Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 31, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

HOW TO WITHDRAW....Zbigniew Brzezinski writes in the Washington Post that we need to withdraw from Iraq responsibly — a position that pretty much every withdrawal advocate will agree with — and then makes a sensible case about what withdrawal will likely mean:

The contrast between the Democratic argument for ending the war and the Republican argument for continuing is sharp and dramatic. The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for "staying the course" draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush's and Sen. John McCain's forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the predictions of "falling dominoes" that were used to justify continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it easier.

....Contrary to Republican claims that our departure will mean calamity, a sensibly conducted disengagement will actually make Iraq more stable over the long term. The impasse in Shiite-Sunni relations is in large part the sour byproduct of the destructive U.S. occupation, which breeds Iraqi dependency even as it shatters Iraqi society. In this context, so highly reminiscent of the British colonial era, the longer we stay in Iraq, the less incentive various contending groups will have to compromise and the more reason simply to sit back. A serious dialogue with the Iraqi leaders about the forthcoming U.S. disengagement would shake them out of their stupor.

Ending the U.S. war effort entails some risks, of course, but they are inescapable at this late date. Parts of Iraq are already self-governing, including Kurdistan, part of the Shiite south and some tribal areas in the Sunni center. U.S. military disengagement will accelerate Iraqi competition to more effectively control their territory, which may produce a phase of intensified inter-Iraqi conflicts. But that hazard is the unavoidable consequence of the prolonged U.S. occupation. The longer it lasts, the more difficult it will be for a viable Iraqi state ever to reemerge.

Brzezinski is right: there's no point in denying that U.S. withdrawal might lead to increased bloodshed in the short term. It most likely will. But it's highly unlikely to lead to a catastrophic regional meltdown of the kind that the chaos hawks peddle on cable TV. What's more, Brzezinski is also right that the risk of increased violence is inescapable at this point and, in fact, probably grows the longer we stay in Iraq. The events in Basra over the past week ought to make that clear.

Brzezinski wants us to shake Iraqi leaders "out of their stupor," and the only way to do that is to make it clear that we really are leaving. Leaving responsibly, but leaving nonetheless. And the only way to make our withdrawal credible is to create a timetable and then stick with it. No benchmarks that hold out hope of us staying, no blue ribbon commissions with split-the-middle plans, and no long-term superbases that inevitably draw us back in to every local firefight — just withdrawal. January 20, 2009, seems like a good start date.

Kevin Drum 12:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE BASRA....I don't think James Joyner is right when he suggests that Muqtada al-Sadr "sued for peace" in Basra on Sunday, since, after all, it was Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's side that made overtures to Sadr, not the other way around. But his analogy with Israel's offensive against Lebanon two years ago has occurred to me as well:

The parallels between this action and the Israelis' 2006 invasion of Lebanon to take on Hezbollah are striking. In both cases, the party that initiated the escalation into high level conflict inflicted substantial damage on their adversary and were able to claim military victory. At the same time, neither came anywhere close to achieving their political objectives. In assessing the 2006 action, I concluded that Israel therefore lost. Absent substantial new information, I'd have to conclude that Maliki was the loser here for the same reason.

This seems right to me — though I'm not sure Maliki even achieved much of a tactical victory in this case — and the rest of his conclusions seem pretty close to the mark as well. One thing that's still not clear, though, is exactly what role Maliki played in the negotiations with Sadr. Leila Fadel of McClatchy quotes a Dawa legislator saying that "the Prime Minister was only informed. It was a political maneuver by us," but that can be interpreted several ways. Possibilities: (a) It's the truth. A faction of Maliki's party got fed up with him and headed off to Qom on their own, stopping just long enough to let him know they were going. (b) The Dawa legislator is just puffing himself up. Maliki was actually part of the plan all along. (c) It's deliberate misinformation, an attempt to make it seem as though Maliki was willing to keep up the fight and only succumbed to pressure from his own party. (d) Something else. Stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

MURAT KURNAZ....So did everyone see the 60 Minutes segment last night about Murat Kurnaz, the German national who was picked up in Pakistan shortly after 9/11, turned over to the U.S., and then tortured and held for five years even though, apparently, there was never any serious evidence against him? The transcript is here if you missed it.

One would, of course, prefer not to believe Kurnaz's allegations, but they seem sadly credible. What makes it even worse is this:

Six months after Kurnaz reached Guantanamo, U.S. military intelligence had written, "criminal investigation task force has no definite link [or] evidence of detainee having an association with al Qaeda or making any specific threat toward the U.S."

At the same time, German intelligence agents wrote their government, saying, "USA considers Murat Kurnaz's innocence to be proven. He is to be released in approximately six to eight weeks."

In the event, he wasn't released for several more years, and then only after the newly elected German chancellor made a personal appeal to George Bush. But why? Why didn't they release him earlier?

One can never rule out bureaucratic ineptitude, but the more likely explanation is that they were afraid he'd tell the world about his treatment. So they just kept him locked up instead. Lovely.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

MALIKI AND THE IRANIANS....So what's the story behind the "elaborate negotiations" that led to Muqtada al-Sadr issuing a statement in Najaf and asking his partisans to stand down in Baghdad and Basra? Leila Fadel of McClatchy has the details:

Iraqi lawmakers traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom over the weekend to win the support of the commander of Iran's Qods brigades in persuading Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to stop military operations, members of the Iraqi parliament said.

....The Iraqi lawmakers held talks with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and signed an agreement with Sadr, which formed the basis of his statement Sunday, members of parliament said.

Ali al Adeeb, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Dawa party, and Hadi al Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, had two aims, lawmakers said: to ask Sadr to stand down his militia and to ask Iranian officials to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq.

....The Qom discussions may or may not bring an end to the fighting but they almost certainly have undermined Maliki — who made repeated declarations that there would be no negotiations and that he would treat as outlaws those who did not turn in their weapons for cash. The blow to his own credibility was worsened by the fact that members of his own party had helped organize the Iran initiative.

"The delegation was from the United Iraqi Alliance (dominated by the Dawa party and the Supreme Council of Iraq), and the Prime Minister was only informed. It was a political maneuver by us," said Haider al Abadi, a legislator from Maliki's Dawa party.

Two comments. First: what a humiliation for Maliki. Not only did he blink first, but afterward his own people publicly undermined what little authority he had left. Yeesh.

Second: the head of the Badr Organization sure does seem to have, um, remarkably speedy access to the head of Iran's Qods force, doesn't he? It's something to ponder the next time some Bush administration or U.S. Army spokesperson casually maligns Sadr as "Iranian backed" but maintains a discreet silence when it comes to the far deeper and longer-lived Iranian ties of Maliki's own Dawa/Badr alliance. Just sayin'.

Kevin Drum 1:22 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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March 30, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S GOING ON IN BASRA?....CHAPTER XLII....Here's the latest entry in the "What's going on in Basra?" sweepstakes. Earlier today Muqtada al-Sadr's headquarters in Najaf released a statement, and Erica Goode of the New York Times provides the backstory:

The substance of the nine-point statement, released by Mr. Sadr on Sunday afternoon, was hammered out in elaborate negotiations over the past few days with senior Iraqi officials, some of whom traveled to Iran to meet with Mr. Sadr, according to several officials involved in the negotiations.

....Iraqi forces, backed up by American war planes and ground troops, have been in a stalemate with Shiite militias affiliated with Mr. Sadr in Basra for the past six days, in a military operation that has stirred harsh criticism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

....Many Iraqi politicians say that Mr. Maliki's political capital has been severely depleted by the campaign and that he is now in the curious position of having to turn to Mr. Sadr, a longtime rival and now his opponent in battle, for a solution to the crisis.

In the statement, Mr. Sadr told militia members "to end all military actions in Basra and in all the provinces" and "to cooperate with the government to achieve security."

But he also made demands, including an amnesty for fighters in the Mahdi Army militia and the release of all imprisoned members of the Sadrist movement who have not been convicted of crimes. While the government has occasionally made small-scale releases of Sadrists, it has resisted earlier demands for more sweeping action.

Italics mine. If this is accurate, it suggests that it was Maliki who went to Sadr, not the other way around, and that he did it several days ago. What's more, it was Sadr who laid down the conditions for an end to the violence, not Maliki. This is pretty plainly at odds with the theory that Sadr's statement was a show of weakness, a sign that he was taking more damage than he could stand and was desperate for a truce.

In urban warfare like this it's frequently hard to figure out who's "won" and who's "lost." Often both sides lose. In this case, though, it certainly looks as if Maliki has lost more than Sadr. Both sides have taken casualties, but Sadr doesn't appear to have lost any ground; he's forced Maliki to come to him to ask for terms; he's successfully projected a statesmanlike image throughout; and politically he seems to be in stronger shape than before. Maliki, conversely, appears by all accounts to have launched an ill-timed mission with inadequate troops and then been unable to close the deal. The Iraqi army and the redoubtable Gen. Mohan al-Furayji, the much lauded leader of the regular forces in Basra, are both looking pretty banged up in the bargain too.

This could all change tomorrow, but right now that's about where we stand. It's increasingly hard to see how the Basra offensive ends up being a plus for Maliki and his allies. Including us, unfortunately.

UPDATE: Reed Hundt points out that there's a Tet Offensive quality to the operation in Basra: "Even if the American-backed Maliki-led government establishes some sort of order in Basra, Baghdad and other cities, the battles of the last week must have shaken the American media into a recognition that there's no peace at hand in Iraq, and certainly no widespread support for the Maliki government."

Maybe so. On the other hand, perhaps there's a bright side to this? The failure of a major offensive might finally convince Maliki and his allies that Sadr isn't going away and can't be defeated militarily. That might, in turn, convince them that they need to negotiate seriously with Sadr — and perhaps with the Sunni coalition as well — if they want to maintain any authority at all going forward. I don't have high hopes that this is the lesson Maliki will take away from the Battle of Basra, but you never know.

Kevin Drum 8:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE STATURE GAP....It's not true that taller candidates always beat shorter candidates in presidential races. However, it is true that short men almost never win presidential elections. It's been nearly two centuries since anyone more than an inch shorter than the national male average won the presidency.

So how tall is John McCain, anyway? Really?

Kevin Drum 5:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

MILESTONES....John Cole starts a new blogosphere tradition: your 10,000th blog post should be about your cat. Commenter Jake goes one better: "Every blogging milestone should be honored with a picture of a cat doing wtfiw and looking pretty damn smug while he does so." Quite so.

Kevin Drum 4:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (12)

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CONDITION BRANDING....Shannon Brownlee writes in the Washington Post about "condition branding" in the pharmaceutical industry:

Condition branders use "information" about medical conditions to forge links between disease and treatment in the minds of both patients and doctors. If they have a drug but no condition, they will simply invent a disease.

....One of the best examples is "osteopenia," a diagnosis that millions of women my age are given every year.....Before the 1990s, doctors decided that you had osteoporosis if you were elderly and you broke a bone. When the pharmaceutical company Merck came up with its anti-bone-loss durg Fosamax, it wanted a broader market than just elderly fracture patients. The solution? The company helped fund a panel of medical experts to create diagnostic criteria for osteoporosis so that a diagnosis could be made before the patient actually broke a bone.

The panel's first step was to define "normal" bone density as that of the average 30-year-old woman. Next, the experts chose as their cutoff for osteoporosis a statistical point that was slightly below the bone density of their normal 30-year-old — a definition they admitted was "somewhat arbitrary." Finally, they came up with a completely new disease — osteopenia — for bone density that fell somewhere between that normal 30-year-old and their arbitrary definition of osteoporosis.

Voila — 30 percent of post-menopausal women suddenly had a disease that needed to be treated early in order to prevent a problem — hip fracture — that wouldn't occur for many years, if ever. According to the new guidelines, millions more women now had osteopenia, which their doctors needed to watch like hawks so that their patients could be treated once they progressed to osteoporosis. Merck then took the added step of helping doctors buy DEXA scanners, X-ray machines needed to scan your bones to get that all-important diagnosis.

Read the whole thing. And while you're at it, you might want to buy her book, Overtreated, and read that too. It's very, very good.

Kevin Drum 2:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHY HILLARY FIGHTS....John Heilemann's piece in New York magazine about how Barack Obama blew his chances of getting an endorsement from John Edwards is fascinating reading. So go read it. But I was also intrigued by this:

Democrats are right to fear that [Hillary] Clinton may find it irresistible to turn her campaign into an exercise in nothing less (and little more) than political manslaughter against Obama. They're especially right to be worried that she may want to fight on all summer, all the way to the Denver convention — especially with Clinton now talking openly about a floor fight over seating the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations.

Some senior members of Clinton's campaign have no intention of sticking around if Obama is substantially ahead come June; as much as they're devoted to their boss, they want nothing to do with a black-bag operation designed to destroy her rival, no matter what the cost. But these same people are also deeply convinced — beyond spin, beyond talking points, to their core — that Obama would be doomed against McCain. And Clinton believes this, too, which is one important reason why she persists despite odds that grow longer each passing day.

A couple of weeks ago I would have written this off as delusional. Of course Barack Obama can win against John McCain. And I still believe that.

But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the Jeremiah Wright controversy has shaken my confidence a bit. This has nothing to do with the substance of the thing, which I think has been wildly overblown, but by the conservative reaction to it. Go scan The Corner and you'll find Mark Steyn and Victor Davis Hanson and the rest of the gang still in an absolute lather over Wright. Ditto for other conservative sites. They have no intention of allowing this to die, and I have no doubt that it will resurface with a vengeance in every last swing state this fall. When Obama continues to fail to denounce Wright thoroughly enough — and believe me, no denunciation will ever be enough with this crowd — then eventually the crossover Republicans who were singing Obama's praises after Super Tuesday will, sadly but inevitably, use this as an excuse to switch their support to McCain. Can't vote for a guy who doesn't have the balls to disown an outraged black guy in a dashiki, after all. Ditto for a lot of political moderates who have fallen under the Obama spell but are really more anti-Hillary than they ever were pro-Obama.

Now, my guess is that, in the end, this won't work. The polls taken after Obama's race speech showed, gratifyingly, no reduction in his support, suggesting that a sleaze campaign will have a harder time working against Obama than it did against John Kerry. Still, it's out there, and it's pretty clearly part of the game plan for the fall campaign. I think Hillary's folks are wrong to believe that Obama is doomed, but I'm not sure I think they're delusional any more. There's every sign that we have an ugly campaign ahead of us.

Kevin Drum 2:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (111)

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By: Kevin Drum

BASRA UPDATE....What's really going on in Basra? First, reporting on the latest in the fight between the government forces of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikia and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, there's this from Ned Parker of the LA Times:

The Iraqi government's offensive in Basra has spelled the end to a seven-month cease-fire by Sadr's militia in all but name. In an ominous sign Saturday, Sadr in a rare TV interview praised armed resistance. Separately, he urged his followers to defy Maliki's ultimatum to surrender their weapons.

Sounds bad. But a few hours later (though the timing is unclear) Sadr issued a conciliatory nine-point plan that al-Jazeera says was "agreed with the Iraqi government." An Associated Press dispatch provides the following description of the announcement:

Al-Sadr's nine-point statement was issued by his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf and broadcast through loudspeakers on Shiite mosques. It said the first point was: "taking gunmen off the streets in Basra and elsewhere."

He also demanded that the Iraqi government stop "haphazard raids" and release security detainees who haven't been charged, two issues cited by his movement as reasons for fighting the government.

Followers handed out sweets in Baghdad's main Mahdi Army militia stronghold of Sadr City.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the statement "positive and responsible." But he also warned in a telephone interview broadcast on Iraqi state TV. that security forces would continue to target those who don't follow the order.

"We expect a wide response to this call," he said. "After this announcement, anybody who targets the government and its institutions will be regarded ... as outlaws."

So apparently Sadr remains willing to continue his cease-fire, but only if Maliki stands down. In the meantime, he has no intention of giving up his weapons and has demanded the return of captured Mahdi Army fighters. Overall, this sounds like it's an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.

Just a guess, though. Sadr's intentions have been unusually opaque throughout this entire operation, and it's hard to say exactly what he's been up to in Basra. Taking an opportunity to allow someone else to purge rogue elements in his movement? Consolidating control over Basra? Burnishing his credentials as a responsible statesman? Just reacting to events? All of the above? Your guess is as good as mine — and as good as anyone else's as well, I think.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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March 29, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

"The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage."
–Emperor Hirohito, August 15, 1945

"We were surprised by a very strong resistance that made us change our plans."
–Iraqi defense minister Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, March 29, 2008

But all snark aside, what happens if the Mahdi Army beats the government forces and wins the Battle of Basra? The Brits are hunkered down at the airport and have no intention of helping out. American forces are busy in Baghdad and can't afford to come south. And the Iraqi 14th Division is the best one Maliki has at his disposal. He either wins with what he's got, or he doesn't.

And if he doesn't? What then? Does Sistani intervene? Does Maliki's government collapse? Does the American military take over in Basra by scavenging up troops from northern Iraq? Does Muqtada al-Sadr abandon his cease-fire and start up a real civil war? Or does everything go back to the status quo ante, but with the Sadrists in an even better position to win the October elections and take formal control over most of the south?

Beats me. But things are not going well for Maliki at the moment, and a loss in Basra would make it crystal clear just how shaky his position is, how weak and factional the Iraqi security forces are, and how little commitment there is on any side to genuine political reconciliation. More from the New York Times here, Juan Cole here, and Cernig here.

UPDATE: On the other hand, what if Maliki wins? That's no great shakes either.

Kevin Drum 5:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE TIMING OF BASRA....Did Nouri al-Maliki really launch the Basra offensive without telling us beforehand? Several observers doubt this, suggesting that, in fact, there was a direct quid pro quo: in return for Maliki allowing the Iraqi election law to pass (a sop to the Sunni Awakening councils we've been working with), Bush and Cheney agreed to green-light the Basra project (designed to solidify Maliki's control of the Shiite south). Ilan Goldenberg isn't convinced:

The reason I don't buy this theory is that the timing makes no sense whatsoever from a domestic political perspective. If there was a quid pro quo, the Bush Administration would have asked for a waiting period until after the Petraeus Crocker testimony. Why go with such a high risk operation a week before the progress report to Congress? Makes no sense. This Administration is pretty incompetent about a lot of things, but for the most part they seem to understand political timing.

I don't really have a dog in this fight, but I can think of several reasons why the White House and the military might have believed the timing of the Basra operation was just fine:

  • Maybe Maliki and his generals convinced everyone that this would be a quick mopping-up operation lasting only a few days. Bush, in particular, adores bold action and seems eager to believe in every light at the end of every tunnel, so he might well have bought into this. Far from the timing being a problem, then, it held out the hope of providing Petraeus with a huge success story leading up to his congressional testimony.

  • Violence and fatalities have been up this month in Iraq, so Petraeus was going to have trouble selling his usual rosy surge scenario anyway. Given that, why not get all the bad news out of the way at once? In fact, in a way the Basra offensive actually helps Petraeus out by providing him with a ready-made excuse for why the fatality numbers are on the upswing.

  • Bush and Petraeus are both eager to pause the drawdown of surge troops, and Basra provides them with a perfect pretext. After all, you can't very well withdraw troops at the very moment when our brave allies are finally making a stand to restore law and order in preparation for upcoming elections, can you?

I have no idea if any of these speculations are true. Probably not. As with most things in Iraq, the Basra offensive is probably a fairly straightforward clusterfuck with no particular rhyme or reason in its timing. Still, there are plausible explanations for why we might have been OK with it despite Petraeus's upcoming testimony. Maybe you can come up with others.

Kevin Drum 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

OUR IDIOT IN CHIEF....Here is George Bush yesterday, explaining what's happening in Basra:

President Bush said Friday that the offensive answered critics who have accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government of inaction and of favoritism toward Shiites.

"I would say this is a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq," Bush said at the White House...."And it is an interesting moment for the people of Iraq because . . . they must have confidence in their government's ability to protect them and to be evenhanded."

The usual question presents itself here: Which is worse, (a) that Bush actually believes this or (b) that he knows better but thinks the rest of us will buy this nonsense? Is there another person on the planet who would be either delusional enough or ballsy enough to describe Maliki's actions in Basra as "evenhanded"?

Anyway, I'm going with (a). Your mileage may vary.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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March 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....So how's the weather in the rest of the country? A little chilly, huh? Well, Domino and Inkblot invite you to fly out to sunny Southern California for a frolic in the garden and a bit of rolling around in the dirt. Or anywhere else, for that matter. These pictures were taken yesterday, but it's a balmy 75 degrees again today, so I'm sure they'll be back outside soaking up some sunshine soon. ("Soon" = "when they've finished their midmorning nap.")

Need even more cat goodness today? Here's "Cat Man Do" on YouTube. Cat lovers will all relate. For that matter, so will cat haters.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIKE THE ENERGIZER BUNNY....You'd think that one silver lining of the great Jeremiah Wright controversy is that it would at least put to rest all those rumors that Barack Obama is actually Muslim. But no such luck. Ed Kilgore has the details.

Kevin Drum 1:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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BASRA UPDATE....Juan Cole on Basra:

People are asking me the significance of the fighting going on in Basra and elsewhere. My reading is that the US faced a dilemma in Iraq. It needed to have new provincial elections in an attempt to mollify the Sunni Arabs, especially in Sunni-majority provinces like Diyala, which has nevertheless been ruled by the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [ISCI]. But if they have provincial elections, their chief ally, the Islamic Supreme Council, might well lose southern provinces to the Sadr Movement. In turn, the Sadrists are demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, whereas ISCI wants US troops to remain. So the setting of October, 2008, as the date for provincial elections provoked this crisis.

I think Cheney probably told ISCI and Prime Minister al-Maliki that the way to fix this problem and forestall the Sadrists coming to power in Iraq, was to destroy the Mahdi Army, the Sadrists' paramilitary. Without that coercive power, the Sadrists might not remain so important, is probably their thinking. I believe them to be wrong, and suspect that if the elections are fair, the Sadrists will sweep to power and may even get a sympathy vote. It is admittedly a big 'if.'

This, I think, is the most widely held theory about what's going on right now: namely that it's an attempt by Maliki to weaken the Sadrists in the runup to elections in the south. Two comments, though.

First, Cheney's visit came ten days ago and this operation seems to have been in the planning stages for several weeks. My guess is that the offensive in Basra is Maliki's idea, not ours, and Cheney merely offered his blessing and a promise of U.S. air/ground support.

Second, I remain slightly mystified that Muqtada al-Sadr continues to make such soothing noises. It seems increasingly unlikely that Maliki is targeting only rogue Sadrist groups, but despite this, "A statement released late Thursday by Sadr's political office said the cleric remained committed to the cease-fire he imposed on his militia in August." Does this mean that Sadr does believe Maliki's claims that he isn't targeting the Mahdi Army as a whole? Or is there some other calculation going on?

Beats me, but anyone trying to establish some serious Iraq cred should take a crack at (a) explaining what's really going on here and (b) predicting how it's all going to turn out. Be sure to show your work. More speculation from Eric Martin here, Fester here, James Joyner here, and Fred Kaplan here.

Kevin Drum 1:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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By: Kevin Drum

EPA FOLLIES....Last year the Supreme Court ruled, contrary to the Bush administration's wishes, that greenhouse gases were a pollutant that came under the jurisdiction of the EPA. So the EPA's scientists took a look, and they concluded that, yes, greenhouse gases contributed to global warming and ought to be regulated under the Clean Air Act. The White House, of course, was not happy about this, so on Thursday EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson deep-sixed the scientific findings and opened up a "lengthy public comment period" to give corporate contributors the public a chance to weigh in on this. Reaction was swift:

"This is a transparent delaying tactic and a major reversal of EPA's position," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). "The Bush administration is recklessly abandoning its responsibility to address the global warming crisis."

"It's outrageous," said Sierra Club attorney David Bookbinder, one of the lead attorneys on the case, who said he would ask the Supreme Court next week to order the EPA to act within 60 days.

I say: chill. And don't ask the Supreme Court to do anything. Not only will they refuse, but it would be a blunder anyway. After all, do we really want the Bush/Cheney administration crafting greenhouse gas regulations?

I didn't think so. Better to let 'em stall, and then next year let a Democratic president, Democratic Congress, and Democratic EPA administrator create regulations that are actually useful and properly targeted. Even on the off chance that John McCain suckers the press into installing him as president, he's better on this issue than Bush and his Stepford aides.

So let's go ahead and use the next 300 days to get our ducks in a row. We can do a lot more next January than we can by fighting rear-guard battles now.

Kevin Drum 12:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

ZIPPY....JPMorgan Chase has an automated system called "Zippy" for approving mortgage loans. But if it's automated, how did it manage to approve so many crappy loans? An editorial in The Oregonian provides a nickel summary:

As reporter Jeff Manning described Thursday, a JPMorgan Chase employee distributed a memo called "Zippy Cheats & Tricks," which reads like a tipsheet for beating a video game. It advises employees at the banking company how they can help mortgage brokers jigger the in-house system, called "Zippy," that evaluates loan applications. Overstate the borrower's income, it suggests. Don't mention that some borrowers are relying on gifts to repay their loans. Inflate assets. "Never fear," the memo reads. "Zippy can be adjusted . . ."

