such as General Electric, Xerox and Sony. It was, Lee said, "a chance for him to let them see him for who he is and possibly decide to support him." The effort paid off: J.P. Morgan executives have donated $56,250 to McCain's campaign, two-thirds of which came after his Utah appearance. And his visit there was quickly followed up by dozens of smaller private meetings with corporate executives in New York City arranged by leading Wall Street figures. [...]

As a presidential candidate this year, McCain has found himself assiduously courting both lobbyists and their wealthy clients, offering them private audiences as part of his fundraising. He also counts more than 30 lobbyists among his chief fundraisers, more than any other presidential contender.

It's certainly an awkward disconnect, isn't it? McCain is a "reformer," who rails against "special interests" and their "undue influence." Ever since that Keating 5 unpleasantness a while back, McCain has positioned himself as the Republicans' leading advocate of campaign-finance reform, denouncing colleagues who offer special access to donors in order to fill their campaign coffers.

And yet, there's McCain, giving powerful corporate lobbyists and their clients high-priced private schmooze sessions at exclusive retreats.

For that matter, let's also not forget that McCain not only surrounds himself with lobbyist fundraisers; he's also surrounded himself with more lobbyist staffers than any other candidate -- and more than most of the field combined.

If McCain's persona was in line with his conduct, he'd probably be a more impressive candidate.

Steve Benen 7:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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HUCKABEE'S MELTDOWN?....I wasn't planning to do yet another post about Mike Huckabee, but this one's too good to pass up.

There's been quite a bit of buzz today about Huckabee unveiling an important, hard-hitting ad at an Iowa press conference, which ostensibly would curtail Mitt Romney's momentum in the closing days before the caucuses.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the smackdown. Marc Cooper reports from Des Moines:

In what is likely to be remembered as one of the more bizarre moments of this campaign season, embattled GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee renounced negative campaigning today by unveiling an attack ad to a ballroom full of reporters and dozens of TV cameras.

Standing before a banner reading "Enough is Enough" and flanked by five large charts attacking the record of rival Mitt Romney, a haggard-looking Huckabee said that the fight to win Thursday's Republican caucus had gotten "out of hand" and "out of control" and that he would refrain from any more negative campaigning.

Huckabee told the assembled crowd of reporters, which I've been told was pretty big, that he and his campaign had already finished the attack ad, sent it local TV stations, and announced the press conference to unveil it ... and then Huckabee had an epiphany. "From now we will run only ads that say why I should be president not why Mitt Romney shouldn't be president," he said.

At which point, Huckabee showed the reporters the attack ad anyway, prompting what Cooper said was "loud gasps and laughter from the more than 150 reporters on hand."

Marc Ambinder noted that Huckabee is presumably "hoping that gullible news executives will run the ad that Huckabee is too much of a saint for not airing -- for free." Of course, given the reported laughter in the room, that seems unlikely.

We've all seen some very cheap stunts over the years, but they're not usually this cheap and not this transparent. Reporters covering the campaign aren't idiots, and Huckabee just insulted their intelligence.

Joe Klein concluded, "That sound you hear rumbling out of Des Moines appears to be a monumental implosion."

Steve Benen 4:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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OBAMA AND 'RE-BRANDING'....This came up quite a bit a couple of weeks ago, after the annoying Bob Kerrey brouhaha, but it's also been a part of the campaign debate for months: would Barack Obama's ethnic and racial background help improve the United States' image internationally, if he's elected?

Reza Aslan argues that the "chattering classes" who are encouraged by Obama's potential impact around the world are mistaken.

[I]n the words of the French foreign policy analyst Dominique Moisi, "The very moment he appears on the world's television screens, victorious and smiling, America's image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution."

As someone who once was that young Muslim boy everyone seems to be imagining (albeit in Iran rather than Egypt), I'll let you in on a secret: He could not care less who the president of the United States is.

Aslan's point seems incontrovertible: U.S. critics internationally care about the president's policies, not the president's ethnicity. If there's a competition between image and substance, the result isn't even close. "That is how the post-Bush 'war on terror' must be handled," Aslan wrote. "Not by 're-branding' the mess George W. Bush has made, but by actually fixing it."

And while this is obviously true, I think there are a couple of angles to this that make Aslan's thesis less persuasive.

First, Aslan argued from personal experience, growing up in Iran, that a young Muslim critic of the United States living in the Middle East "couldn't name three U.S. presidents if he tried." But I'm curious, hasn't the proliferation of the modern media changed this equation a bit from Aslan's youth?

I'm reminded of this recent piece from Slate's Fred Kaplan, who encouraged readers to send him suggestions for improving America's reputation on the global stage. Most of the responses came from foreigners or from Americans living abroad, and this was the most common recommendation:

Several readers emphasize that many foreigners, even those with high levels of education, have no concept of American life. They don't know that most Americans are religious people. They don't know that most of us aren't wildly rich. They're skeptical of reports that many black people live here -- or dismiss them as not "real Americans."....And so the most prominent suggestion on how to improve America's face in the world -- a suggestion made by well over half of those who wrote me -- is to send the world more American faces and to bring more of the world's faces into America.

....An American exchange student in Jordan writes of the foreigners he's met: "Once they see Americans -- blacks, Jews, Asians, and 'real' Americans, as they call blonde-haired Caucasians -- and hear their diverse opinions on issues from the War in Iraq to pop music, then people realize how much diversity there is in our country."

Are we to believe, given this, that electing a black man as president of the United States would have no effect on international perceptions? Granted, this would not exactly produce "epiphanies" for jihadists throughout the region -- but no one's saying it would. We're just talking about a modest step towards improving the nation's reputation, in the context of "soft power," not "hard power."

Second, Aslan's argument seems to be criticism of Obama, but it need not be. As far as I can tell, Obama has never said that his background would improve America's standing in the world. Indeed, Aslan's piece didn't cite any examples -- it instead criticized Andrew Sullivan and the Boston Globe's editorial board for making the arguments.

I've been watching Obama pretty closely for a year, and he's not talking about "re-branding"; he's been fairly specific about policy -- in several speeches and in his Foreign Affairs article -- detailing how he would change (read: improve) U.S. foreign policy. One can agree or disagree with his vision, but Aslan's criticism seems to be directed at Obama supporters, not Obama himself.

I think the point Obama backers have tried to make in this discussion is that his background might help, and that seems to be a fair point. It's not the be-all, end-all to a successful counter-terrorism campaign; it won't end al Qaeda recruiting; and it won't suddenly make the United States popular in the Middle East. The impact, in all likelihood, would be modest.

But it'd be something positive. As Kevin recently put it, "[I]n the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful."

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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WHEN THE RIAA LOSES ITS MIND....I appreciate the fact that the music business is in the midst of considerable turmoil. CD sales are abysmal, record companies are losing a lot of money, and music pirating has become fairly routine, prompting thousands of lawsuits from the RIAA against consumers. It's an industry facing major, system challenges.

But if the music business wants to get back on track, this definitely isn't the way to do it.

[I]n an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry's lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" of copyrighted recordings.

"I couldn't believe it when I read that," says Ray Beckerman, a New York lawyer who represents six clients who have been sued by the RIAA. "The basic principle in the law is that you have to distribute actual physical copies to be guilty of violating copyright. But recently, the industry has been going around saying that even a personal copy on your computer is a violation."

According to the WaPo report, the music industry's own website says that making a personal copy of a CD that you bought legitimately "may not be a legal right, but it 'won't usually raise concerns,' as long as you don't give away the music or lend it to anyone."

It appears, however, that it's raising plenty of concerns from the RIAA, which is taking a ridiculously hard-line. Indeed, it's as if the industry is anxious to destroy any remaining goodwill it may have left.

Matt Yglesias noted that, given this RIAA position, Hillary Clinton might be vulnerable to an expensive lawsuit, but I'd set my sights a little higher.

Steve Benen 1:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

QUICK HITS....Some quick hits for New Year's Eve:

  • Tyler Cowen's list of "policy areas where my views are uncertain." There are areas where I'd disagree in some ways — I think national healthcare is a necessary first step to containing healthcare costs, charter schools are a better bet than vouchers, and there's plenty of scope for getting started on global warming at only a modest cost — but overall, it's surprising how closely I agree with him. It just goes to show that real-world evidence that's inconclusive to a libertarian can be equally inconconclusive to a liberal, even if our temperaments and ideologies point us in different policy directions anyway.

  • And speaking of uncertainty, Borzou Daragahi has a good piece in the LA Times today about who really rules in Iran. The answer: it's not nearly as clear as a lot of people would like you to think. Daragahi's piece is a worthwhile corrective to a lot of the bloviating you read about Iran from neocon pundits and their fellow travelers.

  • And finally, aside from the sheer inanity of the New York Times picking a jingoistic hawk like Bill Kristol as its "conservative" columnist, what's really disappointing is how conventional the choice is. Kristol is well known, appears on TV a lot, and goes to the right parties, so now he's a Times columnist. Would it really have killed them to choose someone a little more interesting and little more heterodox? Will we even have to bother reading past the first paragraph of Kristol's columns to know what he's going to say? How about Chris Caldwell or Bruce Bartlett or Tyler Cowen or Clive Crook or Matt Continetti or Ross Douthat or Irwin Stelzer or David Kuo or — well, just about anybody besides the safest of safe choices? I don't agree with any of these other guys either, but at least they might occasionally write something that I didn't expect.

And with that, a Happy New Year to all! Except for Pinch Sulzberger.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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BIPARTISANSHIP FOR THE SAKE OF BIPARTISANSHIP....David Broder reported yesterday, and the NYT's Sam Roberts adds today, that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is still laying the groundwork for an independent presidential campaign, and will meet a week from today with some relatively high-profile politicians from both parties in the hopes of forming a "government of national unity."

Those who will be at the Jan. 7 session at the University of Oklahoma say that if the likely nominees of the two parties do not pledge to "go beyond tokenism" in building an administration that seeks national consensus, they will be prepared to back Bloomberg or someone else in a third-party campaign for president.

Dems like Sam Nunn, Chuck Robb, and David Boren will be there, as will Republicans like Chuck Hagel, John Danforth, and Christine Todd Whitman. Boren, who will host the meeting at the university, apparently has a deadline in mind, telling the Times that Democrats and Republicans would have two months to "formally embrace bipartisanship and address the fundamental challenges facing the nation."

Now, I try not to be reflexive about efforts like these. I don't reject bipartisan proposals out of hand, and if a handful of former office holders have some constructive policy ideas, they should certainly be encouraged to be part of the public debate.

But the closer one looks at this Bloomberg group initiative, the more this looks like bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship. Worse, it's a solution in search of a problem.

A letter from Nunn and Boren sent to those attending the Jan. 7 session said, "Today, we are a house divided. We believe that the next president must be able to call for a unity of effort by choosing the best talent available -- without regard to political party -- to help lead our nation."

I suppose that's fine, but one wonders if the group realizes that Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson have already said publicly that they would have Republicans serving in their cabinet -- a claim no Republican presidential candidate has made.

Indeed, one wonders just how closely the organizers of this meeting have been following current events. Their letter insisted that "partisan polarization is preventing us from uniting to meet the challenges that we must face." Really? Because it seems to me congressional Democrats over the last year have been negotiating with Republicans on everything from immigration to kids' healthcare to minimum wage to Iraq to ethics reform. Some one of those measures were vetoed, some were blocked by what is literally the most obstructionist Senate minority in American history, and on still others, Democrats simply caved rather than fighting too hard. But in each instance, "partisan polarization" didn't prevent much of anything; Republican politics did.

The entire Bloomberg endeavor, which hasn't even considered dealing with actual policy proposals outside of vague platitudes (the group apparently wants to "rebuild and reconfigure our military forces"), sounds like a daydream of former officials who believe Democrats and Republicans can join forces, solve all of our problems, and "get something done." Get what done? It doesn't matter; it'll be something.

It all sounds pleasant enough, but only in an immature kind of way. They seem to believe Americans need to get unified. Unified behind what? Behind unity.

I realize some people (David Broder, I'm looking in your direction) look at the policy differences between competing parties and ideologies as inherently petty and parochial. They're not. These arguments are indicative of a serious disagreement about the direction of the country. It's called politics, and it's perfectly healthy in a democracy. (To borrow a phrase, debate over substantive ideas is a feature, not a bug.)

Be sure to read Digby's and Chris Bowers' take on all of this, but I wanted to highlight a point Chris raised that's especially significant:

It would be nice, for once, if the constant drumbeat from Aging Wealthy White Men for National Unity Under Billionaire Media Moguls (AWWMNUUBM for short) decrying polarization, the lack of bi-partisanship and gridlock in Washington would actually provide specifics on what legislation their hated polarization, partisanship and gridlock is blocking. Of course, they won't actually do that, because blaming national problems on vague, undefined concepts like "polarization" and "gridlock" is much easier than actually analyzing the contemporary political scene in America.

Chris is absolutely right. Parties and campaigns are, or at least should be, about ideas and solutions. Bipartisanship for the sake of bipartisanship doesn't mean anything.

Steve Benen 10:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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'ACTS OF GOD'....Obviously, when it comes to religious beliefs, Mike Huckabee is free to think anything he wants. His faith is his business. That said, am I the only one who finds this a little odd?

Five days after the tornado tore through the state, [Arkadelphia, Ark., a] city of 10,000 lay in ruins. The cyclone destroyed an office building, a bank, a pharmacy and 70 other businesses. The electricity was out. The National Guard patrolled the streets. Six people were dead.

In Little Rock, GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee was reviewing a disaster insurance measure that he intended to support when he became troubled: The bill, drawing on centuries-old legal terminology, referred to natural disasters as "acts of God."

In a time of emergency, Huckabee would hold up the measure for more than three weeks to press his personal objection that the Almighty could not be blamed for the region's loss. In the process, he drew damaging headlines and created new strains in his relations with the state's legislature, the General Assembly.

Now, to be fair, it's worth noting that there's no indication that Huckabee's decision to delay the bill adversely affected anyone. But the state legislation in question sought to protect tornado victims from insurance companies that might cancel their policies, and used language -- "acts of God" -- which is standard in the law and in many insurance policies. Nevertheless, Huckabee refused to even consider disaster relief until the bill's wording was changed to meet his worldview.

One state senator noted, "Instead of getting focused on getting aid to the areas, he's in an uproar over words. It was kind of silly."

Huckabee told Tim Russert yesterday that the best way to consider whether he would blend religion and public policy as president is to look at "how I served as a governor." That's hardly reassuring.

Steve Benen 9:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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December 30, 2007

NO SEX FOR YOU....I had the same read on Mike Huckabee's "Meet the Press" appearance this morning as ThinkProgress:

On NBC's Meet The Press this morning, host Tim Russert asked former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee if he believed "people are born gay or choose to be gay?" "I don't know whether people are born that way," responded Huckabee, "but one thing I know, that the behavior one practices is a choice."

Huckabee conceded that "people who are gay say that they're born that way," but added that he believed that "how we behave and how we carry out that behavior" is more important.

I see. So, Huckabee doesn't actually care if someone is gay, he cares whether or not gays are celibate.

And here I thought his years of bizarre criticism of the gay community were a sign of intolerance. I've clearly misjudged him.

Steve Benen 2:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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THE ACCIDENTAL CANDIDATE....It's not exactly a secret that Fred Thompson's presidential campaign isn't going well. By some measures, that's a surprise -- he's plenty conservative; he's never flip-flopped on key issues; and he's not a member of a religious minority that the GOP base finds offensive. Simply as a matter of process of elimination, this guy should be huge.

There is, of course, a problem: Thompson apparently has no interest in actually running for president.

There's no shortage of stories about Thompson running a lackluster campaign that seems to include avoiding voters at all costs. Here's a good example. Here's another, another and another. It's as if the former senator is allergic to retail politics.

Given all of this, Thompson offered an unusual admission yesterday: his heart's really not into all of this.

"I'm not particularly interested in running for president," the former senator said at a campaign event in Burlington (Iowa) when challenged by a voter over his desire to be commander-in-chief.... "I'm only consumed by a few things and politics is not one of them."

I've seen quite a few reactions that Thompson's candid remarks are a good thing. Overly-ambitious candidates consumed with political gain are somehow unseemly, the theory goes, so Thompson is a breath of fresh air -- he wants to be president, but he has no taste for the silly, often demoralizing process.

I'm just not so sure this is a plus. Isn't there something to be said for a candidate having a "fire in the belly"? Excessive ambition can be unbecoming, but is there really something wrong with a leader stepping up and working hard to make his or her case to voters?

In other words, shouldn't someone who wants to be president be prepared to run for president with a certain enthusiasm? Given the current challenges the next president will face, maybe some passion for moving the nation forward might not be such a bad idea.

Michael Crowley, reporting from Iowa before Thompson's comments yesterday, noted:

[W]hy did [Thompson] flop so badly once he did run? Where to start? He got in too late, didn't sound prepared, lacked the movie-star presence people expected, and suffered from staff turmoil (widely attributed to Jeri). Above all, Thompson never offered a clear rationale for his candidacy -- a curious defect for a star contender, unless you consider what's become increasingly clear of late: On some level, the guy never really seemed to want it.

Proclaiming, "I'm not particularly interested in running for president" a few days before the Iowa caucuses probably won't help seal the deal.

Steve Benen 11:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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THE CIA TORTURE TAPES, CONT'D....As it turns out, the reasoning behind the CIA's decision to record interrogations on video, stop recording interrogations on video, and destroy the interrogation videos was all exactly the same: officials were hoping to avoid a public-relations nightmare.

If Abu Zubaydah, a senior operative of Al Qaeda, died in American hands, Central Intelligence Agency officers pursuing the terrorist group knew that much of the world would believe they had killed him.

So in the spring of 2002, even as the intelligence officers flew in a surgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat Abu Zubaydah, who had been shot three times during his capture in Pakistan, they set up video cameras to record his every moment: asleep in his cell, having his bandages changed, being interrogated.

In fact, current and former intelligence officials say, the agency's every action in the prolonged drama of the interrogation videotapes was prompted in part by worry about how its conduct might be perceived -- by Congress, by prosecutors, by the American public and by Muslims worldwide.

That worry drove the decision to begin taping interrogations -- and to stop taping just months later, after the treatment of prisoners began to include waterboarding. And it fueled the nearly three-year campaign by the agency's clandestine service for permission to destroy the tapes, culminating in a November 2005 destruction order from the service's director, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.

Now, the disclosure of the tapes and their destruction in 2005 have become just the public spectacle the agency had sought to avoid. To the already fierce controversy over whether the Bush administration authorized torture has been added the specter of a cover-up.

Jesse Stanchak noted the irony: "First the CIA began taping interrogations because it was trying to avoid a scandal, because it looked like a wounded prisoner might die in custody. Then it stopped taping interrogations because it wanted to avoid a scandal when water-boarding was introduced. Then it destroyed the tapes because it was worried they'd be leaked to the press. But the truth came out anyway, and now the agency has to cope with the public relations nightmare it's been trying to avoid all along."

Steve Benen 10:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

PROJECTION FROM THE FEVER SWAMP....Andrew Sullivan posted this email from a Republican reader today:

A party that is as motivated by revanchist impulse as today's Democratic Party cannot bring itself to transcend its anger. That is why Hillary will survive the Obama insurgency.

Yes, Obama would beat us, bad. We would hemorrhage Republican women and a significant number of conservatives would vote Obama to teach the Republicans in Washington not to deviate from Reagan and Goldwater. We would be forced to return to first principles, and we would.

But that is not what Democrats want....Hillary knows that her base voters are more filled with anger at Bush than they are with hope for the future and change for all the American people.

Whatever else you think about the Clinton vs. Obama question, this is almost certainly wrong. Among the activist liberal base — the people who are the loudest and angriest about what George Bush has done over the past seven years — support is way stronger for both Obama and John Edwards than for Hillary Clinton. Hell, in the dKos straw poll, Chris Dodd outdraws her too. Conversely, Hillary is the choice of much of the party leadership as well as much of the rank and file, including women, blue collar workers, and moderates who believe (fairly or not) that Obama simply isn't experienced enough.

Conservatives tend to be so blinded by their hatred for Hillary that they're convinced that her liberal supporters are also motivated by hatred. But they aren't. Among activist liberals, Hillary is mostly viewed as as smart and hardworking, but also triangulating and mainstream. She's the candidate of caution and moderation, not the candidate of the haters. The anti-Clinton fever swamp protests too much.

Kevin Drum 12:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (93)

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December 29, 2007

DUMBEST. LEGAL ARGUMENTS. EVER....I'm usually one to skip year-end Top 10 lists, but Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has arguably written the best one of the season: "The Bush Administration's Top 10 Stupidest Legal Arguments of 2007."

Most reasonable people who take the law seriously would be humiliated by any of one of these legal assertions, but the president's lawyers not only made all of these absurd arguments, they did so in just the last 12 months.

The list is a cornucopia of greatest hits, including gems such as "The NSA's eavesdropping was limited in scope," "The vice president's office is not a part of the executive branch," "Water-boarding may not be torture," and my personal favorite, "Everyone who has ever spoken to the president about anything is barred from congressional testimony by executive privilege."

Take a look.

Steve Benen 6:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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GIULIANI SURROGATE CALLS MUSLIMS 'MADMEN'....John Deady, a designated surrogate for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign, and a leader of "Veterans for Rudy," was caught on video making some jaw-dropping comments about Muslims. Here's what Deady said about Giuliani:

"He's got I believe the knowledge and the judgment to attack one of the most difficult problems in current history and that is the rise of the Muslims, and make no mistake about it, this hasn't happened for a thousand years. These people are very, very dedicated and they're also very smart, in their own way. We need to keep the feet to the fire and keep pressing these people until we defeat or chase them back to their caves -- or in other words get rid of them."

It certainly sounded like Deady wasn't just targeting so-called "Islamofascists," but rather was talking publicly about chasing all Muslims "back to their caves," and getting "rid of them."

Greg Sargent tracked Deady down yesterday afternoon, and the Giuliani surrogate didn't back down at all. Indeed, he made matters worse. Asked, for example, if he stood by his comments, Deady said:

"I most assuredly do. I've been very concerned about this Muslim thing for quite awhile. The average American does not know beans about what the Muslims are about. I am talking about the Muslims in general. I don't subscribe to the principle that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. They're all Muslims."

Deady added, "When I say get rid of them, I wasn't necessarily referring to genocide."

He wasn't "necessarily" referring to genocide?

As of late last night, the Giuliani campaign said it would ask Deady to resign "if these quotes are accurate." Stay tuned.

Steve Benen 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT FOREIGN POLICY....In October, David Brooks, in an otherwise fawning column about Mike Huckabee, conceded that "his foreign policy thinking is thin." That was obviously a dramatic understatement.

Earlier this month, he didn't know what the National Intelligence Estimate was. A week later, the former governor identified Thomas Friedman and Frank Gaffney as his biggest influences on foreign policy, despite the fact that Friedman and Gaffney don't actually agree on anything.

This week, any shred of credibility Huckabee maintained on foreign policy quickly vanished. In the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, the Arkansan's first reaction was to argue that the slaying should lead to a reevaluation of U.S. immigration policy. Of course, the assertion didn't make any sense.

Indeed, it's been a particularly embarrassing couple of days for Huckabee. He argued that "we have more Pakistani illegals" entering the U.S. than any other nationality, aside from Mexico. That's not even close to being true. He said the Pakistani government "does not have enough control of those eastern borders near Afghanistan to be able go after the terrorists." He meant western borders.

His campaign tried to explain the candidate's ignorance.

A senior aide to Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee admitted Friday that the former Arkansas governor had "no foreign policy credentials" after his comments reacting to the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto raised questions.

During an event Friday in Pella, Iowa, Huckabee said the crisis sparked by Bhutto's death should lead to a crackdown on illegal immigrants from Pakistan. The Huckabee official told CNN that when he said that, Huckabee was trying to turn attention away from scrutiny of his foreign policy knowledge.

How terribly odd. Huckabee is under criticism for his breathtaking confusion about foreign affairs, so he thought it was wise to make it worse, connecting the Bhutto assassination to Republican fears about immigration.

We're less than a week from the Iowa caucuses, and Huckabee has taken the lead in some national polls. Is it too much to ask that he, I don't know, start reading the newspaper in the morning? Couldn't he at least pretend to care about what's going on in the world?

Kevin's question from a few weeks ago is still salient: "[W]ill anyone press him on this? Or will he get the village idiot treatment that Republicans since Ronald Reagan have so often gotten, where they're sort of expected to say harebrained stuff and nobody holds it against them?"

Steve Benen 9:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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December 28, 2007

KRISTOL CLEAR....Recently cast off from Time magazine, presumably for writing shallow, predictable tripe, William Kristol is getting a promotion of sorts.

The Huffington Post has learned that, in a move bound to create controversy, the New York Times is set to announce that Bill Kristol will become a weekly columnist in 2008. Kristol, a prominent neo-conservative who recently departed Time magazine in what was reported as a "mutual" decision, has close ties to the White House and is a well-known proponent of the war in Iraq. Kristol also is a regular contributor to Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume.

If the report is accurate, and Kristol is joining the Times' roster, this is an embarrassment from which the paper of record will not soon recover. If Kristol were merely wrong about matters of national significance, this decision would merely be a mistake. But in recent years Kristol has become far more -- gone are the "soothing tones" that made him a mainstay on the DC cocktail circuit, replaced with a bitter, sycophantic belligerence.

Over the summer, when Kristol started blaming American liberals for Khmer Rouge's crimes, and arguing that the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam also created the conditions for the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979, I started wondering if Kristol actually believes his own nonsense. Except, as Jonathan Chait explained, it may not matter: "Kristol's good standing in the Washington establishment depends on the wink-and-nod awareness that he's too smart to believe his own agitprop. Perhaps so. But, in the end, a fake thug is not much better than the real thing."

True, except now, one of the world's most prestigious news outlets has apparently given this thug space on the most valuable media real estate in existence.

Kevin Drum captured Kristol's clownish persona perfectly back in June:

The Bill Kristol phenomenon is a stellar example of what a nice suit and a sober tone of voice can do for you. When Curtis LeMay suggested bombing North Vietnam into the Stone Age and getting over our fear of using nuclear weapons, everyone saw him for what he was: a bellicose nutcase. Kristol is barely any less bloodthirsty, but he's smart enough to talk in more soothing tones. As a result, he gets columns in Time magazine, edits his own widely-read magazine, and shows up constantly on television.

Underneath it, though, he's every bit the bellicose nutcase that LeMay was. His answer to every foreign policy problem is exactly the same: a proposal to use the maximum amount of force that he thinks elite opinion can tolerate. But Kristol is well dressed, soft spoken, and a lively dinner companion. So everyone just sort of shrugs their shoulders at the fact that he basically wants to go to war with the whole world. It's a nice gig.

Standards and consequences be dammed, it's a gig that seems to keep getting better.

Steve Benen 8:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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MCCAIN'S 'SECRET ANTI-ROMNEY AD'....With the polls narrowing in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney's campaign has launched a negative TV ad against John McCain, noting the senator's votes against Bush's tax cuts, against a repeal of the estate tax, and for an immigration-reform bill the GOP's far-right base condemns as "amnesty." The commercial says McCain is "an honorable man," but asks, "Is he the right Republican for the future?"

Slate's John Dickerson obtained a McCain ad -- ironically, created by media advisors who quit McCain's campaign to join with Romney -- that Dickerson calls "the perfect counterpunch" to Romney's latest spot. (Apparently, the McCain campaign put the ad together six months ago, but sat on it, allegedly "reluctant" to go negative.)

The McCain team's response is that Romney has to talk about the future because he's spent much of the campaign running from his past. This may become more than a quip if the campaign decides to air the following television ad, which they've had on the shelf since the spring.

The ad hangs Romney with his own words -- he advocates for a woman's right to choose and gun control, gets tongue tied on his own hunting practices, and distances himself from Ronald Reagan).

You can see the "secret" ad here, which hits Romney for having been a moderate-to-liberal Republican on culture-war issues. Dickerson sees this as the kind of ad that could seriously undermine Romney's campaign. I don't see it that way at all.

Here's the thing: everyone, including Republican voters, knows all about Romney's previous beliefs. He's spent the entire year assuring conservatives, or at least trying to, that he bears no resemblance to his former self. To hear his pitch, Romney is a convert to the conservative cause. (Whether one believes his transformation is sincere or not is another matter entirely.)

McCain, however, has a record that a lot of Republican activists may not remember, and unlike Romney, he hasn't been peppered with questions about his Republican apostasy throughout 2007. Romney's ad hits McCain on taxes and immigration, but he also championed sweeping campaign-finance reform with Russ Feingold that conservatives generally hate, joined with John Edwards to support a Patients' Bill of Rights that conservatives generally hate, voted against an anti-gay constitutional amendment that conservatives generally love, and told a national television audience in 2004 that he would consider joining the Democratic ticket as John Kerry's running mate.

Indeed, in April 2004, just as the national Republican campaign was beginning in earnest, McCain said, "I believe my party has gone astray.... I think the Democratic Party is a fine party, and I have no problems with it, in their views and their philosophy."

Everyone knows Romney was pro-choice; does everyone know McCain said this? I kind of doubt it.

Dickerson argues that McCain has the "perfect" response to Romney's criticism of his record. But unless McCain is prepared to do what Romney has done -- disavow everything he used to believe -- McCain has far more to lose from this fight.

Steve Benen 5:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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USE IT OR LOSE IT....If one were to list of all the reasons Joe Lieberman is annoying, it'd take a while. There's his support for the Bush/Cheney foreign policy; his broken promises from the 2006 campaign; his constant reinforcing of right-wing media frames; his support for GOP obstructionism; etc.

While all of those are, to be sure, maddening, I'd put an entirely different problem at the top of the list: his wholesale negligence as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Brian Beutler has a great piece today on "The Year in Oversight," and notes a point that doesn't get emphasized nearly enough:

There certainly have been gaffes, softballs, and missed opportunities. And the most obvious are found in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security -- the Senate's version of Rep. Henry Waxman's Oversight Committee in the House. Unlike Waxman's enthusiastic probing, the Senate chair conducted zero proactive investigations into Bush administration malfeasance. It's chairman? Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman.

A year ago, seeking re-election, Lieberman said this committee was his top priority, and he was desperate to return to the Senate so he could wield the gavel. And now that he has the authority he sought, he's decided not to conduct any real oversight of the administration at all.

He seems to have desperately sought a chairman's gavel just for the sake of having it -- Lieberman wanted power he had no intention of using.

I appreciate the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was in a bind before the 110th Congress began. Rumor has it, to keep Lieberman in the caucus, Reid had to give him the chairmanship -- or get stuck with a 50-50 split.

But consequences have to matter. Instead of a Senate Committee on Government Affairs that functions as it should, Lieberman just treads water, using his gavel as a flotation device. It's an embarrassing waste of what's supposed to be the Senate's watchdog committee.

Steve Benen 4:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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AN UNEXPECTED VETO....The president went nearly six years in office without vetoing a single bill, but has now had seven -- including funding the war in Iraq, stem-cell research (twice), and healthcare for low-income kids (twice). In each instance, lawmakers were well aware of the White House's opposition, but passed the bills anyway, hoping Bush would either change his mind or they could override the veto.

Which is what makes veto #8 so odd.

At the behest of the Iraqi government, President Bush will veto the annual defense authorization bill, saying an obscure provision in the legislation could make Iraqi assets held in U.S. banks vulnerable to lawsuits.

The veto threat startled Democratic congressional leaders, who believe Bush is bowing to pressure from the Iraqi government over a technical provision in the bill. The veto is unexpected because there was no veto threat and the legislation passed both chambers of Congress overwhelmingly.

Democratic leaders say the provision in question could easily be worked out, but in vetoing the massive defense policy bill, military pay raises may be on hold, as well as dozens of other programs.

This is just bizarre. If the provision of the bill was so offensive, why didn't the White House, which was aware of the legislation's progress as it passed, say something sooner?