Charming. Chase, of course, is investigating, because "This is not how we do things." Indeed.

Via Calculated Risk. More here from Barry Ritholtz.

Kevin Drum 11:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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IRAQ UPDATE....So how's the training of the Iraqi army coming along? Apparently, not so well:

U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire....Several Mahdi Army commanders said they had been fighting U.S. forces for the past three days in Sadr City, engaging Humvees as well as the Strykers. By their account, an Iraqi special forces unit had entered Sadr City from another direction, backed by Americans, but otherwise the fighting had not been with Iraqis.

Also worth noting: "Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials." Maybe. But consulted or not, it looks like we've been drawn into this gang war. It's not just air cover any more.

Kevin Drum 2:07 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALL THE PRESIDENT'S LIES....Eric Lichtblau, in an excerpt from his upcoming book, Bush's Law: The Remaking of American Justice, tells the story of how the White House tried to kill his reporting of the NSA eavesdropping story in late 2004:

For more than an hour, we told Bush's aides what we knew about the wiretapping program, and they in turn told us why it would do grave harm to national security to let anyone else in on the secret. Consider the financial damage to the phone carriers that took part in the program, one official implored. If the terrorists knew about the wiretapping program, it would be rendered useless and would have to be shut down immediately, another official urged: "It's all the marbles."....There was never any serious legal debate within the administration about the legality of the program, Bush's advisers insisted. The Justice Department had always signed off on its legality, as required by the president. The few lawmakers who were briefed on the program never voiced any concerns. From the beginning, there were tight controls in place to guard against abuse. The program would be rendered so ineffective if disclosed that it would have to be shut down immediately.

[The story was killed, but a year later they brought it up again with their editors.]

We went back to old sources and tried new ones. Our reporting brought into sharper focus what had already started to become clear a year earlier: The concerns about the program — in both its legal underpinnings and its operations — reached the highest levels of the Bush administration. There were deep concerns within the administration that the president had authorized what amounted to an illegal usurpation of power. The image of a united front we'd been presented a year earlier in meetings with the administration — with unflinching support for the program and its legality — was largely a facade. The administration, it seemed clear to me, had lied to us.

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 1:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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By: Kevin Drum

THINK TANK LEAGUE TABLE....Apparently 2007 was a bad year for think tanks: FAIR reports that overall media citations were down 17%. I blame blogs. Brookings is still the undisputed heavyweight champ, followed by CFR and a trio of conservo-tanks. Cato comes in at #9, not bad for a scrappy libertarian outfit. The New America Foundation bucks the overall trend and gets top honors in the year-over-year rankings, with a 44% increase in citations. EPI does worst, clocking in at -52%. A complete list of the top 25 think tanks is below.

Kevin Drum 1:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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March 27, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

WHO'S WHO....Can't tell the players without a program in the 2-way (or is it 3-way or 4-way?) intra-Shiite gang war currently underway in Basra and southern Iraq? Here's a quick cheat sheet:

  • ISCI = SIIC = new name for SCIRI = Badr Corps = "aristocratic" Hakim family = exiles during Saddam Hussein's reign = pro-Iran = generally in control of army and security forces = pro-U.S. = ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa Party.

  • Mahdi Army = JAM = "firebrand cleric" Muqtada al-Sadr = Iraqi nationalists = originally part of Maliki's governing coalition but no longer = anti-U.S. = populist/working class orientation = controls much of the oil sector in Basra.

  • "Special groups" = rogue elements of the Mahdi Army = maybe Sadr is just as happy to have Maliki take these guys out for him, but who knows for sure?

  • Fadhila = ex-allies of Sadr = won some elections in Basra in 2005 = smallest of the three Shiite factions in the south.

Corrections/amplifications welcome. You may now go about your reading.

Kevin Drum 7:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

A MILLION TRAGEDIES....Ah, just what we need: a John McCain plagiarism scandal. And the material he plagiarized came from a fellow naval officer, no less. Excellent. Details here.

UPDATE: It turns out the plagiarist is actually the plagiaree! ThinkProgress regrets the error.

But jeez, McCain has been using these lines since 1995? For a guy who thinks war is such a tragedy, he sure does support a lot of them.

Kevin Drum 4:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

THEORIES....More from Marc Lynch. After quoting a Saudi Arabian editorial suggesting that Iran has abandoned Muqtada al-Sadr because it now has more useful allies in Baghdad, he summarizes the various guesses floating around about what's really going on in Iraq right now:

So you can add the [1] "Iran is liquidating its no longer useful proxies" theory (which would fit this general line of speculation about Iran's doubts about Sadr and preference for the simultaneously-US backed ISCI) to the generally most prevalent (in the Iraqi and Arab, not just Western, media) [2] "Maliki and ISCI are liquidating their more popular rivals ahead of the provincial elections" theory; the optimistic [3] "Sadr has lost power and now's the time to take him out" theory (thus far not borne out by the course of the fighting, but who knows — it's early); Maliki's own [4] "it's time to establish state sovereignty over a 'lost' province" theory (which Bush, of course, has embraced, and is supported by the reporting that the Iraqi Army began its preparations for the attack months ago; but then why isn't he taking on the other militias and warlords? and why would he start now, and in Basra?); and Reidar Visser's [5] "Maliki is trying to build a power base in the Iraqi Army" theory.

All numbering added by me for handy future reference.

UPDATE: More here on the general situation in Basra and what it means.

Kevin Drum 3:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

CONDITIONAL ENGAGEMENT....Via Marc Lynch, Colin Kahl and Shawn Brimley of CNAS offer their view of the way forward in Iraq:

President Bush and his successor have only three basic choices on strategy for Iraq: unconditional engagement, conditional engagement, or unconditional disengagement.

....The Bush administration and its supporters continue to call for a strategy of unconditional engagement in Iraq....This strategy will continue to be ineffective because it does not pressure Iraqi leaders to take the political risks needed for real reconciliation. A policy of unconditional engagement in Iraq is all carrots, and no sticks.

Too many critics of the war favor a policy of unconditional disengagement from Iraq....This strategy ignores the very real contribution American forces are making to preventing a resurgence of civil war in Iraq. It also shares the flaw of the administration's approach in offering few incentives for Iraq's leaders to accommodate.

....A policy of conditional engagement — a nuanced middle position between "all in" or "all out" — offers a better chance of producing lasting progress in Iraq. Under this strategy, U.S. negotiators would make clear that Iraq and America share a common interest in achieving sustainable stability in Iraq, and that the United States is willing to help support the Iraqi government over the long-term, but only so long as Iraqis move toward political accommodation....Implementing this approach requires a credible threat to abandon allies if they don't move toward accommodation, while providing a credible promise to continue supporting them if they do move in this direction.

First: I really, really wish they'd skipped the "nuanced middle position" language, which just sets my teeth on edge. Maybe Kahl and Brimley feel the need to reassure everyone that they're neither warmongers nor hippy pacifists, but in the end this is just preening. It has precisely nothing to do with whether their position actually makes sense.

But that little micro-rant aside, does their position make sense? It's hard to say, since this is only a short memo and provides no details about just what "credible" threats they have in mind. And the devil is surely in the details here. Kahl and Brimley's position — essentially timelines and benchmarks — used to be my own, but I've become convinced over the past couple of years that it's politically infeasible.

The problem is that this approach sets you up for an endless string of bloody political battles. As things stand now, if Barack Obama takes office in January and wants to begin withdrawing troops unconditionally, that might provoke a political fight, but only one political fight. And it's one he can probably win since he'd have public opinion on his side and plenty of allies in Congress. And once the withdrawal is in motion, it's almost impossible to stop.

But what if, instead, he scratches his chin, assembles a group of foreign policy worthies, and negotiates a nuanced set of benchmarks and timelines for the Iraqi government? First, he will have wasted six months, since foreign policy worthies don't work on a faster timetable than that. Second, he's "negotiating with himself," essentially admitting up front that he's willing to stay in Iraq if someone brings enough pressure to bear on him. That's a poor start to a presidency.

And then what? The benchmarks will, of necessity, be fuzzy and malleable. In the real world, firm benchmarks just aren't in the cards for a chaotic warzone like Iraq. So the first deadline arrives and — what? It's a battle royal. Republicans will fight like crazed weasels, claiming that enough progress has been made that we should "keep our word" and stay in Iraq. Democrats will fight on the opposite side. Obama will try to find some kind of compromise and will fail. Either he keeps troops in Iraq, essentially admitting that he's never going to withdraw, or he pulls them out amidst cries that he's abandoning a solemn pledge from the U.S. government to the people of Iraq just when they need us the most.

And the next deadline? Rinse and repeat.

And again, world without end.

A couple of years ago it looked as though congressional Republicans might be softening on their support for the war. In the event, though, that turned out to be a mirage. Their support today is as strong as ever, and at this point it doesn't look like anything will change that. President Obama can afford one clean fight over Iraq at the beginning of his term, when he has the tailwind of an election at his back and the firm support of the Democratic caucus. He can't afford — or hope to win — fight after fight after fight with a Republican Party determined to paint him as a weakling and an appeaser.

And that fundamental reboot of American foreign policy we're all hoping for from an Obama administration? You can forget about it as long as we're still stuck in Iraq and still stuck fighting relentlessly over whether, and how fast, we should leave.

So color me skeptical. I'm willing to read Kahl and Brimley's longer report when it comes out, but I suspect they won't address the domestic political prospects of their proposal, and that's the key to whether it has any hope of working or not. Caveat lector.

Kevin Drum 2:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN, CHILD OF THE UNIVERSE....I just got around to reading John McCain's big foreign policy address from yesterday, and all I can say is: Wow. Aside from wanting to stay in Iraq essentially forever, he's basically trying to pass himself off as a guy who'd just as soon disband the military as ever launch another cruise missile:

I detest war.... Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war....the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone....mutual respect and trust....America must be a model citizen....good stewards of our planet.... Americans should welcome the rise of a strong, confident European Union....We must strongly engage on a political, economic, and security level with friendly governments across Africa....I will establish the goal of eradicating malaria on the continent....We do not need all the weapons currently in our arsenal. The United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament....Our goal must be to win the "hearts and minds" of the vast majority of moderate Muslims....scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs....For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability.... It was a toxic and explosive mixture.... We must help expand the power and reach of freedom, using all our many strengths as a free people....I run because I believe, as strongly as I ever have, that it is within our power to make in our time another, better world than we inherited.

Except for the whole Iraq thing, this version of John McCain almost sounds like he could join Code Pink. Apparently the pandering for the independent vote has now started in earnest.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (63)

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By: Kevin Drum

PAKISTAN UPDATE....The Guardian reports that U.S. diplomat John Negroponte got a chilly reception in Pakistan earlier this week:

On Tuesday, senior coalition partner Nawaz Sharif gave the visiting Americans a public scolding for using Pakistan as a "killing field" and relying too much on [President Pervez] Musharraf.

....The body language between Negroponte and Sharif during their meeting on Tuesday spoke volumes: the Pakistani greeted the American with a starched handshake, and sat at a distance .

In blunt remarks afterwards, Sharif said he told Negroponte that Pakistan was no longer a one-man show. "Since 9/11, all decisions were taken by one man," he said. "Now we have a sovereign parliament and everything will be debated in the parliament."

The Washington Post reports on our response:

The United States has escalated its unilateral strikes against al-Qaeda members and fighters operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, partly because of anxieties that Pakistan's new leaders will insist on scaling back military operations in that country, according to U.S. officials.

....Thomas H. Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said: "People inside the Beltway are aware that Musharraf's days are numbered, and so they recognize they may only have a few months to do this. Musharraf has . . . very few friends in the world — he probably has more inside the Beltway than in his own country."

That's a great way of improving our relationship with the new leadership in Pakistan, isn't it? We know they want us to cut back on bombing their territory, so we go ahead and increase our bombing of their territory instead in order to get in a few last licks. What a terrific way to demonstrate exactly what we think of those pesky elections they just held, eh?

Kevin Drum 11:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

YOU AND YOUR GUT....From the "Now they tell me" file:

People who have big bellies in their 40s are much more likely to get Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia in their 70s, according to new research that links the middle-aged spread to a fading mind for the first time.

The study of more than 6,000 people found that the more fat they had in their guts in their early to mid-40s, the greater their chances of becoming forgetful and confused and showing other signs of senility as they aged.

Actually, though, maybe this isn't such bad news for me. I may not look so great today, but in my early 40s I was in pretty decent shape. Or was it my early 30s? I forget. Hmmm.

In any case, I've now passed the danger zone so I guess it doesn't matter how many chocolate Easter eggs I eat anymore. All of you bloggy whippersnappers out there, though, better watch yourselves.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (47)

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March 26, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE LONG PRIMARY....Dan Balz says there's an upside to the long Democratic primary campaign:

Figures released by Pennsylvania's Department of State on Monday night showed that Democrats have topped 4 million registered voters, the first time either party in the state has crossed that threshold. Democrats have added 161,000 to their rolls, a gain of about 4 percent; Republican registration has dipped about 1 percent, to 3.2 million.

That is consistent with the pattern since the beginning of the year: Democratic turnout in primaries and caucuses has topped Republican turnout, often by huge differences.

If the long primary campaign is motivating more people to register as Democrats, that's a huge advantage for November. The act of registering causes you to identify with the party you registered with, and once that's happened you're almost certain to vote for that party in the general election too. If Democrats have boosted their rolls by 2-4% nationwide, that's a massive headstart for the presidential election.

Kevin Drum 9:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Amy Sullivan

WHY NOT?....A few days ago, Kevin posed the question of whether Democrats should bother talking about their faith if they're going to get hammered over it, using as examples the problems some of Jeremiah Wright's sermons have caused Obama as well as criticism of Hillary Clinton for her association with the conservative religious group The Fellowship.

I'm not sure these two cases tell us much about whether it's smart/right/appropriate for Democrats to discuss their faith. The first is really about race, not religion. Wright's comments would have become an issue if Obama never once mentioned his Christianity and if Wright was someone Obama worked with closely as a community organizer instead of his pastor.

The second example is tougher only because of how Clinton has chosen to respond to the Wright story. There is a strong case to be made that people choose their religious communities based on spiritual factors, not political ones. Most individuals have plenty of outlets for their political interests. They don't need their church or temple or small group to be yet another place where they discuss policy and politics.

(More after the jump...)

I was particularly sympathetic to Clinton because she is a type I know well--a political liberal who is theologically orthodox. Those of us who fit that description have a hard time finding religious homes. We can choose a place where we feel comfortable politically, but where the theology is a little too flexible for our tastes, or we can choose a spot where we're theologically comfortable, but where we feel out of place politically. Most choose the latter because it makes most sense to select a religious home based on...religious factors. But many of us choose the former and then supplement our spiritual lives with a more orthodox Bible study or small group.

That's what I suspect Clinton does. But then yesterday, she criticized Obama for remaining at Wright's church by saying: "We don't have a choice when it comes to our relatives. We have a choice when it comes to our pastors and the churches we attend." It's a perfectly reasonable position for her to take, but it means she won't be able to dismiss questions about her own religious choices.

Which brings us back to Kevin's question. I assume he means not "Why bother being a committed Christian and a Democrat?" but "Why bother talking about your faith if you're a Democrat?" We could discuss the fact that a candidate's religious background is one--but by no means the only--way that voters can get a sense of his or her moral foundation. Voters say they make judgments about these things, regardless of whether a candidate gives them information with which to form an opinion. So you could argue that it makes sense to be open about who you are.

I'm wary of wading too far into this discussion, though, because this isn't a matter of Democrats talking more about God or inserting more Scripture verses into their speeches. We saw a flurry of that right after the 2004 election and it wasn't pretty. For a while there, it sounded like half of the Democratic caucus suffered from Biblical Tourette's Syndrome.

This is much more an issue of engaging religious voters--and that doesn't require Democrats to use God-talk or even to be religious themselves. If you'll read my book, The Party Faithful, you'll find people like Mark Brewer, the head of the Michigan Democratic Party and an all-around secular guy, who spent a year traveling around his state and conducting get-to-know-you meetings with evangelical and Catholic leaders with great success. Or Raj Goyle, a Hindu who defeated a conservative evangelical Republican for a state senate seat in Wichita by forming good working relationships with white evangelicals in his district.

Of course, to engage evangelical and Catholic voters in a good-faith way (and I single them out because together they make up about 50% of the electorate--not a chunk of voters, in other words, that can be ignored), you have to be willing to accept that a religious identity is not a political identity. That's a distinction conservatives sought to obscure for 30 years, and one that liberals would be wrong to ignore as well.

Amy Sullivan 5:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORAL HAZARD....How important is the effect of moral hazard in the financial marketplace? If the Fed bails out insolvent firms like Bear Stearns — even with Bear's shareholders taking a huge bath on the deal — does this really prompt risky behavior in the future from other banks in the belief that they too will be bailed out if necessary? Martin Wolf comments:

The Fed has provided a valuable form of insurance to the investment banks. Indeed, that is already evident from what has happened in the stock market since the rescue: the other big investment banks have enjoyed sizeable jumps in their share prices (see chart below). This is moral hazard made visible. The Fed decided that a money market "strike" against investment banks is the equivalent of a run on deposits in a commercial bank. It concluded that it must, for this reason, open the monetary spigots in favour of such institutions. Greater regulation must be on the way.

Whether the BS bailout will motivate riskier behavior in the future is impossible to know directly. But the market has spoken in one regard: the stock prices of the investment banks that Wolf refers to jumped about 20% after the bailout. The market, obviously, thinks the bailout has made risky behavior less risky and more profitable than before. As Wolf says, this is "moral hazard made visible." Mark Thoma has more.

Kevin Drum 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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By: Kevin Drum

HIP HOP HOAX....Did the LA Times get hoaxed by a "wildly impulsive, overweight white kid from Florida whose own father once described him in a letter to a federal judge as 'a disturbed young man who needed attention like a drug.'"? The Smoking Gun says yes. The Times is investigating.

Kevin Drum 1:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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By: Kevin Drum

BASRA....Why has Basra suddenly turned into a war zone? Was there some provocation from Muqtada al-Sadr's forces recently? Or from rogue elements? Or what?

Probably neither. The New York Times reports that Iraqi government officials have been "signaling for weeks" that an offensive against the Sadrists was coming, and British officials told the Guardian that the operation was "carefully planned by Iraqi generals and the Baghdad government." If this is true, it means that the ISCI-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been planning a final assault on its Sadrist rivals for some time. Eric Martin speculates a bit:

The purposes behind the continued targeting of the Sadrists are manifold. First, there has been an ongoing competition between the Sadrist current and the ISCI/Dawa factions for wealth, power and control of the Shiite political sphere. Against that backdrop, the looming October 1 regional elections have provided ISCI with an added sense of urgency: the Sadrist current is considerably more popular and stands to make a serious dent in ISCI's local political clout (ISCI is somewhat overrepresented locally due to the fact that the Sadrists boycotted the last round of regional elections in 2005).

That is why ISCI vetoed the most recent iteration of the regional elections law. It is likely that Cheney, on his most recent visit, promised US support for anti-Sadrist activities in return for ISCI's withdrawal of its objections. Along these lines, it is no accident that the strategically vital southern city of Basra is currently the site of the most concerted effort to purge the Sadrists. If ISCI can push the Sadrists out of Basra (the main port city, and transit hub of oil and other goods), losing ground in other Shiite localities would be less painful.

So why are we supporting ISCI in this internal battle against their political rivals? Spencer Ackerman:

As long as Maliki is in the prime minister's chair, and as long as we proclaim the Iraqi government he leads to be legitimate, Maliki effectively holds us hostage. "I need to go after Sadr," Maliki says. "The situation is unacceptable! In Basra, he threatens to take control of the ports, and in Baghdad, he's throwing my men out of their checkpoints. Would you allow the Bloods or the Crips to take over half of Los Angeles?" And as soon as he says that, we're trapped. It simply is not tenable for Petraeus to refuse a request for security assistance from the Prime Minister to deal with a radical militia.

Now, some Iraq-watcher friends of mine point out that this is absurd. "Sadr is, of course, a thug," they say, "but he's a nationalist. And he's far less beholden to Iran than the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or Maliki's Da'wa Party — both of whom we're supporting! And most importantly, Sadr remains perhaps the most popular figure in Shiite Iraq. Petraeus can do business with him. This doesn't make any sense!" And they're right. It doesn't. But as long as we sponsor the Iraqi political process — and a Sadrist doesn't actually become premier himself — this will keep happening.

Plus there's the fact that ISCI will let us build permanent bases in Iraq while the Sadrists would almost certainly kick us out if they came to power. We can't have that, so ISCI it is. Whether their "carefully planned" operation will be any more successful at annihilating the Sadrists than any of their previous efforts remains to be seen.

UPDATE: More here from Joe Klein.

Kevin Drum 12:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

DICK AND HILLARY....Everybody seems to be agog over yesterday's picture of Hillary Clinton meeting with Richard Mellon Scaife, the lunatic ultra-conservative billionaire who launched a thousand anti-Clinton jeremiads during the 90s. But this has been in the works for a while. Here is the New York Times over a year ago:

Christopher Ruddy, who once worked full-time for Mr. Scaife investigating the Clintons and now runs a conservative online publication he co-owns with Mr. Scaife, said, "Both of us have had a rethinking."

"Clinton wasn't such a bad president," Mr. Ruddy said. "In fact, he was a pretty good president in a lot of ways, and Dick feels that way today."

As for the conservative response to Mrs. Clinton's campaign, Mr. Ruddy said, "The level of intensity and anger toward Hillary is not getting to the level that it was toward Bill Clinton when he was president." He added, "She has moderated and developed a separate image."

The fact that Richard Mellon Scaife thinks you've "moderated" is not necessarily a great calling card, but there you have it. Scaife is a fan. Which, I suppose, might help explain Hillary's newfound respect for the editorial standards of the American Spectator. Ain't life grand?

Kevin Drum 11:19 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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By: Kevin Drum

CLIMATE CHANGE UPDATE....The Wilkins ice shelf is collapsing:

A chunk of Antarctic ice about seven times the size of Manhattan suddenly collapsed, putting an even greater portion of glacial ice at risk, scientists said Tuesday.

....British Antarctic Survey scientist David Vaughan attributed the melting to rising sea temperature due to global warming.

....Vaughan had predicted the Wilkins shelf would collapse about 15 years from now.

All the usual caveats apply. However, this is one more data point suggesting that global warming may be happening faster than our current models predict, not slower.

Kevin Drum 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (108)

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By: Kevin Drum

TIME TO QUIT DIGGING....Yeah, I'm pretty much at the same place. There are already an awful lot of reasons for me not to bother defending Hillary even tepidly, and I hardly need another one. She's been voted off the island. It's time for her to go.

UPDATE: Sorry, this is a bit cryptic, isn't it? For a more straightforward version, read James Fallows.

Kevin Drum 12:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (227)

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March 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

IMMIGRATION AND SOCIAL SECURITY....Paul Krugman points out that in the 2008 report of the Social Security Trustees released today the "actuarial balance" of the system is better than it's been since 1993. Interesting! But how much better?

Click here for the answer: last year the trustees estimated that Social Security had an overall 75-year deficit of 1.95% of taxable payroll. This year it's 1.70%. That's a pretty substantial improvement. What caused it?

Click here for the answer: Table IV.B9 has only one significant change from 2007: "Methods and programmatic data." And what might that entail?

Scroll down for the answer: immigrants. To be specific, better estimates of the taxes and benefits received by illegal immigrants — or, as the trustees refer to them, "other-immigrants":

In previous reports, the other-immigrant population was projected using assumed annual numbers of net other immigrants with a static age-sex distribution. For this year's report, the annual numbers of net other immigrants are projected by explicitly modeling other immigrants and other emigrants separately.

Translation: instead of just pulling a net number out of a hat, the trustees built a model that estimated the actual demographic characteristics of both immigrants and emigrants. And guess what?

  • Illegal immigrants tend to skew young. This benefits the system.

  • Young people have more children than older people. This benefits the system.

  • Some illegal immigrants pay taxes for a few years and then leave. This benefits the system.

Bottom line: "This year's report results in [...] a substantial increase in the number of working-age individuals contributing payroll taxes, but a relatively smaller increase in the number of retirement-age individuals receiving benefits in the latter half of the long-range period." Give or take a bit, it turns out that this shores up the Social Security system to the tune of around $13 billion per year. Thanks, illegal immigrants!

Kevin Drum 9:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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By: Kevin Drum

LEVERAGE....Contrary to their reputations, bankers have a well-known tendency toward imprudence. After a few years of good times, they usually overreact and start making too many chancy loans. When the market corrects, they overreact in the other direction and turn the loan spigot down to a trickle. This is completely normal.

The same thing is happening now, except worse: credit markets haven't just cooled off, they've almost completely frozen. Partly this is because most modern financial institutions have a big chunk of their assets invested in complex instruments that were originally valued by impenetrable computer-driven models, and when those models failed no one knew how to revalue the affected securities. Trading in them stopped, and when that happened access to credit dried up as well. After all, no one wants to extend credit to institutions holding a bunch of illiquid assets of questionable value.

But that's not all there is to it. Tyler Cowen:

This gridlock is especially harmful because leverage is so high, and financial institutions are so interconnected through swaps and loans. Institutions that rely so heavily on debt are precarious and need up-to-date information about valuations. When they don't have it, markets freeze up. This is what has taken policymakers by surprise and turned a real estate crash into a much bigger financial problem.

In an ordinary commercial bank, leverage is regulated by the capital requirements of the Fed. However, outside the commercial banking system — i.e., most of the global financial industry these days — leverage is barely regulated at all. Capital requirements don't apply, and astronomical bets are made on minuscule and subtle arbitrage opportunities. Because the bets are so big, failure is big too. Today Tyler expands on his suggestion that insisting on consistent capital requirements everywhere is one of the key reforms that we need to consider going forward:

  1. As long as the Fed and Treasury are providing a safety net, insisting on capital requirements is entirely reasonable and it lowers moral hazard. If you're going to bail out your friend in a poker game, you can ask him not to bet too much beyond his chips.

  2. When the "shadow banking system" does not have capital requirements, normal financial activities, as regulated by the Fed, are inefficiently taxed and too much of an economy's leverage ends up in the unregulated shadow banking sector.

  3. If you are anti-regulation on this issue, make the capital requirement relatively low but still impose it symmetrically across financial sectors.

  4. Ideally capital requirements should be adjusted for risk. That probably implies higher capital requirements for shadow banking activity, not lower requirements.

  5. Regulatory issues aside, market participants are less sure of themselves in the shadow banking sector. Derivatives are non-transparent, for a start. That's another reason not to push too much financial activity into the shadow banking sector.

  6. A final solution to excess risk-taking and leverage has to come from shareholders; regulation can only do so much and of course capital requirements are only a small part of regulation. But in the meantime I think the case for more symmetric capital requirements is a strong one, recognizing all the usual comments about horses and barn doors, etc.

This is a no-brainer, I think, sort of a litmus test for hackdom (i.e., if you aren't willing to accept even an obvious reform like this, you're just a hack). After the LTCM debacle of 1998, the great and good, including Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan, solemnly produced a report explaining that "excessive leverage can greatly magnify the negative effects of any event or series of events on the financial system as a whole," and suggesting that we should "encourage," "promote," and "consider" guidelines that might prod financial institutions into reducing their drunken sailor approach to leverage. As we now know, the financial institutions of the world gravely considered those recommendations and then went about their business.

Now, among other things, I'd say that Congress also needs to take a close look at the role that rating agencies have played in our current meltdown. They pretty clearly were not operating as honest brokers. But if the Fed is going to act as lender of last resort to everyone, not just Bob's Savings & Loan down the street, then at a minimum everyone needs to be required to restrain their betting to levels that don't threaten the entire financial system if they collapse. This is a pretty moderate proposal, and probably ought to be one of our first steps. For more, read this New York Times piece.

Kevin Drum 5:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHEN MEMORY FAILS....Why do the media and the public seem to have an insatiable appetite for listening to people who were wrong about Iraq justify their past wrongness? Why not listen to people who were right instead? Alex Tabarrok suggests it's because the majority of the media and the public were also wrong about the war, and are therefore uninterested in listening to a long parade of smug I-told-you-sos.

I find this extremely plausible. Most homo sapiens of my acquaintance are notably unenthusiastic about being reminded of their past misjudgments. However, Henry Farrell demurs:

I'd be prepared to bet a significant amount of money that the number of people who believe that they supported the war back in 2003 is far lower than the number of people who actually did support the war back in 2003. Indeed, I suspect that the number of people who believe that they supported the war back in 2003 is a minority of the US public. Since the Cassandra-backlash effect that Tabarrok is talking about is contemporaneous, and presumably depends on people's current beliefs about what they thought in the past, this makes me think that something else is going here (and that this something else has to do with the desire of elite actors in the commentariat to hold onto their privileged position in the public discourse).

I find this extremely plausible too. It's like asking people if they voted in the last election: 80% say they did, even in elections where we know for a fact that the turnout level was only 60%.

But this is testable, no? In March 2003, most polls showed support for the war at about 65% (though it depended somewhat on how the question was worded). If you asked people now about their view at the time the war started, how much lower would that number be? 10 points? 20? Zero? Maybe the next time Gallup or the New York Times or some other pollster does one of those massive 100-question surveys that they sometimes do, they should find out.

Kevin Drum 4:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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By: Kevin Drum

HILLARY IN 2012?....In the event that she fails to win the Democratic nomination, is Hillary Clinton actively hoping that Barack Obama loses in November, thus opening up the possibility of another Hillary run in 2012? Matt Yglesias says yes, your humble blogger says no, Jon Chait says sorta yes, and Ezra Klein says probably no.

Roughly speaking, the evidence on the Yes side is that Hillary is continuing to run a take-no-prisoners campaign even though she has no chance of winning the nomination. Why else would she be doing that except to tear down Obama and reduce his chances of beating John McCain in November? The No side basically believes that candidates routinely keep running campaigns long after independent observers have written them off (see McCain, John Sidney, c. 2007), so that doesn't really mean anything. Hillary might be making a mistake, but she's not deliberately torpedoing the Democratic Party.

Today, Mike Tomasky weighs in with "a finger on the scale" in favor of Yes, but I think he really makes a better case for No. He starts off by saying that losing candidates in any primary election — mayors, governors, presidents, dogcatchers — can't help but think that their chances will be better in the next election if their primary opponent loses. And that's true enough. But do they do more than daydream about it?

Here's where things get dicey for Hillary 2012. If she were seen by a significant portion of Democrats as not having done all she could for Obama in 2008, she'd face massive hostility in 2010 when she started making noises about running again. So she has to be active in helping him, which of course creates a sort of double paradox: she has to work hard for the very outcome that works against her own future interests, knowing that said work is the only thing that will in fact help her future interests! Got it?

....But then, there is one more factor, and it is crucial. Even if all the above happens, Clinton will still be in the Senate. And she needs to be a better, more aggressive, more courageous senator than she has been....She could not come back to Democrats in another four years as a warmed-over version of the person who cast that cowardly Iraq vote, still drinking every potion Mark Penn places before her, and expect to be taken seriously.

In the second paragraph, Tomasky suggests a path to redemption for Hillary, a sort of RFK transformation that sets her up as a true liberal choice in 2012. Maybe — though she doesn't seem the type, frankly. But it's the first paragraph that's key. The Clinton machine obviously has its admirers, but I think it's held together mainly by its reputation for winning, not by any widespread warmth for Hillary. If she loses, that reputation vanishes. What's more, if she's already under suspicion of sabotaging the party merely because she's continuing to run her primary campaign, what are the odds she can escape unscathed if Obama actually goes on to lose? No matter what kind of support she gives him, I'd say slim and none.

Anything can happen in four years. But Democrats have never been very kindly disposed toward primary losers, and Hillary sure doesn't seem likely to be an exception. I'm putting my money on her being smart enough to know this. In fact, Occam's razor suggests that this is why she's waging such a tough campaign. Not because she thinks it will set her up for 2012, but because she knows perfectly well this is her last chance.

UPDATE: On the more substantive question of whether Hillary continues to have a chance of beating Obama, Mori Dinauer glosses David Brooks, who "argues today that this past week has actually been bad for Clinton, not Obama, by noting three phenomena: Obama successfully weathered the Jeremiah Wright flap without suffering permanent campaign damage; re-votes were prevented in Michigan and Florida; the superdelegates are beginning to accept that they must line up behind the pledged delegate winner."

I think that's right. Her chances have gone from small to minuscule.

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (121)

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By: Kevin Drum

"THINGS ARE BEING DONE"....Via Dana Goldstein, here is Harry Reid telling a reporter how the Democratic primary race is going to play out:

Q: Do you still think the Democratic race can be resolved before the convention?

Reid: Easy.

Q: How is that?

Reid: It will be done.

Q: It just will?

Reid: Yep.

Q: Magically?

Reid: No, it will be done. I had a conversation with Governor Dean (Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean) today. Things are being done.

My mind is now at rest. Thanks, Harry.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEALTHCARE WITHOUT HEALTH INSURANCE....Dr. Mark Smith, CEO of the California Health Care Foundation, speaking to a gathering of the health insurance industry a few weeks ago:

It's a strange business you're in. What you are selling is four different things. Why do we want people to have health insurance? I always get some variant of four answers. 1) .... 2) .... 3) So you can get discounts, and don't have to pay rack rate at the doctor. But that's not insurance, it's market leverage.

This is probably the least important part of what Smith said, so click the link to read the whole thing. I'm only highlighting it here because it's a relatively little known problem: if you don't have health insurance, you will almost certainly pay 2x or 3x more for hospital care than you would if you were covered. There is, as near as I can tell, no real justification for this aside from the fact that hospitals can get away with it. If you're uninsured and you have a heart attack, you go where the paramedics take you, and when it's all over you get a bill. And that's that. There's no way to bargain beforehand and no way to fight the bill afterward.

Question: is there a business opportunity here? Could Blue Cross, say, offer a "coverage" plan that does nothing except get you their standard discounts on healthcare? You wouldn't pay premiums to Blue Cross, you'd just pay them directly for any costs you incur. Blue Cross would make a little bit of money on each patient (i.e., whatever markup they decided on) and you, the customer, would get lower cost healthcare even if you don't qualify for an actual insurance policy. I don't imagine this would be a huge business, but with more and more people losing their employer plans, it might be a growing one.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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HOUSING MARKET UPDATE....The good news: home prices in Charlotte, NC, were up 1.8% in January. Woot! The bad news: every other city is declining:

A widely-watched index of U.S. home prices fell 11.4% in January, its steepest drop since data for the indicator was first collected in 1987.

....The broader 20-city composite index also fell, dropping 10.7% in January from a year ago. That makes it the first time both indexes dropped by double-digit percentages.

....[David Blitzer, index committee chairman at S&P,] said all 20 cities S&P tracks have seen dropping prices for five consecutive months. What's more, the declines are growing in severity, with 13 of the 20 cities reporting their biggest single monthly decline in January.

For anybody waiting around to get a good deal on a house, this is good news. For the economy as a whole, not so good.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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IRAQ UPDATE....Hot on the heels of news that the Sunni Awakening councils are running out of patience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, it looks like intra-Shiite tensions are coming to a boil as well:

Tensions between Iraq's major Shiite Muslim factions erupted today as Iraqi security forces launched a major crackdown against militiamen in the southern oil hub of Basra.

....Representatives of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has led two major uprisings against U.S.-led forces in Iraq, issued a statement threatening a "civil mutiny" if U.S. and Iraqi forces don't stop targeting his followers.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki flew to Basra Monday to oversee the operation, which began before dawn. The clashes were concentrated in Basra's poor northern and central sections, which are under the control of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

Spencer Ackerman and Juan Cole have more. It's not clear if Sadr was really in control of this "mutiny" from the beginning, or if it was started by rogue elements of the Mahdi Army and then adopted later by Sadr, who can't afford to let his movement splinter too publicly. That's probably unknowable at the moment. But stay tuned.

Kevin Drum 11:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (20)

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March 24, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S CRED....Via Steve Benen, MSNBC analyst Chuck Todd tells us why John McCain can get away with routine demonstrations of abject ignorance, like his recent proclamation that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq:

Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, "Oh, he says he's Mr. Experience. Doesn't he know the difference between this stuff?" He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it. I mean, the irony to this is had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that, it'd have been on a running loop, and it would become a, a big problem for a couple of days for them.

Italics mine. Let's recap. Foreign policy cred lets him get away with wild howlers on foreign policy. Fiscal integrity cred lets him get away with outlandishly irresponsible economic plans. Anti-lobbyist cred lets him get away with pandering to lobbyists. Campaign finance reform cred lets him get away with gaming the campaign finance system. Straight talking cred lets him get away with brutally slandering Mitt Romney in the closing days of the Republican primary. Maverick uprightness cred allows him to get away with begging for endorsements from extremist religious leaders like John Hagee. "Man of conviction" cred allows him to get away with transparent flip-flopping so egregious it would make any other politician a laughingstock. Anti-torture cred allows him to get away with supporting torture as long as only the CIA does it.

Remind me again: where does all this cred come from? And what window do Democrats go to to get the same treatment the press gives McCain?

Kevin Drum 5:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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FRONT LOADING....Walter Shapiro argues that the Democratic Party has no one but itself to blame for its current primary from hell:

After a week punctuated by Obama's right-stuff response to wrong-way Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Clinton's document dump of today-tea-was-served White House schedules, Democrats are being barraged with new information about the candidates long after most of them have made a binding decision on a nominee. It is akin to being given a subscription to Consumer Reports the day after you bought a new car.

....With more than five months to the Denver Convention, the problem for the Democrats remains the crazy-quilt schedule that caused far too many to vote too soon. That is the real buyer's remorse — a front-loaded political calendar that has turned most partisan Democrats into now-irrelevant bystanders just when a real decision is needed.

Sure, sure. And if Hillary Clinton had won Iowa and then swept to victory the way John Kerry did in 2004, we'd all be singing the praises of the front-loaded calendar. But front loading has never been the decisive factor here. If you want to know why this primary campaign really keeps going and going and going, all you have to do is look at this remarkable chart. It's two months worth of Gallup daily tracking polls that I stitched together:

I don't think people really appreciate the uniqueness of what's going on here: there are two Democratic candidates who are almost precisely tied. They've won nearly equal numbers of delegates; they've won nearly equal portions of the popular vote; and for two nearly two months straight they've polled within three or four points of each other. Two months! All this new information, all the spitballs, all the ads, all the spin, and both candidates have held on to almost precisely the same level of support they had right after Super Tuesday. That's remarkable.

There's no need to make this more complicated than it is. The Democratic Party has two candidates with almost eerily similar levels of support, and that support is deep and strong for both of them. That's a recipe for a long campaign season no matter what the primary schedule looks like.

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PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING....The New York Times reports on the latest hot new trend in California: refusing to vaccinate your children. The result, unsurprisingly, is more sick kids, like the "highly unusual" outbreak of measles in San Diego recently:

The parents who objected to their children being inoculated are among a small but growing number of vaccine skeptics in California and other states who take advantage of exemptions to laws requiring vaccinations for school-age children.

....Measles, almost wholly eradicated in the United States through vaccines, can cause pneumonia and brain swelling, which in rare cases can lead to death. The measles outbreak here alarmed public health officials, sickened babies and sent one child to the hospital.

Every state allows medical exemptions, and most permit exemptions based on religious practices. But an increasing number of the vaccine skeptics belong to a different group — those who object to the inoculations because of their personal beliefs, often related to an unproven notion that vaccines are linked to autism and other disorders.

Italics mine. Someone asked me a while back why I wasn't Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s biggest fan, and this is (part of) the reason. His reckless demagoging about thimerosal and autism was and is actively dangerous. Ditto for John McCain's ignorant burbling on the subject a few weeks ago. They should both be ashamed of themselves.

In the end, this particular blend of conspiracy theorizing and New Age ditziness probably won't attract enough support to be too big a deal. But inchoate fear is a strong emotion, especially when threats to children are involved. The people who feed this fear are playing with fire.

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CUTTING OFF OUR NOSES....The LA Times reports on the results of California's recent 10% cut in fees paid to doctors who participate in Medi-Cal (California's version of Medicaid):

After San Diego ear, nose and throat physician Ted Mazer recently billed the state's medical insurance program for the poor for a tonsillectomy, he got a check for $168, too little to cover surgical costs. The balance came out of his pocket.

Now legislators have cut the rates even further, leaving Mazer resolved to shut his doors to new Medi-Cal patients. Almost every other specialist in his field countywide has already done the same, he said.

....Reimbursement rates, doctors say, already are so low that a patient office visit nets only $24. Some clinics say the numbers simply don't work anymore. The result: Thousands of patients guaranteed healthcare under state law can't get in to a doctor's office, so they don't go or they sit for hours in an emergency room.

Experts warn that things may get much worse.

Chris Perrone, an analyst who tracks Medi-Cal issues for the California Healthcare Foundation, said Medi-Cal risks are becoming so unattractive to doctors that the program could soon "fall off the edge."

This, of course, is a classic case of "programs for the poor are poor programs." Also, perhaps, a classic confirmation of Ezra Klein's claim that state-funded healthcare programs (Medicaid is funded roughly 50-50 by the states and the feds) are fundamentally flawed. The former because, let's face it, the only reason this 10% cut passed is because the poor didn't have the political power to prevent it. And the latter because it's yet another case of a state being forced to cut back on healthcare at the very time when they need to be spending more. As the country (and California) slips into recession, this problem is only going to get more acute.

The punchline, if a story like this can be said to have a punchline, is this:

The Legislature's nonpartisan budget analyst, Elizabeth G. Hill, had advised against the cut because it could discourage so many doctors from taking Medi-Cal that patients would be forced into emergency rooms, where treatment is far more costly. The state will also lose hundreds of millions of dollars in matching federal funds.

No wonder Hill is finally quitting. What's the point of being the state's "widely respected budget analyst" — a phrase uttered so often in California that you'd almost think it was part of Hill's name — if, in fact, virtually no one ever actually listens to you?

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

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By: Kevin Drum

IDENTITY POLITICS....In the LA Times today, Gregory Rodriguez gives Barack Obama's race speech a bad review:

In some ways, Barack Obama's speech on race last week was as brilliant as it was nuanced. But for all its rhetorical beauty, it was also an enormous step backward and, in the end, a rather self-serving call for more discussion about racial grievance in a country that has already done way too much talking.

....Those who praised the speech did so in part because it acknowledged the grievances that lie on both sides of the nation's most intractable racial divide. But that's also what was so wrong with it. The discussion of racial grievance — and other group grievances — has long since become an institutionalized part of American life, literally and figuratively. There are advocacy groups, think tanks, foundations and scholars who sometimes have produced groundbreaking work but who also have served to reaffirm the idea that American society is a federation of opposing, static and permanently aggrieved identities. Rather than push us beyond race, the institutionalization of racial identity as defined by grievance perpetuates the divisions of the past. The one new thing Obama's speech added to the dialogue was the inclusion of whites to the list of aggrieved (and angry) parties.

As an attack on identity politics and the politics of grievance, this is fairly standard stuff. But why is Rodriguez upset in particular that Obama also mentioned white backlash in his speech? There's no question that it's real, after all, and pretending that it doesn't exist won't make it go away.

Why indeed. It's a measure of how toxic the Democratic primary campaign has gotten that my first thought when I read this column was not, "Does Rodriguez have a point?" but "Hmmm. I wonder if he's just criticizing Obama because he's a Hillary supporter?" (For the record: I have no idea who, if anyone, Rodriguez supports.) Unfortunately, that's pretty much the first thing I think when I read almost everything these days. Reason enough to wish this primary campaign were over.

Kevin Drum 12:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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THE AWAKENING ON STRIKE....The Guardian reports that the Sunni Awakening councils in Iraq (aka Sahwa councils), which have been instrumental in reducing violence over the past year, are getting increasingly agitated over the lack of genuine reconciliation with the Shiite central government:

The success of the US "surge" strategy in Iraq may be under threat as Sunni militia employed by the US to fight al-Qaida are warning of a national strike because they are not being paid regularly.

....A telephone survey by GuardianFilms for Channel 4 News reveals that out of 49 Sahwa councils four with more than 1,400 men have already quit, 38 are threatening to go on strike and two already have.

....In Dora, a southern suburb of Baghdad, the leaders of a Sahwa group of 2,400 men said they were considering strike action because none of the 2,000 applicants they had put forward for jobs with the police and military had been accepted. The Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki has found jobs for only a handful of the Sahwa fighters.

"We need to get all the Sahwas in the country together and organise a national strike," said Ahah al-Zubadi, leader of 35 Sahwa councils, the largest group in Iraq. "When the areas started to cool down and the situation began to get better the Americans really cooled to us."

It's almost impossible to tell whether this is for real or if it's just more bluster. Maybe it's just bluster. But there's no question that recently we've been hearing this sentiment a lot more than we used to, and it's not hard to understand why. The Sahwa councils had their own self-interest in mind when they originally teamed up with the American military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, and that self-interest is still operative: they want security, they want protection, and they want jobs. The minute they feel like these things aren't in the cards, the alliance will be over. And right now, those things don't much look like they're in the cards.

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March 23, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN McCAIN'S WORLD....When it comes to the Iraq war, John McCain's basic policy is "Just like Bush, but even crazier!" (LA Times rundown here.) Now Robert Gordon and James Kvaal have gone where weaker men fear to tread, taking a close look at McCain's economic policy for the Center for American Progress. Guess what? It's just like Bush, but even crazier. If you like tax cuts for the rich, though, he's your guy.

I know, I know. We're not supposed to take this stuff seriously. McCain doesn't really "do" domestic policy, you see. But he is running for president, after all, so maybe it's worth a quick look just for giggles.

Kevin Drum 2:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (98)

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CRIMINAL INJUSTICE....Harvard law professor Bill Stuntz, after noting that the black murder rate is 7x hgher than the white murder rate, writes about the criminal justice system in the black community:

According to the best available data, blacks are 20% more likely than whites to use illegal drugs. But blacks are an incredible thirteen times more likely to be imprisoned for drug crime. (Data source here). In effect, Americans live under two sets of drug laws: the forgiving set of rules that mostly white suburbanites know, and the unfathomably severe rules that govern urban blacks.

If drug crime is overpunished in black neighborhoods, violent crime is underpunished....The bottom line is as simple as it is awful: When whites are robbed, raped, beaten, and killed, their victimizers are usually punished. When the same crimes happen to blacks, the usual result is: nothing. No arrest, no prosecution, no conviction. That is one reason why black neighborhoods are so much more violent than white ones.

In other words, the kinds of criminal punishment that do the most good are undersupplied in black America, and the kinds that do the LEAST good — so far as I know, there is no evidence that the level of drug punishment has any appreciable effect on the level of drug crime — are oversupplied. African Americans live with the worst of both worlds: unfathomably high crime rates, coupled with truly horrifying levels of criminal punishment.

What comes next, though, is odd. Stuntz takes a crack at explaining this state of affairs and says "two points are key — and neither of them flows from white racism." Here's point #1: policing in urban neighborhoods is underfunded. And point #2: these same neighborhoods have lost the local control they used to have. "On every front, the power of poor city neighborhoods has declined, and the power of middle- and upper-class suburbs has risen."

This seems to take an awfully narrow view of "white racism." Granted, these things are the results of long-term trends, not examples of individual whites mistreating individual blacks. But these long-term trends have been largely driven by, at best, white neglect, and at worst, active white hostility. Black migration to northern cities, white flight to the suburbs, underfunded urban police forces, and drug laws that are far harsher toward blacks than whites — if these things aren't at least partly the result of white racism, surely the term has lost all meaning? I'm not proposing sackcloth and ashes forever, but at least an acknowledgment that these aren't impersonal forces that just appeared out of nowhere.

In any case, Stuntz ends strong: "The sum of those trends is a system that produces large-scale racial injustice, and that deprives urban black communities of the power to remedy that injustice. One way or another, Americans of all races need to grapple with those facts, and soon."

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HAGEE vs. WRIGHT....Over the past week, thousands of column inches in major newspapers around the country have been devoted to Jeremiah Wright and his relationship with Barack Obama. For comparison, how many have been devoted over the past month to pastor John Hagee and his endorsement of John McCain? Answer here.

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March 22, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RSS QUERY....I have a question for any RSS gurus out there: Is there a way to set up my RSS feed so that it doesn't get published immediately? I'd like to have a 15-minute lag between the time I publish a post and the time the RSS feed becomes public.

Here's why. I try to edit my posts fairly thoroughly before I publish them, but I frequently continue editing for a few minutes after a post goes up. Sometimes it's to correct grammar and typos, sometimes it's because it just looks different when I see it on the screen and I realize I'd like to say something a little differently. In any case, it's not uncommon for me to continue editing a post for five or ten minutes after it first goes up.

But the RSS feed often goes out immediately, which means it doesn't match the post that's actually on the blog. I suppose one might say that I should just be more careful about editing and proofreading in Movable Type before I hit the Save button, but I'm just never going to achieve a level of total MT perfection. So: does anyone know if there's a way to delay the RSS feed a few minutes?

UPDATE: By the way, as long as I'm mentioning our RSS feed, here it is:

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/rss2full_author.xml

This is a full RSS feed, not a preview feed.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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PAGING GEOFFREY NUNBERG....From my morning newspaper, I think we have a new winner in the latte-drinking-sushi-eating-volvo-driving-pretentious-twit-etc.-etc. stereotype contest. It comes from an LA Times piece about how annoying iPhone users can be:

Wil Shipley, a Seattle software developer, uses his iPhone at the Whole Foods fish counter to check websites for updates on which seafood is the most environmentally correct to purchase. He quizzes the staff on where and how a fish was caught. Because he carries the Internet with him, "I can be super-picky," he said.