As the AP noted, "sovereign nations are normally immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts. An exception is made for state sponsors of terrorism and Iraq was designated such a nation in 1990. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, Congress passed a law and Bush issued a decree stating that Iraq was exempt from such lawsuits."

So, what's the problem here?

Keep in mind, the veto of the defense authorization bill puts a variety of key spending measures in limbo, including a pay raise for the troops, VA care for wounded veterans, a new "Truman Commission" to fight fraud and waste by military contractors, and expanded job protections for family members of severely wounded troops.

What a mess.

Steve Benen 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY ON HEALTHCARE....Did Rudy Giuliani really say this? It's right up there with "After all, you just go to an emergency room." What a clown.

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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THE BUSH/RICE LEGACY....In the NYT this week, Robert Dallek reviews Elisabeth Bumiller's new book on Condoleezza Rice, "An American Life: A Biography." One gets the sense the book probably won't be too hard-hitting -- Bumiller has a well-earned reputation for passivity, and Dallek notes the biography's "above-the-battle tone" and refusal to "offer any decisive judgments on Ms. Rice's performance."

Most notably, though, there was this gem:

Ms. Bumiller says that if President Bush and Ms. Rice can produce a settlement in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians and an end to North Korea's nuclear program, it would give them claims on success that would significantly improve their historical reputations.

After struggling a bit, I think the word I'm looking for here is, "Duh."

As Scott Lemieux put it, "And if I discover a way of powering cars entirely with oxygen, emitting a vapor that would result in the immediate killing of cockroaches and paralysis in the hands of every Hollywood producer about to sign a contract with Joel Schumacher and Uwe Boll, my reputation as a world-class scientist would be greatly enhanced."

Yglesias gets in on the fun, too: "By the same token, if earth's yellow sun gave me the powers of a kryptonian, I'd be a super hero. If my blog had Engadget's traffic, I'd be the most popular political blogger. If George Bush could breath underwater, he'd be a fish."

To be sure, if Bush and Rice can bring peace to Israel (after seven years of intentional neglect) and solve the North Korean nuclear crisis (which they helped exacerbate through a meandering and misguided foreign policy), then sure, the progress would certainly "improve their historical reputations."

But if that's what it will take, I'm fairly confident that history will not be kind.

Steve Benen 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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NOONAN DEFINES 'REASONABLE'....The WSJ's Peggy Noonan argues today that her top characteristic when evaluating presidential candidates is "reasonableness." The former Reagan speechwriter insists:

We are grown-ups, we know our country needs greatness, but we do not expect it and will settle at the moment for good. We just want a reasonable person. We would like a candidate who does not appear to be obviously insane. We'd like knowledge, judgment, a prudent understanding of the world and of the ways and histories of the men and women in it.

At face value, there's nothing especially offensive about this standard. Noonan is setting the bar fairly low -- "not insane" isn't exactly a compelling campaign pitch -- but she's sketched out a relatively practical model.

That is, until Noonan starts applying her standards to specific candidates. Here's her take on the former senator from North Carolina:

John Edwards is not reasonable. All the Democrats would raise taxes as president, but Mr. Edwards's populism is the worst of both worlds, both intemperate and insincere. Also we can't have a president who spent two minutes on YouTube staring in a mirror and poofing his hair. Really, we just can't.

Noonan had just finished arguing that American voters "are grown-ups," and then she turns around and takes on John Edwards' hair, suggesting brushing one's hair before a TV interview is somehow a disqualifying factor for a presidential candidate. He's just not "reasonable" enough.

What's more, Glenn Greenwald notes that "poofing" isn't actually a word, "but rather, a British epithet for a male homosexual -- 'Slang: Disparaging and Offensive' -- a synonym for 'faggot.'"

Noonan's looking for a candidate with a "prudent understanding of the world." I'm looking for a columnist in a major national newspaper with the same attribute.

Steve Benen 10:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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GIULIANI'S CLIENT LIST....A year ago, the senior managing director for Rudy Giuliani's consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, said, "We bend over backwards and are very careful about who we do business with, for the most obvious reasons -- from the beginning, Rudy's brand of integrity and ethics always had to be preserved."

In retrospect, the comment seems almost comical. The latest dubious client to draw scrutiny is Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin. The NYT's report details the extent to which the former mayor went to bat for the OxyContin makers, in exchange for a small fortune, lobbying prosecutors, meeting with DEA officials, persuading lawmakers, and winning public-relations battles, all for a company led by executives who later pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

For those keeping score at home, the list of controversial clients, none of which Giuliani is willing to acknowledge publicly, is getting pretty long. There's the Hank Asher controversy, the business relationship with a Qataran emir accused of sheltering dangerous terrorists (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), and the Hong Kong organized crime figure with reported ties to North Korea, among others.

Of course, these are just the ones we already know about. Why, pray tell, won't Giuliani come clean about the others? Jonathan Chait takes a look today at the former mayor's list of excuses.

Giuliani's first defense is that he cannot divulge his clients because they asked to sign confidentiality agreements. In fact, Giuliani Partners, not its clients, is the party that requests confidentiality.

Giuliani also says we shouldn't worry, because most of his clients have been revealed in the press, anyway. "Just about every single client of Giuliani Partners, which is my security company, has been discussed, has been examined, certainly every significant one," he told Russert. Just about every client? This is approximately as reassuring as a murder suspect who tells the police they can search just about every room in his house.

Giuliani has further insisted that every one of his clients is upstanding. "None of them," he told Russert, "amount to anything other than ethical, lawful, decent work done by both companies, sometimes of the highest standards, always ethical and decent." Not only is this obviously false, if you think about it, it has to be false. Giuliani is in the business of selling his reputation. What sort of firms need to buy that product? Not the Boy Scouts of America. It's drug smugglers, scandal-plagued firms, and others who need the imprimatur of Giuliani's 9/11 halo.

But that's fine, of course, because "Rudy's brand of integrity and ethics always had to be preserved." Please.

Steve Benen 9:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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December 27, 2007

POLLS, POLLS, POLLS....On Monday, the American Research Group released a very surprising new poll out of Iowa, which has caused quite a stir when it showed Hillary Clinton with a 14-point lead over her closest Democratic competitors in Iowa.

An outlier? Probably. New results from the LAT show a far more competitive race.

In New Hampshire, Obama has 32% of Dem primary voters to Hillary's 30%, while Edwards trails with 18% -- a big swing from September, when Obama was losing to Hillary, 35%-16%.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, Hillary is edging Obama, 29%-26%, while Edwards has 25%, a statistical dead heat.

Of course, as Pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal explained, any poll conducted over the holiday season is bound to be problematic.

Caveat emptor.

Steve Benen 10:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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PLEASE, STAY HOME....Former President Bill Clinton caused a bit of a stir recently when he suggested Hillary Clinton, if elected, would send her husband and H.W. Bush around the world to help repair the United States' image after seven years of deteriorating global standing. (Bush 41 reportedly isn't interested.)

In light of Clinton's comments, Bush was asked at a White House press conference last week if he would consider a "goodwill mission to restore the country's good name abroad." The president said, "That's what I do during my presidency. I go around spreading goodwill and talking about the importance of spreading freedom and peace." He didn't appear to be kidding.

In either case, it wasn't an off-hand comment -- the president is apparently planning some road-trips.

President George W. Bush's diplomatic passport will acquire a slew of new country stamps during his final year in office as he tries to rebuild the U.S.'s international standing and create a foreign-policy legacy beyond Iraq.

The president plans trips to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America, which would make 2008 his busiest year abroad. While his major domestic initiatives may get stalled by a Democratic majority in Congress and the gridlock caused by election-year politics, he still has an opportunity to exert his influence overseas. [...]

While the president will strive to strengthen alliances, it won't come at the expense of continuing to prosecute the war on terror, said Jim Jeffrey, the deputy White House national security adviser.

"We want to be well-perceived in the world," Jeffrey said in an interview. "But more importantly, we want to formulate policies that will protect the American people."

With all due respect to Bush and his team, maybe we'll be "well-perceived in the world" if the president stays home and changes his policies, instead of traveling abroad and keeping his existing policies? Just throwing that out there.

Steve Benen 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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MAKING THE MOST OF A TRAGEDY....I hesitate to use the word "shameless," but to see presidential campaigns exploit the Bhutto assassination for partisan gain is more than a little disconcerting.

Josh Marshall noted, "The leading Dem candidates for president appear to be in a pitched battle to make the most craven and insipid uses of the Bhutto assassination for immediate political advantage. A true horse race."

I think that's certainly true, but I'd add that it's not just Democrats.

In response to a question from CNN's Dana Bash on whether the current situation helps his campaign, McCain responded: "I'm the one with the experience, the knowledge and the judgment, so perhaps it may serve to enhance those credentials, or make people understand that I've been to Waziristan, I know Musharraf, I can pick up the phone and call him. I knew Benazir Bhutto, I know the area. But I hate for anything like this to be the cause of any political gain for anyone." (emphasis added)

Translation: "Once I'm done exploiting the tragedy, it's important to note how wrong it is to exploit the tragedy."

Paul Krugman has some helpful advice to the entire field of presidential hopefuls:

To all the presidential campaigns trying to claim that the atrocity in Pakistan somehow proves that they have the right candidate -- please stop.

This isn't about you; in fact, as far as I can tell, it isn't about America. It's about the fact that Pakistan is a very messed-up place. This has very bad consequences for us, but it's hard to see what, if anything, it says about US policy.... This isn't about us, and it's out of our control.

Atrios added, "When your first reaction to an event like this is to tell voters what you think it says about you, it's time to get off the campaign trail for a few minutes."

Steve Benen 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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MCCAIN'S ONE-TRACK MIND....Apparently within striking distance in New Hampshire, and being touted in some circles as having an indirect route to the GOP nomination, John McCain has quickly become the center of Mitt Romney's attention. The two had an interesting exchange yesterday, with the former governor accusing the senator, fairly, of flip-flopping on taxes and immigration. McCain responded:

"I know something about tailspins, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one," said the former front-runner. "It's disappointing that he would launch desperate, flailing and false attacks in an attempt to maintain relevance."

The "tailspin" reference was, of course, a reference to McCain's Vietnam service. It seems to be part of a pattern.

When McCain laments earmark spending, he emphasizes his Vietnam service. When he talks about military challenges in the 21st century, he emphasizes his Vietnam service. When he delivers a Christmas message, he emphasizes his Vietnam service.

It's a subtle theme, isn't it?

To be sure, by any reasonable measure, McCain's experience in the military during the war in Vietnam was heroic and demands respect. If he wants to use this part of his biography in the presidential campaign, it makes perfect sense -- like John Kerry, that's what war heroes do.

But let's not forget that, during the last presidential campaign, when Kerry reminded voters of his own heroic service, McCain criticized him for it.

"I'm sick and tired of re-fighting the Vietnam War. And most importantly, I'm sick and tired of opening the wounds of the Vietnam War, which I've spent the last 30 years trying to heal," the Arizona Republican said at a lunch with USA TODAY and Gannett News Service. "It's offensive to me, and it's angering to me that we're doing this. It's time to move on." [...]

McCain said Kerry may have opened himself to criticism by focusing on Vietnam. In his own primary campaign in 2000, McCain said, he didn't have to because everyone knew he'd been there. For Kerry, "it's clearly a tactical or strategic move" to shield him against "charges of being too liberal and soft on defense."

Would it be unfair to question whether McCain's near-constant references, which he intentionally avoided in 2000, are now part of a "tactical or strategic move"?

Steve Benen 3:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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THE LIMITS OF HUCKABEE'S OUTRAGE....Way back in May, at the first debate for the Republican presidential candidates, there was an interesting exchange that signaled the kind of talk we could expect from Mike Huckabee.

The former governor explained, "The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we're not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas ... and then watch as a CEO takes a hundred-million-dollar bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else." After decrying CEO pay and vulnerable worker pensions, Huckabee concluded, "That's criminal. It's wrong. And if Republicans don't stop it, we don't deserve to win in 2008."

At the time, it surprised some people that a Republican candidate would even pay lip service to the concerns of working people. It led some to argue that Huckabee had something of a populist streak.

He doesn't. For one thing, it's hard to even take the notion seriously given Huckabee's enthusiastic support for a 23% national sales tax. For another, his talk about how "criminal" it is for CEOs to reap a windfall while workers are losing their jobs is just pleasant-sounding rhetoric, which he has no intention of taking seriously.

Huckabee made this abundantly clear during a CNBC interview on Monday night.

HARWOOD: Governor, let me ask you, which is the criminal part, the loss of those jobs and the loss of pension, or the golden parachute for the CEO? And what would you do about either one?

HUCKABEE: It's a combination. It's when one person is losing his job who helped make the company successful and the person who steers the company either into bankruptcy or selling off it in pieces has that golden parachute of $700 million.... What the government ought to do is to call attention to it, put some spotlight to it. I don't think it's about coming up with some new regulation. Corporate boards ought to show some responsibility. If a board allows that kind of thing to happen, shame on that board.

Asked if he, as president, would actually want to do something about the problem, Huckabee said he would "like" to see corporate boards "show responsibility." He would oppose efforts to regulate, though, because government action "only exacerbates a problem."

So, in May, Huckabee insisted that it was "criminal" to see CEOs cleaning up while workers are losing their jobs, and said Republicans have no choice but to intervene and "stop it." But in December, Huckabee believes the government should do nothing more than "call attention to" the problem.

I suppose it's the difference between a long-shot in the spring, and a credible challenger in the fall. Seven months ago, Huckabee could pretend to care about working people, because few knew his name, and even fewer thought he had a chance. Now, Huckabee wants to win, so he's dropping the pretense.

Something to consider the next time the media mentions Huckabee's "populist" streak.

Steve Benen 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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BRAVE NEW WORLD....One of the more annoying qualities of the Bush White House's policy on stem-cell research the last several years is its incoherence. It's not just that the president has blocked potentially life-saving medical research, it's that his rationale for doing so ends up contradicting itself.

As Bush sees it, embryos are people, and should therefore not be subjected to medical testing. The White House, at one point last year, went so far as to argue that it's literally "murder" to conduct research on these embryos.

At the same time, however, the same White House brags about the president's support for privately-funded stem-cell research, and touts Bush's support for IVF clinics, where "people" are stored and destroyed all the time. If any of this bothers the president, he could ask Congress to intervene. He hasn't.

I've long wondered how Bush came to embrace such a bizarre position, and assumed he was just winging it, making up a rationale as he went along. As it turns out, that's not the case -- the president was influenced by a dystopian sci-fi novel. Actually, he was influenced by portions of a dystopian sci-fi novel, which someone read to him.

In the new issue of Commentary magazine, former Bush advisor Jay Lefkowitz explained how he helped convince the president to oppose public funding of additional stem-cell lines: he used "Brave New World." (via ThinkProgress)

A few days later, I brought into the Oval Office my copy of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley's 1932 anti-utopian novel, and as I read passages aloud imagining a future in which humans would be bred in hatcheries, a chill came over the room.

"We're tinkering with the boundaries of life here," Bush said when I finished. "We're on the edge of a cliff. And if we take a step off the cliff, there's no going back. Perhaps we should only take one step at a time."

To be fair, Lefkowitz's article doesn't suggest that reading from Huxley was the only thing that convinced the president to take a bizarre position on the issue, but based on his piece, reading "passages" from the Huxley novel had an effect.

It suggests the White House, for all its rhetoric, was taking the policy debate about as seriously as it takes any substantive discussion -- which is to say, not at all. Taking a step "off the cliff"? We're talking about a controversy in which medical researchers would use embryos from IVF clinics that would otherwise be discarded. This bears no resemblance to "a future in which humans would be bred in hatcheries" -- unless someone is just looking for an excuse to block the research in the first place.

Steve Benen 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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THAT DIDN'T TAKE LONG...I got my first email that Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto had been killed at 8:47 a.m. this morning. I started hearing about "what this means" for the U.S. presidential race by about 8:56 a.m. (By 9:30 a.m., Joe Scarborough apparently was telling MSNBC viewers that this is good news for Rudy Giuliani.) It's just that kind of news cycle, I suppose.

Given that details of the events in Rawalpindi are still emerging, it's obviously far too soon to know what effect, if any, this might have on the Dems' and Republicans' nominating process. Indeed, it's not unreasonable to think most Americans probably don't know who Benazir Bhutto is, and her assassination will not necessarily influence their presidential preferences.

But for those who are engaged in current events, the speculation is already well underway.

Bloody images of Pakistan in turmoil, which will dominate newspapers and TV news just as Iowa voters are making their final decision and the caucuses are only a week away , will remind voters that this is a dangerous world.

And the aftermath -- still very unclear in the chaos surrounding Bhutto's death -- will test the agility of the presidential campaigns in dealing with an unexpected and momentous event; a dry run for daily life at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

I suppose it's fairly easy to guess what the various message maestros are going to tell us.

Bhutto's assassination is bound to help Hillary Clinton, because she has experience on the national stage.

No, say John McCain backers, this is bound to help him because he has military experience.

No, say Barack Obama backers, this is bound to help him because in a time of crisis, we clearly need someone with good judgment.

No, say Rudy Giuliani backers, this is bound to help him because he was the mayor of a city attacked by terrorists.

No, say Mitt Romney backers, this is bound to help him because it hurts Mike Huckabee, whose understanding of foreign affairs rivals that of small children.

No, say Joe Biden backers, this is bound to help him because he has more foreign policy experience than most of the candidates in both parties put together.

My hunch is no one has the foggiest idea which U.S. presidential candidate, if any, Bhutto's death helps -- but it's not the most important part of the story. Apparently, though, that won't deter the breathless chatter.

(edited slightly for clarity)

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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BENAZIR BHUTTO REPORTEDLY KILLED....Stunning news out of Pakistan this morning:

Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday in a suicide bombing that also killed at least 20 others at a campaign rally, a party aide and a military official said.

"At 6:16 p.m. she expired," said Wasif Ali Khan, a member of Bhutto's party who was at Rawalpindi General Hospital where she was taken after the attack.

A senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, confirmed that Bhutto had died.

Widespread unrest in Pakistan is practically inevitable, and Bhutto supporters outside the hospital where she was treated began chanting "Dog, Musharraf, dog," in reference to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf, of course, had promised free parliamentary elections next month, coinciding with the end of his "emergency rule," though, given Bhutto's reported assassination, the country may be poised to endure additional turmoil.

Update: Spencer Ackerman spoke with NYU's Barnett Rubin, a South Asia expert.

Bhutto's assassination presents an opportunity for Musharraf. "It's very possible Musharraf will declare [another] state of emergency and postpone the elections," Rubin continues. "That will confirm in many people's minds the idea that the military is behind" the assassination. For it's part, the U.S. will likely "be scrambling to say the election either needs to be held as planned or postponed rather than canceled, but Musharraf is in a position to preempt that."

As a result, Rubin says, U.S. strategy is "in tatters."

Ackerman adds, "The most likely culprit is the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. But it's not exactly an event met with tears by the Pakistani military, which thoroughly controls the government and the economy."

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Kevin Drum

INFLATION....Michael Barbaro has a followup story about weak holiday season sales today, and this time he takes inflation into account:

A final sales tally from the season will not be available from most chains until next week. But an early projection from MasterCard Advisors, a unit of the credit card company, found that overall spending from Nov. 23 to Dec. 24, when adjusted for inflation, was essentially unchanged over last year, a weak performance.

Given the uncertainties in the proper measure of inflation to use, this is probably OK. In reality, I think the MasterCard projection probably shows a small decrease in sales compared to last year, but depending on how you calculate things it might turn out to be pretty close to zero.

As for myself, I have no data to offer on holiday sales, but I do have an anecdote. I went out to a gigantic new local shopping center today and business was.....normal. I had no trouble parking, no trouble walking right into the movie theater (Charlie Wilson's War, flawed but still lots of fun), and the crowds at Borders, Best Buy, and Whole Foods seemed about like normal Saturday levels.

Leave your own anecdotes in comments. Leave enough of them, and perhaps they'll magically morph into data.

Kevin Drum 1:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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December 26, 2007

QUITE AN ENDORSEMENT....You've probably heard some of the subtle ridicule of Jonah Goldberg's soon-to-be-published book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. (My particular favorite came last week, when we learned Goldberg's book will argue that "Nazi attitudes toward homosexuality are a source of confusion.")

But never fear; Charles Murray thinks the book is great.

"'It is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion,' Jonah Goldberg writes near the beginning of Liberal Fascism. My first reaction was that he is engaging in partisan hyperbole. That turned out to be wrong. Liberal Fascism is nothing less than a portrait of 20th-century political history as seen through a new prism. It will affect the way I think about that history — and about the trajectory of today's politics — forever after."

Well, in that case, it must be good, right?

In 2008, this book will truly be the gift that keeps on giving.

Steve Benen 9:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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GOOD STEWARDS....It hasn't been an especially good week for the Bush administration when it comes to responsible use of taxpayer dollars. The news on Monday was discouraging...

After the United States has spent more than $5 billion in a largely failed effort to bolster the Pakistani military effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, some American officials now acknowledge that there were too few controls over the money. The strategy to improve the Pakistani military, they said, needs to be completely revamped.

...and the news today is nearly as bad.

A September 2007 State Department report, obtained by TPMmuckraker, found that contractors DynCorp and Blackwater can't account for $28.4 million in U.S. government-issued property in Afghanistan, including armored cars, guns and radios.

The report, prepared by the State Department inspector-general's office, hits the department for its lack of "adequate internal control over the government property held by contractors." It calls the property lists provided by State officials managing the contract in Afghanistan "incomplete and, therefore, unreliable." The $28.4 million worth of missing or poorly-documented property represents 21 percent of the government property held by DynCorp and Blackwater.

In some cases, the property has disappeared into a bureaucratic morass, thanks to State's improper bookkeeping. But in other cases, the property appears to be simply gone.

Of course, it's not just this week -- we've known for quite a while that the administration "lost track" of $9 billion in Iraqi reconstruction funds, which was followed by the administration being "unable to account" for $1.2 billion it had awarded to DynCorp in Iraq.

I seem to recall a certain president warning voters that Democrats aren't good stewards of our tax dollars. It'd be funny, of course, if it weren't so expensive.

Steve Benen 7:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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THE EXECUTION CAPITAL....I think it's safe to say the culture of life is not exactly thriving in the state of Texas.

This year's death penalty bombshells -- a de facto national moratorium, a state abolition and the smallest number of executions in more than a decade -- have masked what may be the most significant and lasting development. For the first time in the modern history of the death penalty, more than 60 percent of all American executions took place in Texas.

Over the past three decades, the proportion of executions nationwide performed in Texas has held relatively steady, averaging 37 percent. Only once before, in 1986, has the state accounted for even a slight majority of the executions, and that was in a year with 18 executions nationwide.

As it turns out, it's not that Texas has experienced a sudden boost in blood thirst; it's that most of the country has stemmed the execution tide. There were 42 executions over the last year, from a total of 10 states. Nine states carried about a combined total of 16 death sentences, while Texas executed 26 people. No other state killed more than three.

University of Houston law professor David Dow, who has represented death-row inmates, told the NYT we will likely reach a point in which practically all executions in the United States will take place in Texas.

"The reason that Texas will end up monopolizing executions," he said, "is because every other state will eliminate it de jure, as New Jersey did, or de facto, as other states have."

Yglesias added, "In theory, I think you could have a fair system that involved some number of executions. In practice, though, it barely seems doable and Harry Blackmun's conclusion that he had to simply refuse to 'tinker with the machinery of death' seems more and more sensible to me as time goes on."

I'm not sure about the possibility even existing of a fair, error-free system, but the latter point certainly rings true.

Steve Benen 5:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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ROVE'S BOOK DEAL....A few weeks ago, word surfaced that Karl Rove was shopping for a book publisher, and was poised to make a cool $3 million. He is, after all, Karl Rove. He's The Architect. As the greatest political mind of the decade, his book is bound to be awesome.

Or so the theory went. In reality, of course, Rove's not quite the legend he thinks he is, and interest in his book was tepid, at best. One recent report noted that Rove made the rounds with of publishers with a power lawyer at his side, and quickly found that there would be no bidding war. An executive at one of the houses said, "It's very, very slow."

Rove ended up with his deal late last week, but it's not exactly a blockbuster.

GOP strategist Karl Rove has agreed to write about his years as an adviser to President Bush in a deal worth over $1.5 million with former colleague Mary Matalin's conservative imprint at Simon & Schuster, officials said Friday.

One publisher was particularly uncharitable, saying Rove "doesn't have the personality" to land a major deal.

That may very well be part of it, but I think there's a more realistic explanation for Rove's book deal getting marked down.

First, he's tragically dishonest, so his book is unlikely to be informative. In fact, I'm fairly confident I can summarize the book now: "Bush was extraordinary; his critics were awful; and the media was unfair." There, I just saved book buyers $29.95.

Second, Rove had all kinds of dirt he could dish, but publishers realize that he's far too loyal a sycophant to ever make his former boss look bad. He's the original "loyal Bushie"; the idea of him writing a juicy tell-all is absurd. The book is bound to be hagiographic.

Third, Rove's genius has been wildly exaggerated, and interest in his insights has waned in light of his failures. On Election Day 2000, it was Rove's idea to keep his candidate in California in the waning days, instead of campaigning in key battleground states. Bush lost California by a wide margin, and Rove's strategy practically cost his candidate the election. More recently, Rove's single recent responsibility was overseeing the GOP's 2006 election strategy -- and Dems won back both chambers of Congress. If congressional Republicans stopped taking him seriously as a credible political strategist in 2007, who's going to take his book seriously in 2009?

And finally, there's severe Bush fatigue. I suspect the vast majority of the nation, and even a strong number of Republicans, are anxious to see the end of the reign of error known as the Bush presidency. The idea of a fomer White House deputy chief of staff reflecting, in a sycophantic style, on eight years that most of us will prefer to forget, doesn't exactly scream, "best seller."

That said, I open the floor to a little game: come up with a name for Karl Rove's book. The possibilities are almost endless.

Steve Benen 3:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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CHENEY'S 'REMARKABLE' ARGUMENT....Over the summer, Dick Cheney solidified his legendary reputation for lunacy when he and the OVP aides rationalized his opposition to executive-branch oversight rules by deciding that he's not really part of the executive branch.

It stemmed from a bizarre fight the White House had with the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, a fairly obscure federal office responsible for supervising the handling of classified information. After having complied with the rules in 2001 and 2002, Cheney decided he no longer wanted to cooperate, and exempted himself from ISOO oversight.

When the OVP refused to even acknowledge the agency's requests for information, the ISOO went to the Attorney General's office, asking if Cheney's office had the legal authority to exempt itself from the executive branch. Alberto Gonzales not only ignored the questions, Cheney and his team responded by trying to eliminate the Information Security Oversight Office from existence.

J. William Leonard, head of the ISOO for 34 years, is stepping down now, and chatted with Newsweek's Michael Isikoff about the ordeal. (via Spencer Ackerman)

So how did matters escalate?
The challenge arose last year when the Chicago Tribune was looking at [ISOO's annual report] and saw the asterisk [reporting that it contained no information from OVP] and decided to follow up. And that's when the spokesperson from the OVP made public this idea that because they have both legislative and executive functions, that requirement doesn't apply to them.... They were saying the basic rules didn't apply to them. I thought that was a rather remarkable position. So I wrote my letter to the Attorney General [asking for a ruling that Cheney's office had to comply.] Then it was shortly after that there were [email] recommendations [from OVP to a National Security Council task force] to change the executive order that would effectively abolish [my] office.

Who wrote the emails?
It was David Addington.

No explanation was offered?
No. It was strike this, strike that. Anyplace you saw the words, "the director of ISOO" or "ISOO" it was struck.

What was your reaction?
I was disappointed that rather than engage on the substance of an issue, some people would resort to that...

You mean, Dick Cheney and David Addington would rather destroy a government oversight office than "engage on the substance of an issue"? They'd claim to be a fourth branch of government just to avoid compliance with a presidential executive order on handling government secrets?

You don't say.

Steve Benen 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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WHO'S WRONG ON RACE?.... In one of the more transparently ridiculous campaign ads of the 2006 cycle, the National Black Republican Association ran radio spots in Baltimore insisting that African-American voters should back the GOP, because Democrats were responsible for Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and releasing vicious dogs and fire hoses on civil-rights activists.

The ad was almost comically inane, and was quickly rejected by voters. Regrettably, Bruce Bartlett, a conservative pundit and frequent Bush critic, has decided to devote an entire book to the same idea.

In a WSJ op-ed earlier this week, Bartlett pointed to "the 200-year record of prominent Democrats" who were "openly and explicitly for slavery before the Civil War, supported lynching and 'Jim Crow' laws after the war, and regularly defended segregation and white supremacy throughout most of the 20th century." The piece included dozens of ugly quotes on race from "prominent Democrats," drawn from Bartlett's new book, "Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past."

Ironically, Bartlett's criticism of the Bush White House's economic policies elevated his stature as a credible political commentator. The premise of his upcoming book seems intent on throwing that standing away with an argument that is both cheap and silly.

One need not have a doctorate in American history to know that the nation's two major political parties have shifted significantly over the past couple of centuries. The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two competing constituencies -- conservative southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and liberals and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled, ultimately siding with a progressive, inclusive agenda. Southern conservatives left the party, and joined the GOP.

Bartlett insists that the Democratic Party's history must not be "swept under the rug as old news," adding that if Dems believe Reagan's racist appeals in 1980 still matter today, Democrats' history has to matter, too.

As Yglesias noted, this misses the point.

I don't think the history should be swept under the rug at all. What I think is that the history reflects well on present members of the Democratic Party. The political views of the Southern Democrats were unconscionably evil, and the corrupt bargain national Democratic Party figures struck with them was a terrible thing. But in a series of intense political battles, the Democratic Party eventually broke decisively with that heritage, prompting breakaway segregationist campaigns in 1948 and 1968 and eventually leading the bulk of the white supremacist constituency to drift to the Republican Party.

The significance of the history of race in America -- and of the centrality of the Democrats' corrupt bargain with white supremacy to American political history -- really shouldn't be minimized. But what it shows is that the Democratic Party's decision to embrace the civil rights movement and the Republican Party's decision to embrace opposition to civil rights has been integral to the Republican Party's political successes toward the end of the 20th century.

If history ended in 1965, Bartlett may have a legitimate point. But given what we've seen over the last half-century, the more salient point is that Dems have been part of the solution on race, and the GOP has been part of the problem. In this sense, I'm far more concerned with the Republicans' transparent present that the Dems' not-so-buried past.

Steve Benen 12:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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THE CONSULTANCY RACKET....A few years ago, in the January 2005 issue of the Monthly, Amy Sullivan helped highlight some of the systemic problems in Democratic circles with consultants. A few years later, the party seems to have learned a few lessons.

The most glaring problem is pretty straightforward. Democratic presidential candidates hire media advisors who wear a few too many hats -- consultants like Bob Shrum and Tad Devine have advised candidates on how to reach voters through media buys, but would also set up the media buys, guaranteeing additional income from commissions, on top of campaign fees. It's one of those conflict-of-interest dynamics that's so obvious, it's hard to understand how and why political leaders ever tolerated it in the first place.

Yesterday, the NYT noted the toll the problem took on John Kerry's 2004 campaign, which ultimately delivered nearly $9 million to five media strategists, described by the Times as "the richest payday for any Democratic media consultants" ever.

It appears that the leading Democratic candidates in this cycle have learned from their predecessors' mistakes.

The three leading Democrats — Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — are all clamping down. They are following what has become an almost standard practice among Republican presidential nominees by paying their media advisers flat fees, or placing a cap on their payments, rather than making payments based on a percentage of the amount they pay television stations to broadcast their commercials. [...]

Already, the shift in the way consultants are being paid is far-reaching. The old approach allowed the fees to shoot up with increases in advertising in hotly contested races. Critics say it also provided a built-in incentive for the consultants to run more ads — a concern that has led to infighting in many races.

In interviews, aides said Ms. Clinton, of New York, and Mr. Edwards, of North Carolina, had negotiated flat fees with their top consultants. And Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has capped what his consultants can earn, which will convert their more traditional percentage deal into a flat fee once his ad spending passes a certain threshold, his aides say.

"That is a startling change in the way major Democratic presidential candidates operate," said James A. Thurber, a professor at American University in Washington who has studied political consultants.

It's about time. Republican candidates have been running presidential campaigns this way for years; it's absurd that it's taken Dems so long to catch up.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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DO FIRST LADY YEARS COUNT?....When Hillary Clinton touts her years of experience, she's quick to emphasize foreign policy lessons she learned as First Lady.

But do those eight years really count? The NYT has a front-page piece on the subject today, though it's still a matter open to some interpretation.

Asked to name three major foreign policy decisions where she played a decisive role as first lady, Mrs. Clinton responded in generalities more than specifics, describing her strategic roles on trips to Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, India, Africa and Latin America.

Asked to cite a significant foreign policy object lesson from the 1990s, Mrs. Clinton also replied with broad observations. "There are a lot of them," she said. "The whole unfortunate experience we've had with the Bush administration, where they haven't done what we've needed to do to reach out to the rest of the world, reinforces my experience in the 1990s that public diplomacy, showing respect and understanding of people's different perspectives -- it's more likely to at least create the conditions where we can exercise our values and pursue our interests."

On the other hand, Clinton probably couldn't help but gain unique insights on the process.

Friends of Mrs. Clinton say that she acted as adviser, analyst, devil's advocate, problem-solver and gut check for her husband, and that she has an intuitive sense of how brutal the job can be. What is clear, she and others say, is that Mr. Clinton often consulted her, and that Mrs. Clinton gained experience that Mr. Obama, John Edwards and every other candidate lack -- indeed, that most incoming presidents did not have.

"In the end, she was the last court of appeal for him when he was making a decision," said Mickey Kantor, a close Clinton friend who served as trade representative and commerce secretary. "I would be surprised if there was any major decision he made that she didn't weigh in on."

I suppose it's close to one of those Rorschach tests Kevin's been talking about. If you're sympathetic to Clinton, her eight years in the White House offer her the kind of experience and insights that few presidential candidates can even hope to match. If you're unsympathetic, Clinton shouldn't count her eight years in a ceremonial position in which she made practically no substantive decisions relating to foreign policy or national security, did not receive intelligence briefings, and did not, as some former officials put it, "feel or process the weight of responsibility."

It's the same background, but it's up to you which version to prefer.

Steve Benen 9:02 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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December 25, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IN WHICH I PLAY THE GRINCH....I'm twiddling my thumbs for a bit until it's time to hop in the car and head over to my father-in-law's place, and a few minutes ago I came across a piece by Michael Barbaro in the New York Times about "bleak" retail holiday spending this year:

Spending between Thanksgiving and Christmas rose just 3.6 percent over last year, the weakest performance in at least four years, according to MasterCard Advisors, a division of the credit card company. By comparison, sales grew 6.6 percent in 2006, and 8 percent in 2005.

But this isn't right. As near as I can tell (though, naturally, Barbaro doesn't bother to mention it), these numbers aren't adjusted for inflation. In other words, they're useless. Here's what that paragraph should have said:

Adjusted for inflation, spending between Thanksgiving and Christmas declined 0.7 percent over last year, the weakest performance in at least four years, according to MasterCard Advisors, a division of the credit card company. By comparison, sales grew 4.0 percent in 2006, and 4.4 percent in 2005.

I adjusted Barbaro's numbers using annual CPI figures. Alternatively, you could use some other measure of inflation. For example, you could exclude food and energy, which would give you a lower inflation rate but also a smaller spending increase. One way or another, though, you have to adjust for inflation in some kind of reasonable way. Nominal figures are the worst possible way of conveying the correct impression of what's really going on.

Question: why does this happen so routinely? Wages that are up 3% in a period when inflation is running 4% aren't actually up. Spending that's up 3% in a period when inflation is running 4% isn't actually up. This isn't rocket science. Anyone tasked with writing economic news, even on Christmas, should know that spending numbers have to be adjusted for inflation if you want to genuinely inform your readers about the state of the economy. Nominal numbers can be added later in the story if you want to present those too. Why is this so hard?

Kevin Drum 3:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

MERRY CHRISTMAS!....Christmas is here and I'm signing off for the year now. I hope everyone has a nice holiday.

I'll be on vacation until shortly after New Year's. Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report will be guest blogging for me, and I may pop in occasionally myself depending on mood and availability of internet time. But probably not much. See you in 2008!

Kevin Drum 2:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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December 24, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE HUCK....Gee, evangelical Christian and former George Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner thinks that maybe Mike Huckabee is just a little too Christian. "Is Mike Huckabee, a man of extremely impressive political gifts and shrewdness, playing the Jesus card in a way that is unlike anything we have quite seen before?" he asks.

I don't know. Is he? Huck's Jesus card sure seems awfully familiar to me.

Kevin Drum 2:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

HARRY & LOUISE & BARACK....A week ago, in the wake of multiple slimings of Barack Obama by the Hillary Clinton campaign — including "Osama" emails from two of her Iowa county chairs, Billy Shaheen's drug accusations, and Bob Kerrey's "secular madrassa" comments — I was feeling pretty poorly disposed toward Mrs. Clinton. But my dyspepsia wore off pretty quickly. Politics is politics, after all, and in the annals of campaign black arts this stuff is small potatoes. In the end, it's forgivable.

But I have to say: my less charitable feelings toward Obama aren't wearing off. They're growing. It's true that I've never been a big fan of his Kumbaya schtick, but I also recognized it as both sincere and a good campaign tactic. I figured that if he could use it to win an election and build a wave of public opinion for progressive policies, that would be great.

But you know what? I've been voting for three decades now. I've heard lots of politicians take up the "bold truthteller" meme. I've listened to lots of great speeches. I've seen plenty of campaigns that turned on whether the press simply felt more warmly disposed toward one candidate or the other for no good reason. (It's Christmas, so: yes, Bob, the worst example in recent memory was the press corps' treatment of Gore and Bush in 2000.) And I've also been exposed to my share of "post-partisan" candidates who could somehow bring a third way to Amerca's hyperpartisan politics.

Maybe this is one reason that I'm not quite as taken by Obama as a lot of people: I've seen it before. Gene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter, John Anderson, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, and John McCain, among others, have all taken up this banner in past elections. And not to put too fine a point on it, but this isn't exactly a hit parade of either electoral or policy success.

And now there's this. Obama's using Harry & Louise clones to attack a key plank in progressive healthcare policy. I know that we blog readers are policy geeks and barely one person in a hundred cares about this kind of stuff. But I do, and I'm only willing to put up with the Kumbaya campaign as long as I think that, in the end, it really is going to promote progressive ends. Takeoffs on Harry & Louise decidedly don't. If that's where he's going, I'm getting off the train.

Kevin Drum 1:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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December 23, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

VIDEOTAPE....In the LA Times today, Josh Meyer writes about a subject that's been bouncing around in my head for the past couple of weeks but never quite made it onto the blog: why did we videotape only two interrogations of al-Qaeda subjects in the months after 9/11?

By their own accounting, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have not videotaped the interrogations of potentially hundreds of other terrorism suspects. That indicates an outmoded level of secrecy and unprofessionalism, the interrogation experts contend.

....Many interrogation experts, including some involved in the ongoing Intelligence Science Board study, say they have urged U.S. intelligence officials to look to Israel, Britain and other countries with decades of experience in dealing with terrorism to learn from their successes — and their mistakes.

Israel and Britain both adopted a scientific approach to interrogations long ago, using videotape and other documentary evidence to help determine which techniques work and which don't in getting violent extremists to disclose operational details of their networks and more strategic subjects such as what motivated them in the first place.

The article goes on to discuss both the videotape question and the harsh interrogation vs. building rapport question, and mostly rehashes old ground on those subjects. But regardless of where you stand on that, doesn't it seem almost beyond belief that we wouldn't videotape every interrogation we did and then study the tapes endlessly for clues? It hardly seems like you need to talk with the British and the Israelis to figure out that this might be a good idea.

Kevin Drum 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

SUNNI AWAKENING UPDATE....I've mentioned a few times before that our "bottoms up" strategy of supporting Sunni tribes in the provinces surrounding Baghdad carries a number of risks. The biggest risk, I suppose, is that once the tribes finally feel safe from the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, they'll relaunch their insurgency and start shooting at American soldiers again. The second biggest risk is that the Shiite central government understands perfectly well that "competing armed interest groups" in the provinces are — well, competing armed interest groups.

That phrase comes from Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen (here), and a week ago I linked to a quote from a U.S. Army officer who was fairly candid about the effect that arming the tribes is likely to have on the balance of power in Iraq. "The grass-roots level will force change at the top," he suggested, "because if they do not act on it, they will get overrun."

Quite so. And does the Maliki government understand this threat? Via Cernig, AP reporter Diaa Hadid makes it clear that they do indeed:

Iraq's Shiite-led government declared Saturday that after restive areas are calmed it will disband Sunni groups battling Islamic extremists because it does not want them to become a separate military force.

....The statement from Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obaidi was the government's most explicit declaration yet of its intent to eventually dismantle the groups backed and funded by the United States as a vital tool for reducing violence.

"We completely, absolutely reject the [Sunni] Awakening becoming a third military organization,'' al-Obaidi said at a news conference.

He added that the groups would also not be allowed to have any infrastructure, such as a headquarters building, that would give them long-term legitimacy. "We absolutely reject that,'' al-Obaidi said.

The Maliki government has made similar noises in the past, but this is by far the most unequivocal they've ever been about it. And needless to say, the Sunni leaders are having none of it. There's exactly zero chance that they will ever voluntarily disband their "Concerned Local Citizens" groups.

Who knows? Maybe this is posturing more than anything else. Maybe Petraeus and Crocker can work some magic that will defuse all this. But a year from now, if the Iraqi civil war is raging once again, this is where it will have started.

UPDATE: In the New York Times, Alissa Rubin and Damien Cave have a long overview piece on the current status of the Awakening. Money quote: "The Americans are haunted by the possibility that Iraq could go the way of Afghanistan, where Americans initially bought the loyalty of tribal leaders only to have some of them gravitate back to the Taliban when the money stopped."

And then there's this from the Iraqi side: "Many people believe this will end with tens of thousands of armed people, primarily Sunnis, and this will excite the Shiite militias to grow and in the end it will grow into a civil war," said Safa Hussein, the deputy national security adviser and a point man on the Awakening program for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

"Many people" indeed. The whole story is worth a read.

Kevin Drum 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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December 22, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

AIRING THE DIRTY LAUNDRY....In an interview with David Brody, Mike Huckabee talks about the private contempt that the moneycon-driven Republican Party has for evangelicals like him:

They were more than happy for us to come to the rallies and stand in lines for hours to cheer on the candidates, appreciated us putting up the yard signs, going out and putting out the cards on peoples doors and making phone calls to the phone banks and — really appreciated all of our votes. But when they got elected, behind closed doors, they would laugh at us and speak with scorn and derision that we were, as one article I think once said "the easily led." So there's been almost this sort of, it's okay if you guys get a seat on the bus, but don't ever think about telling us where the bus is going to go.

Say what you will about Huckabee, but he's got their number on this. Liberals, at least, just honestly disagree with evangelical social fervor. Republican elites, by contrast, are willing to pander endlessly for evangelical votes, evangelical money, and evangelical organizing zeal, but once the elections are won they think of them, in Peggy Noonan's recent words, as "the idiot vote." Unless evangelical interests coincide with the moneycon wing of the party (as they do with judges, for example), they get little more than a few symbolic bones tossed their way.

As you can imagine, I'm delighted to see evangelicals finally figuring this out and getting ready to turn their longstanding misgivings into out-and-out rebellion. It's about time this battle got fought in the full light of day.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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By: Kevin Drum

SIMON SAYS....In the annals of unconvincing excuses, this one is now quickly rising into gold medal territory. The question is why the CIA never turned over its interrogration videotapes to the 9/11 Commission:

A C.I.A. spokesman said that the agency had been prepared to give the Sept. 11 commission the interrogation videotapes, but that commission staff members never specifically asked for interrogation videos.

The review by Mr. Zelikow does not assert that the commission specifically asked for videotapes, but it quotes from formal requests by the commission to the C.I.A. that sought "documents," "reports" and "information" related to the interrogations.

....Mark Mansfield, the C.I.A. spokesman, said that the agency had gone to "great lengths" to meet the commission's requests, and that commission members had been provided with detailed information obtained from interrogations of agency detainees.

"Because it was thought the commission could ask about the tapes at some point, they were not destroyed while the commission was active," Mr. Mansfield said.

So let's review:

  • The 9/11 Commission was an official investigative body chartered by both Congress and the president.

  • It specifically asked for "documents," "reports" and "information" related to detainee interrogations.

  • The CIA knew about the tapes, knew they were germane, and knew the commission was likely to ask for them at some point.

  • But it never revealed their existence and never turned them over because no one ever specifically said the word, "videotape."

From an administration that said the vice president is a fourth branch of government; that the Medicare prescription bill would only cost $400 billion; that waterboarding isn't torture; and that Iraq was trying to procure uranium from Africa — well, this one might not even make its all-time top ten mendacity list. For one thing, the deceit is a little too obvious. Surely to make the list your lies have to display more than a fourth-grade level of sophistication?

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Happy winter solstice! The days are finally getting longer again. Hooray!

Unless you live in Australia. Then they're starting to get shorter. Boo hiss.

Kevin Drum 1:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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December 21, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....This is it. Possibly the last catblogging pictures ever taken with my old camera. Sniff. On Christmas I'll put up my traditional Inkblot ornament photo, and then I'll be off for a week, which means potential guest catblogging. (Exciting!) Then, in January, I'll unveil new and improved Friday Catblogging, thanks to advanced consumer technology.

So here's the final Irvine-based catblogging of 2007. Domino is upstairs, dramatically outlined in a lovely, warm patch of sunshine in the bedroom. She'll follow this sunshine all day: first to the stairs, then into the dining room, and eventually up on my desk in the study. Then, when the sun goes away, it's off to the pod for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, Inkblot is staring upward wondering what all the fuss is about. He wants me to come downstairs and open the door so he can frolic in the backyard. And so I did.

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By: Kevin Drum

BOLD STROKES....I was emailing with Matt Yglesias the other day and, among other things, suggested that one reason he didn't like Hillary Clinton was because she was too hawkish. But "hawkish" is pretty lazy shorthand, and he said his real problem with her (and her foreign policy team) was more specific. Today he explains:

The problem is that I think she's unlikely to try any of the bold strokes necessary to turn our situation around. I don't see her trying for a grand bargain with Iran, don't see her making the tough choices necessary to revitalize the NPT, don't see her taking political risks on the Arab-Israeli confict, don't see her acting boldly and decisively on Iraq, and don't see her accomplishing anything particularly innovative and interesting in terms of UN Reform.

By contrast, I think an Obama administration (and probably an Edwards administration as well) will include some people at high-levels who are pressing for those things, and will be led by a man who has some inclinations in those directions. I think Clinton and her people are too narrowly political, too complacent about the depth of America's problems in the world, and, yes, maybe too inclined to believe that if the shit really hits the fan all that'll happen is that public support for the use of force will revive and that under new, more competent leadership, the armed forces will resolve the situation by waging a new war.

This is unquestionably a better way of framing the issue. Arguing about whether someone is "hawkish" usually just ends up as an argument over semantics and temperament. It's not completely useless, but it's not very enlightening either.

By contrast, the "bold strokes" argument at least provides an opening for a more substantive conversation. There's still some mind reading and tonal analysis required, since the candidates haven't all spelled out clear positions on the issues Matt mentions, but it's a step in the right direction.

I'm not going to try to definitively take a side on this question, but I do think that this is a potentially productive way of looking at things. And while Matt's critique of Hillary is persuasive, here's the flip side: do you think the world is really likely to be moved by bold strokes? It's possible that my skepticism on this is due more to our age difference than anything else, but I'd say the odds are slim. The institutional forces at work are huge, and I think they mostly respond to patient pressure, smart and knowledgable diplomacy, well-timed compromise, and a clear sense of how the world really works and where you can successully insert a helpful wedge. People who parachute into gigantic institutions — and this is the biggest institution of them all — thinking that they can cut through all the various Gordian knots with bold initiatives are likely to be disappointed.

But then there's this: every once in a great while, someone who thinks that way turns out to be right. And they end up being an enormous force for change. The question is, is Obama that guy? And is the world currently a fertile place for a brand new vision of American foreign policy? More on this later.

POSTSCRIPT: Honesty compels me to remind everyone that I have a longstanding belief that although vision and strategy are important, execution is more important. See here, for example. So feel free to dismiss me as a hopeless technocrat if you like.

UPDATE: Also worth noting on this same subject: the almost-never-wrong Mark Schmitt on the "Theory of Change" primary. He makes some sharp points.

Kevin Drum 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (95)

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"NEARLY ALL"....Apparently Bill Richardson is on the warpath about an alleged Hillary Clinton flip-flop on Iraq. Really? I hadn't heard that. So what's her current position?

On Wednesday, Clinton told a voter that nearly all forces could be withdrawn within a year if she were elected president. But Richardson pointed out that during a debate in September, she, Obama and Edwards said they couldn't commit to withdrawing all the troops by 2013 — the end of the next president's first term.

...."Governor Richardson knows that Senator Clinton has been clear and consistent: If George Bush has not ended the war in Iraq, she will," [Clinton spokesman Howard] Wolfson said. "As she has said, she would accomplish that by beginning to withdraw our troops within 60 days after inauguration at the rate of one or two brigades a month. This would mean that nearly all troops could be home within a year."

Wolfson is right: Hillary has said this before. So I guess what we're really arguing about is the meaning of "nearly all." Gotcha. So let's parse this. The next president will probably take office with 15 combat brigades still active in Iraq, which means that ten months of withdrawals starting in April 2009 would get us down to five brigades by January 2010. If the drawdown were a bit faster than one brigade per month, you might get down to one or two brigades, which is Hillary's well-known "residual force."

The problem is that this still doesn't tell us everything. You can figure a combat brigade at about 3,500 troops, so 2-5 brigades means somewhere between 7,000 and 17,000 combat troops. But that still leaves you with tens of thousands of additional troops that are outside the brigade structure. Are they coming home too? Or does this leave some wiggle room to keep upwards of 50,000 troops in Iraq?

Who knows? Bottom line: it's a word game right now. Richardson has said he'd withdraw all troops, which is clear enough, but both Clinton and Obama have been vague about their plans. And they still are. In today's Rorschach primary, "nearly all" means whatever you want it to mean.

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ECONOMIC NEWS....I'm asking this completely without snark: Is there any reason at all for a reporter to write a paragraph like this?

Incomes also rose in November, by 0.4 percent, double the rate of increase in October, although that was more than offset by increased prices, the department reported. Discounting for inflation, disposable personal income — the money left to spend after taxes — fell 0.3 percent.

What possible excuse can there be for leaving the initial impression that incomes rose in November? Real income is the only income that matters, and real income was down. That's the number that should get the attention.

And while we're at it, that 1.1% increase in consumer spending that's in the first paragraph of the story? Also not adjusted for inflation. The real number is 0.5%.

And the primary driver of that 0.5% increase in consumer spending? Since incomes were down I suppose you can guess the answer, but you have to plow through to the tenth paragraph before the Post actually tells you: "The increase in spending came because consumers either borrowed or dipped into savings. The department reported that personal savings declined by more than $48 billion in November." Crikey.

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By: Kevin Drum

EXPERTS IGNORED....FILM AT 11....I know this will come as a shock to you all, but it turns out that the Bush administration's decision to turn down California's application to regulate greenhouse gases was a purely political judgment that completely ignored the technical merits of the case:

"California met every criteria . . . on the merits. The same criteria we have used for the last 40 years on all the other waivers," said an EPA staffer. "We told him that. All the briefings we have given him laid out the facts."

....Technical and legal staff also concluded that if the waiver were denied, EPA would very likely lose in court to the state, the sources said....They advised him to either grant the waiver outright or give California a temporary one for three years.

Instead, three sources said, Johnson cut off any consultation with his technical staff for the last month and made his decision before having them write the formal, legal justification for it.

The good news, at least according to LA Times legal writer David Savage in a separate piece, is that California is likely to win its court challenge.

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IN THE DOLDRUMS UNTIL 2012....Merrill Lynch on the end of the housing bubble:

As we saw in the November housing starts data, the builders are now frantically cutting production.

But with the sales backdrop still softening, they may have to slice their construction plans by another 30% before we hit bottom on a cyclical basis. And, that bottom could be as long as a year away. Beyond that, weak demographic fundamentals point to years of sluggish real estate activity, particularly in terms of the "price". The looming dominance of the "move down" buyer suggests that home values will continue to soften long after the building industry mops up the current excess supply. In fact, real estate pricing in general can be expected to be in the doldrums through 2012.

....Here is what we really "do not get". There are still economists out there talking about how the housing recession is still local and not regionally broad based. We have no idea who their data vendors are. In our view, this clearly goes down as the most national real estate downturn since the 1930s.

But think of the bright side: at least the housing bubble kept the economy humming long enough to get George Bush reelected. So it was all worth it, wasn't it?

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December 20, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

EXECUTIVE POWER....In CQ Politics this week, David Nather recaps the Bush administration's enormous expansion of executive power and then asks whether any of the candidates running for election in 2008 are likely to give up that power if they win office. It turns out he had a hard time getting anyone to go on the record about it:

In light of the Bush record, all eight of the major presidential candidates were asked by CQ to answer a set of written questions on specific issues, such as whether the candidate believes that a president can authorize conduct outside the laws to defend the country; under what circumstances the candidate would claim executive privilege; and whether the candidate believes that a president should issue statements after signing legislation into law, as Bush has, that declare some of the provisions optional.

Only one of the candidates — Edwards — answered the questions, although Clinton's campaign touched on some of the issues in a separate exchange.

Among the Democrats, Nather reports that all three of the leaders live up to their stereotypes: Edwards is fiery and populist; Clinton takes the middle ground; and Obama speaks in vague but agreeable generalities. Here's the full list of Nather's pieces on the major candidates and their record on executive power:

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By: Kevin Drum

1994 vs. 2008....Ezra Klein writes about the prospects for universal healthcare if a Democrat wins the presidency next year:

I'd like to believe, as Joe Klein does, that America's corporations will make this the year that they finally support universal health reform. But I wouldn't bet an extraordinary amount of money on the prospect. For instance: Though the NFIB [a small business lobby that was instrumental in defeating Bill Clinton's healthcare plan in 1994 –ed.] has been making conciliatory noises, and even talking with Ron Wyden on occasion, they still came out in ferocious opposition to Schwarzenegger's California reforms, which are not dissimilar to the models offered by the national Democrats....Any president walking into this counting on the support of the corporate community will get their lunch handed to them.

I agree. But that's boring, so instead I'm going to play devil's advocate. There really are a number of differences between 1994 and today that work in favor of getting business cooperation on a serious healthcare plan:

  • In 1994, the business community got sold on the idea that the HMO revolution might succeed in reining in healthcare costs, which meant there was no need for the feds to get involved. Obviously that didn't happen, and no one in the business community now believes that there's some quick fix on the horizon that will keep their healthcare liabilities from continuing to skyrocket. They're much more open to a government solution on this score than they were 14 years ago.

  • The Clinton plan included mandates on small businesses. The current crop of Democratic plans don't. When it comes to assuaging business concerns and producing healthcare plans they can live with, Democratic politicians have gotten much, much smarter over the past decade.

  • Public opinion has shifted too. The public was in favor of healthcare reform in 1994, but not overwhelmingly — and Harry & Louise were enough to turn them against the Clinton plan. Today, public opinion is far more strongly in favor of healthcare reform, and that's a tailwind that even conservative politicians have to respect.

Now, having said that, I think (a) public opinion still isn't where it needs to be, (b) the business community remains suspicious of big government healthcare plans for all the usual ideological reasons, and (c) movement conservatives haven't budged an inch on healthcare. They view it, probably rightly, as a stalking horse for resurgent liberalism, and will oppose it every bit as furiously as they did in 1994.

Still, there are differences. The climate today for healthcare reform really is more hospitable than it's been in a long time. It's not 1994 forever.

UPDATE: Ezra takes issue with my point about public opinion. I don't think polls adequately capture what's really going on with broad-but-shallow issues like healthcare, but it's still worthwhile to look at them as a baseline of sorts. And at least as far as the CBS/NYT polls can show us, discontent over the healthcare system is about the same today as it was in 1994.

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By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION.... Matt Yglesias browses through a Democracy Corps strategy memo about immigration and highlights the chart on the right:

This graph plays to my prejudices. But since I found it in the midst of an analysis designed to play against my prejudices, I find it pretty noteworthy. And, of course, it backs up other surveys indicating that the immigration issue only really plays with a minority of the public. And, of course, it's now well known that immigration is the biggest concern in areas where immigration is a new phenomenon and my guesstimate is that this leaves the target audience pretty small.

Maybe, but I'm less sure about that. One of the problems with polls is that they rarely measure depth of feeling. So you get polls where 70% of the country wants more money for education, 70% wants universal healthcare, 70% supports the UN, etc. etc. But this doesn't really tell you much. These are all default "feel good" answers that rarely give you any insight into the way people vote.

But here we have just the opposite. Yes, 31% is a minority, but if the survey is to be believed, that's 31% who feel pretty damn strongly about the issue and are likely to base their votes on it. That's a pretty sizable number.

Now, I agree with Matt that this doesn't necessarily mean that Democrats need to get medieval on immigration. For starters, there's a downside with other groups, and in any case the fact that lots of people think it's a big priority doesn't mean those people are all demanding that we seed the border with tactical nukes. In fact, this is the kind of issue that very well might lend itself to modestly tougher rhetoric combined with moderation on the actual policy side of things. Which, it turns out, is pretty much what DC says:

Voters want to know first, that leaders 'get it' — that they share their common sense frustration with the problem and second, that they will act against employers, on the borders and on government programs to get things under control. But most in the broad public hold positive views of the new immigrants and will support an inclusive American response, including a path to citizenship for the responsible, tax-paying and law-abiding — if they believe first that America has acted to get this national problem under control. They really want to hear that Democrats 'get it' — because it says a lot about the Democrats' values and ability to solve real problems.

I don't really have any problem with this. In fact, on a policy basis, it's not that far from the mainstream Democratic view: later in the report we learn that employer sanctions and a path to citizenship are popular, whereas deportation and fence-building aren't. (Cutting back on government benefits gets a mixed response.) Just make sure that everyone knows you "get it" first.

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THE BLOGOSPHERE vs THE VSPs....PART 2....A member in (extremely good) standing of the VSP community emails to suggest a delicate topic for the liberal blogosphere to take a second look at:

One thing you might write about — if only because nobody else has, I think — is how that whole dust-up over the O'Hanlon/Pollack op-ed looks in retrospect. I mean, clearly they were on to something — the relative quieting down of stuff that has taken place in Iraq over the last several months, etc. Completely debatable whether that was due to the surge, or is sustainable, or is deeply significant, etc. etc., but it's not like the caricature of them put forth in the blogosphere at the time — as paid lobbyists for the Bushies, reporting back what they were told to after checking out a Potemkin village — holds up, does it?

Hmmm. Yes. Seems like I was pretty skeptical of the O'Hanlon/Pollack report myself. But basically they reported two things: (a) violence is down and security has improved, and (b) the economy, police force, political leadership, and infrastructure are still disaster areas. And actually, um, that pretty much seems to be true, doesn't it?


UPDATE: The blogosphere dissents! "Et Tu Kevin?" writes Ilan Goldenberg. He reviews the main critiques of O&P "at least as far as I saw it," and concludes that "I still think they all stand." Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias suggests I'm "aiming for some kind of wanker prize." He also reviews the criticism of O&P and concludes, "I'm not shedding any tears for them."

One note: this is a little deep in the weeds, but Ilan points out that my nickel summary of O&P was based primarily on their full report, written in late August, not on the New York Times op-ed they wrote earlier and got blasted for. "But nobody read the report," he says. "Everyone read the op-ed."

That's a fair criticism. At the time, I spent more time with the report than I did with the op-ed, so that's what I based my impressions on. But it's true that the op-ed got a lot more attention, and it's also true that the op-ed painted a considerably rosier picture than the full report. The op-ed was almost entirely about the improved security situation and, unlike the report, gave virtually no attention to the continuing political/economic/infrastructure problems.

Still, I'll stand my ground in at least one respect: whatever problems O&P had with tone and emphasis, their main point was that security was getting better. And they turned out to be right — at least for now. I'd advise not being too churlish about acknowledging that.

That said, the war was still a bad idea and we ought to be withdrawing U.S. troops regardless of any security gains we've made over the past year. Without political progress our military presence does no good, and if anything, the political landscape today looks even worse than it did when O&P wrote their op-ed four months ago. It's well past time to leave.

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FAVORITE COLORS....What's the color of the year for 2008? According to the New York Times, the Color Institute says blue iris, while the Color Association says bamboo. Just another symbol of the polarized times we live in.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MIDDLE KINGDOM'S DILEMMA....In 1952, Mao Zedong proposed a solution to the uneven distribution of water in China: take from the (lush, wet) south and give to the (dry, arid) north. Fifty years later, Mao's eccentric dream took shape as the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, a gigantic initiative to divert water hundreds of miles north from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River.

There was only one problem: as geologist Yong Yang discovered on extensive field trips to the frozen source of the Yangtze, there just wasn't enough water to meet the government's goals. In one section of the river, the government wanted to divert more water than the entire flow of the river could provide. And even in areas where the goals weren't literally impossible, they still ran the risk of decimating downstream communities, including Shanghai, that depend on the Yangtze for agriculture, industry, and hydropower. Yet as Christina Larson reports in our December issue, the project goes on, for reasons that would sound drearily familiar in any country:

Informed sources say that the project has a champion in retired President Jiang Zemin — still a powerful force in Chinese politics — and a handful of influential retired army officers. And many entrenched interests have a reason to hope that construction proceeds. The steering committee that manages the water transfer project is led by Premier Wen Jiabao, and its members include high-ranking officials from the national government. A similar bureaucracy has been replicated in affected provinces, creating hundreds of titles and salaries dedicated to moving the project forward. Five state banks have major investments in the plan, and expect loans to be repaid when water user fees are assessed. The two companies with multibillion-dollar contracts to build the early phases of the project are hungry for more.

Why care about some corrupt Chinese engineering boondoggle? Because it's emblematic of China's schizophrenic attitude toward environmental problems: on the one hand, because the central government can't police the provinces well enough to enforce its own laws, activists like Yong are nowadays allowed — sometimes even encouraged — to sound environmental alarms. On the other hand, it often doesn't make any difference. China is still China. Their future affects us all, but even though the Chinese leadership is aware of what it needs to do to address its many looming environmental catastrophes, it's often afraid to follow through:

Every industrialized country — apart from Singapore, a green authoritarian city-state — that has cleaned up its environment has done so with the help of civil society and a free press....David Lampton, the director of the China studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, explained Beijing's conundrum: "The Chinese are caught between the logic of what they know they need to effectively implement environmental policy, and the fear of whether these groups could become the opening wedge to political liberalization."

....Perhaps China will, once again, elide the apparent contradictions of its environmental politics in the same way that it has somehow melded capitalism and communism. Or perhaps smoggy cities, dwindling water supplies, and peasant protests over pollution will force the party to accept greater political openness. Or perhaps the environmental activists themselves will call for it. Whatever happens, the consequences will be epic. If China continues on its current course, within twenty-five years it will emit twice the carbon dioxide of all the OECD countries combined. The Middle Kingdom's dilemma is ours, too.