Check it out. In the first sentence alone we have the following hip references: (a) Seattle, (b) software developer, (c) iPhone, (d) Whole Foods, and (e) environmental correctness. Shazam!

The article, more generally, is about the fact that conversations frequently stop dead ("another awkward iPhone moment") when the ultra-connected insist on constantly whipping out their mobile internet doodads to settle arguments of one kind or another. I can sympathize. Personally, though, I'd mind it less if the combintion of technology and research skills among the connected set could be improved a notch. Killing the conversation for a few seconds is one thing, but waiting for a slow connection, then fiddling around because a Flash graphic doesn't load properly, then realizing you need to go to a different site, then realizing that it doesn't quite have the exact information you need, then seeing something really cool and insisting that everyone come over and take a look — well, that gets old fast. But it'll all be better once we get brainstem implants and 3-digit-IQ artificial intelligence. Won't that be great?

UPDATE: In comments, Walker points out that Wil Shipley is himself a social phenomenon, so the sentence in question actually managed to cram in six hip reference points, not a mere five.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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OBAMA'S NOTICES....CBS News has an early poll showing that Barack Obama's speech about race and Jeremiah Wright was generally well received:

Sixty-nine percent of voters who have heard or read about Obama's speech say he did a good job addressing the issue of race relations, and 63 percent of voters following the events say they agree with Obama's views on race relations. Seventy-one percent say he did a good job explaining his relationship with Wright.

When registered voters were asked if Obama would unite the country, however, 52 percent said yes — down from 67 percent last month.

This is probably about as good as it could have been. There was never any chance of persuading the 30% of hardcore Fox viewers, after all, and this poll suggests that he got virtually unanimous support among everyone else.

As for fewer people thinking Obama can unite the country — well, that's just facing up to reality. He's a talented politician, but he's not the second coming. We Americans just disagree about a lot of stuff, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Kevin Drum 11:38 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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CONDO HELL....The latest from the Wall Street Journal:

The condominium market is about to get worse as many cities brace for a flood of new supply this year — the result of construction started at the height of the housing boom.

....Regulators have been sounding the alarm for weeks about the exposure of small and mid-size banks to commercial real estate, which mostly means construction loans to developers of condos and single-family housing.

Lenders of all sizes have $42 billion of condominium debt on their books, according to Foresight Analytics. In just three months — between the third and fourth quarters of last year — the delinquency rate rose to 10% from 5.9%, says the Oakland, Calif., research firm.

Oh goody.

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HILLARY'S CAMPAIGN....Matt Yglesias says he knows why Hillary Clinton refuses to concede the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama even though she's way behind in the delegate count:

Dragging things out 'till the convention stands a much, much, much higher chance of hurting Barack Obama's chances in the general election than it does of securing Clinton the nomination. I understand the calculation from the point of view of the heart of the Clinton campaign — McCain beating Obama in the general means the Clintons still control the party, so there's no need to worry about helping McCain and you might as well hold on and hope lightning strikes. But the broader mass of unaffiliated elites and Clinton supporters who aren't literally on her payroll are, in my view, acting in a massively irresponsible manner.

Italics mine. Now, it's true that Hillary has only a minuscule chance of winning the nomination at this point, and it's also true that she probably is hoping that lightning strikes. As in, maybe Tony Rezko will break down on the witness stand Perry Mason style and implicate Obama in a massive influence peddling ring. Or maybe a chunk of red kryptonite will hit Obama in the head and transform him into a gigantic lizardman that destroys Pittsburgh. That would probably cost him a few votes in PA.

So fine: Hillary's chances are slim and maybe it's time to withdraw. But how do we hop from there to an out-of-the-blue factual assertion that Hillary would just as soon see Obama lose in November? That's crazy. There's just no evidence that anyone in the Clinton campaign actually thinks this way. It's like the 90s all over again and it's driving me nuts.

My fellow Obama supporters need to get a grip. I know that resistance to CDS seems futile these days, but resist anyway! Hillary has a long, long history as a partisan animal. She'd no more root for a McCain victory than she would for another attack by al-Qaeda. What's more, on the level of pure political tactics, she knows perfectly well — and so should we — that if she loses neither she nor Bill will control anything and she'll have no future presidential prospects in 2012 or any other year. It's either 2008 or nothing for Hillary.

And if she gave even a hint of not supporting Obama wholeheartedly during the fall campaign? Not only would she have no future presidential prospects, she'd be lucky to escape being tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. She'd be the most reviled Democrat on Capitol Hill. She knows that too.

Hillary's running a very tough campaign, and she might be making a mistake staying in the race. But she's not rooting for John McCain and she's not secretly plotting Barack Obama's downfall. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary, I'm all ears.

Kevin Drum 1:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (195)

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March 21, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....It's been kind of a tense week, hasn't it? I'm glad it's over. And just in time for Friday catblogging! On the left, for your tension-relieving springtime pleasure, Domino rolls over in the afternoon sunshine and stares up at the camera. On the right, Inkblot peruses some pre-naptime reading while staring down at the camera.

Happy vernal equinox, happy Good Friday, and happy Easter. Have a good weekend, everyone.

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIQUIDITY TRAP TERRITORY....Paul Krugman says, basically, that the Fed has lost control of interest rates. Earlier this week the market reacted strongly to the fact that the Fed lowered the fed funds rate by "only" 75 basis points (to 2.25%), but Krugman points out that, Fed targets notwithstanding, short term T-bill rates are already close to zero anyway:

Since open-market operations take place in Treasuries, I take this to mean that the Fed may not actually be able to reduce short-term rates much from current levels — which means, in turn, that conventional monetary policy has been taken off the table. As Brad says, be afraid — be somewhat afraid.

When Japan got stuck in a liquidity trap in the early 1990s, it took them about a decade to work their way out of it. Consider me somewhat afraid.

Kevin Drum 2:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

"TWO HOURS OF OBAMA BASHING"....Chris Wallace deserves some props for this. It's not too often that a Fox News host calls out his own network colleagues — even "respectfully" — for diving feet first into the fever swamp.

Kevin Drum 1:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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PASSPORT FILES....I've been lax on Passport-gate, but it turns out I would have been behind the curve anyway if I'd jumped on it last night. The latest news, apparently, is that three presidential candidates had their passport files accessed recently: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. The State Department's initial take last night was that the breaches were the result of "imprudent curiosity," but it's not clear if that explanation is still operative. More later, no doubt.

Anyway, what's in a senator's passport file? It's not as if their travel plans are secret, so what else is in there? More on that later too, I'm sure.

Kevin Drum 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE MEDIA AND RACE....Ezra Klein on the media's followup to Barack Obama's race speech:

America tells itself a story about its history with race, and the story is that it has a history with race, abuses that were long ago corrected by brave civil rights reformers and courageous politicians. But there's a present with race, too. We're just much better at ignoring it. And it's a tremendous indictment of our media that, given an opportunity, to push forward on that discussion, they made an affirmative decision to focus back in on the campaign. You wonder if Wolf Blitzer and Candy Crowley and all the rest got into journalism believing that, one day, they would decide to suppress a potentially historic and important conversation on race in order to talk about polling.

I'm not sure this is really fair. First off, is there really a storybook version of civil rights that says we've overcome all our race problems in America? If there is, I haven't heard it. Even conservatives who promote the "colorblind society" trope mostly don't pretend that racism is completely dead and buried (they just don't want to do anything about it in the present), and liberals talk about it regularly. So does the media, both print and TV. It's not a nonstop topic of conversation, but it's hardly ignored, and it's never presented as something solely of the past. Just to give a couple of recent high-profile examples, the New York Times won a Pulitzer for its yearlong "How Race is Lived in America" in 2001 and the Washington Post spent half of 2006 on its "Being a Black Man" series. Last year, The Race Beat won the Pulitzer in history. In 2005, the LA Times won it in the Public Service category for its series about the King/Drew medical center.

As for the media focusing back in on the campaign, well, there is a big campaign going on right now. And Barack Obama, the guy at the center of that campaign, can easily keep race front and center if he chooses to. If he does, the media will follow. If he doesn't, the media will follow that too. But 24-hour cable news, for better or worse, isn't really well suited to deep introspection on complex social issues. It's well suited to covering breaking news and then chattering inanely about it, and that's how it covers just about every subject. Race is hardly being singled out here.

Actually, if there's a real media myth about race, I'd say it's this peculiar suggestion that everyone thinks we've put race behind us. But no one thinks that. That's why we keep talking about it. The real problem isn't lack of talk, it's the fact that there's next to no agreement about what we ought to do about it. So maybe, in addition to poetic, nuanced, courageous, deeply honest speeches on the subject, Barack Obama could keep the spotlight on race by telling us what our next steps ought to be. He's got a start here.

But that's not on the agenda, apparently. It's back to the campaign, which today features "one of its harshest, most negative attacks yet" on Hillary Clinton. Hey, there's a primary coming up.

Kevin Drum 12:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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DEMS AND WALL STREET....The LA Times reports:

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who are running for president as economic populists, are benefiting handsomely from Wall Street donations, easily surpassing Republican John McCain in campaign contributions from the troubled financial services sector.

....Some Democrats worry that the influx of money will make their candidates less willing to call for increased regulation of financial markets, which have been in turmoil after a wave of foreclosures on sub-prime mortgages.

Will? Considering that 18 Democratic senators voted in favor of the 2005 bankruptcy bill and that virtually no one in the party was willing to push hard to end the capital gains loophole for hedge fund managers last year, I'd say that will make is in the wrong tense. For better or worse, Democrats are already largely unwilling to take on Wall Street. It's not yet clear just what kind of economic tsunami it's going to take to get Chuck Schumer and the rest of the money wing of the party to risk the wrath of the billionaires and take the side of common sense instead. But the evidence so far isn't encouraging.

Kevin Drum 12:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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DEMOCRATS AND RELIGION....Hillary Clinton, as anyone who's ever read anything about her knows, is a devout, lifelong Methodist. So when she came to Washington DC in 1993 she joined the "Fellowship," a well-known organization run by Doug Coe that's basically a collection of Bible study groups. [See Update below.] In the 90s Hillary studied with a group made up of other high-powered Washington women, and today she belongs to the weekly Senate Prayer Breakfast. The Fellowship leans conservative, but it's a bipartisan organization. You can read about it in her autobiography, Living History.

Barack Obama, as everyone who didn't spend last week on Mars knows, is a sincere and devout member of the Trinity United Church of Christ. He joined the church 20 years ago, married his wife there, and had his children baptized there. You can read about it in both of Obama's books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

Two Democrats, two committed Christians. So what's it gotten them? In the case of Hillary Clinton it's gotten her Barbara Ehrenreich, who used Hillary's religious ties a couple of days ago in the Huffington Post as a launching pad for an unusually ugly character assassination. "When it comes to unsavory religious affiliations," Ehrenreich informs us, "she's a lot more vulnerable than Obama." Why? Because the Fellowship worships Adolph Hitler and has "ties to a whole bestiary of murderous thugs." Which leads her to wonder aloud, "What drew Clinton into the sinister heart of the international right?" — a question you can be sure she answers unpleasantly.

And Obama? Well, we all know how that story turned out. Trinity United Church of Christ was headed until recently by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a whipping boy for Sean Hannity and the fever swamp right for the past year. Then, a week ago, when ABC News started a media feeding frenzy by airing a tape of Wright making a variety of incendiary remarks in his sermons, the calls for Obama to disown Wright started up instantly. This story has yet to play out, but it's at least possible that it could end up sinking Obama's candidacy.

So what's my point? Basically, this is a setup for a question for Amy Sullivan: If this is what being a sincerely committed Christian gets you in the Democratic Party, why should we bother? Are the benefits really worth the costs? There must be more than a few Democrats surveying the rubble of the past week and thinking that maybe we'd be better off leaving the God talk to the Republicans and keeping our own faith private.

UPDATE: I just talked to Jeff Sharlet, author of the forthcoming book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. Although he says that Hillary Clinton's connection with the Fellowship (aka the "Family") is fairly shallow, he also thinks it's quite wrong to characterize it as merely "a collection of Bible study groups." Hillary's association with the Fellowship is no scandal, he says, but it is fair to question her about whether she accepts Doug Coe's particular brand of elite-centered, post-millennial theology. More here.

I haven't read the book, so I'll hold off on any further fire. It's coming in May, though, and I may have more about it then.

Kevin Drum 2:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (156)

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March 20, 2008
By: Amy Sullivan

AS I WAS SAYING....Good lord. I always forget there's no presumption of good faith (no pun intended) in the blogosphere. I should know better than to throw up a quick post, but let's all take a deep breath and start over.

I believe one of the reasons so many white Americans were surprised/shocked by the snippets of Jeremiah Wright's sermons that have been circulating is because they've largely ignored the black church. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say they've formed in their minds an image of what African-American religion is like and filtered out anything that doesn't match.

For decades, the Democratic Party has ghettoized religion, outsourcing it to African-Americans within the party. Democrats who give high-minded explanations for why they consider it inappropriate to mix religion and politics and why they don't approve of wearing religion on their sleeve don't bat an eye at politicians visiting black churches. Religion in black churches, they seem to think, isn't really religion. It's an ethnic characteristic of an important voting bloc.

Of course that's not true. If any of those Democrats were surprised by Wright's comments, they must not have ever really listened in those churches they visit. There's more to black churches than gospel music. Black sermons are often described as "musical" or "rhythmic," but there are words being spoken, words that matter.

In 2004, just to take one example, most of John Kerry's religious references came in speeches to African-American audiences (particularly before the convention). His advisers must have considered it good strategy to limit religious rhetoric to "safe" crowds, but the decision was problematic in two ways. First, by speaking about religion only when it could be politically advantageous, Kerry seemed to confirm the criticism that he was pandering and insincere. If religion was really important to him, voters might think, he would talk about it in other settings. But it was also insulting to African-Americans, leaving the impression that white politicians were at best humoring their silly religion habit and at worst using them for cover.

Keep reading after the jump for one of my favorite stories about Democrats and black clergy.

A week before the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004, a convention planner called an organizer with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization named Ari Lipman. As Lipman later wrote in an article for the Boston Review, the staffer wanted his help finding a religious leader to open a Sunday caucus meeting with prayer. When Lipman asked whether the organizers were looking for someone from a particular denomination, the caller answered, "We want a minister of color." Lipman explained that most ministers of color were likely to be in church on Sunday morning. Were they interested in a rabbi? "We really want a black minister," said the staffer.

Lipman suggested they contact Eddly Benoit, the senior elder of a twelve-hundred-member Haitian congregation in Dorchester and a Seventh-Day Adventist. Because Seventh-Day Adventists observe their Sabbath on Saturday, Benoit would likely be available on a Sunday morning. Lipman passed along the elder's information and hung up the phone.

On Friday evening, Lipman got another call, this time from a different, frantic convention staffer. They had forgotten to call the elder during the week and now they couldn't reach him. Lipman explained that because Benoit's Sabbath had already startd, he wouldn't be answering the phone until Saturday evening. But Lipman did agree to show up at Benoit's church the next morning and assure the confused clergyman that the Democrats did indeed still want his services.

Benoit arrived at the Democratic meeting on Sunday morning with Lipman by his side, only to find that his name had been rendered "Elder Erdy Dinot" on the caucus program. Although Lipman flagged down a convention staffer to point out the error, the emcee for the event mispronounced Benoit's name three times throughout the morning. To Lipman, there was no doubt why there were there: "Elder Benoit's role had been ornamental--a prayerful black face for a photo opportunity."

Amy Sullivan 6:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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By: Kevin Drum

MARCH MADNESS-GATE....Who does Barack Obama really favor in the South regional? Pitt or Stanford? Some investigative journalism is called for here.

Via Zengerle.

Kevin Drum 5:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

MATCHUPS....A new Rasmussen poll shows John McCain opening up a big lead in matchups against both Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Steve Benen comments:

This is either a very big deal or not at all a big deal, depending entirely on one's disposition.

Count me in the "not at all" camp. Look: whenever a candidate wraps up a nomination he gets a bounce in the polls because there's now a concrete person for people to rally around. The Democratic nominee will get one too eventually. (Though I'll concede some worry about just when "eventually" is going to be for the Democrats.) Then the conventions will roll around, and both candidates will get bounces from that. And then the campaigns will begin in earnest.

It's always better to be ahead than behind. But March matchup polls aren't even like comparing baseball scores after the first inning. They're more like squinting from the bleachers to see how good everyone looks during batting practice. Though that might be unfair to batting practice. And bleachers.

Bottom line: you'll actually be better informed by not looking at polls like this than you will be by looking at them and then trying to ignore them. They're worse than useless at this point.

Kevin Drum 5:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH'S LEGACY....Brad Woodhouse points out that Ronald Reagan's approval ratings went from 40% in 1987 to 57% in 1988 to 63% on the day he left office. Rick Perlstein comments:

The "Reagan rebound," he said at this morning's panel "Bushed: Conservative Failure and the Danger the Legacy Lives On," "allowed them to define conservative government as a success." It had, indeed, been a conscious plan: squeeze out all the approval points they could in order to spin the press into recalling President Reagan just as they ended up doing — as popular from start to finish, across the board. And, Brad argued with forceful brilliance, that's precisely the conservatives' strategy for the final seven months of George W. Bush's presidency. They've even admitted it: if they can just get his approval ratings up into the forties by the inauguration of the next president, they can more credibly claim to credulous reporters that Bush was at least a moderately successful president. They can [say] conservatism hasn't failed.

Point taken. But I don't think you can push this too far. Reagan's team may have consciously tried to boost his approval ratings during his final year in office (who wouldn't, after all?), but in the end, Reagan's legacy surely rests on two big concrete things: he lowered taxes and he brought down the Soviet Union. Without those two accomplishments, he's nothing.

Now, both of these legacies are overblown. Reagan lowered marginal tax rates on the rich, but he also blew up the deficit doing it and then raised taxes half a dozen times to make up for it. Paul Volcker and the end of the Iranian oil crisis had more to do with halting inflation and getting the economy back in gear than Reagan's 1981 tax cut did.

Likewise, the fall of the Soviet Union was largely due to internal bleeding from the Afghanistan war, the mid-80s collapse in oil prices, and the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan's defense buildup played a role, but hardly the definitive one that his fans suggest.

But in the storybook, none of this matters. Reagan did cut taxes and the economy boomed. He did increase defense spending and the Iron Curtain fell. To most people, that's all that matters.

But what are George Bush's legacies? The economy has been mediocre throughout his presidency and he's leaving it in tatters as he steps off the stage. On the foreign policy front, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, Afghanistan is slowly slipping back into chaos, and Iraq remains a hideous quagmire. Bush is obviously hoping that Iraq will turn around and he'll get the credit, but what are the odds? Close to zero.

Brad promises a Bush Legacy Project to make sure that Bush's approval ratings stay low, thus preventing conservatives from turning him into yet another mythic keeper of the flame. I have a feeling that particular project is going to be a smashing success.

Kevin Drum 1:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (97)

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DISCOVERING BLACK CHURCHES....I had to disappear to write my piece for this week's TIME on Obama and Jeremiah Wright--and now I have to run to the Hill for a live-on-CSPAN 2p.m. panel with E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson on whether the religious right is dead (my short answer: no).

But I'll be back in a few hours to talk about why the Democratic party outsourced religion to black churches, and how that's hurt the party. It's also left most Americans with a Disney-fied impression of African-American religious leaders as folks who sit around listening to gospel music all day, spout inspirational phrases to slap on calendars, and generally act like Denzel Washington in "The Preacher's Wife."

Amy Sullivan 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

ADVENTURES IN SERVICE-LAND....Andrew Tobias recounts his adventures with his iPhone, purchased last August:

After two months' ownership, my iPhone lost its ticklishness. I would touch it in places that used to make it do wonderful things, but now, suddenly — nothing. As explained here, this time Apple was the idiot. But by going to their big New York store and waiting 40 minutes, I got a new phone.

....So a week ago, iPhone #2 suddenly developed this glitch: even after I unplugged the earphones, it thought they were still plugged in....I went on-line to make an appointment at the Genius Bar....At exactly 3:50, I heard my name called....Within 10 minutes, my Genius determined I needed a new phone....and I was on my way with iPhone #3.

Two minutes later I was back....Multitasking madly, he took the phone....and after fiddling with iPhone #3 a little more, handed me my fourth iPhone, which so far is working fine, and onto which I easily managed to restore my music and books by re-synching.

....I remain a basically very happy customer, even if it's been a bit of an adventure. And they have provided me with four phones in seven months.

You need to read the whole thing to get all the details, but the nickel story here is: three defective phone in seven months; difficulty making a service appointment because Genius Bars are usually packed like sardine cans with people having problems; and a tech who practically had to be tackled to fix iPhone #3. Yet Andrew remains a happy customer! In fact, a very happy customer!

I wonder why we all put up with this? What makes it even worse, in my book, is that apparently you can't even pay for superior service anymore. I'd often be happy to do exactly that, but I've stopped trying. When I pay a lot for something, the service I get is almost never any better than it is if I buy something at Target. So why bother?

How much time, money, and stress do we all waste each year because, basically, we've given up demanding (and being willing to pay for) good service? Gotta be in the trillions, right?

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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SCHEDULE FOLLIES....Having spent yesterday excitedly informing us that Hillary Clinton was in the White House when Bill was going at it with Monica (OMG! OMG!), ABC News returns today to let us know that Hillary held a 15-minute "drop-by" in 1993 to help sell NAFTA. These ABC guys are really on top of things, aren't they? Matt Yglesias comments:

Speaking of which, the Obama campaign seemed very excited that Hillary Clinton's First Lady schedule indicates she attended pro-NAFTA meetings so perhaps the great NAFTA debate, left for dead in Ohio, will be making a comeback.

I'm not sure what Matt bases this on, but if it's true it would certainly raise the level of debate in the campaign, wouldn't it? We could get away from trivial stuff like race, Iraq, and our economic meltdown, and instead have a debate about whether some "brief remarks" Hillary made 15 years ago prove that she was really NAFTA's biggest cheerleader back in the day. Edifying stuff.

Kevin Drum 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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March 19, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

RACE AND GENDER....I don't know if the results on the right, from a new CBS poll, are surprising or not. Maybe they aren't. But take a look anyway.

First: Most people say they personally don't care if a presidential candidate is black or white. Heartwarming, no? However, since most people either don't want to think of themselves as racist or else don't want to admit it, we might take that with a grain of salt. A more accurate accounting, perhaps, comes from what all these colorblind folks think about their friends. Answer: 33% say that "most" of the people they know wouldn't vote for a black candidate. This means that either a lot of Americans are very cynical about their friends, or else a lot of Americans are stone racists.

So Barack Obama has his work cut out for him. But now take a look at the second result: 17% of the population would prefer to vote for a man. Obviously people don't mind being publicly sexist as much as they mind being publicly racist. But again, that number probably isn't very trustworthy, so take a look instead at what people say about their friends. A full 45% think that "most" of their friends would refuse to vote for a woman. (This result is about the same for both Democratic and Republican/independent respondents.) 42% say people they know have judged Hillary Clinton more harshly because she's a woman. Is this cynicism? Or is America heavily populated by stone sexists?

Both of these results are skewed by people's willingness to be honest, and both are probably also skewed by reactions to the particular candidates running right now. But this poll certainly suggests that racism is alive and well in America, and that misogyny is even aliver and weller.

Kevin Drum 6:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (87)

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OBAMA ON IRAQ....Two big speeches in two days for Barack Obama. Today, in a big speech on Iraq, he takes some strong shots at both Hillary Clinton and John McCain ("What we need in our next Commander in Chief is not a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality or empty rhetoric about 3 AM phone calls") and argues that we're fighting the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time:

If you believe we are fighting the right war, then the problems we face are purely tactical in nature. That is what Senator McCain wants to discuss — tactics. What he and the Administration have failed to present is an overarching strategy: how the war in Iraq enhances our long-term security, or will in the future. That's why this Administration cannot answer the simple question posed by Senator John Warner in hearings last year: Are we safer because of this war? And that is why Senator McCain can argue — as he did last year — that we couldn't leave Iraq because violence was up, and then argue this year that we can't leave Iraq because violence is down.

....The central front in the war against terror is not Iraq, and it never was. What more could America's enemies ask for than an endless war where they recruit new followers and try out new tactics on a battlefield so far from their base of operations? That is why my presidency will shift our focus. Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There's a lot more in this vein, and the speech was heavily focused on the purely military aspects of the war on terror — too heavily focused for my taste. But there were nods here and there to nonmilitary issues, including this nicely delivered paragraph:

Senator Clinton, Senator McCain, and President Bush have made the same arguments against my position on diplomacy, as if reading from the same political playbook. They say I'll be penciling the world's dictators on to my social calendar. But just as they are misrepresenting my position, they are mistaken in standing up for a policy of not talking that is not working. What I've said is that we cannot seize opportunities to resolve our problems unless we create them. That is what Kennedy did with Khrushchev; what Nixon did with Mao; what Reagan did with Gorbachev. And that is what I will do as President of the United States.