UPDATE: Still thirsting for more? Check out Jacques Leslie's piece in Mother Jones:

Chinese ecosystems were already dreadfully compromised before the Communist Party took power in 1949, but Mao managed to accelerate their destruction....Yet the Mao era's ecological devastation pales next to that of China's current industrialization. A fourth of the country is now desert. More than three-fourths of its forests have disappeared. Acid rain falls on a third of China's landmass, tainting soil, water, and food.

Excessive use of groundwater has caused land to sink in at least 96 Chinese cities, producing an estimated $12.9 billion in economic losses in Shanghai alone. Each year, uncontrollable underground fires, sometimes triggered by lightning and mining accidents, consume 200 million tons of coal, contributing massively to global warming. A miasma of lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other elements of coal-burning and car exhaust hovers over most Chinese cities; of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are Chinese.

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December 19, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BITTER CONFRONTATION....Paul Krugman has been criticizing Barack Obama pretty strongly in recent weeks for, in general, being too centrist, too accomodating, and too rosy-eyed about his ability to charm his opponents into compromise (see here, for example). Jon Alter disagrees:

Krugman calls Obama "naive" and an "anti-change candidate" because he favors bringing all of the players in the health care debate around a "big table" and rejects the populist message of John Edwards, who is apparently Krugman's choice for president. "Anyone who thinks the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world," Krugman writes, endorsing Edwards's view that the insurance and drug industries should be excluded from any talks on health care reform because they stand to lose profits.

The columnist and his candidate both believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded by being a polarizing figure. I studied FDR for four years while writing a book about him, and this is simply untrue. It's also untrue of other successful Democratic presidents and for a simple reason: "Bitter confrontation" simply doesn't work in policy-making.

Alter goes on to make some interesting historical analogies, but I want to stop right here because it strikes me that he's misinterpreting Krugman in an important way. Krugman — I think — isn't actively recommending "bitter confrontation" as a policymaking tactic, he's simply observing that any Democratic president had better expect sustained, dogged, and bitter confrontation from their opponents if he or she tries to implement serious healthcare reform.

Krugman's fear seems to be that Obama is expecting that he can charm and negotiate his way out of this inevitable confrontation, and won't be prepared when that turns out not to work. Edwards and Clinton, by contrast, since they harbor no illusions, will be willing to play hardball from day one. That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be out on the hustings every day during their first term hurling populist invective at pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry, but it does mean that, like FDR, they'll be willing to use every lever of power they can think of, both public and private, to get their way.

Now, that may or may not be fair. Obama might very well know what to expect. Or Krugman might just be wrong about the reception he'll get. But bitter confrontation is what Krugman is predicting, not what he's yearning for. It's an important difference.

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JAG INTIMIDATION UPDATE....Charlie Savage reports that the Cheney/Addington/Haynes plan to ruin the career of any JAG lawyer with the temerity to disagree with them has been abandoned. "In light of the feedback that [Haynes] received, he thought that it was wiser to try a different approach," a Pentagon flack explained. I'll bet.

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THE HORROR....I didn't even know the MPAA approved print ads for movies in the first place. Shows how much I know. But they do, and it turns out that ads for documentaries that depict U.S. soldiers leading away a hooded prisoner are verboten. Too much like a horror film, apparently. Which, in fairness, it is, isn't it?

Via Sullivan.

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SMOKIN'....Republicans in the Senate have broken the all-time obstructionism record a mere 11 months into the current congressional session. Congratulations, GOP!

UPDATE: Ezra has it in handy chart form here. Everything's better in chart form, isn't it?

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INKBLOTISM....Matt Yglesias joins the Rorschach club.

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THE KIRKUK FIASCO....Juan Cole is suspicious about the timing of the recent Turkish raids on Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq, which came just as Condoleezza Rice was flying to Kirkuk to meet with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani — a meeting that was angrily cancelled after Barzani learned about the raids:

Was Rice's trip to Iraqi Kurdistan Deliberately Sabotaged?

....Look, it is absolutely impossible that Condi plans out a trip to Kirkuk and a meeting with Barzani with full knowledge that while she is there, Turkey will send 500 Turkish soldiers into northern Iraq to occupy the villages of Kaya Retch Binwak, Janarok and Gelly Resh. Or even that when she set out on her trip, she knew that Turkey was planning to bomb Iraqi Kurdistan on Sunday, killing 3, wounding 8, and displacing 300 Kurdish villagers....So there are only two possibilities.

Not to keep you in suspense, the two possibilities are (a) a U.S. screwup of fairly monumental proportions or (b) Turkish treachery, possibly including some sympathetic moles inside the State Department. "I'll bet you State is looking into this fiasco as we speak and if you hear fairly soon that someone high in the department (or another department who has similar clearances) suddenly resigns to spend more time with his family, you can reasonably speculate that he was the source of a leak to [Turkish chief of staff Yasar] Buyukanit — if indeed there was one."

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THE BLOGOSPHERE vs THE VSPs....In the National Interest today, David Frum levels a blast at the lefty blogosphere ("personal," "rude," "bitter," "imperfectly grammatical") in the guise of an essay about the split between liberal bloggers and the Very Serious People™ of the liberal foreign policy establishment. It's provocative in spots, but his thesis can be summed up pretty briefly: (a) the liberal blogosphere doesn't like the liberal foreign policy community much and isn't shy about saying so, (b) this kind of populist revolt has happened a bunch of times in the past, and (c) it never lasts long. Sometime soon the blogosphere will turn its sights elsewhere and the foreign policy experts will reassert their control — but perhaps as "an expanded and enlarged community." So everybody's a winner!

Well, maybe so. Hell, probably so. But I'm curious about something. This is just a diversion from the main point of his essay, but where did this paragraph pop out of?

Few presidential candidates have drawn more support from the liberal FPC [i.e., "Foreign Policy Community"] than Barack Obama. Obama has been endorsed by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and advised by Harvard professor Samantha Power, Clinton counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke and even George W. Bush's former NSC Senior Director for the Middle East, Bruce Riedel. Compared to Obama's, Hillary Clinton's foreign-policy team looks a little like a gala performance in Branson, Missouri: all the names you remember from decades ago.

I guess this all depends on how you define "liberal FPC," but FPC advisors don't come much more "decades ago" than Zbigniew Brzezinski, do they? And let's not forget Anthony Lake and Susan Rice, two Obama advisors who are ex-Clintonites in good standing (as is Clarke, of course). Samantha Power is, indeed, a new face on the foreign policy scene, but the fact is that every Democrat's foreign policy team is made up mostly of ex-Clintonites who are fully paid-up members of the liberal FPC. So what's the point of this strained assertion? Apparently it's to set up an argument that Obama, once embraced by the FPC but now a darling of the netroots, has responded by becoming the next best thing to a foul-mouthed blogger ("this once-irenic candidate now hurls accusations with the brio of a blogger on the Daily Kos"). This accusation is so absurd that it's hard even to know how to respond.

Anyway, Frum's piece has some entertaining vitriol here and there, and once you get past the pro forma comparison of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer to Joe McCarthy (yeesh), he even ends with an admission that maybe the liberal blogosphere will end up having a positive effect on the FPC. There's not a lot of new insight in the piece, but it might be worth reading just to get a sense of what the all the liberal catfights look like to an outsider.

Kevin Drum 2:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOOD NEWS FROM IRAQ....According to the Pentagon, new focus group findings in Iraq have produced some good news: it turns out that Iraqis have a number of "shared beliefs" about their current situation that "cut across sectarian lines."

Great! And what is this good news? "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the U.S. military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of 'occupying forces' as the key to national reconciliation."

Really, you can't make this stuff up. Elsewhere, the Pentagon's quarterly report on Iraq tells us that we're making security gains in Iraq, but:

The provinces just north of Baghdad and Anbar have shown the least progress, as Sunni Arab insurgents move their bases north. In Nineveh province and its capital, Mosul, violence remained above 2006 levels.

The report argues that the gains are not irreversible, and it casts a pessimistic light on the ability of the central government to meet many of the legislative goals set by U.S. officials. The report calls the lack of progress disappointing and says failures are hindering reconciliation between warring sects within Iraq.

And David Ignatius passes along the good news that the UN has brokered a postponement of the scheduled election in Kirkuk, which illustrates "that there can be virtuous cycles, too, even in a country as bitterly divided as this one."

That's true, and the UN deal is a relief. Unfortunately, I suspect that "virtuous cycles" aren't the reason for it. Instead, my guess is that the Kurdish leadership decided that it wouldn't hurt to have a few more months to chase out even more Arabs and Turkmen and install an even bigger Kurdish majority in the city. As with so much else in Iraq, the UN agreement might be good news, or it might merely be a postponement of bad news. Caveat emptor.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ENERGY BILL....George Bush has signed the energy bill passed by Congress yesterday:

Soon, you won't find those old-fashioned 100-watt incandescent light bulbs in stores. You will be able to buy more energy-efficient appliances. And you will see labels on TVs and computers that tell you how much energy they consume.

....In addition to the 40% increase in fuel efficiency for new cars and light trucks by 2020, for a fleetwide average of 35 mpg, the bill requires a fivefold increase — to 36 billion gallons — in the amount of alternative home-grown fuels, such as ethanol, that must be added to the nation's gasoline supply by 2022.

....The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy has projected that the bill will reduce energy use by 7% and carbon dioxide emissions by 9% in 2030. The Washington think tank also has estimated it will save consumers and businesses more than $400 billion between now and 2030, "accounting for both energy cost savings and the moderately higher price of energy-efficient products."

Speaking of Rorschach tests, this is is a pretty good one. What do you think of this bill? Is it a weak-kneed sellout by spineless Dems unwilling to take a stand for real energy reform? Or a pretty good effort from a party with a slim majority and a recalcitrant president, one that that makes a modest but real difference that a future Democratic president can build on?

I'll take Door #2, please. Yes, there's still too much corn ethanol in this bill, and losing the 15% mandate for renewable electricity generation was a blow. But seriously, compare this bill to the energy industry porkfest that a Republican congress passed in 2005. It's like night and day. That one was little more than a massive handout to every energy lobbyist who ever dined at Charlie Palmer's. Today's bill, by contrast, actually accomplishes something. The CAFE increase to 35 mpg, all by itself, is historic, and 60% of the fuel mandate is for advanced biofuels and cellulosic ethanol, rather than the corn variety. This is real legislation that addresses a real problem, not a handout for campaign donors masquerading as "reform."

With this bill signed, the fight for an even better bill starts tomorrow. But without a Democratic congress we'd still be fighting to get even this much — and we wouldn't be any closer than we were five years ago. So, warts and all, good job, Harry and Nancy.

But if you want an alternate view, check out Ken Ward here. "Weak-kneed sellout" is the least of his criticisms.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

BRIAN ROEHRKASSE, PLEASE LEAVE THE BUILDING....Most of the Justice Department leaders responsible for the U.S. Attorney scandal have long since resigned. Alberto Gonzales left in September. Deputy AG Paul McNulty gave notice a few weeks before that. Bradley Schlozman left at around the same time. Kyle Sampson is gone. Mike Elston is gone. Monica Goodling is gone.

But one of the prime figures in the scandal is not only still around, but got a promotion: Brian Roehrkasse, a Bush 2000 campaign worker who worked as a spokesman for the DOJ Office of Public Affairs during the USA scandal, was promoted in August to head the entire office. In the December issue of the Monthly, Bud Cummins, one of the U.S. Attorneys who was fired last year, says it's time for him to leave too. "Roehrkasse did more than perhaps any other DOJ official to disseminate the avalanche of untruths," Cummins writes. Then, "out of dozens of examples," he lists Roehrkasse's five biggest whoppers. You can read 'em here.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ARMY'S OTHER CRISIS....In the December issue of the Monthly, Andrew Tilghman takes a long look at a subject that gets only sporadic attention in the daily press: the intense pressure that the Iraq war is putting on the Army's ability to retain its midlevel officer corps. The exodus of officers with between four and nine years of experience has jumped from 8% to 13% just in the past four years, and the officers who are leaving are disproportionately some of the Army's highest performers:

Colonel George Lockwood, the director of officer personnel management for the Army's Human Resources Command [has] estimated that the Army already has only about half the senior captains that it needs. "Read the last line again, please," Lockwood wrote. "Our inventory of senior captains is only 51 percent of requirement." In response to this deficit, the Army is taking in twenty-two-year-olds as fast as it can. However, these recruits can't be expected to perform the jobs of officers who have six to eight years of experience. "New 2nd Lieutenants," Lockwood observed, "are no substitute for senior captains."

Even the pool from which the Army draws its future leaders is being diluted....The number of OCS graduates has more than tripled since the late 1990s, from about 400 a year to more than 1,500 a year. These soldiers may turn out to be good commissioned officers. But they are also needed in the noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps, the parallel structure of senior-level sergeants who form the Army's backbone, responsible for ensuring that orders are effectively carried out, rather than making policy or strategic decisions. Yet the Army is already several thousand sergeants short and has been reducing NCO promotion times in order to fill the gaps. Sending more soldiers who are NCOs, or NCO material, to Officer Candidate School is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul.

....In Washington, I met Matt Kapinos and his longtime friend Jim Morin for lunch....Both men were frank, thoughtful, and occasionally sarcastic about their disillusionment with the Army; it was clear that they'd discussed the subject repeatedly before. "You have a three-star general like John Vines come down to talk to us, and he says, 'Just go out there and shoot people,'" Kapinos said. "And you know that that is not how to fight an insurgency. Everyone who's ever read the most basic article on counterinsurgency knows that is not how you're going to win."

"Yeah," Morin agreed. "The general would come out and give these bellicose speeches, and every time he did that, I'd have to go back to my guys and say, 'What the general really meant to say was ... "

There are plenty of reasons for the Army's retention problems that go beyond the Iraq war, but Tilghman reports that the war has intensified them in two ways: first, through simple weariness caused by multiple deployments thousands of miles from home, and second, through frustration with a senior officer corps that doesn't understand modern counterinsurgency and seemingly has little desire to learn. And without midlevel officers, you don't have an army:

Civilian hawks in the government believe that the way to reduce the grueling pace of deployments while continuing to prosecute the war for "as long as it takes" is simply to increase the size of the force. Rudy Giuliani, for instance, has called for adding ten combat brigades. But who is going to lead these new forces if seasoned young officers continue leaving the Army in droves? Calls to expand the Army are empty rhetoric if the military brass and their civilian bosses fail to grapple with whether the services can recruit and retain junior leaders in both numbers and quality.

One final thought: the four-star generals of tomorrow are the captains and majors of today. If you're losing the best of those midlevel officers, you're not only losing the backbone of today's Army, you're losing the leadership of tomorrow's. "The generals who will appear before Congress in twenty-five years are in the Army right now," Tilghman says. "They're junior officers, probably captains. And keeping them in uniform might be the Army's most important mission."

Read the rest here.

Kevin Drum 12:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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December 18, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

ON THE COUCH....Speaking of how the Democratic primary has become a Rorschach test, here's an example. Both of these posts come via Ezra Klein, but the example of the Rorschach-ee is me, not him.

First, Ezra points to a Steve Clemons post praising Hillary Clinton:

I've met her a number of times, usually at receptions....The last time...we had a really interesting discussion about what should be on a roster of 21st century threats and how our national security and foreign policy resources should be reorganized to deal with future challenges rather than keeping vested interests tied to old threats well funded. Her quick grasp of what I was trying to get at — and a detailed response that was serious and level-headed — really surprised me as I'm used to politicians who typically have to fake their way through detail.

....I am convinced of something about Hillary Clinton's commitment to use every lever and every aspect of government machinery to push her legislative and policy work that I'm disappointed to say that I can't find as strongly in Barack Obama's profile. My concern has to do with the fact that as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' Subcommittee on Europe, Obama has held zero hearings — at least that is how the record appears to me. [Steve then goes on to argue that this is an unusually sluggish performance.]

....I'm not trying to find a minor, nuanced difference between Obama and Clinton and inflate that to inappropriate levels. I am a fan of some of Obama's foreign policy positions — though I think that I tend to appreciate his speeches influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski that reflect tough-minded thinking and hard choices rather than those influenced by former Clinton National Security Adviser Anthony Lake that seem to want America to rush into every global cause without clear delineation of priorities and an accounting of potential costs and consequences to our national interest.

But the question of how a Chief Executive would utilize the machinery of government towards the public good has always been of interest to me.

I've truncated Steve's argument considerably, and you should read the whole thing to get a better flavor of what he's saying. But I think you can get the gist from that excerpt. Ezra follows this with a post in which he reprints an email from an Obama supporter who likes Obama's approach to reducing the influence of big corporations:

Now, you could try to overcome that influence by, as you noted, running on a platform, winning a large majority of the popular vote, and then using the bully pulpit to try to drive that agenda through Congress. That seems to be Edwards preferred method.

Obama's is more sneaky and backdoor. He'd rather quietly go about removing those interests' access, their ability to throw their money at Congressman and officers in the executive, and only then sit down at the table and say, "lets talk." It's why someone who has been running on "taking on special interests" for 11 years now (and he has, go check out his speeches in 2004 and in his runs for state office) has always made campaign finance reform, ethics reform, etc central to his legislative agenda.

Neither of these posts comes directly from the candidates themselves, or even from anyone close to the candidates, and I could take any number of lessons from them. But one of the big reasons I find myself leaning toward Hillary is that Steve's argument strikes me as both plausible and important while the anonymous emailer's strikes me as naive. Hillary is smart and well-briefed, she is level-headed, and the evidence suggests that over the past seven years she's gotten pretty good at working with Republicans to get things done in the Senate. I like those qualities and would like to see them in a Democratic president, so I'm happy to project them onto her.

Conversely, anybody who thinks that Obama or anyone else is going to overcome the influence of big corporations via sneakiness and stealth is living in a dreamworld. It may be possible to do a deal with conservatives and their lobbyists on various issues, but they aren't going to be conned and they aren't going to be fooled. Unfortunately, I have a deep fear that maybe Obama really does believe he can do that, and so I project that onto him despite the fact that this argument is coming from some anonymous guy writing on a blog, not anyone who really knows Obama's mind.

Obviously I'm not trying to persuade anyone here. You may read these posts and come to the exact opposite conclusion. Maybe, contra me, Hillary is just another Jimmy Carter, good on details but not so good on a vision of governance. Likewise, maybe Obama really is stealthy and slick enough to get things done that a more confrontational politician couldn't. As always, your mileage may vary.

But for what it's worth, that's where I am right now. Still leaning modestly toward Hillary, still unsure that Obama really knows how to get things done in modern-day Washington. But still watching and waiting.

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By: Kevin Drum

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY....Here it is: The Democratic primary has become more a Rorschach test than an actual contest. I suppose this is a banal proposition, but it's been remarkable lately watching so many people — and I include myself here, though I don't always blog about it — so transparently project their own desires and fears onto the top three candidates, often in completely contradictory ways. I don't have any good examples of this right at hand, but maybe I'll try to collect a few over the next few days.

Still, perhaps we can all come together on one thing: if it's going to be a Rorschach test, surely Inkblot is our most electable candidate? He's got a pretty good policy platform, too.

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By: Kevin Drum

UNDERSTANDING FRANCE....Interested in France? David Bell says that Arthur Goldhammer's blog French Politics "has a fair claim to be offering the best commentary on France available in the English language today." Just thought I'd pass that along.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Josh Patashnik, after linking to Michael Cannon's livid blast against Arnold Schwarzenegger's universal healthcare plan for California:

The conservative health care strategy works like this: endorse subsidies in theory, since it would seem unacceptably heartless to simply say that people who can't afford medical care shouldn't get it. Then, whenever anybody proposes a plan to actually implement subsidies, vehemently oppose it without offering any alternative plan to expand coverage. (Which is what California Republicans are doing.) In other words, let states experiment — except when they actually do.

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By: Kevin Drum

OUTSOURCED CHART WONKERY....No, not outsourced to India, just to another blog. Afferent Input tries to chart the CBO's latest figures for increased income inequality but hits a snag: all the poor schmoes at the bottom have done so badly that their lines all get squashed together. His solution: make the chart really tall and skinny.

The numbers in this chart are all normalized to zero in 1979, and what they show is that the total share of national income going to the super-rich has more than doubled over that time. The merely well off have also gotten a slightly bigger piece of the pie, while everyone else has funded this free-for-all. "Everyone else," in this case, means 90% of the country. Our share of national income has gone down in order to make sure that virtually all the fruits of economic growth over the past four decades could go to the well-off, the rich, and the super-duper-rich.

One of the reasons it's important to see charts like this, even if you've seen them before, is that it gives the lie to the endlessly recycled myth that growing income inequality is mainly due to increased returns to education and technical skills. But it ain't so. The returns to education might be growing a bit — though even that's debatable — but by far the biggest beneficiaries of skyrocketing income inequality have been the top 1%, the top 0.1%, and the top 0.01%. Not even Republicans will try to make the case that the top 1% have become better educated over the past 40 years compared to the top 10%, so if that's where income inequality is concentrated then education just can't be a huge factor. If you're interested in the truth, you have to look elsewhere.

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By: Kevin Drum

KERREY....For the record, I'm with Mark Kleiman on the whole Bob Kerrey dustup. I was just barely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt over his "Obama's Muslim father" remarks — largely because I think he's substantively right about this — but his "secular madrassa" comment simply can't be spun as sincere even if you're bending over backward to be charitable. If he really thinks he's helping Hillary with the nonsense, he's sadly mistaken.

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By: Kevin Drum

THE EQUATIONS OF POLITICS....Walter Shapiro listens to the stump speeches of the three leading Democratic candidates and sums them up this way:

Edwards and Clinton are both playing traditional roles in the never-ending political drama of the outsider versus the insider. Obama is the wild card, as the 21st-century candidate trying to rewrite the equations that govern political math.

There's nothing original there, but it does get to the heart of the difference between Obama and the other two. The question is, do you believe that there's a "new politics" out there waiting for someone to grab hold of it and change the "equations that govern political math"? I gotta say, I'm skeptical — the same way I was skeptical when the dotcommers thought they'd rewritten the rules of stock valuation and the subprime lenders thought they'd rewritten the rules of risk evaluation. Call me cynical, but from where I sit politics doesn't look a lot different today than it did when I cast my first vote 30 years ago.

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTURING ZUBAIDA....Did torturing Abu Zubaida work? Was he an "unstable source who provided limited intelligence under gentle questioning" or a "hardened terrorist who cracked under extremely harsh measures"? At the Washington Post, Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus investigate.

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THE SCHOOLS THE TALIBAN WON'T TORCH....The Taliban has been increasingly resurgent in Afghanistan over the past year, but our problems there go well beyond the military. The Washington Post reported on Monday that "Afghanistan is so poor and so starved for modern infrastructure, one senior administration official said, that it could well be 'a longer, if not larger, challenge than Iraq.'" A day earlier, the New York Times reported that Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, "was coordinating another internal assessment of diplomatic efforts and economic aid — the sorts of 'soft power' assistance beyond combat force that officials agree are required for success."

In the December issue of the Monthly, Gregory Warner says a big part of the soft-power problem is simple funding: "According to the RAND Corporation, the American-led nation-building effort in Afghanistan is the least-financed such effort in sixty years." The solution, though, isn't just more funding, but funding the right kind of programs:

In a country where almost all the recent news has been bad news, the National Solidarity Program, or NSP, offers a rare glimmer of hope....The novel thinking behind the National Solidarity Program is largely the work of Scott Guggenheim, a maverick World Bank staffer who in the late 1990s pioneered a similar program in Indonesia.

....Guggenheim designed a program that would distribute small grants to villages....Local leaders were charged with administering the projects and required to take bookkeeping classes and keep minutes at planning meetings. Billboards above project sites indicated how money had been spent, encouraging local oversight. "The core elements were requiring that citizens participate and that there be high levels of transparency about how money was being transferred and used," one of Guggenheim's former Bank colleagues, Dennis de Tray, now at the Center for Global Development in Washington, said. "It had to be auditable."

....Maybe the most surprising characteristic of NSP projects is security related. In a survey last year of school burnings by the Taliban, Human Rights Watch observed that schools built by the NSP have less chance of being destroyed by insurgents than schools built by other aid programs. The reason, as Dennis de Tray explains, relates to the matter of local ownership. "If you're the Taliban, you feel some comfort in attacking things built by foreigners," de Tray says. "But you don't want to create animosity among citizens you're trying to recruit to your side."

The NSP has other benefits as well: village councils that successfully complete projects can apply for additional grants, and after the fourth or fifth grant cycle, Guggenheim says, "something like real responsive government started to emerge."

Unfortunately, although other countries have increased their funding of NSP, the United States has actually decreased its contribution. The result is fewer villages participating, and fewer of them getting to the stage where the grants start to produce real changes in the way local governments become more responsible, more closely aligned with the central government, and less vulnerable to the Taliban. And the savings involved? A tiny fraction of what we spend on military and counternarcotics efforts.

Read the rest of the story here.

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THE DEFENSE BUDGET....Lorelei Kelly wants to make sure we all know just how massive the post-9/11 defense budget has gotten — even when you don't count the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Last week, both houses of Congress approved the conference report on the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Authorization bill, H.R. 1585. The bill includes $506.9 billion for the Department of Defense and the nuclear weapons activities of the Department of Energy....The amount of Cold War lard is truly astonishing, especially given the fact that the military itself is hollering from the hilltops that it can't be responsible for all of our national security needs and that today's problems just don't have military (read "Cold War weapons systems") answers.

....Keep in mind, today's defense spending is 14% above the height of the Korean War, 33% above the height of the Vietnam War, 25% above the height of the "Reagan Era" buildup and is 76% above the Cold War average

In fact, since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the annual defense budget — not including the costs of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — has gone up 34%. Including war costs, defense spending has gone up 86% since 2001.

Now you know.

Kevin Drum 12:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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December 17, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

RETROACTIVE IMMUNITY....Given a choice of two FISA bills, one that provided retroactive immunity to telecoms companies that illegally cooperated with the NSA after 9/11 and one that didn't, Harry Reid decided to bring to the floor the bill that provided immunity. Reid is rightly taking a lot of heat for this in the liberal blogosphere, plus additional heat for overriding Chris Dodd's hold on the bill, but today the Reid-approved legislation passed its first test 76-10. This suggests pretty strongly that Matt Yglesias is right: The Senate as a whole clearly wants the immunity provision to pass, including a majority of Democrats, which means Reid should hardly be held up for any special opprobrium. He's just doing the will of the people.

But why is nearly every senator so anxious to provide telecoms companies with immunity? After all, as Russ Feingold points out, under current law "companies already get immunity for cooperating with government requests for information — as long as the requests follow requirements that are clearly laid out in the law." The answer, apparently, is that that's not good enough. Attorney General Michael Mukasey wrote recently that "in the future we will need the full-hearted help of private companies in our intelligence activities," and evidently we want that cooperation whether the government's requests are legal or not. Thus the immunity. It's a message for the future.

Other people have done a better job than me of explaining why this precedent is so odious, so I won't rehash it here. Go read Glenn Greenwald instead.

But it's still worth noting that it didn't have to be this way. After all, hardly anyone, either liberal or conservative, would have objected if the Bush administration had gotten telecoms cooperation as a genuine emergency measure following 9/11. As Ron Suskind reminds us in The One Percent Doctrine, this was the situation at the time: Al-Qaeda terrorists had just attacked the country; further attacks seemed highly likely; our intelligence network was scrambling and nearly blind; we had good reason to believe that Osama bin Laden might be negotiating with Pakistani radicals to obtain a nuclear weapon; and credible reports suggested that al-Qaeda might also be on the road to manufacturing weaponized anthrax. Under the circumstances, asking telecoms companies to cooperate on an interim basis even in the absence of legal approval would hardly have been inappropriate.

But that's not what happened. As Suskind also reminded us, instead of requesting temporary cooperation and then asking Congress for the implementing legislation within a few months, the Bush administration insisted on going it alone. Dick Cheney had long been obsessed with reasserting the power of the executive branch, and Bush himself was obviously smitten with the idea of being a "wartime president." It was a toxic combination. As a result, instead of calming down after the initial panic and getting Congress fully involved, Bush and Cheney insisted on moving ahead for years in a legal gray zone.

So now we end up where we are today. Instead of an emergency request that was quickly put on a firm legislative foundation, we have a legal quagmire. And because Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — went along with this even after we had gotten our bearings and had no excuse for continuing to operate on an emergency basis, they're just as happy as anyone to put this whole episode behind them and cave in on the retroactive immunity issue.

And what happens the next time a president demands telecoms cooperation for years on end without legal justification? Well, that's the problem, isn't it?

UPDATE: Chris Dodd's filibuster has forced Reid to withdraw the FISA bill until next year. But it's only a temporary victory. In January the fight starts all over again.

Kevin Drum 9:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE SURVEILLANCE STATE....This story ran yesterday in the New York Times, but I didn't want to bury it on the blog on a Sunday. So in case you haven't seen it already, it's worth your while to read Eric Lichtblau, James Risen, and Scott Shane on the rise of the surveillance state. Here's a snippet:

A lawsuit was filed in federal court in New Jersey challenging [NSA's] wiretapping operations. It claims that in February 2001...N.S.A. met with AT&T officials to discuss replicating a network center in Bedminster, N.J., to give the agency access to all the global phone and e-mail traffic that ran through it.

The accusations rely in large part on the assertions of a former engineer on the project. The engineer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview that he participated in numerous discussions with N.S.A. officials about the proposal. The officials, he said, discussed ways to duplicate the Bedminster system in Maryland so the agency "could listen in" with unfettered access to communications that it believed had intelligence value and store them for later review. There was no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications, he said.

"At some point," he said, "I started feeling something isn't right."

As with many of the other programs described in the article, note the date: February 2001. That's before 9/11. Read the whole thing.

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By: Kevin Drum

ENDING THE WAR....Matt Yglesias links to the latest NYT/CBS poll about Iraq, and the results are clear: more than 70% of the country thinks we should leave within two years or less:

As you can see, virtually nobody in the United States wants to see American troops remain in Iraq for longer than five years. If you put squarely to people a political and strategic choice between a long-term military commitment to Iraq and trying to wrap our involvement up as quickly as is feasible, it wouldn't even be a close call.

Unfortunately, I don't think it's that easy. Here's the thing: in every poll taken for the past three years, we've seen basically the same results: (a) a majority wants to leave Iraq within one or two years, and (b) almost nobody wants to leave right now. So where will all those people who want to leave within a year or two be when pollsters ask this question again in 2008? Most likely answer: they'll still want to leave within a year or two and they still won't want to leave right now.

It's easy to say that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of withdrawing from Iraq and congressional Democrats are cowards for not fighting harder to end the war. But that's poll literalism at work. In reality, as near as I can tell, the public is unhappy, but at the same time unwilling to endorse serious action to stop the flow of Friedmans and set a firm deadline for leaving. Maybe congressional Democrats need more backbone when it comes to Iraq, but as always, it's public opinion that's key. And public opinion just isn't as overwhelmingly on our side as we often like to think. Fix that, and we'll all be amazed at how fast Dems can grow a spine.

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By: Kevin Drum

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From the book jacket of Jonah Goldberg's forthcoming Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning:

The quintessential liberal fascist isn't an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade-school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

Quite so. Up against the wall with all of 'em.

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By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING TERRORISM....Former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, asked about Barack Obama yesterday, said: "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims and I think that experience is a big deal." Mark Kleiman agrees, but James Joyner doesn't:

I disagree strongly with Kerrey and Kleiman about the value of having a president with a Muslim middle name. Indeed, the idea that religious nuts who are willing to murder thousands of Americans would think "Hey, they elected a guy with a Muslim middle name! They must be okay!" is absurd. Hell, they kill plenty of people named Hussein who actually are Muslims; the only thing they hate more than American infidels is Arab apostates.

I think this is badly wrong. And it's badly wrong in an important way. In fact, it gets straight to the heart of perhaps the most serious, most durable misunderstanding held by conservatives about how to fight terrorism.

Kerrey wasn't suggesting that electing Obama would have any direct effect on hardcore al-Qaeda jihadists. It wouldn't. But terrorists can't function unless they have a critical mass of support or, at a minimum, tolerance from a surrounding population. This is Mao's sea in which the jihadists swim. Without it, terrorists simply don't have enough freedom of movement to be effective, and their careers are short. It's why the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany lasted only a few years, while the IRA in Ireland has lasted decades.

What Kerrey was getting at was simple: in the long run, the only way to defeat the hardcore jihadists is to dry up their support in the surrounding Muslim world. And on that score, a president with black skin, a Muslim father, and a middle name of Hussein, might very well be pretty helpful.

For today's jihadists, the answer is hard power. There's no other way to stop them. But for tomorrow's jihadists, the answer is soft power. As long as a substantial fraction of the Islamic world supports or tolerates jihadism, we'll never stop the production of new terrorists or seriously reduce their effectiveness. But if that support dries up, we can win. This is where our foreign policy should be focused, and the fact that it hasn't been for the past six years — that, in fact, we've gone backward on this score — is by far the most calamitous aspect of George Bush's disastrous war on terror.

UPDATE: James responds here, and I pretty much agree with him. I don't think the mere fact of having Obama as president would make a huge difference in the fight for Muslim world opinion. Other things are far more important. But it might help.

Kevin Drum 1:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

FIGHTING BACK AGAINST NASTY....Sometimes it's wise to just keep your mouth shut. The U.S. Attorney scandal earlier this year didn't really take off until Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty put his foot in his mouth and told Congress that the prosecutors in question had been fired for "performance-related" reasons. Until then, the firees had mostly been willing to take their lumps and move on, but McNulty's comment pissed them off and they started talking. The rest is history.

Likewise, Rudy Giuliani probably should have kept his mouth shut a week ago instead of telling Tim Russert, "How can I not have pretty good judgment about the people who work for me and not been able to turn around the United States attorney's office?" In the New York Times today, the U.S. Attorney whose office Giuliani supposedly "turned around" fires back. According to John Martin, Giuliani made no major changes in the staff or leadership group he inherited; the idea of prosecuting organized crime families under the RICO statute originated a year before he took office; his famous securities fraud cases originated in a tip from Merrill Lynch; and the trial of Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman originated with the Chicago FBI office. He concludes:

There is no question that Mr. Giuliani is an able lawyer. It is unfortunate, however, that he feels he must denigrate the accomplishments of others to advance his own political interests.

That's unfortunate all right, but it's also part of Rudy's DNA. You don't get one without the other.

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By: Kevin Drum

BASRA....The British handed control of Basra over to the Iraqis yesterday, and here's what the local police chief told the LA Times about the transfer:

Maj. Gen. Abdul Jalil Khalaf, police commander of Basra, said he did not expect an escalation in violence because Iraqi forces have been in control of the city since Britain started its troop pullout in September.

...."There are no militias controlling the streets of Basra anymore," Khalaf said. "Now, only the law and security forces have control over the streets."

That sounds hopeful. But here's what the very same police chief told the Guardian:

"They left me militia, they left me gangsters, and they left me all the troubles in the world," he said in an interview for Guardian Films and ITV....In the film, to be broadcast on the Guardian Unlimited website and ITV News, Khalaf lists a catalogue of failings, saying:

  • Basra has become so lawless that in the last three months 45 women have been killed for being "immoral" because they were not fully covered or because they may have given birth outside wedlock;

  • The British unintentionally rearmed Shia militias by failing to recognise that Iraqi troops were loyal to more than one authority;

  • Shia militia are better armed than his men and control Iraq's main port.

In the interview he said the main problem the Iraqi security forces now faced was the struggle to wrest control back from the militia.

So what's the story? Do militias control Basra or not? I can't say for sure, but here's one hint: even in the optimistic LA Times story, there's a telling note: "The fact that the [handover] ceremony was held not in the city, but in an airport lounge with signs for 'international baggage claim' and 'passport control' leading to the venue, underscored the state of security in town." Indeed.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

HUCKABEE AND BUSH....In his recent Foreign Affairs essay, Mike Huckabee had hard words for George Bush's approach to national security:

American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. My administration will recognize that the United States' main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists.

Bold! Truthtelling! A brave effort to stand up to the Bush adminsitration's unthinking hawkishness. Except for one thing: as soon as Mitt Romney called him on it, Huckabee backed down:

I didn't say the President was arrogant....I've said that the policies have been arrogant....I'm the one who actually supported the President's surge. I supported the Bush tax cuts, when Mr. Romney didn't. I was with President Bush on gun control, when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the President on the President's pro-life position, when Mitt Romney wasn't.

What's funny about this is that, given the realities of magazine lead times, Huckabee almost certainly wrote his essay at least a month ago, and maybe earlier than that. Back then, like any candidate with no realistic shot at winning, he was occasionally willing to speak out and let the chips fall where they would. But the Republican presidential race has been so volatile that a mere month later Huckabee finds himself with an actual shot at the nomination. So no more truthtelling for the Huck! He's George Bush's biggest supporter now, and don't you dare think otherwise.

This is just another example of why everyone should ignore bold truthtelling from minor candidates. It's easy to take unpopular stands when you have no chance of winning, but not so easy when you're actually trying to scrounge up the votes to put yourself over the top. Huckabee is just the latest victim of this eternal truth.

Kevin Drum 11:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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December 16, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE REVENGE OF THE GUT....Back in 2001, the widely respected scholar John DiIulio spent about half a year in the George Bush White House as head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Here's what he told Ron Suskind about his experience:

In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions....The lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking.

This weekend, six years after serving in the same White House at the same time as DiIulio, former Bush speechwriter David Frum finally decides that maybe DiIulio was right. What's more, after listening to Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee burble confidently on about absurdities, he concludes that just maybe the entire conservative movement bears some blame for this state of affairs:

Many of us on the conservative side have fed this monster. (Rightly) aghast at the abuse of expertise by liberal judges, liberal bureaucrats and liberal academics, we have sometimes over-reacted by denying the importance of expertise altogether.

....So now instead of holes in our souls, we conservatives are getting candidates with holes in their heads.

Here's the lesson to learn: It's always important to respect the values and principles of the voters. But politicians who want to deliver effective government and positive results have to care about more than values — and have to do more than check their guts. They need to study the problem, master the evidence, and face criticism.

Welcome back to the reality-based community, Mr. Frum. Good luck reining in the beast you and your colleagues have spent the past three decades unchaining.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

UPDATE: Ross Douthat wonders why Frum only mentions Huckabee and Paul:

If you're going to be hard on the current crop of Republican candidates for making bogus claims about public policy, it seems awfully unfair to leave out the candidate given to running ads in which he announces: "I know that reducing taxes produces more revenue. The Democrats don't know that. They don't believe that." (They don't believe it, of course, because in the current fiscal landscape you can't find a serious conservative economist who thinks it's true.)

....If you're looking for cases where the Right's anti-elitism has shaded into outright anti-intellectualism — for cases where, in Frum's words, a GOP politician has deliberately failed to "study the problem, master the evidence, and face criticism" — Giuliani's frequent channeling of Larry Kudlow seems like at least as telling an example as anything Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are peddling.

He's right. The Fair Tax and the gold standard are crank ideas that, while they tell us something about the candidates who support them, will never actually become public policy. "Tax cuts increase revenue," on the other hand, not only tells us something about Giuliani, but about the entire modern Republican Party apparatus. I imagine that's why Frum didn't include it.

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RECRUITING....Military recruiting has been tough lately, and that's produced both good news and bad. The good news: there's much less interest in kicking out gay soldiers. The bad news: one in five recruits enters service on waivers, and as a result gang activity is up. Rep. Mike Thompson (D–Ca.) is trying to do something about it.

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By: Kevin Drum

DA DA DA DUM....Today is Beethoven's birthday. Crank up your iPod and listen to something good.

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By: Kevin Drum

WHO KNEW?....Over at Newsweek, the saga of the destroyed CIA interrogation video continues. Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball report that intelligence director John Negroponte provided direction about the tapes to CIA director Porter Goss in a 2005 memo...

...which records that Negroponte strongly advised against destroying the tapes, according to two people close to the investigation, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive matter. The memo is so far the only known documentation that a senior intel official warned that the tapes should not be destroyed.

Later in the piece, they report that Goss was "dismayed" to learn that the tapes had been destroyed, thus perpetuating the story that Jose Rodriguez Jr., then chief of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, destroyed them entirely on his own despite contrary advice from virtually every other person involved in this. And maybe that's true. But Rodriguez is sure looking more and more like a classic fall guy every day, isn't he?

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NEGATIVES....Southern California apostate Ezra Klein snags the front (op-ed) page of Southern California's newspaper of record today with a very nice piece about whether Hillary Clinton is really a uniquely polarizing candidate. It's true, he says, that her negatives are currently higher than either Edwards' or Obama's:

Still, it's a bit misleading to say "she" is more polarizing. Polarization isn't a character trait; it's the outcome of a process. And that process is American politics....As pollster Scott Rasmussen tells me, all the other candidates are going to see their negatives go up during the course of the campaign — and if one of them ultimately wins the race, their negatives will go up even further. "The next president will get to where she is no matter who we elect," he said. It's not that the others are necessarily less polarizing than Clinton. It's that they're not as polarizing yet.

....The polarizing effects of the process are the larger truth that voters have to grapple with. How will Obama look after nine months of sinister insinuations about his heritage, religious loyalties and racial background? How will John Edwards look after the airwaves are blanketed with sneering ads focusing on his mansion and his record as a trial lawyer and his pricey haircuts? How will Mitt Romney come off after mocking videos of his bald shifts in position play during every commercial break?

Yep, that's the question. And it's a real question, not a rhetorical one. How will Obama look after nine months on the receiving end of the right-wing slime machine? A big part of his appeal to Democrats depends on whether you think he'll come out of the other end of the campaign with the same high negatives as Hillary or whether he'll manage to stay five or ten points below her. My guess: if Obama gets the nomination, his negatives will never quite reach Hillary's level, but by November they'll only be three or four points lower. Personally, I doubt that that will make a difference. Either one of them has what it takes to win.

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"THEY WILL GET OVERRUN"....A couple of weeks ago I linked to a story about the initial troop drawdowns in Iraq and expressed surprised that they were taking place in Baghdad rather than in outlying provinces. Today, the LA Times reports that the military has had second thoughts about this too:

In a change of plans, American commanders in Iraq have decided to keep their forces concentrated in Baghdad when the buildup strategy ends next year, removing troops instead from outlying areas of the country.

....The shift in deployment strategy, described by senior U.S. military officials in Iraq and Washington, is based on concerns that despite recent improvements, the capital could again erupt into widespread violence without an imposing American military presence.

That's not especially good news. But if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is. We stay in Baghdad.

Later in the article, though, the local U.S. commanders provide a rationale for leaving the provinces that's surprising in its honesty:

The day-to-day commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, and his staff believe that the increasing competence of provincial security and political leaders will put pressure on the government in Baghdad that "will breed a better central government," said his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson.

...."The grass-roots level will force change at the top because if they do not act on it, they will get overrun," said another senior military officer responsible for Iraq war planning.

In other words, our "bottoms up" strategy — which, you'll recall, was adopted out of necessity as a response to the Anbar Awakening — is creating competing power centers in the provinces that are becoming ever better equipped to successfully challenge the central government. And that's deliberate. Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen fessed up about this months ago in a little-noticed piece on the Small Wars Journal blog, and apparently U.S. commanders are now talking about it more openly too. The message to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is: get your act together or else the Sunni sheikhs in Anbar and Diyala are going to get it together for you.

Kilcullen called the revitalized Sunni tribes "competing armed interest groups," and expressed the hope that their existence would create a stable "intra-communal balance of power." That was a pretty strained piece of spin from the start, and now even that thin curtain is being stripped away. Today, we're all but admitting that the more likely result of "competing armed interest groups" is civil war, and if the Maliki administration doesn't get this, "they will get overrun."

In fact, I imagine the Maliki government and its allies get this perfectly well — and they're undoubtedly preparing for it. Unfortunately, that preparation probably doesn't include making concessions to their Sunni adversaries. More likely, it means making sure they're the ones who get overrun.

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December 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BALI WRAPUP....Since I vented last night about the absurd "compromise" reached at the Bali climate change conference on Friday, it's only fair to give equal time to a more considered opinion now that the negotiations are over and the final document looks a little better than it did at this time yesterday. Given the Bush administration's participation, says John Quiggin, firm CO2 targets were just never in the cards:

But on just about every other score, the outcome has been better than anyone could reasonably have expected, including:

  • Agreement in principle on a 2050 target of halving emissions

  • Agreement to negotiate a binding deal in 2009, when Bush will be gone, and short-term targets back on the table

  • Agreement to provide assistance to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation

  • Agreement by China to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are measurable, reportable and verifiable.

Other winners from Bali: Al Gore and new Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. And the losers? "They know who they are."

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY WE TORTURE....Responding to yesterday's post about the conservative moral justification for the use of waterboarding, stress positions, etc. against detainees in American custody, one of my conservative correspondents wrote to me this morning to explain why he supports the torture of suspected terrorists. Beneath the intellectual superstructure that we often hear from torture apologists, I suspect that what he wrote pretty closely mirrors the actual underlying beliefs that we're up against when we liberals argue against the morality of torture. So without comment, here's what he sent me:

I want our side to win. Or maybe more accurately, I don't want our side to lose....As with any other form of violence, motivation is everything. A cop shooting a murderer is not the same as a murderer shooting an innocent victim, although both use guns, and at the end, someone is bleeding and dying.

You'd be amazed at how many people find these things nearly equivalent. A leftist I know sees no difference between a Palestinian child dying from a stray Israeli bullet during a firefight, and an Israeli child dying when a Palestinian terrorist puts the barrel of a gun to the kid's forehead and blows his brains across the back wall of the child's bedroom. In his two-dimensional perception, the only important factor is that both resulted in a dead child. Avoiding true moral analysis and motivations allows him to skirt the concept of "evil," a term which makes many liberals intensely uncomfortable.

John Kiriakou said that waterboarding a terrorist stopped dozens of attacks. Dozens. Not attacks on military targets, but attacks on innocent non-combatants.

That was the motivation.

The terrorists who torture and kill our prisoners (never something as benign as waterboarding) don't do it because they need information to save innocent people. They do it because they like it, because they want to hurt or kill someone.

At some point you have to decide if a known terrorist having a very bad day (after which he goes back to a hot meal and a cot) is more of a moral problem than allowing a terrorist to blow up a building full of people.

Yes, it's good if we do it, when it's for the right reasons. So far, it's been for the right reasons. And no, it isn't good when it's done to us, for the reasons it has been done to us. Get back to me when some enemy tortures one of our soldiers in order to save innocent lives.

Got it?

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HARDBALL....Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe reports that the White House is taking steps to rein in those pesky JAG lawyers who think that Guantanamo detainees deserve something at least remotely resembling a fair hearing:

The Bush administration is pushing to take control of the promotions of military lawyers, escalating a conflict over the independence of uniformed attorneys who have repeatedly raised objections to the White House's policies toward prisoners in the war on terrorism.

....Retired Major General Thomas Romig, the Army's top JAG from 2001 to 2005, called the proposal an attempt "to control the military JAGs" by sending a message that if they want to be promoted, they should be "team players" who "bow to their political masters on legal advice."

It "would certainly have a chilling effect on the JAGs' advice to commanders," Romig said. "The implication is clear: without [the administration's] approval the officer will not be promoted."

You will be unsurprised to learn that this is a revival of a policy first proposed in the early 90s by — of course — Dick Cheney, David Addington, and William Haynes. Savage says that the Senate Armed Services Committee forced Cheney to back down the first time, but now he's back to give it another try.

Haynes, by the way, is currently the Defense Department General Counsel, a political appointment. He's also the guy who caused Morris Davis, chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, to resign his job. (Note: that's the chief prosecutor, not some effete, terror-loving defense attorney. The prosecutor resigned because the deck was stacked too firmly in the prosecution's direction.) If you need your memory refreshed, here's Morris in the LA Times a few days ago:

I resigned because of two memos signed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England that placed the chief prosecutor — that was me — in a chain of command under Defense Department General Counsel William J. Haynes. Haynes was a controversial nominee for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but his nomination died in January 2007, in part because of his role in authorizing the use of the aggressive interrogation techniques some call torture.

I had instructed the prosecutors in September 2005 that we would not offer any evidence derived by waterboarding, one of the aggressive interrogation techniques the administration has sanctioned. Haynes and I have different perspectives and support different agendas, and the decision to give him command over the chief prosecutor's office, in my view, cast a shadow over the integrity of military commissions. I resigned a few hours after I was informed of Haynes' place in my chain of command.

The Military Commissions Act provides a foundation for fair trials, but some changes are clearly necessary. I was confident in full, fair and open trials when Gen. Altenburg was the convening authority and Brig. Gen. Tom Hemingway was his legal advisor. Collectively, they spent nearly 65 years in active duty, and they were committed to ensuring the integrity of military law. They acted on principle rather than politics.

The first step, if these truly are military commissions and not merely a political smoke screen, is to take control out of the hands of political appointees like Haynes and Crawford and give it back to the military.

Bush, Cheney, and Addington obviously have exactly the opposite view.

Via Steve Benen.

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By: Kevin Drum

HUCK AND THE MONEYCONS....Atrios comments on the newfound conservative loathing of Mike Huckabee:

I understand why the Villagers are freaked by Huckabee, but I don't understand why all of the idiot conservative bloggers are freaking out too. They're using the kind of language to describe the religious right that I steer clear of personally.

Over at The Corner they're up in arms over Huckabee too. The language might be a little more judicious, but the high priests of mainstream conservatism are every bit as unglued about Huckabee as the bloggers.

There are a variety of ostensible reasons for this: lack of foreign policy bona fides, too compassionate for their taste, too willing to consider spending money, etc. But I think the real reason is simpler: as with blogosphere conservatives, mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They're happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn't care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal. The only difference is that usually they keep their shivering to themselves because they want to keep everyone in the big tent happy.

But then along comes Huckabee, and guess what? He's the real deal. Not a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan, who talks a soothing game to the snake handlers but then turns around and spends his actual political capital on tax cuts, foreign wars, and deregulating big corporations. Huckabee, it turns out, isn't just giving lip service to evangelicals, he actually believes all that stuff. Among other things, he believes in creationism (really believes), once proposed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, appears to share the traditional evangelical view that Mormonism is a cult, and says (in public!) that homosexuality is sinful. And that's without seeing the text of any of his old sermons, which he (probably wisely) refuses to let the press lay eyes on.

I think this brand of yahooism puts off mainstream urban conservatives every bit as much as it does mainstream urban liberals. They're afraid that this time, it's not just a line of patter to keep the yokels in line.

Kevin Drum 12:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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December 14, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BALI BUFFOONERY....I realize that diplomacy and sausage making aren't always pretty, but the latest "compromise" at the Bali climate talks is about as ridiculous as anything I've seen in a long time:

Talks had been deadlocked all week by U.S. insistence on the removal of a passage in the document's preamble mandating that industrialized countries reduce their emissions 25% to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

....A compromise proposed by Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar makes the controversial targets footnotes to the preamble, a move that seems to have satisfied both sides.

"This is a compromise. We can live with this," said German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

The U.S. also seemed pleased. "We can live with the preamble," said chief U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson.

Italics mine. Why not just put the numbers in hexadecimal and then rejoice at all the progress we've made?

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FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....The days are numbered for my beloved old Nikon Coolpix digital camera with the rotating middle. Soon, catblogging will be brighter, sharper, more colorful, better focused, and more image stabilized. Soon.

But not yet. Today the Nikon continues to crank out catblogging fodder. On the left is Inkblot, lurking on the stairs and seemingly looming out of the shadows. It didn't look like that in real life, of course. But the crappy dynamic range of the Nikon's CCD makes Inkblot look ever so much more dramatic than he really is, so score one for obsolete technology.

And what was Inkblot staring at? Do I even need to tell you? A few feet up the stairs, there's Domino sitting on the landing and looking slightly alarmed at the vast Inkblottian presence. Her response? "Grrrr." My response? Say that to the camera, sweetie.

By the way, here's an update on Inkblot's weight loss. As our vet told us, there was nothing unusual about it, and he's plateaued at about 17-18 pounds, down from 22. And it's made a difference. Not a huge one, but he's unquestionably more lively these days than he used to be. So that's good. Except for Domino, who's gained weight on the diet cat food and doesn't really appreciate Inkblot's increased desire to play. Her response? "Grrrr."

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DEFINING TORTURE DOWN....Paul Waldman is pissed off that Republicans have successfully cowed the media into refusing to use the word "torture" for things like waterboarding and sleep deprivation, which are pretty clearly torture:

This is not complicated. Everyone all over the world agrees on what constitutes torture. Torture is the intentional infliction of physical or mental suffering in order to obtain information or confessions. Not hard to understand. Yet Republicans have successfully lured the entire journalistic community into their moral sewer, where there is some degree of suffering (defined not by how awful it is, but by whether it's fast or slow, and whether it leaves visible scars) that marks the line between torture and not-torture. If I rip your fingernails out — torture! If I tie you in a "stress position" designed to gradually inflict elevating amounts of pain, up to sheer agony, over the course of an hour or two — not torture!

Italics mine, and of course Paul is correct. It's not hard to understand.

But here's the part I don't get. Obviously a lot of people deal with this issue by simply not thinking about it. But among the torture supporters who do think about it, what exactly do they think? Putting legal issues aside, there are two basic moral positions:

  1. The stuff we do is OK, full stop. If Iranians or al-Qaeda or Hamas used waterboarding or stress positions on Americans in order to wring information out of them, we'd have no cause to complain. War is war.

  2. It's not OK in general, but it is acceptable when used against suspected terrorists. It would be wrong to torture Americans because our fighters are uniformed soldiers, not irregulars.

I guess — what? It has to be #2, right? That's the usual legal distinction, and we certainly know that we wouldn't accept waterboarding or stress positions or any of the rest against Americans with equanimity. So it has to be #2.

But is this also the moral position among torture apologists? Or something else?

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OBSESSION....I would just like to take this opportunity to express my awe over Andrew Sullivan's ability to dig up every single piece of anti-Hillary spleen in existence. I literally don't think he leaves any stone, or any blog comment section, unturned in his daily effort to illuminate his otherworldly loathing for Mrs. C. In its own way, it's a brilliant work of performance art.

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WAS IT FOR ALL THOSE TICKER TAPE PARADES THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE GOING TO GET?....ThinkProgress passes along the news that federal spending on paper shredding has increased over 500% since George Bush took office. Consider this an open thread for paper shredding jokes.

UPDATE: In other news from ThinkProgress, Bill O'Reilly apparently thinks that certain retailers should be exempt from his "War on Christmas" tirades. Namely, retailers that sell a lot of books. More specifically, retailers who sell a lot of Bill O'Reilly's books. Gutsy as always, Bill.

UPDATE 2: Emailer JMK suggests that maybe all the shredded paper was for the $20 million Iraq war victory celebration that Republicans budgeted for 2006 and then rolled over into 2007. Maybe!

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By: Kevin Drum

AL GORE AND THE PRESIDENCY....Matt Yglesias says everyone should give up on the idea that Al Gore might run for president:

That said, I agree with the basic sentiment: Gore hits the sweet spot of experience and vision in a way that nobody else can. What's more, a person who's in a position to be a viable presidential candidate and who believes the things Gore says he believes almost has a duty to run, a duty that I'm sad he hasn't seen fit to take up.

Me too. At the same time, I feel like there's an obvious point to make about Gore that, for some reason, no one ever makes: the stuff he's done over the past five years that puts him in that sweet spot is largely stuff he was only able to do because he had the freedom of not running for office. Real politicians who are running for real office have to be very careful about what they do and say. They have to pander to interest groups, they have to raise millions of dollars from rich donors, and they have to soften up their positions to avoid alienating too many fence-sitters. That's just the way it is, and while it's nice to think that maybe Gore would have figured out a way to square this circle and still win, it ain't so. If Gore were seriously seeking office he simply wouldn't have been able to spend his time the way he has since 2002.

Plus, as Bob Somerby tells us, Gore also knows perfectly well that the quasi-cease-fire he's had with the press recently would break down completely if he actually ran for office. We'd be back to stories about earth tones and discovering Love Canal, profiles that harped endlessly on his stiffness and wonkiness, and talking head buffoonery about his weight or the size of his house. Is it any wonder he figures he can get more done as a private citizen than as a Democratic primary candidate?

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By: Kevin Drum

ENTITLEMENTS....Speaking of charts and the CBO, here's the chart gracing their home page at the moment. It sure explains why Tim Russert and his pals are so obsessed with skyrocketing, out-of-control, demographic-tidal-wave, pick-your-favorite-metaphor Social Security spending, doesn't it?

Of course, Russert and his pals actually use medical services, of which Medicare is merely a reflection, and are thus not quite so keen to bang on endlessly about how we should be working to control medical costs and distribute medical care more efficiently and more equitably. After all, that might actually affect them. Slashing Social Security benefits really doesn't.

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By: Kevin Drum

HO HO HO....The CBO released its latest data series on income inequality yesterday (PDF here, Excel spreadsheet here), and the news was pretty much what you'd expect: the rich are still getting richer a lot faster than anyone else. I was going to make a chart showing just how much faster they were piling up the goodies than the rest of us, but I got lazy and didn't do it. However, Matt Yglesias, who has recently decided to challenge me in the small but lucrative niche of chartblogging, has the goods here for the years 2003-2005. However, it looks pretty much the same if you look at the numbers for the past decade, or the past two decades, or the past three decades. For the rich, income is up and tax rates are down. For the rest of us, income is close to stagnant. Too bad we don't have a whole political party to look after our welfare just like the rich folks do, eh?

Kevin Drum 11:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIQUIDITY vs. SOLVENCY....Paul Krugman writes today that the Fed's latest plan to rescue the financial system probably won't work. The Fed can provide liquidity, he says, but liquidity isn't the problem. Actual bad loans are the problem:

What's going on in the markets isn't an irrational panic. It's a wholly rational panic, because there's a lot of bad debt out there, and you don't know how much of that bad debt is held by the guy who wants to borrow your money.

How will it all end? Markets won't start functioning normally until investors are reasonably sure that they know where the bodies — I mean, the bad debts — are buried. And that probably won't happen until house prices have finished falling and financial institutions have come clean about all their losses. All of this will probably take years.

This sounds about right. There seem to be two fundamental problems at work here. First, there are huge numbers of mortgage loans out there that are genuinely hard to value. Partly that's because of lots of them were crappy no-doc-no-down-teaser-rate-two-year-reset-etc. loans to begin with, and partly because the housing bust means that even high-quality mortgage loans are tricky to value these days. Nobody knows just how far down the housing market is going to go, and that means nobody knows just how widespread the default rate is going to be on these loans.

Second, it's because the rating agencies appear to have been engaged in a massive, multi-year machination to over-rate complex financial instruments. Part of this seems to have been a genuine (if hardly excusable) mistake: the computer models they used to rate the tsunami of CDOs and SIVs coming out of Wall Street simply weren't as sophisticated as they thought they were. But it also seems to have partly been a case of the rating agencies being deliberately overoptimistic because they didn't want to lose the huge fees they were getting for rating these new financial instruments. No one wanted to piss in the punch bowl and ruin everyone's year-end bonus checks.

So: (a) lots of bad loans, (b) lots of good loans soured by the housing bust, and (c) all of them packaged up together and then given ratings that bore little relation to the actual quality of the underlying assets. And what makes it worse is that the uncertainty this causes generates even lower prices for this stuff than it deserves on its own lousy merits. CDOs and SIVs that are worth maybe 80% of their supposed value can't fetch even that much because everyone is petrified that things might be even worse than they think. Who knows what AAA really means these days? A real effort to honestly value all this stuff would cost everyone a lot of money, but it would probably be less than it's going to eventually cost them if they don't come clean. But no one wants to be first, so we are where we are: at the very beginning of a long, slow financial meltdown instead of at the midpoint of getting our arms around it all. Thanks a lot, Wall Street.

UPDATE: Steve Randy Waldman offers a counterpoint.

Kevin Drum 1:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FILIBUSTER....One of the favorite tenets of the liberal blogosphere is that Harry Reid should quit playing by gentlemen's rules and call the GOP's obstructionist bluff. If Republicans want to filibuster everything short of Mother's Day resolutions, make 'em do it the old-fashioned Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington way, talking until their tonsils give out. A while back I spent some time trying to find out if this was actually practical, but the Senate rules turned out to be complex enough that I just couldn't figure it out.

But now I don't feel so bad. Time's Karen Tumulty decided to consult some experts, and it turns out they don't know either:

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution calls this idea impractical. Given the fact that Republicans could muster 41 people on most things to hold the floor, a real filibuster could go on interminably....But Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Insitute thinks Reid should call the Republicans' bluff, starting with holding the Senate in session five long days a week. "You have a different Senate now. Frankly, they're soft," says Ornstein. "If they had the backbone and the discipline to do it, it would work."

Crikey. Mann and Ornstein are (a) practically Siamese twins and (b) about as knowledgable on congressional rules and traditions as anyone this side of Robert Byrd. As one of Tumulty's emailers puts it, "Oh my God — Ornstein and Mann don't agree?! That's like a disagreement between Moses and Jesus. This is more complicated than I thought."

As near as I can tell, Reid does have the authority to demand a real honest-to-Capra filibuster. But then what? It all depends on who you listen to. Expert A says it would work. Expert B says no, the Republicans would just take turns speaking in between naps and the real pressure would be on Democrats, who have to keep meeting bleary-eyed quorum calls. Expert C says the problem is that it would bring all other Senate business to a halt, while Expert D says no, other business could proceed. And Expert E says it might work, but if Reid declares war on the Republicans they can start withholding unanimous consent on everything in sight, turning the whole place into a gigantic Sargasso Sea of legislative molasses.

And even if it did work, George Bush would just veto the resulting bills anyway and no one would care. Hell, Bush has now vetoed the SCHIP bill twice, and unless you're a major political junkie you didn't even know about the second go-around.

But the bottom line is this: if Mann and Ornstein disagree, then yes, this question is more complicated than we think. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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December 13, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE DEMOCRATIC FIELD....Markos evaluates his choices for the Democratic presidential nomination:

Hillary? Yeah right. Edwards? If he hadn't taken public financing, I'd probably go for him....That doesn't mean I think Obama walks on water. Far from it. The guy is going around idiotically attacking Paul Krugman, dancing with homophobic preachers, and while his rhetoric is beautiful upon first listening, an hour later you're left wondering if he said anything of substance at all (and the answer is usually "no").

I confess that this attitude puzzles me. I guess it's human nature to obsess more than we should on flaws and weaknesses, but honestly, these three are all pretty damn good Democratic candidates. With the possible exception of the Dr. Jekyll half of LBJ, any one of them would be the most liberal president in the past half century — and unquestionably the most liberal since 1969.

And electability? They're all electable. Every single one of them is an almost certain winner next November if they run even a merely competent campaign.

In 2004 Democrats really did have a weak field. I ended up supporting Wes Clark, knowing full well that his inexperience might doom him, and sure enough it did. Howard Dean was much more moderate than his fans gave him credit for, and didn't know how to run a campaign. Edwards was pretty green as well. So we ended up with John Kerry, a compromise candidate that lots of people could support but almost no one could love.

But this year is different. Clinton, Edwards, and Obama are all solid liberal candidates; all of them are pretty good at inspiring their own base; and all of them seem to know how to run a campaign. I'm still dithering about who to support, but while I have issues with all three of them, I'm mostly dithering because they're all really good and the differences between them are, frankly, pretty small. Let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Republicans, on the other hand, are really and truly screwed. Every party has suffered through bad fields in the past, but off the top of my head I'm having a hard time remembering one as bad as the 2008 GOP crop. They're the ones who should be pulling their hair out.