That last sentence is clever, associating himself with three presidents who are widely admired as toughminded negotiators. It's a neat play, both rhetorically and substantively.

Overall, not a bad speech. There wasn't too much new in it, and I wish he had taken on some broader themes, but overall it helped his cause. Not only was he firm about wanting to leave Iraq (thus addressing Hillary's exploitation of Samantha Power's remarks that Obama would "revisit" withdrawal when be became president), but he gave good reasons for wanting to leave. On a scale of 1-10, I'd give it a 7.

Kevin Drum 2:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (147)

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PROGRESSIVE HEALTHCARE....Tyler Cowen provides some highlights from a new paper by Sherry Glied on international comparisons of healthcare systems:

The best parts of the paper concern equity. It is GPs which help the poor, not additional spending on technology or surgery; see p.18 for other comparisons along these lines. Furthermore, and this you should scream from the rooftops, consider this:

...patterns of health service utilization in developed countries suggest that the marginal dollar of health care spending — money used to purchase high tech equipment or specialist services — is less progressively spent than the average dollar.

In other words, egalitarians should not allocate marginal government spending to health care.

But that's not quite right, is it? The point here isn't that public healthcare spending per se is bad, but that (from a progressive viewpoint) it's sometimes poorly distributed at the margins. The bulk of the spending is fine, and, as Glied points out later, distributed pretty progressively. Still, it's well worth acknowledging the point that financing is only a part of the healthcare problem. Cost containment and efficiency are equally or more important. Thus, if we progressives advocate for a public financed healthcare system, we should also be advocating (for example) for relatively more public funding for GPs and less for the fanciest new high-tech equipment, which overwhelmingly gets installed in rich hospitals that serve rich communities. I'm down with that, and I think that most progressive healthcare analysts are too.

(Now, you may argue that this is utopian, that any publicly financed system will inevitably find itself under enormous political pressure to provide more goodies for its loudest constituencies — namely the rich, the middle class, and various interest groups. Maybe so. But that shouldn't stop us from trying to do the right thing.)

As for all that high-tech equipment, some of it turns out to be useful and some of it turns out to be a fad. If rich people feel like paying to be guinea pigs for this stuff, I'm fine with that. But I'd certainly agree that a publicly financed system ought to be careful about making any of it part of a basic healthcare package until it's well proven in the field. As progressives, our goal shouldn't be to provide gold-plated care to every person in the country, nor should it be to restrict the ability of the rich to get better service if they want to pay for it. Our goal should be to provide decent care to everyone, with the market free to operate on top of that.

Kevin Drum 1:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S POLITICS...James Joyner makes a couple of comments about yesterday's big race address from Barack Obama:

One of the major strains of reaction to Barack Obama's "More Perfect Union" speech is that those who are not persuaded by it are therefore racist or at least unreasoning fools. Poisoning the well in this manner may be an effective rhetorical device but it undercuts the very message of the speech, which is that race remains a very complicated issue in American culture and that we must tolerate a wide range of expressions on the subject.

....Unless he's a much dumber tactician than I give him credit for, Obama knew full well that yesterday morning's speech was merely the beginning of a dialog. Even those of us who are political junkies mostly missed the live presentation, given that it was delivered during peak working hours. But opinion leaders have or will read and/or listen to the speech and talk about it for the next week or more.

As good as Obama's speech was, it's naive not to also understand it as the political tool it was meant to be. And on that score, I'd say that the Obama supporters James points to are doing precisely what Obama intended: trying to take Jeremiah Wright's incendiary comments off the table by implying that anyone who still insists on talking about them must be either a simpleton or a racist. He's basically daring the Sean Hannitys of the world to continue demagoging Wright, and making a savvy bet that the rest of the press will line up behind him to agree that the real issue isn't Wright, it's racism and its complex historical legacy. And anyone who doesn't agree is either a partisan hack or a hopeless primitive.

On James's second point, though, I disagree. I think Obama's fervent hope is that his speech pretty much closes the issue of race in this campaign. It just flatly doesn't help him in any way to keep it on the front burner. Like NAFTA, which dropped off the radar after Ohio, I expect that after a couple of days Obama will also drop the subject of race if he possibly can. We'll know by next week.

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Kevin Drum

WATCHLISTS....The Washington Post reports on our burgeoning watchlist mania:

One man went into a Glen Burnie, Md., Toyota dealership to buy a car, only to be told that a name check revealed he was on a U.S. Treasury Department watchlist of suspected terrorists and drug dealers. He had to be "checked for tattoos," he said, to make sure he wasn't the suspect.

....Yesterday's court-ordered release of documents to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, offers a window into the kinds of disruptions suffered by those ensnared in the process, as well as the difficulty of clearing their names.

....Thomas R. Burke, lead counsel in the group's FOIA case, said he suspected the watchlist is causing problems for many more people than revealed by the cases so far. Moreover, he asserted, "There isn't a program [of redress]. There isn't an ombudsman. There isn't a procedure to help consumers clear their names."

The Glen Burnie auto customer — whose name was redacted by the government to protect his privacy — began his quest for relief with the car dealer, according to the documents. The dealer referred him to the credit-reporting agencies, Experian and Equifax, but he was left in electronic voice-directory limbo, he said. That was only the beginning of "a revolving-door nightmare," he said.

This is possibly the most maddening aspect of our current watchlist frenzy. I understand the purpose of all these watchlists, and even though I don't like them much I get the fact that they're probably here to stay and are quite likely fairly effective. (Though I wouldn't mind hearing some evidence on that score.)

But why the insane refusal to set up a system that allows innocent people to get off our various and sundry watchlists? You can chalk this up to normal government inefficiency if you want, but it obviously goes way beyond that. It's plain that the agencies involved don't want to let people off, whether they're innocent or not. The mere ability to challenge your inclusion on a watchlist is a threat to them.

This is crazy. Maybe some conservative group needs to adopt this as a takings issue. They could probably figure out a way if they wanted to. They might even get a few liberals to sign up with them.

UPDATE: Henry Farrell has more here on European concerns over the fundamental issues of judicial review and property takings that are at stake with terrorist watchlists. As the president of Germany's Federal Constitutional Court puts it: "If you are on such a terrorist list, you can basically do nothing about it....You can neither have access to credit, nor buy anything....What is interesting is that the person who comes to be on such a list is neither told in advance, nor told the reasons why they will be on the list. The underlying evidence isn't provided, and there is no effective legal protection." Read the whole thing for more.

Kevin Drum 11:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

FAILING THE TEST....Mark Kleiman advises Hillary Clinton:

Given McCain's buffoonish performance in Jordan, wouldn't this be a good time for Hillary Clinton to say, "Gee, I thought he was ready to be Commander-in-Chief, but it sure doesn't sound like it. The least we should expect from the President is some basic knowledge about who our enemies are."

It's a twofer! Count me in.

Kevin Drum 1:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (73)

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March 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

NO TORTURE. NO EXCEPTIONS....If you live in the Washington D.C. area, the New America Foundation is hosting a lunchtime panel on Wednesday featuring several of the writers who contributed to the "No Torture, No Exceptions" package in our current issue. It starts at 12:15 and takes place at NAF's headquarters at 1630 Connecticut Ave, NW, on the 7th floor. Details here.

And of course, the full package of 37 short essays is online here.

Kevin Drum 6:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (7)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOYALTY....Recovering conservative John Cole calls Obama's speech today "refreshingly candid and long overdue," and then says this:

I also really respect the fact that he didn't just throw Rev. Wright underneath the bus.

There's a lesson here. Republicans have a reputation for standing by their colleagues through thick and thin. It's a reputation that may or may not be deserved (they usually find ways to quietly get rid of their albatrosses once the cameras move on), but their public posture is almost always to defend their allies, attack their enemies, and insist that they won't abandon their friends. And people respect them for it. Most of us prize loyalty even if we don't always admit it, and most of us recognize politically motivated firings for the cowardly acts they often are.

This is one reason that it was a mistake for Obama to allow Samantha Power to leave his campaign. Obviously there are times when someone really does need to be fired, but Power's conduct was nowhere near that threshhold. On balance, I'll bet most voters would have thought better of him if he'd defended her instead of casting her loose.

Kevin Drum 5:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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By: Kevin Drum

BIZARRO WORLD....As usual, I don't get it. Following a day in which the government was forced to broker the fire sale of a huge investment bank on the brink of cratering, core producer prices jumped unexpectedly and the Fed went ahead and slashed interest rates anyway. Apparently their outlook on the economy is so dismal that even the prospect of igniting an inflationary spiral didn't stop them from cutting the fed funds rate by 75 basis points.

And Wall Street's reaction? The Dow went up 420 points. Don't these guys understand that a recession is bad for business?

Kevin Drum 5:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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DIVISIVE....Yes, yes, I know this is trivial, but I'm curious about something. In his speech today, Barack Obama did something that I've suddenly heard dozens of times lately: he pronounced the word divisive with a short middle I. Now, I just looked this up in several dictionaries, and it is, in fact, listed that way as an alternate pronunciation in many of them. But until recently, I've never heard anyone actually say it this way. It's always been div-eye-siv. Did a memo go out or something that I missed?

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (174)

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By: Kevin Drum

CHECKING IN WITH THE OTHER SIDE....I thing we can safely assume that Barack Obama's supporters will all swoon over his speech today. And why not? It was, as usual for him, a helluva good address: intelligent, sane, sympathetic, and broadly appealing. He didn't, however, sound to me like he was really very eager to keep this conversation about race going — a feeling that's easy to understand if you take a look at what's burbling through the conservative id right about now. Ladies and gentlemen, The Corner:

"Amazingly bloodless and dull; part moral hectoring part awkward defensiveness." "I think if you want to be romanced by your candidate, he romanced you. And if you're a guilty white person, you're with Obama because he said so." "Was it just me, or did anyone else note that for the first half of the speech, Sen. Obama seemed annoyed, put out by having to give the speech in the first place?"

"This a breathtaking attempt to pass off Wright's hateful rants by implying that they are little different than the 'political views' of some priest with which a parishioner might disagree." "Obama is no longer a post-racial candidate....today, he has embraced the politics of grievance." "Blame whitey, and raise high the red flag of socialism. This is a serious candidate for the Presidency? Toast, toast."

"His grandmother — his surrogate mother at that point — rejected the black man he was becoming. The anger Obama heard in Rev. Wright's church may not have felt so alien after all." "Any hopes anyone had that Barack Obama would be a gift to civil rights in America — that he would shake hands with Ward Connerly and really be a change died today, I think."

"Does he think OJ was guilty? Hmmm. Probably not the best example to put into play." "It's hard to imagine how someone who listened to this speech, and who had followed at all the controversy of the last few days, could still view Obama as somehow transcending politics."

See? Barack Obama's just another race hustler. I suspect that the "official" conservative reaction in columns and op-eds will be more restrained, but the longer that race stays front and center in the campaign, the more time the real conservative id will have to ooze into the forefront. Obama can't be looking forward to that.

UPDATE: Fester provides an alternate view here.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (161)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S WORLD....It's one thing to be clueless about whether or not thimerosal causes autism, but apparently, even after five years of war in Iraq, John McCain is also clueless about who's supporting whom in the Middle East:

He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."

....A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."

This is hardly some trivial mistake. It's like accusing Pat Robertson of supporting NARAL. It shows a complete disconnect with what's going on in Iraq.

Of course, even McCain's corrected version doesn't tell the whole story either. What he should have said is that the Iranians are training many of the same extremists that we're allied with too. But that might have provoked a whole different set of questions that McCain would just as soon not answer.

Via Matt.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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THANKS....I would like to take this opportunity to thank Barack Obama for finally taking the stage and shutting up CNN's talking heads. That alone makes his speech worthwhile.

UPDATE: An excerpt from the speech:

Some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.

....Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze....

This is very much classic Obama: I understand why you're upset. I understand your problems. But let me set out a different way of looking at things....

Kevin Drum 10:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (85)

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By: Amy Sullivan

JUST A BIG MISUNDERSTANDING....Thanks so much, Kevin, for inviting me to discuss my new book, The Party Faithful. Let's jump right in, shall we?

Like it or not, the U.S. is a religious country. 85% of Americans say that religion is "an important part" of their lives and that number hasn't really budged over the past four decades. Since Republicans aren't capturing 85% of the vote, that means religious Americans--and, by extension, religious voters--are much more diverse than typical public and media discussions imply.

Despite the fact that more than 8 in 10 African-Americans are religious Democrats, a full 40% of white evangelicals are politically moderate (with another 10% self-identified liberals), and the majority of Catholics are as concerned about issues like immigration, the economy, health care, war, and poverty as they are about abortion, religion somehow became conflated with conservatism over the past 30 years.

Obviously, the religious right and the GOP spent a lot of time and effort pushing the idea. But they were able to claim a monopoly on religion because the Democratic political class bought their spin. Think about it: If your response to the idea of Democrats engaging religious voters is either "why bother?" or "at what cost?", then most likely you're assuming that religious voters are conservative.

These assumptions had political consequences. The Dukakis campaign turned down all invitations from Catholic institutions, perhaps saving their candidate from some awkward conversations about abortion but also preventing him from interacting with voters who would have appreciated his opposition to the death penalty. The Kerry campaign told liberal Catholics in Ohio that Democrats "don't do white churches," effectively eliminating the possibility of outreach to three-quarters of the electorate.

The Democratic Party hasn't been hostile to religion. The problem isn't that Democratic candidates haven't been pious enough nor is the solution that they should just start using a lot of God-talk. Instead, Democrats have earned lower levels of support from religious constituencies like white evangelicals and Catholics than they otherwise should have because activists and operatives have been indifferent to religion and have operated under misconceptions about who the faithful are.

In his review of my book, Paul Baumann writes that I suggest Democratic religious outreach will play a decisive role in the party's future success. In fact, the book makes no such claim. I actually agree with Baumann that elections don't turn on religion. National security, economic policy--these are the factors that drive elections. But, again, in a country where 85% of the people say religion is an important part of their lives, the party that doesn't talk to religious voters is at an automatic disadvantage. In close elections, that can make a difference.

More importantly--because my purpose in writing the book was surely not to tell Democrats how to win elections--an unlevel praying field (hat tip to my colleague Michael Duffy for that useful punny phrase) allows religion to be wielded as a divisive cudgel. I know it sounds unbearably counterintuitive, but one way to take religion off the table in political elections is for Democrats to engage it. Once neither party can claim a monopoly on religion, its effect is neutralized and candidates are forced to focus instead on issues that all Americans, whether religious or secular, care about: providing economic security, dealing with the mess in Iraq, reforming our health care system, improving our children's education.

I'll talk about how that has worked in campaigns already, tackle the inevitable "what about abortion?" questions, and point to evidence of shifts in the evangelical community in future posts. In the meantime, have at it.

Amy Sullivan 2:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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By: Kevin Drum

JAPAN AGAIN?....Dueling stories at the Wall Street Journal today. In the first, a suggestion that it might be "healthy sign" that the Swiss bank UBS isn't willing to sell its mortgage portfolio at a price anyone else is willing to buy it at:

The world's bankers woke up yesterday to a new concern: Can they trust the bank next door?

Tensions were high in Asia, Europe and the U.S. as banks and brokers became increasingly wary of trading with one another....Among banks facing the most intense scrutiny: Swiss bank UBS AG, which saw the price of its American depositary receipts fall 11% yesterday.

....The Swiss bank, for example, has in recent weeks reached out to investors to discuss a possible sale of all or part of a large portfolio of mortgage investments, according to people close to the matter. So far, they haven't met with success, in part because UBS hasn't been willing to slash the price of the bonds to lure investors....The rejections could be a relatively healthy sign for UBS, suggesting that the big bank isn't yet desperate enough to dump the mortgage portfolio at fire-sale prices.

Italics mine. In the next story, a suggestion that the unwillingness of banks to face reality about the value of their mortgage portfolios is creating a "toxic cloud" over the entire market:

The Fed probably doesn't want to hear this, but there are echoes of Japan's 1990s financial crisis in some of its recent actions.

...."We haven't had a full gut-check of truth-telling; that's what's causing the market jitters," says Joshua Rosner, managing director at Graham Fisher & Co....As with Japan in the 1990s, delay in finding a true clearing price for mortgage-backed securities and similar assets could keep uncertainty hovering over the market like a toxic cloud. Banks will stay more interested in fending off potential disasters than in lending money and keeping the economy growing.

Italics mine again. So which is it? Should banks hold tight and wait for buyers to come to their senses? Or get on with the business of facing up to the near worthlessness of a big chunk of their assets? The fact that I don't know isn't especially scary. The fact that no one else seems to know either is.

Kevin Drum 1:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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March 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA AND WRIGHT....Like most of the micro-flaps from the campaign trail this year, I haven't had a lot to say about the Jeremiah Wright "God damn America" fracas. Mainly this is because I just don't care very much about this kind of stuff, but it's also because I haven't really been able to make up my mind about it. In one way, Rev. Wright's incendiary comments (here) ought to hurt Obama more than those from some ordinary supporter since Obama's relationship with Wright is both long and deep. In another way, though, they should hurt him less. After all, which is worse: the very human desire not to humiliate a longtime friend because he occasionally crosses a line (Obama and Wright), or the cynical courtship of a powerful endorsement even though you already know the person in question has some odious public views (McCain and John Hagee)? I'd lean toward the latter, but, needless to say, nobody asked me and it appears that the rest of the country doesn't agree.

In any case, aside from the surprising fact that this affair has lasted longer than three news cycles, what's struck me the oddest about the whole thing has been the timing. Why now? Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ have been on the radar screen for months, discussed on blogs, listservs, talk radio, and Fox News. So why did it suddenly become a national media storm now? It probably isn't the result of campaign oppo stuff, since that would have been a lot more effective and helpful a couple of months ago. And the sermons themselves date back years, so it's not as if the material just recently became available. So what triggered it?

And why didn't Obama have a more vigorous defense ready when it did hit? It's not as if he didn't know Wright was an issue just waiting to explode in his face. After all, he disinvited Wright from his campaign launch last year, and you don't do that unless you know the guy is going to raise questions that you'd just as soon not answer that day. But if you know that, then you also know you're going to have to answer those questions eventually. Every sign suggests that he should have been ready for this.

Unfortunately, neither of those questions is likely to ever get answered, but it does look as if Obama is finally going to address this controversy in a serious way. In a reprise of John Kennedy's big speech in 1960 declaring his independence from the pope, Obama plans a major speech on Tuesday about "not just Reverend Wright, but the larger issue of race in this campaign." Should be worth a listen.

Kevin Drum 7:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (147)

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By: Kevin Drum

"THE MOST WRENCHING SINCE THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR"....Alan Greenspan today:

The current financial crisis in the US is likely to be judged in retrospect as the most wrenching since the end of the second world war. It will end eventually when home prices stabilise and with them the value of equity in homes supporting troubled mortgage securities.

This means, presumably, that he thinks we may be about to enter a recession worse than the one in 1981 — and that it's not going to end until house prices stop falling, which probably won't be until 2010 or so. This is bad, right?

The rest of Greenspan's piece is basically a convoluted way of saying that Wall Street never expects the good times to end, but when they (inevitably) do, all the computer models that worked when prices were going up suddenly seize up and die:

In line with the time-honoured observation that diversification lowers risk, computers crunched reams of historical data in quest of negative correlations between prices of tradeable assets; correlations that could help insulate investment portfolios from the broad swings in an economy. When such asset prices, rather than offsetting each other's movements, fell in unison on and following August 9 last year, huge losses across virtually all risk-asset classes ensued.

....Over the past half-century, the American economy was in contraction only one-seventh of the time. But it is the onset of that one-seventh for which risk management must be most prepared. Negative correlations among asset classes, so evident during an expansion, can collapse as all asset prices fall together, undermining the strategy of improving risk/reward trade-offs through diversification.

In other words, all those risk management systems created by the rocket scientists weren't designed to take into account the possibility that there was any actual risk in the system.

In any case, Greenspan alludes to the fact that traumatic events have become more common in the global economy over the past couple of decades, which is certainly true. Just to name a few, we've seen the run on the pound; the Mexican collapse; the Asian collapse; the LTCM smashup; the dotcom bust; and now the subprime debacle. The next big argument, I assume, is going to be between people like Greenspan, who essentially say there's nothing we can do about this, and others who think that reining in the wild west of global finance a bit might be a useful thing to do. Count me in the latter camp.

Kevin Drum 3:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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PAKISTAN UPDATE....From the LA Times this morning:

A missile strike Sunday destroyed the compound of a suspected militant leader in Pakistan's tribal belt, killing at least 18 people, officials and local residents said. The Pakistani military disavowed responsibility for the strike in the South Waziristan tribal region, raising the possibility that it was carried out by U.S. forces.

Yes, that would raise the possibility all right. If anyone else were shooting missiles into Pakistan, I'm pretty sure we'd know about it.

And speaking of this, a few months ago we had a minor kerfuffle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about missile strikes on Pakistan. However, since it was all based on "hypotheticals," it wasn't much of a conversation. Since then, though, we've launched at least two actual, concrete, non-hypothetical missile attacks against Pakistan. Shouldn't someone ask the candidates what they think of these?

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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IN WHICH I PUBLICLY MAKE THE STATE OF MY IGNORANCE MORE SPECIFIC....Like a lot of people, I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few months trying to understand the subprime debacle: CDOs, SIVs, mezzanine tranches, the housing bubble, diversification correlations, etc. etc. And some of this stuff I've finally figured out. Sort of. But there's one part that I still don't get, a piece of the puzzle where a card always seems to get palmed with no further explanation. For example, here's Jared Bernstein explaining what happened when the housing bubble burst:

Then the loans started to go bad, but because they were squirreled away who knows where, no one knew quite what to do. So the part of the economy that provides credit froze up, and without free-flowing credit, our economy can't expand.

I'm not trying to pick on Jared; his post just happened to be handy. But why is it that "the part of the economy that provides credit froze up"? There always seems to be some hand waving at that point, and aside from bits and pieces that I can't quite put together into a cohesive whole, there's never an explanation of why a meltdown in one particular (admittedly large) sector of the financial industry caused the entire commercial paper market to essentially freeze solid.

So consider this post a public plea for someone to explain that particular part of the puzzle in layman's terms. Why are the credit markets frozen?

And on a related note, I guess I have another question: is it really that hard to figure out the value of all the assets rolled up into the various CDOs and SIVs (the "who knows where" in Jared's post above) that caused this mess in the first place? I know it's not trivial, especially when the market is in freefall, but there are underlying assets behind all these vehicles. The proposition that nobody really knows what any of this stuff is worth just doesn't seem all that plausible. Anyone care to explain this too?

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (99)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORAL HAZARD FOR THEE, BUT NOT FOR ME....Over at CAP, David Abromowitz wonders why Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is unwilling to consider serious help for ordinary homeowners caught in the subprime debacle, while at the same time he's apparently eager to rescue the Wall Street firms who created the mess in the first place:

"We know that speculation increased in recent years; a resulting increase in foreclosures is to be expected and does not warrant any relief," he said [on March 3]. "People who speculated and bought investment properties in hot markets should take their losses just like day traders who speculated and bought soaring tech stocks in 2000."....Asked about help for homeowners [on Sunday], the Treasury Secretary was clear: "I'm looking very carefully at any proposal. But all the ones I've seen, which call for much more government intervention, raise more problems and do more harm than they would do good."

....So it would be unthinkable, wouldn't it, for the Treasury Department to throw taxpayer dollars into the breach while riding to the rescue of one of the central players on Wall Street responsible for originating, promoting, and selling billions of dollars of speculative overvalued mortgages? And surely the disciplinarian-minded Bush administration would never agree to open the Treasury to benefit other Wall Street firms holding mortgage-backed securities on which they already made record profits? Think again.

....An awful lot of normal finger wagging about the hazards of bailing out those who make bad decisions from their consequences melted away in the face of Paulson's primary concern — the health of Wall Street investment banks amid the greatest credit crisis since the Great Depression.

....Or consider that big oil company tax breaks are too integral to our energy plan, but relief for millions of drivers squeezed by rising gasoline prices would be bad economic policy. Or that eliminating the estate tax is promoted as tax fairness, but vetoing the expansion of health care to millions of children through the State Children's Health Insurance Program as too expensive is prudent budgetary management. The list goes on and on.

I realize, of course, that this is no time for finger pointing. Or so I'm told over and over and over again. But I can't help but wonder: when will it be time?