Kevin Drum 3:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (162)

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By: Kevin Drum

RANDOM DEBATE THOUGHTS (SO FAR)....Unexpected debating point of the day (so far) comes from Barack Obama: "Reducing obesity to 1980 levels will save Medicare $1 trillion."

Most tiresomely repetitive sound bite (so far) comes from Hillary Clinton: "We need to get back on a path to fiscal responsibility."

Dumbest policy proposal (so far) comes from Bill Richardson: a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

Also (so far), everyone is on their best behavior. You'd barely even know they were running against each other.

Consider this a debate open thread.

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By: Kevin Drum

RUDY'S SPECIAL DEAL....Time magazine has the latest on Rudy Giuliani's lucrative post-9/11 lobbying contract with Seisint, a database mining company founded by former cocaine smuggler Hank Asher:

The firm's potential seemed endless to [Giuliani Partners], and it signed on for what Seisint saw as a heavily discounted fee of $2 million a year, plus a percentage of revenue from company sales to government and corporate buyers.

In the first year, GP earned $6.5 million, Seisint records show, in part for what [Seisint shareholder Michael] Brauser and Seisint's in-house lobbyist, Dan Latham, say were commissions for state and federal contracts. Giuliani "came through," says Brauser. "The doors were wide open. It was almost a flood of business opportunities."

....But the Seisint deal wasn't as perfect as it seemed. One problem: the payment of percentages or commissions to "solicit or secure" government contracts is prohibited by federal law and laws of some states....A GP official who refused to be named insists that the firm never received "commissions" from Seisint — despite what Brauser and Latham remember and despite the fact that payments to GP are labeled "commissions" in both the minutes of a Seisint board meeting and a key financial statement. Instead, says the official, GP earned "special bonuses" based on the achievement of corporate "milestones."

Ah, yes, "special bonuses." I guess that's something like "special interrogation techniques" and "special mortgage offers." Very special.

This is why I keep thinking Romney is going to win the GOP nomination, Mormon underwear or not. Unless John McCain can somehow bring himself back from the grave, who else is there? They're all dead men walking.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPO HELL....Maybe Atrios needs to sign up for one of these tours?

Kevin Drum 12:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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By: Kevin Drum

YET MORE OBSTRUCTION....I see that the climate change negotiations in Bali are going pretty much the way everyone expected them to:

"My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali," said [Al] Gore, who flew to Bali from Oslo, Norway, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize for helping alert the world to the danger of climate change.

....The United States, Japan and several other governments are refusing to accept language in a draft document suggesting that industrialized nations consider cutting emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020, saying specific targets would limit the scope of future talks.

....The United States delegation said while it continues to reject inclusion of specific emission cut targets, it hopes eventually to reach an agreement that is "environmentally effective" and "economically sustainable."...."We don't have to resolve all these issues ... here in Bali," said Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, the head of the U.S. delegation.

Translation: Specific targets would limit the scope of the United States to continue doing nothing of substance. Gore's advice to the delegates was simple: just ignore the Bush administration, pass some targets for emissions reductions, and wait until next November. There's no guarantee that the next president will support greenhouse gas limits, he told them, "but I can tell you I believe it is quite likely."

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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By: Kevin Drum

NYET REVISITED....Say what you will about the Republican Party's indifference to anything other than obstructing Democratic legislation (and I have), it seems to be working like a charm. Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane report in the Washington Post:

As Congress struggles to adjourn for Christmas, relations between House Democrats and their colleagues in the Senate have devolved into finger-pointing.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) accuses Senate Democratic leaders of developing "Stockholm syndrome," showing sympathy to their Republican captors by caving in on legislation to provide middle-class tax cuts paid for with tax increases on the super-rich, tying war funding to troop withdrawal timelines, and mandating renewable energy quotas.

....Senate Democrats have fired back, accusing Pelosi and her liberal allies of sending over legislation that they know cannot pass in the Senate, and of making demands that will not gain any GOP votes. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) noted that, this summer, Reid employed just the kind of theatrics Rangel and other House Democrats are demanding, holding the Senate open all night, pulling out cots and forcing a dusk-till-dawn debate on an Iraq war withdrawal measure before a vote on war funding. Democrats gained not a single vote after the all-night antics.

"I understand the frustration; we're frustrated, too," Bayh said. "But holding a bunch of Kabuki theater doesn't get anything done."

....Republicans, who spent 12 years in similar battles, are just enjoying the spectacle.

"Just let 'em stew for a while," said soon-to-retire Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a veteran of the GOP's own squabbles.

This is really not a story you want to see on page A1. Yuck.

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December 12, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

GARBAGE IN....What happens when you let a professor of computer science write a magazine article about romantic love? If the computer science professor is David Gelernter and the magazine is the Weekly Standard, you get a sentence like this one, explaining why it's wrong to take the dangers of premarital sex lightly:

But this innocent, ignorant view defies a fundamental law of human nature: Keeping steady company with a person you adore plus not sleeping with her (or him) yields "being in love," which is a new state of mind that is more than the sum of its parts.

Decisions, decisions. Is this my new favorite example of cosmically awkward Gelernter writing? Or is this one from a couple of years ago still #1?

Via Britt Peterson, who has more to say about all this.

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By: Kevin Drum

CRAZIFICATION UPDATE....I know I'm supposed to keep up on these things, but Alan Keyes participated in today's Republican debate? Alan Keyes? WTF?

Explanation here, which just goes to show that rules are made to be broken.

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON THE HUCK....Ross Douthat has more on the fact that Mike Huckabee is basically just making stuff up as he goes along and plainly doesn't have a clue about most of the things he's asked about. Economic policy? How about a 30% sales tax? Foreign policy? He likes Tom Friedman and Frank Gaffney, two pop commentators with almost nothing in common. Energy policy? Let's eliminate oil imports by 2017. Immigration policy? Ship everyone back to Mexico. Etc. It's grade school stuff.

And not to beat this into the ground, but what's really astounding about this is that nobody actually seems to care much. But eventually somebody will, because eventually this weird combination of barstool ignorance and internet-email-list credulity is bound to produce a howler of the kind that the press likes to latch onto. There's no telling what it will be, but it's coming, and when it does the Huckabee boomlet will be over.

Which is yet another reason why I think Romney will win the GOP nomination: because it's impossible for any of the others to win. Of course, neither can Romney himself, which leaves us with a problem, doesn't it? For now, though, I'll stick with Romney as my prediction, with McCain as a dark horse. Unfortunately, given my track record with these things, that probably means Giuliani is a lock.

UPDATE: National Review editor Rich Lowry on Huckabee's debate pronouncement that the Fair Tax (a 30% sales tax to replace the income tax) will make poor people rich: "Does Huckabee feel as though he can just say anything if it sounds good?"

Well, yeah, pretty much. But you have nobody to blame but yourselves.

Kevin Drum 5:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

NYET....A friend of mine emailed this morning to ask a question:

So, let me get this straight: When the Democrats are the minority in the Senate, the Republicans get their way, and when the Democrats are the majority in the Senate, the Republicans get their way.

That's about the size of it. Today's New York Times explains Mitch McConnell's "nyet" strategy for making sure that nothing gets done:

Mr. McConnell and his fellow Republicans are playing such tight defense, blocking nearly every bill proposed by the slim Democratic majority that they are increasingly able to dictate what they want, much to the dismay of the majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and frustrated Democrats in the House.

In fact, the Senate Republicans are so accustomed to blocking measures that when the Democrats finally agreed last week to their demands on a bill to repair the alternative minimum tax, the Republicans still objected, briefly blocking the version of the bill that they wanted before scrambling to approve it later.

Italics mine. It's hard to say anything about this other than the obvious: the Democrats have a very slim majority; the rules of the Senate work against them; and the Republican Party, even as it prepares to shuffle into what may well be a decade of irrelevance, continues to display a genuinely remarkable ancien régime ability to stick together and insist that nothing is wrong until its collective face turns blue. Even the fact that the entire country may well turn blue next November as a result doesn't dissuade them.

What bugs me about this is not the fact that the modern Republican Party doesn't really care about actual governance. This is hardly news. At this point, it's an exhausted organization so bereft of ideas that it really doesn't have much choice except to follow a policy of obstruction to its logical, nihilistic conclusion.

But why does the media have to play along? It's nice that the Times ran this story, but it would be nicer if the media simply reported what was happening on a regular basis. I'm not asking for special treatment, just headlines that tell us what's really going on. If Republicans have adopted a strategy of simply blocking every piece of legislation that makes it to the floor of the Senate — and everyone agrees that they have — then we should be regularly seeing headlines that say "Republicans Block ______ " There's nothing partisan about this, it's just a description of what's happening. If Democrats block things, they can say that too. But unless the press reports this stuff accurately on a regular basis, the public simply has no idea why nothing is getting done.

Which, of course, is exactly what congressional Republicans are counting on. So why help them out so transparently?

Kevin Drum 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORAL HAZARD....Atrios takes a look at the Fed's latest bailout plan and says:

I don't claim to be an expert on the mysterious world of high finance, but it's hard not to perceive that this latest Fed action is rewarding bad behavior.

Of course it is. When it comes to rescuing large financial institutions run by rich people, the party line is that we need to put our emotions on hold, save the system, and not get caught up with making petty moral judgments. Moral judgments are only appropriate when it's some working class schmoe who's done something either stupid or unlucky. Understood?

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

"WE CREATE OUR OWN REALITY"....Via Kieran Healy, a university professor tells a wee tale:

I have now received three (3) student papers that discuss Iraq's attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11. All three papers mention it as an aside to another point. I've had two papers on the virtue of forgiveness that argue that if we had just forgiven Iraq for the 9/11 attacks, we wouldn't be at war right now. I just read a paper on the problem of evil which asked why God allowed "the Iraq's" to attack us on 9/11.

The thing that upsets me most here is that the the students don't just believe that that Iraq was behind 9/11. This is a big fact in their minds, that leaps out at them, whenever they think about the state of the world.

Mission accomplished!

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE VILLAGE IDIOT....So when Mike Huckabee told Katie Couric that we ought to be "free of energy consumption in this country within a decade," what do you think he really meant? There are a couple of possibilities, but I suppose the most likely is "free of energy imports," or perhaps "free of foreign oil."

This, of course, has the benefit of not being literally impossible, but I wonder if anyone will bother to follow up with him about this? After all, ending foreign oil consumption in the next decade is the next best thing to impossible, and in any case, would require federal action of a staggering size and scope — certainly far more staggering than anything Huckabee has ever given the remotest indication of supporting. Basically, he was just randomly shooting his mouth off without the slightest idea of what he was talking about.

So, again: will anyone press him on this? Or will he get the village idiot treatment that Republicans since Ronald Reagan have so often gotten, where they're sort of expected to say harebrained stuff and nobody holds it against them? After all, this has nothing to do with Huckabee's hair, his cleavage, or his middle name, only with the fact that he displays an almost comical, grade-school ignorance of even the bare basics of national energy policy. And who cares about that in a president of the United States?

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By: Kevin Drum

TWO MINUTES HATE....From the LA Times today:

More than any other question, Republican presidential candidates are asking voters to consider a single issue in the weeks before primary voting begins: Who detests illegal immigration the most?

They always have to detest someone, don't they?

Kevin Drum 1:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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December 11, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HUCK TOUTS ZEC!....Over at ThinkProgress, they're highlighting the fact that both Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee don't believe in global warming. It turns out that's not quite fair: they both cravenly evaded Katie Couric's question ("Do you think the risks of climate change are at all overblown?") by pleading ignorance, but they didn't outright deny that climate change is real. So that ruined the post I was planning to write on this subject.

However, it turns out I got something better. Mike Huckabee, believe it or not, has by far the most spectacular energy conservation plan of any presidential candidate in history, Democrat or Republican. Here it is:

I think we ought to be out there talking about ways to reduce energy consumption and waste. And we ought to declare that we will be free of energy consumption in this country within a decade, bold as that is.

That is bold! I sure hope his plan for getting to ZEC (zero energy consumption) doesn't have something to do with the end times.

Bonus question: what are the odds that Couric followed up on this howler? Slim or none?

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GIULIANI CRATERING.... ABC has a new national poll out, and on the Democratic side it's a snooze: no one has gained or lost more than three points of support.

On the Republican side, however, the news is much more interesting: Huckabee is gaining and Giuliani is falling. In fact, he's cratering. He's lost 9 points overall, and as the handy chart on the right shows, he's losing big in every single subcategory. Most interesting, I think, is his free fall among people who are "very closely" following the race. This seems like a bellwether, no? These people have already reacted to the news that Giuliani tried to hide the details of his security expenses back in 2000 because he didn't want anyone to know he was visiting his mistress in the Hamptons, but surely the less attuned will eventually hear about this too.

It's hard to call this good news, since Huckabee and the rest are no prizes either, but someone has to be the worst of the lot, right? And Giuliani is it. So: good news it is.

Kevin Drum 5:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

WALL STREET....Back in November, when Fed vice chairman Donald Kohn merely suggested that the Fed might cut interest rates, Wall Street rallied and the Dow Jones gained 330 points. Happy days! Today, the Fed announced that it actually had cut interest rates, so Wall Street was happy all over again, right? Of course not: "Investors reacted by sending the markets sharply lower, pushing the Dow down more than 200 points in a matter of minutes."

Yeah, yeah, I know: investors had already priced in the prospect of a rate cut, so the actual rate cut itself didn't matter. If you believe that, fine. Personally, I think it's just further evidence that Wall Street investors are clueless. They should have figured out what that rate cut meant weeks ago, and the answer is: nothing good.

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By: Kevin Drum

NATION BUILDING....Women who don't dress modestly enough are being gunned down in Basra:

Religious vigilantes have killed at least 40 women this year in the southern Iraqi city of Basra because of how they dressed, their mutilated bodies found with notes warning against "violating Islamic teachings," the police chief said Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf blamed sectarian groups that he said were trying to impose a strict interpretation of Islam. They dispatch patrols of motorbikes or unlicensed cars with tinted windows to accost women not wearing traditional dress and head scarves, he added.

Maybe the Interior Ministry should do something about this? Or maybe not:

The Iraqi government has ordered all policewomen to hand in their guns for redistribution to men or face having their pay withheld, thwarting a U.S. initiative to bring women into the nation's police force.

....Critics say the move is the latest sign of the religious and cultural conservatism that has taken hold in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's ouster ushered in a government dominated by Shiite Muslims. Now, that tendency is hampering efforts to bring stability to Iraq by driving women from the force, said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David Phillips, who has led the effort to recruit female officers.

Elsewhere, the Washington Post reports that the national police force, which the Jones Commission said was so thoroughly corrupted by sectarian rancor that it should be scrapped, will instead have its mission "adjusted" by "gradually withdrawing its forces from neighborhoods and moving them to regional garrisons across the country, where they will serve as an emergency response force." Which sounds to me suspiciously like scrapping them as an actual police force while still keeping them around as a none-too-subtle reminder to the Sunni minority about who's in charge these days.

Good stuff. Certainly well worth a trillion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money, no?

Kevin Drum 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

HUCKABEE LOSES THE CIGAR LOVERS VOTE....Five years ago Mike Huckabee denounced the Cuban trade embargo as bad for business. Unfortunately, that's a position that's also bad for winning votes in Florida, which means that a flip-flop was called for. Apparently, though, Huckabee didn't have energy to come up with some lame excuse for changing his mind, so instead he just flat out admitted he was pandering to win votes. Here's his explanation:

"Rather than seeing it as some huge change, I would call it, rather, the simple reality that I'm running for president of the United States, not for reelection as governor of Arkansas."

Full story here, including this: "Huckabee on Monday won an endorsement from Marco Rubio, Florida's Cuban American state House speaker....He said his decision was based largely on Huckabee's new views on Cuba."

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EARLY DRAFT....I'm late to the party, but yeah, this is pretty funny. Still: what about the Christian Scientists?

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TO INFINITY AND BEYOND....Karen Hughes, whose bubbly everywoman optimism was apparently still not quite optimistic enough, will be succeeded by James K. Glassman as America's chief image maven. As author of Dow 36,000, no one can accuse Glassman of not being boosterish enough, and as a longtime K Street disciple and founder of conservosphere favorite Tech Central Station, no one can accuse him of being insufficiently dedicated to Republican money-con principles. More about Glassman here from our December 2003 issue.

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UNEASY LIES THE HEAD....Fred Kaplan, writing two months ago about the term limits that prevent Russian president Vladimir Putin from running for a third term:

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.

The New York Times, today:

A day after President Vladimir V. Putin endorsed a loyal protege, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as his successor, Mr. Medvedev went before the nation today and declared that he in turn wanted to name Mr. Putin as his prime minister.

....Some analysts conjectured that Mr. Medvedev could even step down before his term as president ends — clearing the way for Mr. Putin to be elevated from prime minister to president, which would be possible under the Constitution.

Indeed. Of course, there are also other ways for a president to "step down." Mr. Medvedev might do well to keep his eye on the Russian supply of polonium-210.

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WHO KNEW?....A "former senior intelligence official with direct knowledge of the episode" tells the New York Times that lawyers within the clandestine branch of the CIA approved the destruction of those videotaped interrogations in 2005:

The former intelligence official acknowledged that there had been nearly two years of debate among government agencies about what to do with the tapes, and that lawyers within the White House and the Justice Department had in 2003 advised against a plan to destroy them.

....In describing the decision to destroy the tapes, current and former officials said John A. Rizzo, the agency's top lawyer at the time, was not asked for final approval before the tapes were destroyed, although Mr. Rizzo had been involved in discussions for two years about the tapes.

...."Although unlikely, it is conceivable that once a C.I.A. officer got the answer he wanted from a D.O. lawyer, he acted on that advice," said John Radsan, who worked as a C.I.A. lawyer between 2002 and 2004 and is now a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota....Mr. Radsan added, "I'd be surprised that even the chief D.O. lawyer made a decision of that magnitude without bringing the General Counsel's front office into the loop."

Let me get this straight. The White House had been in the loop for two years. The CIA had received letters from both the Justice Department and congressional leaders arguing that the tapes shouldn't be destroyed. The CIA's top lawyer had been involved for the entire time. And yet we're supposed to believe that, in 2005, a mid-ranking agency lawyer suddenly decided the tapes could be destroyed and the head of the clandestine branch then gave the order to do so without anyone else being involved? Really? Does anyone actually believe this story?

Kevin Drum 1:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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December 10, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SANCTIONS AND THE NIE....Robin Wright reports that new sanctions against Iran are making steady progress at the UN:

The draft of the long-delayed third resolution is still being negotiated, and early versions are often tougher than the final product. But its scope is significantly wider than the two previous U.N. resolutions, even though it does not go as far as the sweeping sanctions the United States took unilaterally in October against the 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Force and three banks, officials say.

....The proposal indicates that there is still an appetite for significant new punitive measures against Iran even after the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate last week concluded that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, according to officials from several countries.

"The international community is not being dissuaded by the NIE," says an unnamed European diplomat. Perhaps so. Or perhaps the NIE is actually making things easier?

Kevin Drum 8:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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By: Kevin Drum

TWO STORIES....After the United States captured al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah in the weeks after 9/11, the CIA tortured him in an effort to get him to talk. Here's how Ron Suskind described what happened, starting with what CIA investigators found in Zubaydah's diary:

"The guy is insane, certifiable, split personality," [Dan] Coleman told a top official at FBI after a few days reviewing the Zubaydah haul....There was almost nothing "operational" in his portfolio. That was handled by the management team. He wasn't one of them...."He was like a travel agent, the guy who booked your flights....He was expendable, you know, the greeter....Joe Louis in the lobby of Caesar's Palace, shaking hands."

....According to CIA sources, he was water-boarded....He was beaten....He was repeatedly threatened....His medication was withheld. He was bombarded with deafening, continuous noise and harsh lights.

....Under this duress, Zubaydah told them that shopping malls were targeted by al Qaeda....Zubaydah said banks — yes, banks — were a priority....And also supermarkets — al Qaeda was planning to blow up crowded supermarkets, several at one time. People would stop shopping. The nation's economy would be crippled. And the water system — a target, too. Nuclear plants, naturally. And apartment buildings.

Thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each flavor of target. Of course, if you multiplied by ten, there still wouldn't be enough public servants in America to surround and secure the supermarkets. Or the banks. But they tried.

Sometime later, Zubaydah finally provided some actionable intelligence: the name of Jose Padilla and the news that "Mukhtar," a code name that had popped up multiple times on NSA sigint, was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But that information didn't come because Zubaydah had been tortured. It came only after a CIA interrogator slipped under Zubaydah's skin by convincing him, with the help of some ideas from the Koran, that Zubaydah was predestined to cooperate with them

That's Suskind's account. Over at ABC News, though, Brian Ross has an interview with a former CIA officer named John Kiriakou, who says just the opposite about Zubaydah: "He was highly thought of in al Qaeda, and he was very, very good at logistics....We knew that he was really one of the intellectual leaders of the group." And he was waterboarded:

Ross: What happened as a result of that?

Kiriakou: He resisted [for] probably 30, 35 seconds....And a short time afterwards, in the next day or so, he told his interrogator that Allah had visit him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate because his cooperation would make it easier on the other brothers who had been captured. And from that day on he answered every question just like I'm sitting here speaking to you.

....Ross: So in your view the water boarding broke him.

Kiriakou: I think it did, yes.

Ross: And did it make a difference in terms of —

Kiriakou: It did. The threat information that he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks.

Same guy. CIA sources for both accounts. But diametrically opposite conclusions. So who's right?

I don't know. But even if waterboarding worked Kiriakou has since decided that it was wrong. Why? "Because we're Americans, and we're better than that."

The full ABC story is here.

Kevin Drum 7:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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By: Kevin Drum

VOTING GENES....In a recent study of twins, three researchers found that voter turnout has very high heritability. This is unsurprising, since twin studies find that loads and loads of personality traits have some amount of heritability. However, since twin studies have some methodological weaknesses, the results aren't universally accepted even when lots of studies show the same thing.

However, over at The Monkey Cage today, John Sides notes that two of the researchers have now gone further and actually located the genes that they think are responsible for this result:

The authors find that the MAOA gene increases the likelihood of voting by 5 percentage points. The 5HTT gene increases the likelihood of voting by 10 points in interaction with an environmental factor, religious attendance. I note that only to preempt fears of genetic determinism, not to detract from this interesting finding.

I doubt very much that fears of genetic determinism will be much allayed by this caveat, but we'll see. Note also that, according to the authors, these are the first results to ever link specific genes to political behavior, so we should wait for followup studies before drawing any firm conclusions. Interesting stuff nonetheless.

Next up: A new study shows that the GWB43 gene increases propensity to vote for Republicans, while the HRC2 gene produces budding young Democrats. You read it here first.

Kevin Drum 1:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

DON'T KNOW NOTHIN'....On NPR this weekend, White House press secretary Dana Perino recounted a recent press briefing in which a reporter referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"I was panicked a bit because I really don't know about . . . the Cuban Missile Crisis," said Perino, who at 35 was born about a decade after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown. "It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I'm pretty sure."

So she consulted her best source. "I came home and I asked my husband," she recalled. "I said, 'Wasn't that like the Bay of Pigs thing?' And he said, 'Oh, Dana.' "

Italics mine. I thought it was only the kids who didn't know any history these days?

NB: JFK, of course, is famous for resisting military advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis from insane hawks like Curtis LeMay. Not knowing anything about this probably helps Perino fit right in to the Bush White House.

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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By: Kevin Drum

COUNTERINTUITIVE THOUGHT FOR THE DAY ON IRAN....Here's an odd, half-formed thought about the effect that the new NIE may have on how we talk about the Iranian leadership. It strikes me that there are probably some people — I don't know if it's a few or a lot, but I know that I'm occasionally one of them — who deliberately tone down their rhetoric towards Iran because they know perfectly well that even justified criticism adds to the war fever favored by the Cheney/Bolton/Kristol wing of the Republican Party. Justified or not, it's better to stay quiet than to risk adding fuel to that fire.

But that risk is now pretty much gone. There's plenty of disagreement over what the NIE really means, but virtually everyone, even the megahawks, seems to agree that military action is now firmly off the table. "The Iran-war scare is over for now," says Bill Arkin, "and the World War III camp has been sharply rebuked."

Maybe this will have no real effect at all. But I wonder if some writers and analysts, and possibly even some countries, might now feel freer to support both sanctions and, more generally, a somewhat more hawkish line against Iran solely because they think it's safer to do so now that Dick Cheney has been stuffed back into a box? At most it will be a subtle change, and it might not happen at all, but it's worth keeping an eye out for.

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By: Kevin Drum

URL UPDATE....Ezra Klein has picked up and moved yet again. He's now been fully absorbed by The American Prospect and blogs here:


Damn kids. I've lost track, but this is now either the fourth or fifth URL Ezra has had in the past four years. Is he ever going to settle down?

In related news, Ezra's weekend posters have gone off on their own and are now group blogging at a new home called Cogitamus (http://www.cogitamusblog.com). Check it out.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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By: Kevin Drum

MILLIONAIRES-IN-CHIEF....Money magazine emails to alert me that they've taken a close look at the leading presidential contenders (except Mike Huckabee, who apparently became a leading contender after press time) and have concluded that.....they sure do have a lot of money. If I'm right that they've considerably underestimated Fred Thompson's wealth, Barack Obama is the only one in the whole crowd with a net worth under $20 million.

I know this isn't really news or anything, but it's a slow day.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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By: Kevin Drum

CRACK vs. POWDER....The Supreme Court ruled today that it's OK for judges to "consider the disparity between the guidelines' treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses" when sentencing crack cocaine sellers. If I'm doing the math correctly, they approved a judge's reduction in a crack case from 100x the guideline for powder cocaine to only 80x. I guess this counts as progress.

Kevin Drum 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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By: Kevin Drum

GIULIANI MELTS DOWN....M.J. Rosenberg writes this morning about Rudy Giuliani's "halting, nervous, scared, inarticulate performance" on Meet the Press yesterday:

I have been watching Meet The Press since, I don't know, Estes Kefauver days and, I'm sad to say, Rudy Giuliani provided the worst performance I've ever seen by a major Presidential candidate.

....Russert prosecuted the famed prosecutor, enumerating one Giuliani scandal after another. All Rudy could do was giggle. He reminded me of that ancient clip in which Bobby Kennedy grilled some miscreant at a Senate hearing and the bad guy laughed at every question. Bobby finally said: "Are you going to tell us anything or just giggle? I thought only little girls giggled?." Sexist, yes (it was 1959).

But it destroyed the giggly witness.

That was Rudy yesterday. All giggles and deer-in-the-headlights terror.

I didn't see it. Was it really that bad? That would be some of the best news I've heard in a while.

Kevin Drum 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (55)

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December 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

HARSH INTERROGATION....The sources for this story are so obviously intent on discrediting congressional Democrats that it's hard to know whether to take it at face value, but the Washington Post reports today that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were fully briefed about the CIA's "harsh" interrogation methods beginning shortly after 9/11 and — with the exception of Jane Harman — issued no protests:

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.

....Long before "waterboarding" entered the public discourse, the CIA gave key legislative overseers about 30 private briefings, some of which included descriptions of that technique and other harsh interrogation methods, according to interviews with multiple U.S. officials with firsthand knowledge.

With one known exception, no formal objections were raised by the lawmakers briefed about the harsh methods during the two years in which waterboarding was employed, from 2002 to 2003, said Democrats and Republicans with direct knowledge of the matter. The lawmakers who held oversight roles during the period included Pelosi and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), as well as Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan).

...."In fairness, the environment was different then because we were closer to Sept. 11 and people were still in a panic," said one U.S. official present during the early briefings. "But there was no objecting, no hand-wringing. The attitude was, 'We don't care what you do to those guys as long as you get the information you need to protect the American people.' "

The Post reports a variety of reactions from the six congressional leaders who knew about the CIA program:

  • "Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing," said Goss.

  • Graham said he has no memory of ever being told about waterboarding or other harsh tactics.

  • A congressional source familiar with Pelosi's position on the matter said the California lawmaker did recall discussions about enhanced interrogation. The source said Pelosi recalls that techniques described by the CIA were still in the planning stage — they had been designed and cleared with agency lawyers but not yet put in practice — and acknowledged that Pelosi did not raise objections at the time.

  • Harman, who replaced Pelosi as the committee's top Democrat in January 2003, disclosed Friday that she filed a classified letter to the CIA in February of that year as an official protest about the interrogation program.

  • Roberts declined to comment on his participation in the briefings.

  • Rockefeller also declined to talk about the briefings.

Bottom line: it looks like they all knew about it (Graham's denial is unconvincing given that Harman, Pelosi, and Goss all admit they were briefed and Harman even wrote a formal letter of protest), and it looks like most of them didn't have a problem with it. Another great day for the Republic.

But: good for Jane Harman. You may think that congressional leaders ought to jeopardize their careers and risk jail in order to publicly protest stuff like this, but, sadly, in the real world that's not in the cards. Whatever else you can say, it appears that Harman did a helluva lot more about this than anyone else.

Kevin Drum 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (175)

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BEHIND THE NIE....I don't know if you'd call this backlash or irony or something completely different, but can you guess at the ultimate source of last week's NIE concluding that Iran halted work on its nuclear bomb program in 2003? Turns out it was largely the result of a CIA program called "Brain Drain," which sought to persuade Iranian defections from the ranks of its nuclear program, which in turn was part of a "major intelligence push against Iran" ordered by the White House two years ago. Greg Miller has the story in the LA Times today:

Intelligence gathered as part of that campaign provided much of the basis for a U.S. report released last week that concluded the Islamic Republic had halted its nuclear weapons work in 2003.

....The White House ordered the stepped-up effort in hopes of gathering stronger evidence that Tehran was making progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration "wanted better information" on Iran's nuclear programs, said a U.S. official briefed on the expanded collection efforts.

"I can't imagine that they would have ever guessed that the information they got would show that the program was shut down," the official said.

And why did we need a "major intelligence push" in the first place? According to Miller, it's because Bush dismantled the Iran Task Force set up during Bill Clinton's administration in order to focus all his attention on — surprise! — Iraq. "When Bush came in, they were totally disinterested in Iran," said a former CIA official who held a senior position at the time. "It went from being a main focus to everything being switched to Iraq."

Great stuff. Still, once "Brain Drain" produced its unexpected (and unwelcome) results, couldn't Bush simply have buried it? Why release it publicly at all? Via Matt Yglesias, former spook Pat Lang provides his take:

The "jungle telegraph" in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE. I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that "intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary" if the document's gist were not given to the public. Translation? Someone in that group would have gone to the media "on the record" to disclose its contents.

That would have been quite a sight, wouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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December 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CAMERA BLEG....For the past six years my camera of choice has been a Nikon Coolpix 995. As you can see, its unique feature is that it rotates in the middle, so you can point the camera up or down, hold it above your head or down at ground level, or grip it between your arms and point it straight down at a tabletop if you want to take pictures of documents. You can do all this while keeping the LCD facing toward you and your finger at the usual angle for pressing the shutter button.

This particular feature is one that most people either love or hate, but since I do this stuff all the time I love it. Scratch that. I adore it. Going back to a camera that makes me squat and bend and guess whenever I want to frame a shot that's anywhere but eye level would feel like giving up my word processor and going back to a typewriter. And I've already told you how I feel about that.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world disagrees. Even more sadly, the image quality on the 995 is only so-so, and the autofocus on mine has sucked pretty badly ever since something jarred it a couple of years ago. Result: too many blurry cats. I'd like to get a new camera, with all the bells and whistles that six years of technology wizardry has added since 2001, but the only rotating camera still made is the Coolpix S10, which doesn't meet even my modest needs. What to do?