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

AN ODE TO NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING....Was Hillary Clinton's "3 am" attack ad a vicious smear aimed at Barack Obama, or was it part of a longstanding tradition that's "essential to democratic politics and ultimately yields a more engaged and better-informed public"? John Geer and Ken Goldstein argue that we should all relax and learn to embrace negative campaigning:

Consider that in 2004, one of the most negative campaigns in modern times, turnout was up about 5 percentage points from 2000, and the public was more aware of what the major party candidates stood for than in 2000.

Part of the reason negative ads have this beneficial effect is that they are more substantive than positive ads. Our research shows negative ads are more likely to focus on issues, are more specific and contain many more facts than positive ads. They enhance political interest and familiarity with the candidates' qualifications more than positive ads, which, in turn, raises citizens' likelihood of voting. In short, negative ads are more likely than positive ads to foster the kind of engagement we all want from the American electorate.

Geer and Goldstein concede that not all negative ads are born equal: "Many negative ads unfairly, even scurrilously, isolate candidates' votes or statements." But as a general proposition, they contend that it's no more unfair to point out why you should dislike a particular candidate than it is to point out why you should dislike a particular brand of car or television set. And as long as it works — which is likely to be approximately forever — we might as well get used to it.

One thing they might have added but didn't is that in most campaigns, both old and new, the biggest doses of negativity come from outside the campaign proper anyway. That was true in 1800, and we're seeing it again in the Obama/Clinton campaign, where the "3 am" ad is thin gruel indeed compared to the shoutfests that are going on between the rival camps of unofficial and semi-official supporters. Official campaigns can get rough — though, honestly, that's been only occasionally true of this one — but they're nothing compared to the blogosphere, the water cooler, and the email bomb.

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

PORTRAIT OF THE SUICIDE BOMBER AS A YOUNG MAN....I don't have anything special to say about this, but just wanted to pass along a piece in the LA Times today about a military effort to profile foreign-born suicide bombers in Iraq. Recent interrogations of 48 men indicate that most of them come from "large, lower-income families in which they struggled to be noticed," primarily from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.

Most described their upbringing as religious but not extremist, [Navy Rear Adm. Gregory] Smith said. Many said their fathers were harsh and often abusive. Most reported little or no previous military experience. Before they were recruited, many worked as taxi drivers, construction workers and in other low-paying jobs. Others were students.

Their recruiters preyed on their desire for recognition, acceptance and friendship, Smith said....The recruits were often shown videos of Americans purportedly abusing Iraqis and were urged to help avenge the mistreatment by killing Americans, Smith said. Insurgent strikes against U.S. forces also were shown.

....But when they reached Iraq, those destined for suicide missions were sequestered in safe houses with copies of the Koran and few other amenities....Some spoke of their disillusionment on discovering that most of the attacks carried out by insurgents were directed against the Iraqi people rather than U.S. forces.

"Again and again, we heard this reality bothered the recruits," Smith said. "They had not come here to kill Iraqi civilians. . . . They felt misled."

You can read the whole thing here.

Kevin Drum 11:49 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PARTY FAITHFUL....Conservative pundits who write about religion often describe the Democratic Party as "hostile" to religion. Liberals who write about religion generally don't, but they do charge Democrats with being generally clueless about it — and with being clueless about the electoral possibilities inherent in getting a clue. This is essentially Amy Sullivan's message, as Paul Baumann notes in his review of Amy's new book in our current issue:

The Party Faithful is rich in anecdote and, for the most part, incisive in analysis. Just how ignorant have the Democratic Party's movers and shakers been about the nation's millions of evangelicals? Sullivan tells the story of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe being introduced to megachurch pastor Rick Warren, one of the three or four best-known evangelicals in the country and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, a colossal best seller. "Nice to meet you, Rick," McAuliffe is reported to have said. "And what do you do?"

Sullivan uses many stories to drive home this point, among them that of Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical who ran Kerry's religious outreach operation. Vanderslice's hopelessly under-resourced operation was ridiculed or dismissed by other Kerry staffers, and her advice to the candidate ignored. In the final days of the campaign, however, she was sent to lend a hand in Michigan, and found a sympathetic listener in Donnie Fowler....These tactics worked, apparently, as Kerry went on to fare much better among weekly-mass-attending Catholics in Michigan — a full fifteen points higher, in fact — than he did in Ohio and Pennsylvania, states with similar Catholic populations.

Amy is a former editor at the Washington Monthly, so she's well known to many of you for her previous guest blogging here. And if you'll excuse an understatement, many of you have been skeptical of her case. Democrats aren't hostile to religion, is the usual rejoinder — often offered right before a series of cavalier references to believers in bearded guys in the sky or the flying spaghetti monster. Nope, no hostility here!

Well, I'm not religious myself, so I don't really care. But I do care about winning elections, and if liberals can win more of them by toning down the sarcasm and taking the religious community a little more seriously, is that too much to ask?

Amy will be guest blogging here for the next week, so we're going to find out. Are Democrats clueless about religion? Are there electoral gains to be made even among evangelicals? Do we have to sell our souls to do it? And what about abortion and gays?

Persistent optimist that I am, I hope we can chat about this stuff over the next few days in a fairly civil way. We can do that for one short week, can't we?

Kevin Drum 2:14 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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WALL STREET AND SOCIALISM....There are several obvious things happening in the financial markets right now. One is that there are enormous amounts of money flowing through non-bank institutions that are fairly lightly regulated. Another is that the people running these institutions can take enormous risks that provide them with enormous payouts, and they can do it with the knowledge that if those risks cause a collapse, they won't have to give any of that money back. The feds and society at large will eat the loss.

What follows is an email I got from a regular reader that touches on both these subjects. It's pretty clearly on the apocalyptic side, and I don't necessarily agree with all of it. But it seemed like it was worth reprinting, if only to spur some reaction. I hope he's all wet. I fear he probably isn't.


Kevin,

One of the things that shocks me is that the liberal blogosphere has been deadly silent about the massive bailout of bankers that is taking place with taxpayer money, and fueling the collapse of the dollar. Where's the outrage? What we're seeing is a classic example of "Privatize the gains during the boom — e.g. hand out $30B+ in Wall Street bonuses each of the last several years — and socialize the losses during the bust." But for this to be taking place in the context of a financial apocalypse among the American middle class (9m families currently have negative equity in their homes, and prices in all likelihood have much further to fall) strikes me as bordering on criminal. Why aren't the Democrats demanding the re-regulation of Wall Street and the reining in of compensation in the finance industry as quid pro quo for these bailouts?

For most of this winter, I've myself basically been OK with what the Fed has been doing, figuring that a full-scale collapse of the financial system isn't in anyone's interests, but I've come to the dark suspicion that the threat of moral hazard is not merely some abstraction that we need to worry about over the long term.

Check out the linked article. The comment that jumped out at me is Fannie Mae's Richard Syron saying his company "won't raise capital unless it benefits shareholders." This made me realize that a wide range of financial institutions — with the GSEs [Government Sponsored Entities, like Fannie Mae] at the head of the line — in an odd way may see an incentive in having the current turmoil problem get worse, insofar as doing so facilitates their getting a huge handout from the U.S. government.

One of the questions I've been toying with is who might be inclined to game the system during this moment of crisis. In looking for such potential perps, I've been inclined to sniff around Moscow or Tehran or sovereign wealth funds. In fact, the real perps may be hiding in plain sight, in boardrooms on Wall Street. It's becoming quite apparent that a lot of Wall Street players are hoping they can orchestrate an endgame where they get a huge bailout from the taxpayer, while limiting the re-regulation of the system to the mortgage-issuer end of the business.

Let me put the case more baldly: if you're a banker, an endgame that ends up creating (or giving the appearance of creating) system-level "moral hazard" is exactly what you want. One man's moral hazard, after all, is another man's way to have the government cover his ass while he retains huge personal profits.

I think you see that kind of political calculus pretty clearly at work in Syron's comments. You gotta admire his chuztpah in saying that Fannie Mae expects "to thrive for the benefit of our shareholders — and for the country." I mean, isn't it clearly to the benefit of the country that Fannie Mae remain solvent, even if that means, shucks, that the taxpayer has to pick up a few tabs?

How could the bankers be gaming the system? Easy: by continuing to refuse to go back into the debt markets until the Fed gives them better terms. Now that the Fed has shown a willingness to take some of their bad debts off their hands (e.g. the 4 March intervention), why not allow the present turmoil to fester for a few more months, in the hopes that, by doing so, the election-year Fed will eventually be willing to take a whole lot more of their crappy assets off their hands?

The specific calculus is likely to be: can I make more money by going back into the market and snatching up my competitors' undervalued assets, or by sitting tight and waiting for the Feds to come take my overvalued assets off my hands at a generous premium?

Kevin Drum 1:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE COLLAPSE OF BEAR STEARNS....Bear Stearns has been acquired:

In the deal crafted on Sunday for Bear Stearns, JPMorgan Chase agreed to pay a mere $2 a share for Bear — less than one-tenth the firm's market price on Friday....The sale price includes Bear Stearns's soaring Madison Avenue headquarters.

....The cut-price deal reflects deep misgivings about Bear's future and the enormous obligations that JPMorgan is assuming in guaranteeing the firm's obligations. In an extraordinary move, the Fed will provide financing for the transaction, including support for as much as $30 billion of Bear Stearns's "less-liquid assets."

On Friday, Bear's putative market value was about $4 billion. Subtract the value of its physical assets (that soaring headquarters building), and its financial assets were valued at around $3 billion. What are they valued at today?

Well, at $2 a share, about $270 million. Minus the value of the Fed lifeline, which is.....hard to calculate. But it's a lot.

So: On Friday Bear's financial assets were supposedly worth $3 billion. Today they're worth, let's say, -$3 billion. Or maybe -$10 billion. Who knows?

For now, I won't argue with the Fed arranging this bailout. Maybe it had to happen, and maybe it will prevent some kind of larger systemic collapse. At the moment, that's more important than assigning blame.

But I would like to know why, on Friday, investors thought Bear's financial assets were worth $3 billion, when, in fact, they were worth something closer to -$3 billion — something that the principals at Bear surely must have known for quite some time. If there's no fraud involved in that, then the word has pretty much lost all meaning.

UPDATE: I just want to add that I am seriously spooked by this bailout and what it might mean. That is all.

Kevin Drum 12:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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March 16, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE 27TH DAY....Last night I watched The Jane Austen Book Club, which turned out be an OK movie as long as you don't mind lots of coincidences and a happy ending that's so happy and so unlikely they really ought to invent a whole new Academy Award category for it. And then retire it.

But whatever. Constructing a plausible ending seems to be a lost art these days. In any case, I learned something new from watching it: back in 1957 someone made a movie out of the book The 27th Day. (The Silicon Valley geek character has a lobby poster for the film hanging on one of his walls.) Wow! The 27th Day is one of my favorite trashy potboilers, a Cold War sf novel featuring a stalwart young American, a beautiful British love interest, a brilliant German scientist, a bunch of evil Russians, and — aliens! I didn't really think anyone else in the world had even heard of the book, let alone made it into a movie. But they did, and IMDB informs me that it starred Gene Barry and Valerie French.

(According to Wikipedia, the author of the book, John Mantley, "trained as a fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II, and was sent to England and India. While there he exchanged long letters with his second cousin Mary Pickford, from which later evolved his first novel, The 27th Day." Huh. Then he became a writer and producer for Gunsmoke. Huh again. The entry also informs me that not only am I not the only person who's heard of The 27th Day, but it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection back in the day. Triple huh. I'm sure my loyal commenters will be able to make much sport of this.)

Anyway, I'll bet it's a really bad movie, but now I want to see it. There's no way I'll find it at Blockbuster, though, and even Netflix doesn't carry it, so I guess I'll have to buy a copy from eBay or something. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, the trailer for the movie is available on YouTube.

Next up: World Out of Mind, by J.T. M'Intosh. Now that's a so-bad-it's-good book that hasn't been made into a movie and never will be. Anybody but me ever read it?

UPDATE: In comments, FearItself writes:

I haven't seen the movie, but I've read enough Jane Austen to know that "a happy ending that's so happy and so unlikely they really ought to invent a whole new Academy Award category for it" is a staple of her books. Indeed, you could easily make the case that she used the very improbability of her novels' endings to further their arguments, and to poke fun at the novelistic conventions of her society. So I'd imagine the movie's ending was something of an homage.

OK. I'll buy that, especially given the structure of the rest of the movie.

Kevin Drum 3:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ECONOMIST....Do you read the Economist? The kinda sorta consensus in the liberal blogosphere is that you shouldn't: it's a magazine that sounds smart, but really isn't. Rather, it's just conservative propaganda, but in a smoother, more palatable package than the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

I myself read the Economist for about ten or fifteen years, and then stopped around 2000 or so. Partly this was because the ideological content really did seem to be getting more obtrusive than in the past and I got tired of it, and partly it was because the web made so much more news available — especially international and economic news — that the Economist didn't really seem to have much comparative advantage left. So I gradually read it less and less and finally let my subscription lapse.

All that said, though, it really is a good product in the weekly newsmagazine category: like most British magazines compared to their American equivalents, it makes our stuff look like kindergarten journals. And I've never really understood the objection to the fact that they have a point of view. Frankly, I prefer knowing a magazine's editorial slant, something that's not really that hard to filter out if you're paying attention, and theirs never really became all that heavy handed. Sure, you could always tell which side of an issue they took by whether they presented it first or last in an article, but at least they presented both sides in a generally intelligent way.

So why did I really stop reading? Well, the web and the ideology were contributing factors, but the real reason was logistical. The magazine closes on Thursday, and for over a decade I could count on getting it in the mail on Friday (sometimes) or Saturday (usually). Then something changed and suddenly the magazine never appeared before Monday. Sometimes not til Tuesday, and on rare occasions later than that. By that time the weekend was gone, the content was moldy even for a weekly, and more and more I just never got around to reading it. Since it's an expensive subscription, eventually I stopped.

Whose fault was this? The Economist's? The U.S. Postal Service's? Nobody's? I don't know. Perhaps they ought to look into it and write a story about how they could speed up their home delivery if they started using a private delivery service instead of a bloated, unionized, labor-heavy government monopoly. Though it would be sort of embarrassing if they tried it and it didn't work, wouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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March 15, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE GREAT FIREWALL....Who says censorship is dead in the era of the internet? James Fallows reports that if you live in China, you'd be hard pressed to know that anything was even happening in Tibet, let alone what the Chinese government was doing about it.

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By: Kevin Drum

DEATH AND TAXES....Tout Washington knows that Hillary Clinton hasn't yet made her tax returns public. "Release the Tax Returns!" is close to joining "No taxation without representation" in the annals of tax-based political slogans. But Jamison Foser points out an odd thing: John McCain, husband of wealthy beer heiress Cindy McCain, hasn't released his tax returns either:

Not that you would know that from watching MSNBC. According to Nexis, there hasn't been a single mention on MSNBC this year of the fact that McCain hasn't released his tax returns. No indication that McCain might even pay taxes, much less that he hasn't released his returns.

....MSNBC has by no means been unique in keeping secret the fact that John McCain hasn't released his tax returns. Media Matters has repeatedly documented media raising Clinton's lack of disclosure without mentioning McCain's — see here, here, here, and here for examples. During a March 5 Washingtonpost.com online discussion, Washington Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote, "I think McCain has" released his tax returns. Weisman was wrong. Not only hasn't McCain released his taxes, he hasn't even promised to do so in the future, as Clinton has. But it's hard to blame Weisman for not knowing this, given that the rest of the news media were all but ignoring the subject.

Hell, I didn't know this either. And sure, I understand that different treatment is justified since we all know that Hillary Clinton is a conniving, power-hungry shrew while John McCain is a financial boy scout with nothing but the people's best interests at heart — but hey, it can't hurt to make sure, can it? Maybe somebody should start asking Honest John the same questions they're asking Hillary.

The answers to these questions, by the way, will almost certainly be the same in both cases: no surprises. Since neither of them are idiots, I'm sure the payoffs to mob figures and shady fixers will be safely off the books.

Kevin Drum 2:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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By: Kevin Drum

PROXY WARS....Yesterday's CW: Leadership comes from the top. Candidates deserve scrutiny for what their supporters say and are responsible for forthrightly disowning incendiary remarks. Today's CW: Christ, we're tired of this stuff. Can we put the manufactured outrage back under a rock, where it belongs?

I'm not sure which CW I prefer. I'm leaning toward today's, for obvious reasons, but let's not let carte blanche go too far. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but other times it tells you something about the person smoking it. Time and tide, people, time and tide.

Kevin Drum 1:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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March 14, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Fun and games with our new laser printer box: (1) Happy happy happy. (2) Hey, what was that? (3) You want to play, do you? (4) Oh sure, slink away. Coward.

In other news, today is Pi Day (March 14), which can celebrate either the famous transcendental number or (in our house, anyway) the large orange cat named after the famous transcendental number. Pi himself has been chasing transcendental mice in transcendental kitty heaven for many years now, but at least he still has a day named after him.

And finally, since we here at the Washington Monthly like both cats and political activism, you might want to check out "The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism." To wit: "With web 2.0, we've embraced the idea that people are going to share pictures of their cats, and now we build sophisticated tools to make that easier to do." That's exactly as it should be.


Kevin Drum 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

WATCHING THE WATCHMEN....In practice, I don't know how effective the Intelligence Oversight Board has been over the years. But I guess the answer is, a little too effective for President Bush's taste:

Almost 32 years to the day after President Ford created an independent Intelligence Oversight Board made up of private citizens with top-level clearances to ferret out illegal spying activities, President Bush issued an executive order that stripped the board of much of its authority.

...."It's quite clear that the Bush administration officials who were around in the 1970s are settling old scores now," said Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union. "Here they are even preventing oversight within the executive branch. They have closed the books on the post-Watergate era."

....Under the old rules, whenever the oversight board learned of intelligence activity that it believed might be "unlawful or contrary to executive order," it had a duty to notify both the president and the attorney general. But Bush's order deleted the board's authority to refer matters to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation....Bush's order also terminated the board's authority to oversee each intelligence agency's general counsel and inspector general, and it erased a requirement that each inspector general file a report with the board every three months.

All part of the final year cleanup before Bush retires to Crawford, I suppose.

Kevin Drum 1:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN WAR WATCH....Does the retirement of CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon make war with Iran more likely? My own guess is no: his forced resignation had more to do with Iraq than Iran, and in any case, last year's Iran NIE effectively took military action off the table. Short of some kind of massive provocation, we'll probably exit the Bush/Cheney years without a third war on our hands.

For more, see Bill Arkin's "Six Signs the U.S. Is Not Headed for War in Iran." And for yet more, see Cheryl Rofer on the news that we've been engaged in serious "Track II" diplomacy with Iran for the past five years, leading to a proposal in the current issue of the New York Review of Books to "internationalize" the enrichment facility at Natanz. It may or may not go anywhere, but it's worth checking out.

Kevin Drum 1:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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STAYING THE COURSE....Eric Martin explains the worldview of the Iraq hawk:

If things in Iraq are chaotic and violent, well, we just can't leave can we — I mean, what about the oil (which was so totally not a reason for this invasion at all, in any way, whatsoever, I mean, who even knew Iraq had the second largest reserve oil supply in the world)? On the other hand, if things in Iraq are quieting down, we can't leave lest we disturb the peace. Especially because once we leave, the various factions will have at it. Even Petraeus said so.

Heads they win. Tails they win. We stay in Iraq no matter what. Capiche?

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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CREDIT CARD FOLLIES....Elizabeth Warren tells us that at yesterday's credit card hearing in the House, ordinary cardholders who had agreed to testify suddenly found out that they wouldn't be allowed to speak unless they signed a blanket waiver:

The people who had been invited to testify had flown in from around the country with their credit card bills in hand, only to learn that they couldn't talk unless they would sign a waiver that would permit the credit card companies to make public anything they wanted to tell about their financial records, their credit histories, their purchases, and so on. The Republicans and Democrats had worked out a deal "to be fair to the credit card lenders." These people couldn't say anything unless they were willing to let the credit card companies strip them naked in public.

Hmmm. That's pretty much how we used to treat rape victims in court, isn't it? Why the Democratic majority felt like it had to agree to this "compromise" is a little hard to fathom.

In any case, Warren has a good question: does this policy apply to credit card companies too? "I asked if the credit card companies were going to testify to such factual statements, would they be required to produce the data to back up the claims so that we could all see it and evaluate it....I never quite understood the Congressman's reply." Actually, I have a feeling she understood it perfectly. It's only got two letters, after all.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (53)

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TODAY'S ECONOMIC NEWS....The news on the inflation front is good, though perhaps temporarily:

The better-than-expected report from the Labor Department today showed that inflation was at its mildest level in six months, with prices for transportation and apparel falling while those for other goods increased only modestly.

....The relief from inflation may be short-lived: Energy prices declined in February, according to the government's measurements, but in recent days the cost of crude oil has surged to a record of around $110 a barrel, and gasoline was tracking that to new highs at the pump.

Presumably this means the Fed can continue lowering interest rates without worrying too much about short-term inflation. Long-term inflation still seems like a problem, but for now I'll take what I can get. On the other hand, this is unalloyed bad news:

Bear Stearns, facing a grave liquidity crisis, reached out to JPMorgan on Friday for a short-term financial lifeline and now faces the prospect of the end of its 85-year run as an independent investment bank.

....The rescue plan represents a devastating if not ultimately final blow for Bear Stearns, a scrappy and until now resilient investment bank that carved out a niche for itself by mastering the intricacies of the United States mortgage market.

The Bear Stearns situation might be unique: a mid-size firm with higher than average exposure to the subprime market. So maybe this isn't a harbinger. Maybe.

Kevin Drum 11:17 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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OZONE NO-NOS....That story about the Bush administration interfering with the statutory scientific mandate of the EPA is getting even juicier. Details here.

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IRAQ RECONCILIATION WATCH....Cameron Barr of the Washington Post talks to Gen. David Petraeus:

Petraeus, who is preparing to testify to Congress next month on the Iraq war, said in an interview that "no one" in the U.S. and Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation," or in the provision of basic public services.

....Petraeus credited both the mainly Sunni neighborhood patrols known as the Awakening and a cease-fire called by Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr with helping to bring down violence....In the interview, Petraeus conceded that some elements of both the Awakening movement and the Mahdi Army may be standing down in order to prepare for the day when the U.S. presence is diminished. "Some of them may be keeping their powder dry," Petraeus said of Mahdi Army members. "Obviously you would expect some of that to happen.

A lot of war critics have been saying this exact same thing for months. Now that Petraeus is saying it too, does that make it OK?

Kevin Drum 1:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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HOUSING NEWS....I sure hope the rest of the country is doing better than Southern California:

The median price for a Southland home last month was $408,000, down 17.6% from a year ago, according to DataQuick Information Systems. Area home prices have now fallen 19% on average from their peaks last year.

....The rapid pace of the decline has led Los Angeles economist Christopher Thornberg, who last year predicted a 20% decline in Southern California home prices, to revise his projection. He now thinks prices will fall 40%.

40%? I sure hope Thornberg is wrong. I don't feel like living in a ghost town.

Kevin Drum 1:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Kevin Drum

RACE BAITING....Which campaign is injecting racial politics into the Democratic primary? Sean Wilentz argues, contra conventional wisdom, that it's the Obama campaign: "tentatively since before the primaries began, and with a vengeance since Clinton's surprising win in New Hampshire." Why? Because suggestions that Hillary Clinton is race-baiting will gain Obama support from blacks and young liberals. Jason Zengerle isn't buying it:

[Wilentz's point] makes no sense. Unless the people running the Obama campaign are idiots, they realize that those "two main pillars of support" — black voters and young white liberals from university towns — will never be enough to capture the nomination, much less win the general election. (For proof of the latter, see the McGovern campaign, 1972.) In order to be his party's nominee, Obama needs to win white voters who aren't that liberal and who don't live in university towns — and who'd be very turned off by charges of racism emanating from a black candidate.

So, given all that, why on earth would the Obama campaign inject the charge of racism into the campaign? The only reason would be to respond to race-baiting attacks by the Clinton campaign and its supporters. And even then, the Obama people are reluctant to charge racism for fear of alienating white voters. (Witness Obama's measured response to Geraldine Ferraro's recent vulgarities.) On the other hand, it makes all too much political sense for the Clinton campaign to make an issue out of Obama's race. To deny that is to deny the obvious.

I really think this is too simplistic. It's probably true in a pure demographic sense that there are more votes to be gained for Hillary by appealing to white backlash than there are to be lost from blacks and elite white liberals. Not a lot more, but at least a bit.

But there's more to it. For starters, keep in mind that virtually all the race-based charges and countercharges are coming from surrogates, not from the campaigns themselves — and with few exceptions they leave no fingerprints. Usually all we see is what surfaces in public, where things end up being aired by the press (Tim Russert badgering Obama about Louis Farrakhan) or by supporters (Orlando Patterson claiming Hillary's "3 am" ad was racist). In other cases the source is clear but the reaction is vastly over the top (Geraldine Ferraro), while in yet others — the "Muslim garb" item on Drudge, the "back of the bus" meme — we have no idea where the charges originated. It's all very mysterious.