I'm not willing to give up LCD flexibility completely, which means I need a camera with an articulating LCD screen. In fact, I have three fairly nonnegotiable demands:

  1. An articulating LCD screen.

  2. Image stabilization, since I've never had a very steady shooting hand.

  3. Wide angle capability. I'd like the equivalent of 24 mm, but I'll make do with 28 mm.

Long story short, there doesn't appear to be a camera on the market that has all three of these features. I can get frustratingly close, but not quite there. So far, the best fit I've found is the Canon S5, which has features 1 and 2 and the capability of adding a wide-angle attachment that provides feature 3. It's not ideal, but it's the closest I can find.

So here's the bleg: does anyone have anything to say about the S5, good or bad? My biggest concern is image quality, which appears to be only adequate, and will inevitably be softened further with a wide angle attachment. If you actually have a wide angle attachment you've used with an S5, I'd love to hear about that too. Raynox seems to garner better reviews than Canon's own add-on, but personal experience from someone who cares about image quality would be very, very helpful.

Of course, if you know of some other camera that has my three features, feel free to shout. I'd be delighted to get a DSLR and then choose my own glass, but none of them have everything I want, and I don't feel like paying DSLR prices if I have to compromise.

Beyond that, consider this a digital camera open thread. But Canon S5 chatter would be especially appreciated.

Kevin Drum 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA vs. KRUGMAN....The brewing war between Barack Obama and Paul Krugman continues here. Krugman has been hitting Obama pretty hard lately, and I can understand why the Obama campaign has hit back: Krugman is extremely influential among likely Obama voters, and they can't afford to just let his grumbles sit there unanswered. What's more, Krugman isn't some kind of progressive Delphic oracle. It's OK to fight back against him.

Still, attacking Krugman as inconsistent, as they did on Friday, is indeed bizarre. He hasn't been. What's more, although it's true that Krugman prefers the Edwards/Clinton approach on both healthcare and Social Security, his complaint isn't primarily with the substance of Obama's plans anyway. Rather, his complaint is with Obama's rhetoric, which has been fundamentally an attack from the right that will only make it harder for progressives to fight similar-sounding right-wing attacks in the future.

So why is Obama doing this? Via Jerome Armstrong, MyDD diarist thirdestate speculates:

I've been considering these questions for some time, and I'm becoming more and more convinced that Obama is trying to win the "media primary"....My suspicion is that Barack is attempting to appease/manipulate the class of establishment pundits, and with them the press corps as a whole....By making noises about Social Security and [healthcare] mandates, Obama is feeding the media beast. Heck, it might even work, if recent polls are any evidence.

This sounds disturbingly plausible to me. Every four years the media finds itself swooning over some candidate that it crowns as a "truthteller," and they've pretty much already anointed Obama in that role this year. But rather than leaving well enough alone — the smart strategy — I can't help but think that Obama has decided that he should actively court the Tim Russerts and Tom Friedmans of the world, the ones who ritually demand bipartisan pain as the only solution to America's problems.

Maybe it'll work. Who knows? But it's a dangerous, short-term game, and I don't have to like it. And I don't.

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

HUCKABEE AND DUMOND....Today in the LA Times, Richard Serrano has a story about the Wayne DuMond affair that's headlined "Parole case may dog Huckabee." The question at hand is: why did Mike Huckabee, as governor of Arkansas, push for the parole of Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist who was then serving a 39-year sentence in the state Department of Correction's Tucker Unit? Let's listen in (all italics mine):

Three [parole] board members...said Huckabee raised the issue of DuMond's release, asking to discuss the matter with them in a closed session. They said his religious beliefs, and the influence of the evangelical community from which he came, drove him.

....[Jay] Cole, the minister who befriended DuMond, said: "The governor felt compassion for Wayne. He was sorry for him. So, I asked the governor to help. I asked him if anything could be done. And Mike had a lot of people on his neck trying to get him to get Wayne released."

....Cole, meanwhile, was working to help DuMond. Cole said he talked to "probably a hundred people" about his hope of winning DuMond's release, turning foremost to the evangelical community...."All of them thought Wayne was innocent," said Cole.

Interesting! Out of all the Arkansas prisoners who claimed to have discovered God, the Arkansas evangelical community chose DuMond as its poster boy. I wonder how that came about?

The answer, of course, was not merely that famous Southern evangelical compassion for convicted rapists serving out long sentences in state prison. It was because DuMond's victim was Bill Clinton's second cousin once removed, and the Clinton-hating fever swamp had long since turned DuMond into yet another of its spittle-flecked conspiracy theories about the endless treachery and hellish vengeance of William Jefferson Clinton upon his enemies. But you'll find not a single mention of this in Serrano's story.

Now here's the thing. Maybe DuMond got a raw deal of some kind. It would hardly be the first time. And maybe Arkansas evangelicals were partly motivated by a sincere belief that DuMond had found God and deserved a second chance. I even understand that in a mainstream news story Serrano can't harp on a particular piece of the backstory that partisan bloggers like me tend to emphasize.

But still, this is part of the story, isn't it? Doesn't it deserve at least a mention, instead of being pushed studiously down the memory hole because it might offend someone? Why did the Arkansas evangelical community choose Wayne DuMond as its champion, rather than the hundreds of other convicted felons who all claim they're innocent? The question just hangs there, twisting, as if merely recounting the well-known background to the case would constitute an unconscionable slur. And so the story is only half told.

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WHAT THE TAPES WOULD HAVE SHOWN....Yesterday we learned that in 2005, despite earlier warnings from Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department, the CIA destroyed two videotaped interrogations of al-Qaeda operatives who had been captured shortly after 9/11. Why? CIA director Michael Hayden says the tapes were destroyed because of fears that they might leak and give away the identity of CIA interrogators, but that's an excuse so thin that I hesitate to even call it laughable. In fact, the decision was made just as questions were starting to be raised about the torture of CIA prisoners, and the tapes were almost certainly destroyed for fear that they'd be subpoenaed and it would become clear just how harsh our "harsh interrogation" measures really were.

So what would investigators have seen if they'd had access to the tapes? One of the captured prisoners was an al-Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydah, and it turns out we have a pretty good idea of what his tape would have shown. First, Spencer Ackerman gives us this from James Risen's State of War:

Risen charges that Tenet caved to Bush entirely on the torture of al-Qaeda detainees. After the 2002 capture of Abu Zubaydah, a bin Laden deputy, failed to yield much information due to his drowsiness from medical treatment, Bush allegedly told Tenet, "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?" Not only did Tenet get the message — brutality while questioning an enemy prisoner was no problem — but Tenet also never sought explicit White House approval for permissible interrogation techniques, contributing to what Risen speculates is an effort by senior officials "to insulate Bush and give him deniability" on torture.

And here is Barton Gellman's gloss of Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine:

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be....Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics.

[Other unrelated bungling described, all of which is worth clicking the link to read.]

Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. "I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?"

Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each...target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

So here's what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical "confessions" under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and law enforcement personnel.

Nice trifecta there. And just think: there's an entire political party in this country that still thinks this is OK.

Kevin Drum 12:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (176)

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December 7, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....So you all remember the faux sheepskin pod that we bought for Domino earlier this year, don't you? Well, in typical feline fashion Domino was inseparable from her pod for about three months and then abandoned it completely. That's actually fairly normal, but what was odd was that she didn't just get bored with it, she got actively hostile to it. She'd practically waddle run away from it if we put it anywhere near her.

She also stopped snoozing on the couch at the same time. But then, last week, she jumped up on the couch for the first time in months. Hmmm, I thought, maybe it's pod season too. Sure enough, I put the pod up on the couch and she made a beeline for it. Ever since, she's been back in love with it.

It's up on the bed at the moment, but that's just because the light is better there, and it was easier to take the pod to her than to drag her downstairs to the pod. But as soon as I tossed it on the bed, she headed right over and curled up to continue her morning snooze. The pod is back! Must be the ferocious Southern California winters.

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ATTACKING THE NIE, PART 2....Speaking of conservative pushback against the Iran NIE, the Washington Post passes along the peculiar news that congressional Republicans who are unhappy with the NIE want to create a commission "modeled on a congressionally mandated group that probed a disputed 1995 intelligence estimate on the emerging missile threat to the United States over the next 15 years":

While other NIEs have been the subject of intense criticism....critics of the new assessment are modeling their response after the clash over a 1995 NIE on ballistic missile threats. That document concluded that no country other than the major declared nuclear powers "would develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile over the next 15 years that will threaten the contiguous 48 states or Canada."

....But a congressionally mandated commission, headed by Donald H. Rumsfeld, who would become President Bush's defense secretary, concluded in 1998 that the United States "might have little or no warning before operational deployment of a ballistic missile by a hostile Third World country." Its conclusions formed the basis for the Bush administration's push for a missile defense system.

This is their model? The 15 years are almost up, and, in fact, no country has developed a ballistic missile that threatens the United States or Canada. North Korea has been giving it a try, but the Taepodong-1 can barely reach Russia, let alone the United States, while the current version of the Taepodong-2 can't make it to Hawaii, let alone California. And as we all know, the most recent test of the Taepodong-2, back in 2006, failed spectacularly, which means that future versions with a longer range are almost certainly years away at best.

So: no ballistic missile threat by 2010? Check. "Little or no warning" before such a missile becomes operational? Completely wrong. We've had loads and loads of warning about North Korea's intentions, capabilities, and test firings. The intelligence community may have a mixed record on this kind of stuff, but in this case the NIE was right and the Team B hawks were wrong. Again. Pick a different model, guys.

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By: Kevin Drum

ATTACKING THE NIE....Conservatives, of course, are mounting a ferocious counterattack against Monday's NIE, which concluded that Iran halted its nuclear bomb program back in 2003. The lines of attack are varied, but mostly they boil down to berating the intelligence community as a bunch of effete, naive, obtuse, politically cowardly desk jockeys who have it in for President Bush and are willing to say and do anything to bring him down a peg.

Whatever. Now, though, the LA Times reports that liberals are joining in:

[Ray] Takeyh, who has long argued for engaging Iran in diplomacy, said the intelligence report was too easy on Tehran by not objecting to the uranium enrichment program, which many Western governments have alleged is meant to build the knowledge base to eventually develop nuclear weapons. The American intelligence agencies, in effect, accepted Iran's contention that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes, Takeyh said.

....Gary Samore, who was a top arms control official in the Clinton White House, agreed that the National Intelligence Estimate did not adequately emphasize Iran's continuing efforts to enrich uranium and build missiles.

"The halting of the weaponization program in 2003 is less important from a proliferation standpoint than resumption of the enrichment program in 2006," said Samore, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This is genuinely peculiar. I went back and reread the NIE just to make sure, but it addresses all this stuff. Here are some quotes:

  • "Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006....Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz."

  • "Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so."

  • "We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult"

  • "Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications — some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons."

It's not the intelligence community's job to "object" to the Iranian program, it's their job to evaluate factual evidence. And the entire declassified portion of the NIE was less than a thousand words long. Nothing got more than a few sentences of emphasis.

You can decide for yourself whether you believe the NIE, but its actual conclusions are straightforward: Iran wants a nuclear bomb; it has the scientific capability to produce a nuclear bomb; it's continuing to enrich uranium; and it might decide to restart its bomb program in the future. But for now, based (apparently) on new intelligence collected earlier this year, the program is halted and there's evidence that international pressure and sanctions might keep it that way.

Kevin Drum 1:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

ROMNEY'S RELIGIOUS WAR....The latest on the nonbeliever front:

A spokesman for the Mitt Romney campaign is thus far refusing to say whether Romney sees any positive role in America for atheists and other non-believers, after Election Central inquired about the topic yesterday.

I can't wait to see what kind of statement Romney makes on this. I figure that eventually he'll decide he has to at least address it, and I'm willing to bet it will be a classic campaign trail gem of smarmy, moi?, dog whistle, tapestry-of-America mush. It will mean nothing and everything, just like everything else Romney says. He shoulda been a poet.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

POLITICAL PROGRESS UPDATE....The Iraqi parliament is adjourning for the year:

Iraqi legislators suspended parliamentary sessions Thursday until Dec. 30 because of Muslim religious holidays, ending efforts to pass U.S.-backed legislation aimed at achieving national reconciliation this year.

....Dec. 30 is one day before the end of the current term for parliament. Lawmakers normally would take a recess for two months at that time, but they were expected to extend the term by a month so they could meet in January to pass a budget and other important measures, a senior U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

I doubt very much that any "important measures" will get passed in the January rump session. It's much more likely that parliament will — barely — pass a budget and then recess again. So that means even if the political climate starts to improve, it's going to be a minimum of April or May before any important bills get passed, let alone the full package that the U.S. has been insisting on as a sign of political reconciliation.

Nothing surprising here. I don't think anyone expected any serious progress this year. But still not good news.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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DING DONG, THE WITCH IS DEAD....The GOP-backed initiative to award California's electoral votes by congressional district, ensuring that the Republican candidate for president would get 20-25 California electoral votes in 2008 instead of the zero they'd get under the current winner-take-all system, has failed:

Republican backers of the measure, which could have tilted the presidential contest toward the GOP nominee by changing how California awards electoral votes, conceded that they were unable to raise sufficient funds.

Sacramento consultant Dave Gilliard, the campaign manager, said that even if a financial angel were to shower the campaign with $1 million, there was not enough time to qualify the measure for June.

....Although confident they could have defeated it, Democrats said they were relieved that the measure would not appear in June.

"This effort to rig the presidential elections demonstrates that the Republicans . . . recognize that they will be a minority party if they lose the White House and will do everything they can to hold on to power," said Democrat Chris Lehane, who helped organize the opposition.

And there's even better news: the initiative is probably dead for the November ballot as well, and even if it qualifies it's likely that it won't affect the 2008 election anyway. Huzzah!

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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THE GREAT AMT DEBATE....Over at The Corner, David Freddoso writes:

The Senate voted last night, 88-5 , to pass a clean one-year Alternative Minimum Tax patch without a tax increase. I am not going to hold my breath until Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias admit that they were completely wrong about the AMT debate, but this proves it. The fact that 88 senators (and all Republicans present) just voted for a "clean" patch, the very second it was offered, is more proof that Democrats have been bottling it up all along with demands that it include tax increase.

This is a very peculiar claim of vindication. The backstory here is that in late November Democrats learned that unless an AMT patch was passed quickly, the IRS wouldn't have time to reprogram its computers and lots of people would miss getting their refunds on time. So they fast tracked the patch, but Republicans in the Senate held it up unless they were allowed floor votes on some amendments that would have added additional tax cuts to the AMT tax cut. This, of course, was crazy, and the fast tracked bill failed because of it.

Now, more generally, the issue has always been that Democrats want to keep the whole bill revenue neutral: patching AMT will cost revenue, and Democrats want to raise taxes somewhere else to make up for it. Republicans have flatly refused. Not only will the GOP not support tax increases under any circumstances these days, but the AMT debate has made it clear that they won't even support revenue neutral tax legislation any more. It's a tax cut or nothing.

So what happened? Answer: Republicans held their breath until their faces turned blue and ended up getting their way. Dems couldn't find 60 votes to pass a revenue neutral AMT patch, so left with no other choice Harry Reid gave in and agreed to introduce a clean bill. When he did so, naturally it passed. What else would you expect to happen? The only alternative was not passing an AMT patch at all.

How this makes me "completely wrong" is a bit of a mystery, but I guess I'll let David explain further over at his place. It looks to me like Democrats tried to do the fiscally responsible thing, but Republicans blocked it first with a cynical hold and later with a filibuster threat, and it worked. This doesn't seem like a great day for the Republic to me, but I guess others will disagree. And they had the votes to make it stick.

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HOUSING UPDATE....So who's the most disgruntled by George Bush's new plan to address the subprime mortgage fiasco? Borrowers and consumer advocates, who say the plan is too stingy and shuts out low-income victims? Or careful consumers, who are pissed off that while they scrimped and saved, the folks who used their homes as ATM machines are going to get bailed out? Oddly enough, it's beginning to look like this plan has the potential to create an enormous amount of ill-will among almost everyone.

In other housing news, the rate of foreclosures hit another record last quarter, and Toll Brothers took a $200 million writedown on the value of its land and announced that new home sales declined 34%. Ugh.

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December 6, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE AAA MELTDOWN....At the heart of the subprime mortgage debacle is a financial instrument called a Collateralized Debt Obligation, or CDO. A CDO is a collection of bonds that's divided into tranches and then sold to investors. Usually there's a AAA tranche at the top (very safe, very reliable) and a garbage tranche at the bottom (pay your money, take your chances). In the middle is a mezzanine tranche.

It's easy to understand why the garbage tranches have lost all their value: they're garbage. But why are the AAA tranches also losing value? Aren't the underlying securities still safe and reliable? Today, Steven Pearlstein puts in place a piece of the puzzle that I didn't know about before:

The least sought-after tranches were those in the middle, the "mezzanine" tranches, which offered middling yields for supposedly moderate risks.

Stick with me now, because this is where it gets interesting. For it is at this point that the banks got the bright idea of buying up a bunch of mezzanine tranches from various pools. Then, using fancy computer models, they convinced themselves and the rating agencies that by repeating the same "tranching" process, they could use these mezzanine-rated assets to create a new set of securities — some of them junk, some mezzanine, but the bulk of them with the AAA ratings more investors desired.

It was a marvelous piece of financial alchemy, one that made Wall Street banks and the ratings agencies billions of dollars in fees....What we know now, of course, is that the investment banks and ratings agencies underestimated the risk that mortgage defaults would rise so dramatically that even AAA investments could lose their value.

One analysis, by Eidesis Capital, a fund specializing in CDOs, estimates that, of the CDOs issued during the peak years of 2006 and 2007, investors in all but the AAA tranches will lose all their money, and even those will suffer losses of 6 to 31 percent.

So if this is right, then the reason that even AAA tranches are in such trouble is basically twofold:

  • A lot of the AAA debt isn't really AAA. It's mezzanine debt that the rocket scientists and the rating agencies conned everyone into believing was AAA.

  • The mortgage meltdown is so widespread that even the legitimate AAA stuff is taking a beating.

Put these two things together, and the average AAA tranche is overvalued by, say, 10-20%. Add in the usual Wall Street panic whenever something goes wrong, and buyers are demanding discounts of 20-30% or higher.

There's plenty more worth reading in Pearlstein's column. But here's the unsettling conclusion: "This may not be 1929. But it's a good bet that it's way more serious than the junk bond crisis of 1987, the S&L crisis of 1990 or the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001."

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HUCKABEE AND THE NIE....Last night I wrote an email to a friend about Mike Huckabee and Wayne Dumond:

What's actually a little weird is that this is going to get a lot attention, whereas the fact that he hadn't even heard of the Iran NIE by Tuesday night won't....But honestly, the NIE thing is genuinely disqualifying for a presidential candidate. It wasn't a gotcha question. Huckabee just hadn't heard about it and didn't care.

But maybe I'm too cynical! Maybe the press will pick up on this. For starters, here's Huckabee feebly lying about the whole thing on today's Morning Joe:

Well, I don't blame my staff. It is a situation where a report was released at 10:00 in the morning, the president hadn't seen it in four years and I'm supposed to see it four hours later.

No. The NIE was released Monday morning. He was asked about it Tuesday evening. That's two days. Two days in which the NIE was on the front page of every newspaper; it was blanketing cable TV, talk radio, and the blogosphere; and the president of the United States addressed its conclusions in a press conference. It was blockbuster news on one of the most important foreign policy issues of the campaign and Huckabee didn't even know about it.

If this were just an attempt to play gotcha with Huckabee, that would be one thing. But it wasn't. It was an ordinary question from a reporter who assumed — rightfully — that any serious candidate for president of the United States would keep up with news like this and have something to say about it. Huckabee didn't.

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MITT'S BIG SPEECH....If you're going to give a speech about how people shouldn't reject you for your religious beliefs, it's only natural that most of the speech is going to be about religious beliefs. But when JFK gave his famous speech in 1960 addressing fears that he'd be under the thumb of the Vatican, he at least threw out this bone:

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end — where all men and all churches are treated as equal — where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice.

Italics mine. Compare this to Mitt Romney's deeply offensive speech this morning addressing fears of his Mormon faith:

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom....Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

....Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

....Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests.


I can't tell you how much this pisses me off. I'm well aware that this is par for the course among Republican politicians these days, and Romney is doing nothing more than engaging in what's become routine conservative disparagement of those of us who aren't religious. But the cowardice and pandering here is just phenomenal. Not only does Romney not have the guts to toss in even a single passing phrase about the nonreligious, as JFK did, he went out of his way to insist that "freedom requires religion," that no movement of conscience is possible without religion, and that judges had better respect our "foundation of faith" lest our country's entire greatness disappear. And that was just the warmup.

I know, I know. He's just doing what he has to do. Evangelical base and all that. But I'm not religious, and yet, mirabile dictu, I still manage to support freedom, have a conscience, and understand the law. I'm tired of people implying otherwise.

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FRIEDMAN AND THE CARBON TAX....Yesterday I dinged Tom Friedman for claiming that none of the leading presidential candidates supports a carbon tax. In fact, all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates support cap-and-trade plans with 100% auction of CO2 credits, which is effectively the same thing as a carbon tax. So how did Friedman come to make this mistake? Ezra Klein speculates:

I wouldn't, in this case, chalk up to ideology what I can attribute to incompetence. Instead, I'd bet that Friedman simply doesn't understand that auctioned permit plans are essentially equivalent to carbon tax plans.

Obviously we're trying to engage in mind-reading here, but I'd offer up a different reason. I don't think Friedman's mistake was ideological in the sense that he hates Democrats. And I don't think he's stupid. The average man on the street may not know that cap-and-trade has pretty much the same effect as a carbon tax, but I'll bet Friedman does.

But here's the thing: he decided to write a column that railed against America's unwillingness to take serious action to cut back on oil use. Having already admitted that Nancy Pelosi has pushed a fleet mileage increase through the House, his entire thesis would evaporate if he also admitted that every leading Democratic candidate has proposed a serious energy reduction plan. And he was simply unwilling to lose his entire thesis. So he fudged.

In other words, he acted like a politician. Maybe he should run for president.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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BUSH'S BAILOUT PLAN....From today's LA Times story about George Bush's new plan to deal with the subprime mortgage mess:

Seeking to gird the nation's economy against a potential tidal wave of foreclosures, the Bush administration will release a plan today that is expected to block many mortgages from adjusting to higher rates for as long as five years.

Administration officials acknowledged privately Wednesday that the plan was likely to face objections from low-income borrowers who won't be helped....

Bush's plan won't help low-income borrowers? That's a shocker, isn't it?

Atrios provides some more detail on what the requirements are to qualify for Bush's plan, and the two key ones that will exclude most low-income borrowers are:

  • Must not have missed a payment

  • Must own a home worth more than their mortgage

The lower your income, the more likely you are to have missed a payment already, and the lower your income the more likely you are to have been sold a no-down loan that's already left you underwater due to falling housing prices. Net result: no help for low-income folks.

Like Atrios, I've become increasingly unsure that any kind of broad-based bailout plan can work — or work well, in any case — but if you're going to do it everyone ought to have a shot at getting help. Bush's plan, conversely, pretty transparently doesn't care about anyone with a modest income. Not part of his base, I guess.

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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YET MORE NIE STUFF....Again, just FYI, here are David Sanger and Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times providing a few more details about what the new intel was that led the intelligence community to conclude that Iran had halted its nuclear bomb program:

American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran's nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program, senior intelligence and government officials said on Wednesday.

The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.

....Ultimately, the notes and deliberations were corroborated by other intelligence, the officials said, including intercepted conversations among Iranian officials, collected in recent months. It is not clear if those conversations involved the same officers and others whose deliberations were recounted in the notes, or if they included their superiors.

There's a bit more later in the story about how this all fits in with the infamous laptop that we captured in 2004.

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HEALTHCARE CAGE MATCH....Canada's healthcare system has both good and bad points, but overall it does about as serviceable a job as America's healthcare system. And it does it for a whole lot less money.

But there's more! As this EPI snapshot shows, Canada's universal healthcare system also controls the growth of healthcare costs better than our jury-rigged quasi-private-public-mishmash of a system. Since 1993, the per capita cost of healthcare in Canada has increased 67%. That's a lot. But it's nothing compared to U.S. healthcare costs, which started out higher but even so skyrocketed a stunning 92%. Kinda makes you think we could learn a thing or two, doesn't it?

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December 5, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

CARROTS AND STICKS....James Fallows argues that Monday's NIE, which turned down the threat level on Iran's nuclear program, is politically awkward for those who have "gone farthest out on the Iran-hawk limb." In particular:

To me it intensifies my main concern about Hillary Clinton: that, having voted five years ago for the war in Iraq, which she then continued to support for years, she went ahead this fall and voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which however you slice it was essentially a vote for legitimizing military action against Iran.

....Yes, you can argue — as Senator Clinton did just now in the excellent NPR radio-only Democratic candidates' debate — that world affairs require both carrots and sticks, that the threat of force is important for getting a regime's attention, and so on. But the reported change in Iran's behavior happened in 2003! It didn't have anything to do with Kyl-Lieberman.

As it happens, Hillary is a little over-hawkish for my taste too, and I think she made a mistake voting for Kyl-Lieberman. Still, this seems backward to me. Iran's about-face on its nuclear program may have had nothing to do with Kyl-Lieberman, but surely 2003 rings another bell in the carrots-and-sticks department? While there may have been multiple reasons why Iran shut down its bomb program, I think you'd have to do some pretty serious special pleading to argue that our invasion of Iraq wasn't one of them. And if that's the case, it's pretty good evidence that sticks have a place in foreign policy, just as Hillary says.

This isn't an argument that the Iraq war was a good idea. It's an argument that once Bush made the decision to go to war, it was foolish not to take advantage of one of the resulting upsides. Iran was pretty clearly spooked after we crushed Saddam with such stunning ease, and was also pretty clearly ready to do a deal with us. But the Bush administration was so blinded by its own world historical importance, and so dominated by triumphant neocon ideologues, that it refused to see the deal that was in front of its own face.

Compare this to Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union. It's true that the playground story of how Reagan stared down the Soviets and brought down the wall is tiresome: there were lots of reasons the Soviet Union fell, among them internal bleeding from the Afghanistan war, the mid-80s collapse in oil prices, and the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, we now know that Reagan's defense buildup and enthusiasm for SDI was also part of it. But unlike Bush, Reagan was smart enough to take yes for an answer. When the other guy blinked, Reagan ignored the hawks in his own administration and signed the INF treaty with Gorbachev in 1987. Four years later both the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were gone.

Bush did the opposite. He wasn't willing to push back against Dick Cheney and the rest of the hawks in his administration, and so the chance to do a deal with Iran passed. But the chance was there, and if I were Hillary Clinton I'd argue that the threat of force was part of the reason. The only thing missing was a president smart enough to take advantage of it.

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BARTLETT ON THE WINGOSPHERE....This is hilarious. Texas Monthly interviews former White House flak Dan Bartlett in its current issue and the conversation turns to bloggers. Who would you give an interview to if the choice were between Chris Cillizza, who blogs for the Washington Post, or Dan Balz, who writes for the print edition of the Post? At first Bartlett says the answer is Balz, but then he adds a third option:

Now, the question might not be as much Chris versus Dan as maybe, "Is it Dan Balz or one of the guys at [the conservative blog] Power Line?"

Yeah, or what if [conservative blogger] Hugh Hewitt called?

That's when you start going, "Hmm . . ." Because they do reach people who are influential.

Well, they reach the president's base.

That's what I mean by influential. I mean, talk about a direct IV into the vein of your support. It's a very efficient way to communicate. They regurgitate exactly and put up on their blogs what you said to them. It is something that we've cultivated and have really tried to put quite a bit of focus on.

Italics mine. What makes this especially precious is that it comes right before Bartlett argues that the Bush White House didn't really treat Fox News any better than any other news outlet. So the right-wing blogosphere now has a new motto: Even more credulous and slavish than Fox News. It's a proud moment for them.

Via TPM.

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LA LA LA LA LA....How did Fox News cover the bombshell NIE on Iran? Steve Benen provides a wrapup.

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WAYNE DUMOND....Are you familiar with the Wayne Dumond story? Here's the nickel summary: Dumond was convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl in 1984 and was sentenced to life in prison. This was in Arkansas while Bill Clinton was governor, and for a while nobody cared. But then, after Clinton was elected president, Dumond became a cause celebre for the Clinton-hating fever swamp. (Book version of conspiracy theory here. There's always a book.) Long story short, the rape victim was Clinton's second cousin once removed, and the fever swamp became convinced that Dumond was the innocent victim of (yet another) frameup by a vengeful and drug-crazed Clinton. In 1996, after being elected with plenty of help from the fever swamp, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee announced that he thought Dumond should be set free. Subsequently, he met with the parole board and a few weeks after that Dumond was paroled.

Two years later Dumond was released from prison, and within weeks he sexually assaulted and murdered a 39-year-old woman in Kansas City. Huckabee was horrified, but said there was simply no way he could have known Dumond was dangerous. Today, Murray Waas says that's not the case:

Confidential files obtained by the Huffington Post show that Huckabee was provided letters from several women who had been sexually assaulted by Dumond and who indeed predicted that he would rape again — and perhaps murder — if released.

In a letter that has never before been made public, one of Dumond's victims warned: "I feel that if he is released it is only a matter of time before he commits another crime and fear that he will not leave a witness to testify against him the next time." Before Dumond was granted parole at Huckabee's urging, records show that Huckabee's office received a copy of this letter from Arkansas' parole board.

The woman later wrote directly to Huckabee about having been raped by Dumond. In a letter obtained by the Huffington Post, she said that Dumond had raped her while holding a butcher knife to her throat, and while her then-3-year-old daughter lay in bed next to her. Also included in the files sent to Huckabee's office was a police report in which Dumond confessed to the rape. Dumond was not charged in that particular case because he later refused to sign the confession and because the woman was afraid to press charges.

Huckabee kept these and other documents secret because they were politically damaging, according to a former aide who worked for him in Arkansas. The aide has made the records available to the Huffington Post, deeply troubled by Huckabee's repeated claims that he had no reason to believe Dumond would commit other violent crimes upon his release from prison.

Waas has more, including copies of the documents, over at the Huffington Post. The Dumond story is well known in Arkansas and never hurt Huckabee there. On the national stage, though, it might be a different story, especially in light of this new evidence. Huckabee's got some 'splainin to do.

UPDATE: In other Huckabee news, apparently Huckabee was completely unaware of the new NIE on Iran two full days after it was released. Heckuva grasp on foreign policy, Huckie.

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CAP AND TRADE....Tom Friedman, in a faux "report" from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence to President Ahmadinejad, notes that it's unlikely the United States will break its addiction to oil anytime soon:

True, thanks to Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. Congress decided to increase the miles per gallon required of U.S. car fleets by the year 2020 — which took us by surprise — but we nevertheless "strongly believe" this will not lead to any definitive breaking of America's oil addiction, since none of the leading presidential candidates has offered an energy policy that would include a tax on oil or carbon that could trigger a truly transformational shift in America away from fossil fuels.

This is flatly untrue. All three of the leading Democratic candidates have proposed cap-and-trade plans that auction 100% of their CO2 permits. This is, economically speaking, essentially the same thing as a carbon tax.

If Friedman is aware of this, he should say so. If he's not, he should get his facts straight. It's certainly arguable that there's not much chance that a cap-and-trade plan will become law anytime soon, but that's due to Republican intransigence, not because "none of the leading presidential candidates" has offered one. The Democrats have all done exactly that.

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NEW INFORMATION....Greg Miller of the LA Times provides another account of the new information that surfaced this summer about Iran's nuclear bomb program:

According to current and former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the matter, the information that surfaced this summer included intercepted conversations of Iranian officials discussing the country's nuclear weapons program, as well as a journal from an Iranian source that documented decisions to shut it down.

....Officials declined to discuss the new intelligence publicly, citing the need to protect sources and methods. But current and former officials provided basic descriptions of it, saying that the intercepts were of a series of conversations involving an Iranian official "complaining in 2007 about the suspension of the military program in 2003."