Still, one way or another, the ultimate source for all this has gotta be Hillary, right? As Jason asks, why would Obama be instigating any of this? Answer: he probably isn't. But if baseless charges against Hillary are being tossed around by his supporters, his campaign might figure that benign neglect is a pretty good strategy. After all, Obama's campaign manager, David Axelrod, is not a political naif. He's a savvy political consultant who knows how to throw elbows, and he knows perfectly well that, demographics aside, there's nothing more toxic in a national Democratic campaign than to be accused of race baiting. If they manage to convince the press and the party mainstream that Hillary is exploiting race against a candidate like Obama, she's dead. And what's the best way to do that? Let surrogates make the charges, and then have Obama himself take the high road so that he doesn't alienate white voters.

Do I believe that's what's happening? I don't know. As near as I can tell, though, practically everyone else in the blogosphere does know exactly where all this stuff is coming from: it's coming from Team Hillary. We all know that's her scorched-earth style, don't we? Or: it's coming from Team Obama. They've been suckering us all along and the media is too starry eyed to see what they're up to.

But look: In January, a slew of Hillary surrogates injected race into the campaign, and even though Hillary herself wasn't responsible for any of it, it struck me that there was just too much of it for it to be a coincidence.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Over the past two weeks there have been a slew of charges of race baiting, nearly all of which have struck me as baseless. Obama hasn't been responsible for any of it himself, but the same question applies now that applied in January: is there too much of it for this to be just a coincidence?

Again, I don't know. Maybe Hillary's campaign really is behind all this stuff. Maybe they really are that stupid. But all the people who "know" Hillary is responsible sound an awful lot like all the people who "knew" Hillary had murdered Vince Foster back in the 90s. One way or another, I sure feel like I'm being played. I'm just not sure by whom.

POSTSCRIPT: Just to make things clear: I voted for Obama and I want him to win the nomination. I don't think Hillary has a realistic chance of winning, and I believe she's risking serious damage to the party by hanging on. What's more, her hard-edged, tone deaf recent campaigning ("3 am," "commander-in-chief threshold," Samantha Power) has given us all plenty of reason to be sick and tired of her.

But has she been race baiting? I know we all "know" she has been, but the evidence is spectacularly thin — and, frankly, there's nothing in Hillary's past to make me think she'd do this. This is really not a charge that we should be throwing around so lightly.

Kevin Drum 1:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (201)

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March 13, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

IN PRAISE OF NONFICTION....Tyler Cowen defends Wikipedia:

If I had to guess whether Wikipedia or the median refereed journal article on economics was more likely to be true, after a not so long think I would opt for Wikipedia. This comparison should give us pause.

....The sad truth is that "non-fiction" has been unreliable from the beginning, no matter how finely grained a section of human knowledge we wish to consider. For instance, in my own field, critics have tried to replicate the findings in academic journal articles by economists using the initial data sets. Usually, it is impossible to replicate the results of the article even half of the time.

....You can knock down the reliability of published research another notch by considering "publication bias."....Articles with striking findings are more likely to be published and later publicized, whereas it is very difficult to publish a piece which says: "I studied two variables and found they were not much correlated at all." If you adjust for this bias in the publication process, it turns out you should hardly believe any of what you read. Claims of significance are put forward at a disproportionately and misleadingly higher rate than claims of non-significance. Brad DeLong and Kevin Lang once co-authored a piece on this bias which they entitled appropriately: "Are All Economic Hypotheses False?"

Actually, though, I lied in my introduction. Or half lied. Or, perhaps, misrepresented a bit. In the end, Tyler concludes that "error, falsehood, sloppy untruths, and just downright lies are found all too frequently" on the web, "and they threaten to spread even further." That's why you should support your local academic journal. Or fact-checked magazine.

But sloppy untruths and downright lies had an, ahem, robust history long before HTML burst forth from Tim Berners-Lee's head, so I'll stick to my basic position on this issue: Wikipedia is a phenomenal resource. It's astonishingly broad, it's deeper than most people imagine, it's startlingly up to date, it contains loads of useful links to primary and secondary sources, and all things considered, it's surprisingly accurate. However, anyone using it should consider it a starting point, not an end. My motto: "Sure, you have to be careful with Wikipedia, but you should always be careful anyway."

Kevin Drum 2:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (61)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE FREEDOM AGENDA....Good God. Did Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times actually write this?

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush cast the stakes in stark terms, repeatedly invoking his desire to spread freedom and democracy, the central themes of his foreign policy. Those themes are hardly new to American presidents. Woodrow Wilson talked about making the world safe for democracy, while Ronald Reagan warned that "freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."

But Mr. Bush, most experts agree, has taken the American freedom agenda to an entirely new level, by trying to foster democracy in nations that have not known it before, like Iraq and Afghanistan. Some historians have called it folly, and Mr. Bush conceded in an interview with conservative commentators last year that his critics believe he is "hopelessly idealistic."

Italics mine. This is daft. We invaded Afghanistan because it was harboring a mass murderer who launched an attack on the United States. We invaded Iraq because.....well, I'm not entirely sure why we invaded Iraq. But fostering democracy was pretty clearly not one of the major motivating factors. In the rest of the world, and particularly in the Middle East and central Asia, we've done virtually nothing to promote democracy. In Egypt, the whole idea is considered a sick joke.

Could we please hear who these supposed experts are? Outside of AEI and the Weekly Standard, I really don't think there's anyone left who believes the Bush administration is seriously invested in a "freedom agenda." Can we name some names?

Via Matt.

Kevin Drum 1:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

COATTAILS....Via Steve Benen, The Hill reports that downticket Democrats are becoming more and more convinced that Barack Obama's coattails would be a lot longer than Hillary Clinton's:

Democratic lawmakers are becoming persuaded that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) would have a more positive impact on other Democrats on the November ballot than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Obama's advantage over Clinton would be most pronounced in the Southern and Western states President Bush carried in 2000 and 2004, say lawmakers interviewed by The Hill.

....Obama will "bring new people into the process in Southern states, there's no question about it," said Rep. James Clyburn, the House Democratic whip from South Carolina. "In these Southern states he's bringing out more people, young people, African-Americans. They're being energized by him."

Clyburn, who has stayed neutral in the primary, said Obama at the top of the ticket would "certainly" do more to help other Democratic candidates, citing South Carolina and Mississippi specifically.

...."I've had quiet conversations with a number of members," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who has endorsed Obama. "I don't think there's any doubt about it, Obama would be more helpful to House candidates virtually everywhere."

Steve asks, "Do superdelegates care?" I'd answer, "How could they not?" Perhaps a few more of them ought to get off the fence and try to bring this thing to an end.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE BROKEN PIPELINE....Back in the late 90s Bill Clinton spearheaded an effort to double NIH spending on healthcare research. After his first year in office, George Bush put a stop to this, first flattening the NIH budget and then decreasing it. The problem? All that extra Clinton-era funding was in the form of multi-year grants, and when the budget flatlined those grants still had to be funded. That meant no money for anything new. Megan McArdle, channeling medblogger Orac, argues that this demonstrates a problem with the way government works:

There are many reasons to avoid taking the King's shilling if you can. Chief among them is that politicians are extremely fickle taskmasters....This has recently become a problem for healthcare research, thanks to a funding boom and bust, and the government's poor system for fund allocation.

....A steady, slow increase, [Orac] says, would have been better than a doubling followed by a flatline; now the old grants are crowding out new research, and possibly crippling the careers of young researchers who can't get onto a project. This suggests that the public should have a preference for politicians with modest promises, rather than radical new plans. But in the case of things like scientific research, this is emphatically not the case.

Well, sure. Politicians are fickle. But are we under the impression here that if Clinton & Co. had funded only a modest rise in NIH funding that Bush & Co. would have kept it in place? That seems....unlikely. So sure, the problem here may be partly "government," but let's face it: it's much more a problem of "the Bush administration." They've got other priorities, like wars in Iraq and missile defense systems, and medical research that benefits elite universities who don't contribute much money to Republican causes just isn't high on their list. So despite the problems it's created, we're lucky Clinton did as much as he did. If he hadn't, we never would have gotten anything.

Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously. But too often libertarians and conservatives watch one of their own deliberately trash a government program and then use that as a case study of why "government" doesn't work. That, needless to say, deserves to be taken a lot less seriously.

Kevin Drum 12:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

HEY, WATCHA WATCHING?....Here's the latest from the wild, wild west of invading your privacy for fun and profit:

Charter Communications Inc. said Wednesday that it would sell information it collects about the viewing preferences of 330,000 of its cable TV customers in the Los Angeles area.

....To protect the privacy of its customers, no identifying information will be included in the data, said Jim Heneghan, senior vice president for ad sales for Charter....The information will show when a digital set-top box is turned on, the specific channel the box is tuned to and whether a show is being recorded. It will reveal when channels are switched and when the television is turned off.

Sure, sure, no identifying information. For now. But can I ask a question: why does Charter collect and store this information in the first place? They have no legitimate use for it except to sell it to people.

Like, say, political campaigns. Which might explain why politicians don't seem very aroused by the massive data collection on our personal habits that pervades every aspect of our lives these days.

Of course, the other reason, frankly, is that most voters really don't seem to care much. I guess that means I'm a dying breed. But even so, I'll use a supermarket snooping loyalty card only when it gets stuffed into my cold, dead hands.

Kevin Drum 11:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

GETTING BACK ON TRACK....Can we go back to mocking Republicans for a while? Or expressing schadenfreude, or something? Here's a start:

In the tiny world of people who keep the books for Washington's multitude of political committees, Christopher J. Ward was considered the Republican "gold standard," in the words of a former co-worker — one of the few people with so much expertise in election law that everyone wanted Ward's services.

....But in late January, Ward, 39, was dismissed as the NRCC announced that it had found financial "irregularities" that "may include fraud." The FBI is investigating what appears to be "a significant amount of money" missing from the House Republican fundraising arm, according to a law enforcement official.

....Officials told The Post that the NRCC's problems may be more extensive. Republican lawmakers and former committee staff members now allege that Ward fabricated audits and other financial documents for 2003 to 2006, some of which were turned over to a Wachovia Bank branch in McLean in October 2006, when the NRCC borrowed $8 million in last-minute money for congressional campaigns.

....In an election year that holds dismal prospects for congressional Republicans, possible financial problems at the cash-strapped NRCC are the last thing the GOP needs.

"The House Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were a dog food, they'd take it off the shelf," said retiring Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who chaired the NRCC for four years earlier this decade.

So sad. If that doesn't grab you, here's David Corn on yet another one of John McCain's embarrassing religious endorsers, Reverend Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus. It's great stuff from Mr. Straight Talk. And if that still isn't good enough, read here about the EPA yet again ignoring scientific advice in favor of caving in to industry lobbyists. Anything but more Geraldine Ferraro, OK? Anything but that.

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

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March 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

REFORM STORM....Yesterday's passage of a law creating a House ethics panel reminds me of something that Paul Glastris wrote in our current issue: whatever else you think of John McCain, he's the first Republican nominee in 80 years who's shown any interest in political reform. That sets up an interesting reform dynamic:

Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, the 2008 general election will feature two reasonably committed political reformers. Such a thing hasn't happened since 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt mounted a third-party challenge to the GOP incumbent William Howard Taft and handed the election to the progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The conditions are right, in other words, for a perfect storm for political reform.

....But just because the potential is there doesn't mean it will happen....If we want to get a virtuous bidding war started between the candidates, we're going to need auctioneers. That would be members of the press. Normally, political reporters don't feel comfortable challenging candidates to propose reform ideas that go beyond what another candidate has offered — to do so seems too much like advocacy. But this year could be different. The public's disgust with the current rules in Washington has reached new heights. Also, reform is the logical extension of many of the big issues that candidates are already talking about: the influence of lobbyists, excess partisanship, and the abuse of presidential power, to name three. And the fact that the candidates have themselves claimed to be reformers gives journalists a chance to do what they like best: ask "Gotcha" questions.

Click the link to read Paul's questions. Especially if your first name is Wolf or Tim.

Kevin Drum 4:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

DOG WHISTLES....Jonathan Cohn says this about Geraldine Ferraro's recent comments to the press:

Ferraro's original statement to Daily Breeze, which suggested that Obama has gotten preferential political treatment because of his race, was a dog-whistle to white voters who resent affirmative action.

Well, sure. Except for one thing. Torrance is a faceless little bedroom community most famous for having a big shopping mall, and the Torrance Daily Breeze is a faceless little local newspaper with a circulation of about 60,000. Nobody outside the South Bay reads it, Ferraro's comment was buried near the end of the original article, California has already voted, and no one in the Obama campaign cared about it. In fact, nobody would ever have noticed her remarks in the first place if Kos hadn't highlighted them three days after they appeared. Ferraro's moment in the national press didn't start until after the blogosphere erupted.

If Ferraro was trying to do some dog whistling, she sure picked an unusually ineffective forum for it. It's way more likely that she just blurted out something dumb to a local reporter, and then got her dander up when people started piling on about it. That's no excuse for saying something dumb and then following it up with something even dumber, but it's pretty unlikely that Ferraro had any serious dog whistling agenda here.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (246)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON FALLON....Was CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon unfairly forced to resign? Fred Kaplan suggests it was probably inevitable:

Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that after the five "surge" brigades left Iraq this July, there would be a "pause" before any further withdrawals would commence. In a Feb. 27 interview with the New York Times, Fallon said this pause would be brief, just long enough to allow "all the dust to settle," after which the drawdown would resume. Moreover, he said, U.S. strategy would shift — focusing on "supporting, sustaining, advising, training, and mentoring" the Iraqi army, not so much on fighting or providing security ourselves.

In a Slate column the next day, I wondered if Fallon was speaking on behalf of Gates, the administration, or anybody besides himself. I have since learned, from a senior Pentagon official and from a high-ranking Army officer, that he was not. I have also learned that many of Fallon's statements on policy matters have been similarly unauthorized.

There's a limit to how much public freelancing can be tolerated from a regional commander — or any other military officer. Although most liberals are probably sympathetic toward Fallon's views, it's worth keeping in mind that a year from now the shoe is probably going to be on the other foot. Do we really want the commander in Iraq in 2009 telling the press that President Obama's withdrawal plans are likely to lead to chaos and need to be slowed down? Even if that's his heartfelt professional opinion?

I don't think so. Bottom line: I'll stick with civilian control of the military, even if I don't happen to like the current civilians. It sounds like Fallon crossed the line once too often.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Paul Glastris

WERE THE FOUNDING FATHERS REALLY CHRISTIANS?....Religious conservatives have long insisted that the Framers were deeply and traditionally Christian, an assertion central to their contention that America was founded as a "Christian nation." Secular liberals, by contrast, have long argued that most of the Founders were agnostics or, at best, Deists who believed that reason, not scripture, is the true path to understanding the Almighty.

So which side is right? Neither is, quite, according to Steve Waldman, founding editor of beliefnet.com and the author of a terrific new book, Founding Faith. Waldman has read just about every available thing that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the rest said and wrote, publicly and privately, about their personal theological views. He comes to two conclusions. First, all the Founders saw themselves as Christians and believed that God in one way or another guides human affairs. So, score one for the religious right. Second, not a single one of the main Founders actually believed in the divinity of Jesus, which is the central tenet of the Christian faith. Score one for the secular left.

Steve is blogging about this over at TPM Cafe. Also he's compiled an archive of his source material so you can read for yourself what the Founders had to say about their personal religious beliefs. You might also check out the cover story he wrote for the Washington Monthly (where he's a contributing editor) on the surprising role evangelicals played during the founding in securing religious freedom.

Paul Glastris 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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By: Kevin Drum

FOOD FOR THOUGHT....In 1948, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act, which created the Voice of America and laid the foundation for our Cold War era propaganda efforts. However, in an effort to prevent the government from engaging in domestic propaganda while still giving it a free hand overseas, the act also stipulated that VOA programming couldn't be released domestically. In 1972, Smith-Mundt was amended to make that prohibition even stronger, preventing the domestic distribution of any "information about the United States, its people, and its policies" that had been prepared for dissemination abroad.

Needless to say, the distinction between domestic and foreign distribution has almost completely broken down in an era of global communication and the internet. And yet, both aspects of Smith-Mundt are, arguably, even more pressing today than they were half a century ago: media outreach to the Muslim world is a critical component of our public diplomacy efforts, but the increasing sophistication of those efforts makes it more important than ever that they not be directed internally. Public diplomacy wonk and Arab media expert Marc Lynch cogitates:

I'd go so far as to suggest that a not-insignificant portion of General Petraeus's information operations efforts have been directed towards shaping American public discourse. It isn't an accident that he has been so available to so many journalists, or that the flow of "good news" about the Anbar Awakening and the surge into the American media has expanded so dramatically. And why wouldn't he, when at the heart of the new counter-insurgency doctrine lies the recognition that maintaining domestic public support for a long, drawn-out military presence is one of the most important single factors?

....The impulse to get this under control is exceptionally strong, and well-justified. This is particularly the case with propaganda which falls clearly into the realm of the political, conventionally defined: selective release of information intended to make the current President look good (or bad). It's less obvious, but in some ways more important when the propaganda is conceived of as part of the war effort itself, and building domestic public support is incorporated into the military's mission.

....At the same time, I've become somewhat fatalistic about the ability to actually control this or to enforce Smith-Mundt's principles in any serious fashion. Preventing the domestic reception of propaganda released abroad is simply impossible given the globalization of the media and the incredibly fast movement of information from one public to another, from one language to another, from one media form to another....I honestly don't know what to do about all of this. Smith-Mundt's principles are important, but both current practice and the realities of the information age make it nearly impossible to realize them.

I don't know what to do about it either. Consider this an open thread on the topic.

Kevin Drum 12:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

SPITZER....CNN says Eliot Spitzer is about to announce his resignation. At last, our long national nightmare is over. I can't believe we've had to endure this for nearly 48 hours.

UPDATE 11:45 AM: He's already started atoning in the past two days....he's really, really sorry....the people's work is too important to be trifled with....he's resigning as of Monday.

So that's that. Eliot Spitzer's public career is over. Next question: which high profile law firm will hire him at an exorbitant salary in a few months after the outrage has died down?

Kevin Drum 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

NO TORTURE. NO EXCEPTIONS....General Wes Clark writes about torture and the big picture:

Today, in the struggle to finish off the extremists plotting against us, it won't be torture and fear that win the day for America. Far from it. Nations that torture end up despised and defeated. No, to win we'll have to live up to the values we profess, the belief in human rights, equal justice, fair trials, and the rule of law. These ideals are potent weapons. They will give us allies, friends, information, and security — but only if we live them.

We've done it before. In the thrust and parry of the cold war, America's adherence to proper standards and international law won us respect, allies, friends, and, ultimately, the influence that helped bring down the Soviet system. And we can have the same success in our fight today. We just have to make more friends and fewer enemies. And in such a strategy, there's no place for torture. Or for those who would torture.

Conservatives keep reminding us that the war on terror is not like a conventional war. And they're right. It's one in which military force is relatively less important and gaining allies against terrorism is relatively more important. But a nation that tortures will never succeed in gaining those allies. Instead, the pool of jihadist sympathizers will continue growing, and with it the size and lethality of the hard core terrorists themselves. The end result will, eventually, be catastrophic.

The only way to win this war is to turn entire countries against terrorism, and the only way to do that is to live the values we preach and win them to our cause. And that means an end to torture.

Kevin Drum 1:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S LUCK....In a newspaper interview a few days ago, Hillary Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro suggested that Barack Obama owes his success this year to being black. "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she told the Torrance Daily Breeze. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is."

Over at TPM, Josh Marshall ponders whether there's any truth to this and concludes, reasonably, that there probably isn't. Being black has both helped and hurt Obama, just as being a women has both helped and hurt Hillary Clinton, but on balance it's pretty unlikely that Obama's color is a plus on his electoral ledger.

I'd just like to add one thing. Implicit in Ferraro's statement is the idea that if Obama were a charismatic young white guy, there's no way he'd be getting any attention. And that's just plain crackers. Charismatic young John F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1960. His brother, charismatic young Robert F. Kennedy, attracted huge support in 1968 and might have become president as well if he hadn't been assassinated. Charismatic young Gary Hart nearly stole the 1984 Democratic nomination from Walter Mondale. And charismatic young Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.

Being young and charismatic has been a pretty good combination in the Democratic Party for the past 50 years. And being against the Iraq war from the start is a pretty is a pretty good credential in the Democratic Party this year. Contra Ferraro, if Obama were a white man he'd still be getting plenty of attention.

Kevin Drum 12:53 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (166)

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By: Kevin Drum

NEW ETHICS PANEL....Nancy Pelosi finally wore everyone down and got the House to pass a new law setting up an independent ethics panel:

The six members of the new Office of Congressional Ethics would have the authority to initiate preliminary reviews of allegations against House members, conduct investigations and refer their findings to the House ethics committee along with a public report.

"For the first time in history, you have nonmembers able to initiate investigations," said Sarah Dufendach, chief lobbyist for the watchdog group Common Cause. "They're doing oversight. They're the new police."

I'll be genuinely curious to see how this works out. The panel doesn't have a huge amount of power (in particular, it has no ability to issue subpoenas) and its only authority is to investigate and then pass along reports to the House ethics committee. But it's not a bad start.

Kevin Drum 12:23 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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March 11, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SUPERDELEGATES....Writing about the Democratic primary race, Mori Dinauer notes that neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has any chance of reaching the magic number that gives them a majority of the total delegates. This means that, like it or not, the Democratic nomination will be decided by superdelegates one way or the other. So what's the holdup?

I'm going to assume that they know as well as I the mathematics of the race. So why wait to endorse?....[Events over the next few weeks] will produce marginal gains for each candidate but won't significantly change one fact: neither candidate will reach the magic number and then, as now, the decision is going to come down on the members of the Democratic Party establishment who, despite being "unelected," "undemocratic" or "unaccountable," will be precisely fulfilling the role they were designed for, which is resolving the contest.

Except that they are currently resolving nothing. They are waiting.

Obviously there are plenty of reasons why individual superdelegates might want to sit tight. Some are cowardly and don't want to risk endorsing the eventual loser. Some are greedy and want to bargain for goodies in return for their support. Some are weak-kneed and just can't make up their minds.

But, really, Mori is right: what are they waiting for? There are about 300 undeclared superdelegates, and if they made endorsements over the next week or two it would clear up a lot of things. If Hillary moved to within a hundred delegates of Obama, she'd still have a fighting chance to win and would have every right to stay in the race. If Obama increased his lead to, say, 200 delegates, Hillary would no longer have even a colorable chance at the nomination and would come under tremendous pressure to drop out. The latter seems more likely to me, but either way it would clear up the state of play considerably and possibly lower the temperature of the campaign a bit.

Remaining undecided might be good for Hillary, but not for the party. Seems like it's time for the undecided supers to think about that.

Kevin Drum 7:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Kevin Drum

FALLON RESIGNS....Holy cats. Less than week after Esquire's admiring profile of CENTCOM chief Adm. William Fallon — admiring, that is, if you think dissenting from Cheneyesque bellicosity is admirable — Laura Rozen reports that he's stepping down. Not being warlike enough carries a heavy price in this administration.

More here. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, says the New York Times, "labeled as 'ridiculous' any speculation that the admiral's retirement portends a more bellicose American approach toward Iran." You betcha.

UPDATE: By the way, I'll bet that no military officer ever again speaks to Thomas P.M. Barnett, who wrote the Esquire piece. Fair or not, he's gotta be radioactive after this.

UPDATE 2: The suspicion that Fallon opposes the administration's policy on Iran goes back to last September, when he told al-Jazeera that the "drumbeat on Iran" was "not helpful" and "not useful." Shortly after that, Barnett approached Fallon to begin work on his profile.

Today, SecDef Gates said this about the idea that Fallon was at loggerheads with the administration: "We have tried between us to put this misperception behind us over a period of months and, frankly, just have not been successful in doing so."

So I wonder: did Fallon and Gates see the Barnett piece as a way of fighting "this misperception"? Did they figure that Barnett was a sympathetic writer and Fallon would be able to set him straight during their time together? And were they then stunned when the piece appeared and not only failed to fight the misperception, but actively amplified it? And does Fallon blame himself, or does he think Barnett screwed him?

Just wondering.

Kevin Drum 4:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE HILLARY FEEDING FRENZY....The online feeding frenzy against Hillary Clinton is driving me crazy. And that's despite the fact that I support Obama and, all things considered, think Hillary should probably withdraw from the race.

More on that later — maybe — but for now I just want to make one comment: the current attempts to tar Hillary as a racist have gone way, way over the top. They're revolting. Back before the South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign and its surrogates really did seem to be making a few too many racially charged comments for it to be just a coincidence (though even then some of the accusations were bogus), but after South Carolina it pretty much stopped. I can't say whether it stopped for reasons of politics or reasons of principle, but it stopped.