Another was described as a journal or diary by an Iranian "involved in the management of the military program," a former official said. One source said the diary came from a defector, but other intelligence officials said that was not the case.

Just passing this along FYI.

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MORE NIE STUFF....In the Washington Post today, David Ignatius passes along what his sources are telling him about how the new Iran NIE was put together:

The secret intelligence that produced this reversal came from multiple channels — human sources as well as intercepted communications — that arrived in June and July. At that time, a quite different draft of the Iran NIE was nearly finished. But the "volume and character" of the new information was so striking, says a senior official, that "we decided we've got to go back."....A senior official describes the summer's windfall as "a variety of reporting that unlocked stuff we had, which we didn't understand fully before."

Ignatius also notes that the new attitude toward analysis the produced the NIE was largely the work of Deputy Director of National Intelligence Thomas Fingar. Fingar, you may recall, was formerly head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the one agency that mostly got Iraq right. Justin Rood's piece on INR and how it figured out things the other agencies didn't, from our January 2005 issue, is here. It's worth re-reading.

While I'm at it, take a look at the front page bug for the Post's editorial coverage of the NIE. It's classic. Everyone basically agrees that the NIE's assessment that Iran is probably not pursuing a nuclear bomb is good news and provides us with an opening. Everyone except for the editorial page itself, which can barely stand the thought. Hell, even Robert Kagan agrees that this means it's time to talk with Iran. Sure, he only says that because he thinks we need to demonstrate good faith to the world before we inevitably bomb Iran anyway, but from Kagan that's still a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, the editorial board can't even go that far. They're aghast at the very idea of talks, and are upset that the new NIE might give us talk-mongers fuel for our talk-mongering fire. Sheesh.

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UNIVERSAL DEFAULT....Via Roy, the Consumerist has some entertaining liveblogging of Tuesday's Senate showdown between Carl Levin and the credit card industry:

9:34: And we're off. Levin has arranged for an interesting hearing. The first consumer we will hear from is Janet Hard. Janet is married to a steamfitter. She has a Discover card that jumped from 18% to 24% because her FICO score dropped. [Note: FICO = credit score. –ed] When Janet complained, the rate dropped to 21%. Discover's President will testify today.

9:37: Levin is most incensed by the retroactive nature of rate increases. Take a consumer whose debt jumps from 15% to 27%. That new rate applies not to new debts, but to all incurred debts.

....9:41: Bonnie Rushing has two Bank of America cards. One is associated with AAA. Both cards had an 8% rate. BoA bumped the AAA rate from 8% to 23% because Bonnie's FICO score fell. It didn't matter that her payment history was perfect. Bonnie isn't sure why her FICO score dropped, but she thinks it may be because she opened a store-branded card at Macy's to receive an immediate 10% discount on a purchase, unaware that it would affect her FICO score.

....9:46: Most people don't realize that their FICO score drops even if they approach — not exceed, approach — their credit limit.

9:47: The Committee asked who determines a FICO score, who determines when a rate jumps because of a FICO score. The answer: computers.

9:47: Issuers don't know why a FICO score drops. They have four "reason codes," generic statements like: "balance grew too fast compared to credit limit," or "balance on bank cards is too low."

9:48: By law, consumers are entitled to know who supplies credit data. Even with this data, few consumers realize that a rate hike was caused by a lower FICO score.

....10:25: Levin is really pissed that these rate increases are retroactive. More troubling, none of the consumers testifying realized that rate increases applied to past debts.

The general subject here is "universal default." This means that if, say, you're late paying your electric bill, Visa can double the interest rate on your credit card even though your late payment had nothing to do with Visa. Anything that lowers your credit score, whether you know about it or not, can potentially change the interest rate on your credit card balance.

But it's even worse than that! Not only can they double your interest rate if they feel like it, but the new interest rate applies retroactively to your existing balance, not just to any new debt. Your minimum payment of $500 can become a minimum payment of $1,000 overnight and there's nothing you can do about it.

This is so patently unfair that most people can't believe it's legal the first time they hear about it. Even the subprime mortgage leeches never tried anything like this. But not only is it legal, it's common (read the fine print on your credit card contract someday). In an industry so rotten and corrupt that even Boss Tweed would blush to be part of it, universal default is by far the rottenest and most corrupt practice around.

At least, I think it is. If the credit card industry has something even worse up its sleeve, I'm not even sure I want to hear about it. But feel free to offer up nominations in comments.

Kevin Drum 1:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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December 4, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

IRAN AND THE NPT....Headline Junky sounds a note of caution about the new NIE on Iran's nuclear program:

It's important not to overlook, though, the fact that Iran's entire nuclear program is the result of a decades-long clandestine procurement effort that was in direct violation of their legal obligations under the NPT, that at no time since the program was revealed has Iran ever been in full compliance with its obligations under the NPT, and that they have repeatedly backtracked on promised concessions both to the IAEA and EU.

....There's no question that the Bush administration's approach to the standoff has been needlessly bellicose, and remarkably uncreative, given the openings for a broader kind of bargain that seemed possible in 2003....But in the rush to celebrate Cheney's defeat, we shouldn't treat Iran with kid gloves. My thoughts have evolved on this question over time, it's true, primarily due to getting pretty deep into the weeds on the issue. A unilateral strike would be disastrous. But so would a nuclear-armed Iran outside the NPT. Of the two, the second would probably be more manageable, and therefore less undesirable. But it's by no means a benign option.

There's more at the link, and it's a pretty reasonable roundup. It's worth remembering that just because the Bush administration has pursued an indefensible policy regarding Iran doesn't automatically make Iran a sympathetic figure in all this. They have plenty to answer for too.

Kevin Drum 8:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Kevin Drum

GARY FARBER PLEDGE DRIVE WEEK....While he's waiting (and waiting) to see if the feds are willing to cut him a break, Gary Farber is holding a fundraising drive in order to pay his rent this month. Head on over to his place if you have a few bucks to help out. You'll also be treated to perhaps the longest fundraising post in the history of the internets. It's something you'll be able to tell your kids about.

Kevin Drum 8:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (10)

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By: Kevin Drum

HUCKABEE SURGING....According to the LA Times, Mike Huckabee's newfound success goes beyond just Iowa. Nationally, he's climbed into second place:

Mike Huckabee, the ascendant Republican presidential candidate in Iowa, is enjoying a surge of support across the country — and Rudolph W. Giuliani seems to be paying the biggest price, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

....In the Times/Bloomberg poll, Huckabee was preferred by 17% of likely GOP voters — up from 7% in a similar October survey. Support for Giuliani, the former New York mayor who once enjoyed a commanding lead in national polls, slid 9 percentage points over the last two months — to 23%.

On the Democratic side, things have stayed about the same since the last Times/Bloomberg poll: 45% for Clinton, 21% for Obama, and 11% for Edwards.

In other news from the poll, 71% of respondents think it's likely we're headed for a recession next year, compared to 65% who thought so a couple of months ago. I'll go with the crowd on that one. And 58% think the government should force subprime lenders to freeze interest rates in order to help borrowers who are in danger of default. I'm actually not sure what I think about that, but it certainly seems like an opening for some enterprising presidential candidate to take advantage of. How can you go wrong running against shifty subprime mortgage lenders?

Kevin Drum 7:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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THE EDUCATIONAL BLUES....Guess what? American kids suck:

The average science score of U.S. 15-year-olds lagged that of students in 16 of 30 [industrialized] countries....U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.

"How are our children going to be able to compete with the children of the world? The answer is not well," said former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who is chairman of Strong American Schools.

Now, God knows I'm in favor of our children being able to compete with the children of the world. And I've read just enough about educational problems in the U.S. to be convinced that we really ought to be doing a better job of it, especially among low-income and minority kids. Still, we've been hearing these tales of international woe for an awful long time. Here's A Nation At Risk, the famous 1983 report on the state of American schools:

International comparisons of student achievement, completed a decade ago, reveal that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.

Hmmm. "Completed a decade ago" means 1973. I was a sophomore in high school that year, so this is a pretty precise reference to my generation, which apparently sucked too. And yet, despite this vast expanse of mid-70s suckitude, my generation has apparently been helping to power the United States to ever greater international dominance ever since. Ditto for Gen X and Gen Y. Somehow, having teenagers who produce mediocre secondary school achievement scores compared to their counterparts in Europe and Asia doesn't seem to have much real-world effect on actual global success.

I dunno. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a German friend of mine about a decade ago. We were chatting about secondary education in our two countries, and long story short, German kids are better educated than American kids. At least, it sure seemed that way. But if that's the case, I asked, why does the American economy continue to do so well? Shouldn't Germany be kicking our ass? He shrugged and then told me a story about how rigid the German school system was and how long his brother had had to fight to get a decent (i.e., non-vocational) education.

I still wonder about this. If American kids are getting mediocre educations, and if they've been getting these mediocre educations for several decades now, shouldn't this have long since shown up in the business world, the tech world, and the financial world? And yet, it hasn't. So what's the deal? Makes me wonder if maybe American kids don't actually suck all that bad after all.

UPDATE: With the exception of the nitwits claiming that Americans are too stupid because we elected George Bush etc., the comments are pretty good and raise lots of sharp point. Worth looking at.

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (128)

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By: Kevin Drum

2007: THE YEAR THAT TRUST DIED....The Los Angeles metro works on an honor system, similar to many European transit systems. There are no turnstiles, but transit cops randomly check trains, and if you're caught without a ticket you incur a hefty fine. The MTA is now planning to switch to ticket gates, which generates this comment from LA's premier pop sociologist:

"Unfortunately, as L.A. gets to be more urban, it has these breakdowns of trust that happen in big cities," said Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles resident and author of "The City: A Global History." "It's the flip side of all the good things."

Where do people come up with this stuff? Is Kotkin seriously trying to suggest that the second largest city in the country was a friendly, trusting little community in 1993 and that all suddenly imploded over the past 14 years? That doesn't even begin to make any sense.

Anyway, it's too bad they're getting rid of the honor system. They say that turnstiles will bring in more money, but it seems like you could accomplish the same thing by increasing the number of fare monitors. So why not do that instead?

Kevin Drum 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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WHO'S THE SPY?....Three dots:

  • Yesterday Joe Klein quoted an intelligence source telling him that our "collection" capability in Iran had improved considerably over the past few years. In other words, we have better sources.

  • Walter Pincus reported today that although the NIE's new conclusions are based on years of evidence, briefings to Bush administration officials only began in July. This suggests that the key evidence that changed the intelligence community's opinion about Iran's nuclear program didn't fall into place until the middle of this year.

  • In February, a former Iranian deputy defense minister, Ali Reza Asghari, "disappeared" into Turkey and reportedly sought asylum in the U.S. According the The Australian, "General Asghari's crossing of the line, whether voluntary or not, is a resounding blow for the Iranian Government since he is privy to its most intimate secrets, particularly those concerning its nuclear capabilities and plans."

Italics mine. Juan Cole has much more on Asghari here, including speculation that Asghari might also have provided the information that led to the Israeli bombing of the suspected Syrian nuclear site in September.

At the moment this is just gossip. But interesting gossip!

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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PARSING THE PRESIDENT....When were George Bush and Dick Cheney briefed on the new intel concluding that Iran had shuttered its nuclear bomb program? Bush himself is trying to tap dance around that a bit, but the answer appears to be sometime in July or August.

So what did they do? Breathe a sigh of relief and tone down their rhetoric? Don't be silly. This is only obvious in retrospect, but it turns out that a couple of months ago both of them began parsing their language very, very carefully, with the goal of (a) making Iran continue to look as dangerous as possible while (b) not directly contradicting the NIE — just in case it ever became public and someone called them on it. Matt Yglesias dissects Cheney here; Josh Marshall dissects Bush here.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

OIL PRICES....Dan Drezner is surprised that oil prices rose yesterday. After all, shouldn't the Iran NIE have reduced the chance of military action or additional sanctions against Iran, which in turn should have reduced political uncertainty and thus the "risk premium" built into the price of oil? Dan brings up and dismisses three possible explanations for this paradox (traders are really dumb, traders have better intel than the CIA, Bush is going to bomb Iran anyway) and ends up with this as the only one left:

Political factors are not as important in influencing oil prices as some commentators believe.

Dan says this explanation "seems inadequate to me," and it's worth noting that a single day isn't enough to draw any conclusions in a volatile market like oil futures. Let's wait at least a week to see what the fallout from the NIE is.

That said, I've long been skeptical of the conventional wisdom that the current risk premium built into oil prices is on the order of $30 per barrel. My own guess is that the real figure is $0-10. After all, demand is up and prices are way up, and yet production isn't. This is very peculiar if there's really any significant amount of spare pumping/refining capacity left in the world. Occam's Razor suggests to me that the real answer is that spare capacity is close to zero and that's why prices are going up. Political risk might play a role too, but I'll bet it's a fairly small one.

As always, this kind of speculation applies only to long-term trends. Whether the price of oil will plummet or skyrocket tomorrow is a game for commodities traders to play. But I'll be pretty surprised if the nominal price of oil doesn't increase 50-100% by 2010.

Kevin Drum 12:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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HILLARY'S JOKE....Hillary Clinton's attack on Barack Obama for wanting to be president ever since kindergarten was nothing but a little joke? Who knew the Clinton press shop had such a dry sense of humor?

But the really remarkable thing is that after Mark Penn told Joe Scarborough the whole thing was just a gag, he went on to complain that it had been blown all out of proportion. "The spin machines are so hyped up," he said.

Mark Penn is complaining about overactive spin machines?

Kevin Drum 11:36 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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WHY WAS THE NIE RELEASED?....PART 3....A couple more theories on why yesterday's NIE on Iran was released just weeks after Mike McConnell said it wasn't going to be. First, there's this brief aside tossed in at the tail end of a Wall Street Journal piece:

Officials at U.S. spy agencies came to believe after their 2005 report was issued that Iran had suspended its weapons program. The differences between this assessment and the administration's public comments prompted them to make the report public, officials say.

So the intelligence community was directly responding to the fact that Bush and Cheney were continuing to make hawkish statements even when they knew the evidence didn't back it up. Interesting. Over at Mother Jones, though, Laura Rozen suggests something different:

The NIE released today had been held up for more than a year. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats this summer, the CIA's top intel analyst indicated to Mother Jones during a break that the delay was due in part to new intelligence that the United States had obtained. The source of that intelligence has not been revealed, but comments by national security advisor Stephen Hadley today suggested the United States had received new information a few months ago and that a conclusion on the NIE's findings was reached only last Tuesday.

If this is true, McConnell changed his mind because the reporting from Iran changed, first over the summer and then more definitively within the last couple of weeks. "The primary, number one judgment — that military efforts have apparently been discontinued in 2003 and still discontinued as of middle of this year, it is impossible for the community to sit on a judgment like that," said Paul Pillar, a former top National Intelligence Council officer for the Middle East. "That they have high confidence suggests they have some fairly good reporting. That is pretty significant."

I expect considerably more speculation on this subject over the next few days. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY'S COATTAILS....In the New York Times today, Carl Hulse writes about the possibility that Hillary Clinton's nomination might have a negative effect on House Democrats running for reelection in conservative districts:

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Nancy Boyda, a Democrat who ran for Congress in this district last year, owed her upset victory partly to the popularity of the Democratic woman at the top of the ticket: Kathleen Sebelius, who won the governor's seat. Now, with a tough re-election race at hand in 2008, Ms. Boyda faces the prospect that her electoral fate could be tied to another woman: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton is a long way from winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and over the last few weeks has struggled to hang on to the air of inevitability that she has been cultivating all year. But the possibility that she will be the nominee is already generating concern among some Democrats in Republican-leaning states and Congressional districts, who fear that sharing the ticket with her could subject them to attack as too liberal and out of step with the values of their constituents.

Interesting. So Boyda is nervous about sharing the ticket with Hillary?

Of the presidential race, she said: "It is something I have no control over, quite honestly. They will demonize any Democrat who becomes the nominee. I just put my head down and work."

They will demonize any Democrat who becomes the nominee. Smart woman. So who is worried about Hillary's anti-coattails? Answer: Kansas Republicans, who claim that a Clinton nomination will help them out. An entirely impartial assessment, I'm sure. Who else? "House Democrats" who are "privately nervous" about Hillary's reverse coattails. No names, of course. What else? Well, there's this:

Democrats say they have not polled on the issue, though a private survey that surfaced this year found that the nomination of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama could cut into support for House Democrats in tough districts.

I'm actually open to the idea that Hillary Clinton might not have downticket coattails that are as strong as Barack Obama's. But if you want to convince me of this, you really need more than a few Kansas Republicans shedding crocodile tears, some allegedly "privately nervous" House Dems, and a survey — the only piece of actual evidence in the entire article — that concludes just the opposite. Just sayin'.

For the other side of the story, check out Tom Schaller here. He doesn't know the answer for sure either, but at least he presents a bit of evidence to help make his case.

Kevin Drum 1:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

OVERTREATED....A new report from the Institute on Medicine as a Profession concludes that doctors could stand to police themselves a little better:

46 percent said they had failed to report at least one serious medical error that they knew about, despite the fact that 93 percent of doctors said physicians should report all significant medical errors that they observe.

....A majority said they would refer patients to an imaging facility in which they had a financial interest, but only 24 percent would inform patients of that financial tie.

....More than a third of physicians, 36 percent, said they would order an unneeded MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) test if it were requested by a patient with low back pain, though most doctors say they do not want to waste scarce resources.

I'm not sure where the Post got these numbers. I don't have access to the journal article this is based on, but the accompanying chartbook (here) says that 40% of physicians knew of a serious error in their practice in the last three years, and of those 31% failed to report it. That's 12% of physicians, not 46%. The imaging facility number is 26%, not 24%. And the MRI number is 42% not 36%.

I'm not sure who's wrong here, the Post or the folks who put together the charts. But in any case, it gives me an excuse to comment on the imaging stuff. Back in September, when Shannon Brownlee was blogging here about her book Overtreated, I hadn't yet received a copy of the book and so I wasn't able to comment about it. I've since read it (it's very good), and one of the things she discusses in some detail is the fact that a huge number of MRIs and CT scans are ordered not because they're necessary, but simply because they're available (and, of course, very, very cool). A little bit of this is malpractice-driven defensive medicine, but the vast majority isn't. Doctors do it because it's convenient, because they don't want to say no to patients, and because it's a moneymaker. The IMAP study seems to bear this out.

Anyway, read the book. It's good. Nickel summary: Hospitals are about as likely to kill you as to cure you. Stay away if you can.

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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December 3, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

WHY WAS THE NIE RELEASED?....PART 2....Three weeks ago DNI Mike McConnell said flatly that he didn't plan to make public any of the key findings from the upcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. Today, in a move that took everyone by surprise, the key judgments were released. Why?

Earlier today I speculated that it might have been due to congressional pressure. Spencer Ackerman doesn't think so:

An aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, says that Rockefeller — the obvious culprit in any Senatorial intelligence push — didn't press McConnell to release the NIE's key judgments. Rockefeller's House counterpart, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), released a statement today saying that he wants to be "fully informed about the classified sources upon which this estimate is based" and that he will "review areas where certain agencies dissent." That sounds like a man in the dark about the NIE.

Elsewhere, Joe Klein writes that he just spoke with a "senior U.S. intelligence official" who provided him with a little bit of background about the NIE's conclusion that Iran had stopped work on its nuclear bomb program four years ago:

  1. the NIE was made with a "high" degree of certainty, which means there was more than one information stream confirming it.

  2. our "collection" capability within Iran has improved considerably over the past few years.

Klein speculates that it "may be that the intelligence community was waiting for the definitive information that made this a 'high' degree of certainty estimate rather than a 'moderate' degree estimate."

Maybe. That could explain the delay, but not why McConnell changed his mind. That's still a mystery.

Kevin Drum 8:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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TAKING YES FOR AN ANSWER....I was going to write a post later in the afternoon about the background to today's Iran story, but Matt wrote it first, so you might as well just go ahead and read his version.

If you need to refresh your memory on all this stuff, last year I wrote a quick summary (with links) of all the 2003 activity here.

FWIW, this is one of the reasons I've never quite bought into Matt's "incompetence dodge" idea that success in Iraq was never possible. Sure, we couldn't have sent 500,000 troops, but we could have sent 250,000. And we could have made serious postwar reconstruction plans. And we could have stopped the looting before it spiraled out of control. And we could have reconstituted the Iraqi army and limited de-Baathification to only the highest echelon of Saddam-era officials, as the administration unanimously agreed to do until Cheney and Rumsfeld unilaterally overturned the decision. And now we can add to that one more thing: in the aftermath of our lightning victory in Iraq, Iran really was feeling some pressure and was willing to talk to us about halting their bomb program — and possibly cooperating in other areas as well. If you take all the stuff above, and add to it the possibility that the Iranians might have been — maybe grudgingly, maybe unreliably, but still — willing to use their influence to help us out with Iraqi players like Hakim and al-Sadr, who knows? Iraq might not have turned into a triumph, but there's a good chance it would have gone a helluva lot better than it has.

But like Matt says, the Bushies couldn't take yes for an answer. So we are where we are.

Kevin Drum 3:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIFE IMITATES ART....Yesterday's joke (from Chris Hayes)....

Myself, I'm currently working on two stories, one about a crucial little league team defeat John Edwards suffered in 4th grade that taught him hard lessons about resilience and competition and 5,000-word profile of an advertising exec from Duluth who roomed with Mitt Romney at Harvard for a week while his own dorm was under construction.

....Becomes this week's laughable attack from Hillary Clinton's press shop:

In Boston this evening, Senator Obama said: "I'm not running to fulfill some long held plans or because I think it's open to me."....But that's not what Senator Obama's teachers, family, classmates or staff say:

....In third grade, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want To Be a President.' His third grade teacher: Fermina Katarina Sinaga "asked her class to write an essay titled 'My dream: What I want to be in the future.' Senator Obama wrote 'I want to be a President,' she said." [The Los Angeles Times, 3/15/07]

In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want to Become President.' "Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama's kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, 'I Want To Become President,' the teacher said." [AP, 1/25/07 ]

Oh, snap! I'm going to start paying even more attention to Chris now. He's got a scary nose for the ridiculous.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY WAS THE NIE RELEASED?....A couple of random thoughts on the newly released NIE concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003:

  • This NIE was apparently finished a year ago, and its basic parameters were almost certainly common knowledge in the White House well before that. This means that all the leaks, all the World War III stuff, all the blustering about the IAEA — all of it was approved for public consumption after Cheney/Bush/Rice/etc. knew perfectly well it was mostly baseless.

  • Why were the key judgments finally released? Cheney didn't want them released, Bush surely didn't want them released, and DNI Mike McConnell told Congress a few weeks ago that he didn't want them released. So who did?

All I've got is speculation on the second question, but here it is: it was congressional pressure. Democratic members of the various intelligence committees saw the NIE (or a summary or a verbal report or something) and went ballistic. Footnotes and dissents are one thing, but withholding a report whose primary conclusion is 180 degrees contrary to years of administration innuendo produced a rebellion. Somebody who got briefed must have threatened something pretty serious if the NIE didn't see the light of day.

Like I said, just a guess. But who else has the clout to force Bush, Cheney, and McConnell to change course?

By the way, Stephen Hadley will be on TV furiously providing the Bush administration's spin on all this at 3:15 Eastern time. Should be good for some laughs.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN'S BOMB PROGRAM....The newly declassified version of the NIE's key judgments on Iran's nuclear program is here. An excerpt:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

....We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years....We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007....Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.

There are all the usual caveats you'd expect, since the intelligence community can never be entirely sure of its conclusions in a case like this. But still, this is a bombshell. This isn't just an NIE with a few dissenting footnotes, it's an NIE whose primary conclusion is that Iran hasn't been seriously working on a nuclear weapon for the past four years, and furthermore, that if it starts back up again it's highly unlikely to succeed until 2010-2015 at the earliest.

I commend to your attention, once again, this report from Gareth Porter dated November 8:

A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear programme, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's militarily aggressive policy toward Iran, according to accounts of the process provided by participants to two former Central Intelligence Agency officers.

But this pressure on intelligence analysts, obviously instigated by Cheney himself, has not produced a draft estimate without those dissenting views, these sources say. The White House has now apparently decided to release the unsatisfactory draft NIE, but without making its key findings public.

I guess Cheney finally lost his turf battle on this one. But I'd sure like to hear more about it, especially since Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell confirmed on November 14 that he had no plans to publicly release any part of this NIE because "to do so could expose U.S. intelligence capabilities and enable Iran to change its practices." I wonder who pushed back? Who's got the juice?

Well, maybe it'll all come out at Cheney's impeachment proceedings. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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GOP POSTURING....Comedian David Freddoso at The Corner:

Democrats' failure to patch the AMT until after the deadline for printing IRS forms will result in tens of millions of late tax refunds. This is all about Democrats failing to get their act together and pass an AMT patch that doesn't massively raise taxes on everyone else, even though they were warned months in advance that this could happen.

Has Freddoso been taking lessons from his colleague in Beirut? Three weeks ago, because of this very issue, Harry Reid announced that he wanted to fast-track AMT reform. Democrats were all willing. So why didn't it happen?

Because Republicans insisted that they would only allow the AMT tax cut to come to the floor if they were allowed to offer up amendments for four additional tax cuts at the same time. This was obvious political posturing: none of the amendments would have passed, but they would have been good campaign fodder for 2008.

Bottom line from the GOP: no campaign fodder, no AMT fix. Because campaign fodder is more important than actually helping out middle class taxpayers who might get hit with higher tax bills. Let's get our story straight here.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN....From the New York Times:

BREAKING NEWS: U.S. Report Says Iran Halted Nuclear Weapons Program in 2003


UPDATE: From CNN: The intelligence community is sending a classified assessment to Congress today saying that "Iran largely halted its nuclear development program back in the fall of 2003." Turns out that Iran was more susceptible to international pressure than anyone believed. Also: Iran is having lots of centrifuge problems and isn't even close to producing enriched uranium. "The key effort has pretty much been stopped." No wonder Dick Cheney didn't want this report released.

Barbara Starr comments that this is "Very much against the grain of what the Bush administration has been saying." Ya think?

Kevin Drum 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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MORE LEBANON....It seems that NRO was informed in persuasive detail two months ago that W. Thomas Smith's dispatches from Beirut were probably fabricated. That's less than a week after the original posts were put up. But there was no acknowledgment of error until Friday. What took so long?

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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VENEZUELA UPDATE....Here's some good news:

Venezuelan voters narrowly rejected a constitutional referendum that would have bolstered President Hugo Chavez's embrace of socialism and granted an indefinite extension of his eligibility to serve as president, the National Electoral Council reported early Monday.

About 51 percent of voters opposed the amendments, while approximately 49 percent were in favor of them.

So the constitutional changes were rejected (good); Chavez didn't try — very hard, anyway — to rig the election (also good); and apparently he's willing to accept the negative results (yet more good). All in all, a satisfying result so far. We'll see what comes next.

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HO HO HO....Sure, the dollar is plummeting, the housing market is tanking, and the entire U.S. banking industry is all but insolvent. But at least wages and employment have gone up this year — or so we thought until the Commerce Department's latest revision of income and job statistics:

The new report concluded that personal income from wages and salaries grew at an annual rate of 1.6 percent in the second quarter, far below the 4.5 percent that had previously been estimated.

The government did not explain why the revision was made....But it was most likely, said Robert J. Barbera, the chief economist of ITG, that the largest part of the revision came from a change in employment estimates.

If so, he said, he expected the government would revise its estimate of the number of jobs created in the quarter, to as little as 50,000 a month from 126,000 a month. That would indicate that the economy was much weaker than had been thought.

Apparently part of the problem is due to our old friend, the mismatch between the payroll employment report and the household employment report. More on that later, I'm sure. In the meantime, though, just another reason to feel a little less jolly this holiday season.

The other reason to feel less jolly, of course, is that Ohio State is in the BCS championship game yet again. I hope LSU kicks their ass.

Kevin Drum 12:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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December 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

PLANNING FOR THE APOCALYPSE....The New York Times reports that business lobbyists are feverishly working to get lots of business-friendly regulations in place before the Bush administration expires, "in the belief that they can get better deals from the Bush administration than from its successor."

I'd say that's a pretty sound belief. And hardly a surprising one, either. But here's something I didn't know: when the Bush administration took over in 2001 it unilaterally froze nearly all of Bill Clinton's last-minute regulatory changes, eventually changing or killing about 20% of them. But the next president won't be able to do that:

Whoever becomes the next president, Democrat or Republican, will find that it is not so easy to make immediate and sweeping changes. The Supreme Court has held that a new president cannot arbitrarily revoke final regulations that already have the force of law. To undo such rules, a new administration must provide a compelling justification and go through a formal rule-making process, which can take months or years.

So the stakes really are higher this time around. I can hardly wait to see what kind of last minute damage Bush decides to inflict on the Republic as his term in office draws to a close.

That said, here's my favorite part of the story:

A priority for many employers in 2008 is to secure changes in the rules for family and medical leave....The National Association of Manufacturers said the law had been widely abused and had caused "a staggering loss of work hours" as employees took unscheduled, intermittent time off for health conditions that could not be verified. The use of such leave time tends to rise sharply before holiday weekends, on the day after Super Bowl Sunday and on the first day of the local hunting season, employers said.

News flash: workers sometime call in sick even when they aren't! And this is causing a "staggering loss of work hours." Clearly we need new regulations to cut down on Super Bowl malingering.

Kevin Drum 2:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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December 1, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

LEBANON UPDATE....David Kenner, a young, right-leaning journalist (and student) living in Beirut, comments on W. Thomas Smith's post at NRO last September claiming that several thousand Hezbollah gunmen had been "deployed to the Christian areas of Beirut":

Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Lebanon knows that these events didn't happen. So, who fed Mr. Smith this bogus news. According to him, they are "reliable sources within the Cedar Revolution movement, as well as insiders within the Lebanese national security apparatus." None of whom, apparently, are willing to go on the record. Mr. Smith says this is because they need to preserve their safety. Very well. Let me suggest a different explanation. There are plenty of people willing to feed a naive journalist fake news; there is nobody willing to risk their reputations by going on the record with blatant lies. If 4,000 - 5,000 Hezbollah foot soldiers really did deploy to Christian areas of Beirut in September, Lebanon would be tumbling over the precipice into civil war. Christian politicians and security experts would be screaming from the rooftops, not making off the record statements to one foreign journalist/blogger.

NRO promises that in the future it will provide more "context and caveats" in Smith's reporting. However, if Kenner is right, the question isn't context and caveats, it's whether or not Smith was just flatly wrong. I suspect other journalists in Beirut might be weighing in on this in the near future.

Via Andrew Sullivan.

UPDATE: More here from Thomas Edsall, who talked to four experienced Mideast reporters about Smith's claims. Their verdict? "Insane." "He's a fabulist." "It never happened." "Hilarious."

So far, NRO's response to all this has been a few paragraphs dumped on their blog late Friday afternoon. By comparison, Frank Foer has 7,000 words today in the New Republic explaining in painstaking detail the feeding frenzy over the Scott Thomas Beauchamp affair, in which Beauchamp was accused of making up stories about playing with bones and running over dogs. It's instructive. The Smith affair will undoubtedly get less traction, despite his errors being considerably graver than Beauchamp's, because (a) the liberal blogosphere just won't go quite as crazy over it, and (b) we won't have the U.S. Army egging us on, as they quite plainly did with the conservosphere in the Beauchamp affair.

TNR made some mistakes with Beauchamp, and they deserve flak for it. But Foer's piece makes clear a couple of things. First, they spent a lot of time trying to run down the accuracy of Beauchamp's first-person account. Second, the Army did everything it could to keep them from doing it. Beauchamp may not be a choir boy in all this, but the Army comes out looking a lot worse.

Which leads to this: Will anyone seriously follow up on the Army's conduct in this affair? Do I even have to ask?

Kevin Drum 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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