But the accusations of racism haven't. They've just gotten more ridiculous. Last week a commenter at Daily Kos claimed that the Clinton campaign had concocted an ad that deliberately darkened Obama's face (to make him scarier) and changed the image's aspect ratio (to make his nose broader). They hadn't. After a 60 Minutes appearance, Hillary got slammed for supposedly implying the Obama might be a Muslim. As Eric Boehlert points out, this is patently absurd. Then, a couple of days ago, a legion of bloggers started locking onto the inane meme that talk of Obama as Hillary's VP was like asking him to "ride in the back of the bus." Finally, today, Orlando Patterson, in an apparent attempt to make parody obsolete, writes that when he saw Hillary's "3 am" ad, "I couldn't help but think of D. W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation,' the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society." Hell, even I fell for the racism meme a couple of weeks ago, getting suckered into passing along a Drudge slander about Hillary's campaign supposedly circulating a photo of Obama in "Muslim" garb.

Paul Krugman is right: a large part of the progressive movement seems to have lost its sanity. Hillary's comments about John McCain being commander-in-chief material were indefensible, and there's no question that she's running a very hardnosed campaign. At this point it looks an awful lot like it's only going to get worse, and it's going to get worse even though she has virtually no chance of winning. I wish she'd withdraw gracefully. But that said, she's not the devil and the fever swamp should be left back in the swamp where it belongs. Can we please bring some sanity back to the blogosphere?

Kevin Drum 3:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (297)

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By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE FOR SALE....According to the Weinberg Group's website, one of their specialties is defending corporate clients with, um, PR problems:

The Weinberg Group knows how critical it is to protect products, markets and revenue streams and to minimize the damage done to corporate image, business and brands. We've developed a highly-effective, integrated approach to preparing and defending against attacks on products and processes, averting crises, and diminishing the effects of civil and criminal litigation.

Indeed. Justin Rood reports today that congressional Democrats have some questions about this:

Investigators for the House Energy and Commerce Committee say they have obtained deleted pages from the Weinberg Group's Web site where the firm took credit for delaying the cancellation of a harmful drug for nearly a decade at the request of two pharmaceutical clients, and other industry victories.

The firm's efforts "led to an extensive process" and eventually "10 additional years of sales prior to the ultimate cancellation of the drug," according to a printout of the page provided to ABC News by the committee.

In a March 6 letter, the committee asked Weinberg to turn over documents naming that drug, its manufacturers and the experts it involved in allegedly keeping the drug on sale.

Hey, if they were willing to brag about it on their website, I'm sure they'll be happy to brag about it under oath in front of a congressional subcommittee. Let's name some names.

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THE RETURN OF BENCHMARKS....The indefatigable Michael O'Hanlon has taken to the op-ed pages once more to argue that we're making serious progress in Iraq and should stay the course. Instead of counseling withdrawal, here's what he thinks Democrats should do:

Democrats and other war critics should not be arguing for an unconditional and rushed departure, as the congressional leadership and Obama are generally doing.

....Iraqi leaders need to feel pressure to deliver. That is where a more conditional Democratic approach comes in. The United States stays only if Iraqis accelerate their own political efforts at reconciliation. This is admittedly a complex matter to evaluate accurately, but that is OK — Iraqis will get the message even if it is somewhat inexact and imprecise.

Democrats in Congress — including the two seeking the presidency and the leadership on Capitol Hill — should work for success in Iraq while reminding Iraqis that absent continued progress, the U.S. commitment could end, and soon. It is a message consistent with Democrats' past views on the conflict, yet cognizant of the considerable gains there in the past year.

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. This is the infamous "benchmark" approach to Iraq, an approach that Democrats spent several years pushing. And when they did, they ran into a brick wall from Republicans who labeled it defeatist, traitorous, cowardly, and naive.

So, two questions. First: Back when Democrats were trying to sell this idea as a way of getting out of Iraq, did O'Hanlon support it? Or does he only support it now, when it's a way of staying in Iraq?

Second: What benchmarks does O'Hanlon support? Will Iraqis really get the message in the absence of absolutely clear metrics? Will O'Hanlon have the guts to support withdrawals if those metrics aren't met? Will he commit to something firm right now and then stick to it, regardless of how things turn out?

I doubt it. And in a way, this isn't really a criticism of O'Hanlon. As near as I can tell, the American public is still roughly in the same place it's been since at least 2005: in favor of withdrawal within a year or two, but when that year or two is up, still in favor of withdrawal within a year or two. On that score, O'Hanlon is just the echo of a deeply conflicted public that doesn't have the backbone to make hard decisions. If he didn't exist, we'd have to invent him.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein provides some enlightening background.

Kevin Drum 2:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND BLOGS....Here's a meta-question for you: If I believe that a survey is fundamentally flawed, should I highlight an odd result from it anyway? Let's find out!

Today's survey comes from Harris Interactive and it concludes that 22% of the country reads political blogs regularly (i.e., several times a month or more). I don't believe that. This is despite the surprising number of times that someone will mention out of the blue that a friend reads my blog. Despite the fact that my mother's gardner reads my blog because, it turns out, she's Jerome Armstrong's cousin. Despite the fact that you don't really have to explain to people what a blog is anymore.

Hmmm. Hold on. Maybe I believe this survey after all. But no. I really don't. I mean, 22%? Surely this number has been heavily skewed upward by the fact that this poll was conducted online, right?

But even if the overall numbers are skewed upward, the internals might nonetheless be accurate, and those threw me for a loop. Take a look at the charts on the right. Despite the fact that the blogosphere is generally considered a heavily liberal pond these days, it turns out that Republican and independent blog readers find blogs both more accurate and more valuable than the mainstream media (by pretty good margins, too) while Democratic blog readers find them less accurate and about equally valuable. Overall, Democrats are far more skeptical of blogs than conservatives and centrists.

I'm not sure what this means. Does it show that liberals have good sense? Does it show that the activist liberal base (the "netroots") is actually fairly small, and most liberal blog readers are just your average NPR listeners? Does it merely show that conservatives have hated the mainstream media longer than liberals? (But do independents loathe the MSM too?) Does it show that Rush Limbaugh's blog has a lot of readers?

Or does it show that this Harris Interactive survey is useless to begin with and not worth wasting too much brainpower on? I'm not sure.

Via James Joyner.

Kevin Drum 12:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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SADDAM AND AL-QAEDA....This isn't really news to anyone but Stephen Hayes and Dick Cheney, but a new Pentagon study demonstrates what the rest of us have known for years: Saddam Hussein was a vicious thug, but he didn't have any serious connection to al-Qaeda:

The study, which is due to be released Wednesday, is based on the analysis of some 600,000 official Iraqi documents seized by US forces after the invasion. It is also based on thousands of hours of interrogations of former top officials in Saddam's government who are now in U.S. custody. The headline: "This study found no 'smoking gun' (i.e., direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and al Qaeda."

....The report says Saddam's bureaucrats carefully recorded the regime's connections to Palestinian terrorists groups and its financial support for the families of suicide bombers.

The primary target, however, of Saddam's terror activities was not the United States, and not Israel. "The predominant targets of Iraqi state terror operations were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside of Iraq." Saddam's primary aim was self preservation and the elimination of potential internal threats to his power.

Warren Strobel has a bit more here.

Kevin Drum 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

NO TORTURE. NO EXCEPTIONS....Jack Cloonan talks about his experience as a terrorist interrogator:

I worked as a special agent for the FBI's Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 2002. During that time, my colleagues and I had the chance to question numerous operatives from al-Qaeda. We broke many terrorists. But we did it the right way: by being intelligent and humane.

One man we captured was Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed, an al-Qaeda operative behind the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Ali Mohamed had fully expected to be tortured once we took him in. Instead, we assured him that we wouldn't harm him, and we offered to protect his family. Within weeks, we had opened a gold mine of information about al-Qaeda's operations.

....Intelligence failures had much to do with the atrocity of September 11, but those had nothing to do with a lack of torture. Let me be clear on one crucial point: it is the terrorists whom we won over with humane methods in the 1990s who continue to provide the most reliable intelligence we have in the fight against al-Qaeda. And it is the testimony of terrorists we tortured after 9/11 who have provided the most unreliable information, such as stories about a close connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

Read the whole thing. And then ask yourself again: why did John McCain vote against a bill that would have outlawed CIA torture? And why did George Bush veto it? Instead of giving in to schoolyard revenge fantasies, shouldn't we insist that our intelligence agencies do the job right? Or is demonstrating "toughness" more important?

Kevin Drum 1:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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March 10, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PHONE HOSTILITY....Lots of hating on telephones today:

Yglesias: "I couldn't be more thrilled with the phone's decline. I used to be painfully shy as a person, and while I've largely gotten over that IRL I still find it incredibly stressful to talk to people on the phone."

Atrios: "I think I enjoyed chatting with girls when I was 13 or so, but since then I've pretty much hated the phone."

Alan Jacobs: "This is a loathing I share, and have for a long time."

McMegan: "Weird fact: every single (successful) blogger I know hates talking on the phone. I'm gregarious face to face, and I'm an inveterate user of various kinds of textual messaging, but I would rather scrub my floors with a toothbrush than get on the phone."

I don't know why this surprises me, but it does. I am, in fact, still fairly introverted, and not much of a conversationalist in any setting. And I certainly use email way, way more than the telephone. But hate the phone? No.

Except for telemarketers, of course, who can burn in hell. The rest of you, no problem.

POSTSCRIPT: Though I guess it's worth noting the difference between making and receiving calls. I don't like to make calls all that much, mainly because I'm afraid I'll be annoying somebody. But receiving calls is pretty stress free.

I wonder how common phone hatred is? Is it the kind of thing that's actually fairly widespread but you never find out about it until you bring up the subject?

Kevin Drum 10:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Christina Larson

Dowd's Obama Fantasy ... I'm still puzzled that Maureen Dowd devoted so many words in her Sunday column to informing readers that she was a messy eater and a fan of good ol' American BBQ sauce before launching into a discussion of Obama and his staffers' latest alleged problem: appearing "effete and vaguely foreign -- the same unflattering light that doomed Michael Dukakis and John Kerry."

She doesn't tell us that Obama looks wiry and is chomping gum to ward off cigarette cravings -- that wouldn't fit her stereotype -- but instead is "slender, chewing Nicorette and perfectly groomed in his crisp white shirt."

Even weirder is how she presents Samantha Power: "the Dublin-born Harvard expert on human rights who dryly refers to herself as 'genocide chick' [who] hit London to promote her new book." The implication, I guess, is that if you were born in Ireland, you couldn't possibly understand America.

Aside from this being a lame attack on anyone, it's especially odd coming from Dowd. Her father grew up in County Clare, Ireland. And Dowd herself often has written, both fondly and ferociously, about Irish culture and heritage. That doesn't prevent her from enjoying BBQ sauce.

The question of how "tough" an image Obama needs to project to the American public is a legitimate one. But painting the candidate and his team as "effete and vaguely foreign" in order to say that's a problem for them -- that's just silly.

Christina Larson 3:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (69)

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By: Kevin Drum

ELIOT SPITZER....The New York Times reports that Eliot Spitzer has been "linked" to an upscale prostitution ring. Spitzer is on CNN right now fessing up to behavior that "violates my obligations to my family" and says he now needs to take some time to regain his family's trust. He took no questions from the gathered reporters.

As with David Vitter and Larry Craig, my official position is: who cares. This stuff shouldn't be illegal in the first place and I don't care what these guys do in their private time. Needless to say, though, this is not a majority opinion, and the fact that Spitzer has busted prostitution rings in his previous career brings the usual hypocrisy charges into play too. I'd put his survival odds at less than 10%.

Kevin Drum 3:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (194)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROVE....Even now, more than a year after the fact, we don't truly know what was behind the mass purge of U.S. Attorneys that followed the 2006 midterms. But David Iglesias, one of the fired USAs, hasn't given up trying to figure it out, and Dahlia Lithwick reports his conclusions in Slate:

In his forthcoming book about the scandal, In Justice, co-written with Davin Seay, Iglesias attempts to puzzle out who did him in and why. Like another purged colleague, former U.S. Attorney John McKay from Washington's Western District, who has recently written a long law review article about the firings, Iglesias is persuaded that the nameless, faceless folks who engineered the firings were engaged in serious, if not criminal, wrongdoing. And although the evidence is, he concedes, still mostly circumstantial, one of his chapter titles is "All Roads Lead to Rove." The mild-mannered McKay, for his part, argues for bringing obstruction of justice charges against Gonzales.

What most shines through in the draft copy of Iglesias' manuscript, provided to Slate by the author, are the raw politics animating both his dismissal and the subsequent cover-up. Indeed Iglesias describes that at his very first meeting with then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in 2001, which took place shortly after he became a U.S. attorney, Gonzales offered him the following warning: "This is a tough town. They are out to destroy the president, and it is my job to protect him."

Who knows? Maybe Karl Rove wasn't joking after all when he told an audience on Sunday, "I haven't been indicted yet, but I fully expect to be by the end of the year."

Kevin Drum 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Kevin Drum

OBAMA'S COATTAILS....Via BTD, the Dallas Morning News has an intriguing analysis of the Democratic primary vote in Texas last week:

More than 80 percent of Democratic voters in the Texas counties where Mrs. Clinton had her largest victory margins went on to vote in the U.S. Senate race, the leading statewide contest on the ballot after the presidential race. By contrast, only 71 percent of voters in Mr. Obama's strongest counties did.

In Dallas County, where Mr. Obama got nearly two-thirds of the vote, the falloff was nearly 30 percent.

.... The numbers suggest that many Obama voters were drawn singularly to him and might not return in the fall if he's not the nominee — blunting the flood of new voters who Democrats hope will help revive the party in Texas and sweep it into the White House.

...."To get these people to return to the polls in November, the odds are much better if Barack Obama is the nominee," [Obama volunteer Glenn Smith] said.

There are, obviously, two possible storylines here. #1: Smith is right. Obama is generating a lot of excitement among new voters who might not return to the polls in November if he's not on the ballot. That's bad news if he loses the nomination. #2: Obama might attract a lot of new voters in November, but his coattails will be small because many of these voters don't really care about the Democratic Party. They only care about Obama. That's bad news if he wins the nomination.

I'd have to noodle over this a bit before I came to any firm conclusions about which story is more likely. Maybe both are. But my first guess is that Obama isn't doing a hard sell on the Democratic Party right now because he doesn't have to. He's running in a Democratic primary, after all. However, that will all change when the convention is over, and I imagine that after Labor Day he'll be pretty effective at convincing his fans to vote for downticket Democrats. Off the top of my head, I'd say the DMN analysis is interesting, but probably not worrisome.

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

CON JOB....Ezra Klein attended a healthcare presentation this morning by Alan Enthoven ("the godfather of managed competition") where Enthoven laid out the pros and cons of a single-payer system. Here's his list of cons:

  1. Locks in fee-for-service medicine. Hard to change once implemented. Medicare's coverage of preventive services has been poor.

  2. We need a lot of innovation in payment and delivery services, and single-payer blocks that.

  3. Too much entanglement with politics. Think of how the earmarks will work

  4. Government can't set every price correctly. There are too many of them!

  5. Tax burden probably too high for the US.

  6. Government isn't really designed for efficient program management.

  7. There's little accountability for poorly run public programs.

  8. There's poor customer service.

  9. Legislators don't want efficiency.

  10. Medicare's low administration isn't merely efficiency, it's also undermanagement.

Anybody else see the real con at work here? By my count, 7 out of 10 of these bullets (3-4 and 6-10) are essentially the same: government is inefficient and can't administer public programs well. But saying it seven times doesn't make it so. I suppose it's possible that American government is uniquely inefficient, but what makes Enthoven believe that? Other countries manage to operate national healthcare plans of varying degrees of centralization in a more efficient way than our weird public/private/corporate hybrid, so why couldn't we?

For obvious reasons, I'm skeptical of any argument against national healthcare that boils down to "government doesn't work." That's ideology, not argument, and this list is heavily padded to make the problems with single-payer look a lot worse than they are. I don't think you'd need to do that if you were making an honest case.

As Ezra says, this is all a bit academic anyway since neither single-payer nor single-payer-ish systems are politically feasible at the moment. But fair is fair. This is a list of four items, not ten.

Kevin Drum 12:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

NO TORTURE. NO EXCEPTIONS....The latest issue of the Monthly is devoted to a single subject: torture. An editors' note explains:

In most issues of the Washington Monthly, we favor articles that we hope will launch a debate. In this issue we seek to end one. The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop.

What follows is a set of 37 short essays by writers from all over the political spectrum, from Bob Barr on the right to Nancy Pelosi and Jimmy Carter on the left. You can find them all here, and I'll be highlighting a few of them throughout the week. In one of them, journalist Peter Bergen talks about the torture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed:

What is perhaps most astonishing of all is that the mistreatment of KSM and bin al-Shibh was entirely unnecessary. Before they were captured, they had explained the details of the 9/11 attacks in an April 2002 interview with Yosri Fouda, an Al Jazeera correspondent....The CIA provided summaries of the interrogations of KSM and bin al-Shibh to the 9/11 Commission. There is little or no difference between the account that KSM and bin al-Shibh freely volunteered to Fouda in the spring of 2002 and the version the commission published in its 2004 report. Nor was Fouda's reporting difficult to find: he hosted a one-hour documentary on Al Jazeera, wrote a long piece in London's Sunday Times, and coauthored a book, Masterminds of Terror, about KSM and bin al-Shibh. By the time CIA officials captured the pair, a full account of their operations was only a Google search away.

Obviously, then, it was unnecessary to waterboard KSM to find out what he knew about the 9/11 plot. What, though, of the administration's assertion that coercive interrogation techniques have saved American lives? To assess that claim, we must examine the details of other terrorist plots that KSM gave up after his capture, presented in a document the government released in 2006:

KSM launched several plots targeting the US Homeland, including a plot in late 2001 to have ... suicide operatives hijack a plane over the Pacific and crash it into a skyscraper on the US West Coast; a plan in early 2002 to send al-Qa'ida operatives to conduct attacks in the U.S.; and a plot in early 2003 to employ a network of Pakistanis ... to smuggle explosives into New York and to target gas stations, railroad tracks, and a bridge in New York.

It all sounds very frightening, except that there is no indication that these plots were ever more than talk.

In other words, not only was torture unnecessary, but it was actually counterproductive. KSM produced no new information under torture, only a litany of false confessions — maybe out of vanity, maybe in an effort to protect other al-Qaeda operatives. Who knows. What we do know is that torturing KSM did no good, sent hundreds of agents scurrying after phantoms, and has made his prosecution far more difficult than it needed to be.

Most of you reading this hardly need to be convinced on this score. But you almost certainly know people who do need to be convinced — and who need more than just a moral argument. So this is it. The next time somebody asks, tell them the story of Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Tell them the story of not just how torture has tainted America's claim to the moral high ground throughout the world, but how it's actively hurt the war on terror. Tell them.

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (105)

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March 9, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

SERENDIPITY....The New York Times reports on a new charter school that plans to find out if hiring great teachers really makes a difference:

A New York City charter school set to open in 2009 in Washington Heights will test one of the most fundamental questions in education: Whether significantly higher pay for teachers is the key to improving schools.

The school, which will run from fifth to eighth grades, is promising to pay teachers $125,000, plus a potential bonus based on schoolwide performance.

....The school will open with seven teachers and 120 students, most of them from low-income Hispanic families. At full capacity, it will have 28 teachers and 480 students. It will have no assistant principals, and only one or two social workers. Its classes will have 30 students.

I'm a little confused. Suppose this experiment works and the kids do great. What does that prove? Only that school performance can be raised if you manage to attract the top 0.01% of the teachers in the vicinity of New York City. Then what?

You can't scale this up because not every school can have the top 0.01% of the teachers. Nor can you conclude that wildly high salaries will attract hordes of great teachers who are currently working in higher paying areas. There's no way of knowing that. You can, I suppose, tentatively conclude that good teachers make a difference, but I don't think anyone seriously doubts that. What we really want to know is what it takes to produce large numbers of great teachers from our existing pool of college grads, and this experiment won't tell us.

So I don't really get it. Still, I suppose you never know what serendipity will produce when you let people do seemingly odd experiments, and maybe something useful will come out of this. In fact, it's one of the reasons I like charter schools. Within bounds, I'm in favor of letting 'em experiment and seeing what happens. Maybe we'll all be surprised by the results in Washington Heights, not least the guy whose idea this was in the first place.

Kevin Drum 7:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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By: Kevin Drum

PRIMARY COLLARS....UPDATED....A couple of days ago I wondered aloud if we should really be worried about the attacks that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are leveling at each other right now. Is John McCain really likely to use these attacks in TV ads during the general election? I couldn't think of any examples of this from past elections, so I asked the hive mind if they could think of any.

This rapidly degenerated into the usual bickering between Clinton and Obama supporters, which at this point has become considerably more irritating and vitriolic than anything the candidates themselves are saying. So even though it's off topic, the best comment came from lobbygow:

"Shithead" has just gained 10 points on the insult market. Invest now. "Asshole" is down 12, but still a good buy for the long haul. Analysts claim that the relatively obscure "blackguard" could make a comeback, but the day traders are throwing their spare change at "fuckwad." Most industry watchers agree that the increasing emotional stakes in the primary season are the main variable driving the expletives and ad hominem markets at the moment.

OK. Glad I got that off my chest. Hopefully everyone can calm down a bit this time around.

Now, are there any examples of general election candidates using primary criticisms as part of their own campaign? The short answer is yes, but apparently not very recently and not very often.

First, though, a caveat. Several people brought up the fact that in 1988 Al Gore mentioned Michael Dukakis's prison furlough program in the primary, something that later morphed into the infamous attack on Willie Horton by George Bush's campaign. But this isn't what I'm looking for. There are only a certain number of effective attacks against a given candidate, and it's common for different opponents to end up attacking a candidate on the same issue. The question, rather, is whether or not general election candidates use the primary attack itself as fodder for their campaign. As in, "Even my opponent's fellow Democrats believe...."

So here are the examples that various people came up with:

  • Harkov57: In 1980 a group calling itself "Democrats for Reagan" made an ad with Ted Kennedy criticizing Jimmy Carter. It went off the air pretty quickly, though, since it was made without Kennedy's permission. Video here.

  • Patrick and others: George Bush's "voodoo economics" line against Reagan was used by Carter and others. It didn't show up in an ad, as far as I can tell, but during Carter's October 29 debate with Reagan he said, "Governor Reagan recently mentioned the Reagan-Kemp-Roth proposal, which his own running mate, George Bush, described as 'voodoo economics' and said that it would result in a 30 percent inflation rate."

  • Phil Klinkner: In 1964, LBJ ran an ad quoting several Republicans calling Barry Goldwater a lunatic. Phil has a video of the ad at the link.

  • Phil Klinkner: In 1972, Richard Nixon ran an ad that quoted Hubert Humphrey criticizing George McGovern's plan to cut defense spending.

Bottom line: Primary attacks have been used before by general election candidates, but not very often and not since 1980, it seems. Frankly, it doesn't seem like something to get too worried about. I imagine that attacks like these aren't very effective because (a) by the time Labor Day rolls around they're old, and the press generally refuses to spend time on "old news," (b) voters know that politics is politics and generally discount these kinds of attacks, and (c) it's so easy for politicians to talk their way around this stuff that it's hard to make the criticisms stick. Hell, if George Bush could call Reagan's tax plan "voodoo economics" and then run as his vice president, this stuff just can't matter very much. There are probably lots of other attacks that are far more effective, and that's why we don't see this kind of thing very often.

That said, several commenters suggested that things are different in the YouTube age. Maybe some of the Obama/Clinton attacks won't show up in 30-second network spots, but they might become big hits on YouTube and in the blogosphere and gain traction that way. There's no way of knowing whether that's true, but it's certainly possible. After all, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

UPDATE: In his trademark style, Bob Somerby points out that early in the 2000 primary Bill Bradley asked Al Gore, "Why should we believe that you will tell the truth as president if you don't tell the truth as a candidate?" The Bush campaign subsequently used that remark at the top of some of its press releases and on the campaign trail.

Kevin Drum 3:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (110)

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By: Kevin Drum

GOP BAD NEWS WATCH....Yet more bad news for Republicans:

Stunning many who considered the district west of Chicago reliably Republican territory, Bill Foster, a physicist and Democrat, won a special election on Saturday to fill the Congressional seat that J. Dennis Hastert, the former speaker of the House, held for two decades.

Mr. Foster's success deeply disappointed Republicans, in part for its broader implications: the victory in this early race may buoy Democrats as they look ahead to a string of Republican retirements this fall.

....By last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee had poured $1.2 million into this race; the Democratic Congressional Committee had given more than $620,000. On Saturday night, as Mr. Foster addressed his supporters in Aurora, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois stood beside him.

Jeez. A conservative district. A former Speaker of the House. $1.2 million. And they still lost. John McCain should be very, very nervous about this.

Kevin Drum 12:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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March 8, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

TRAVEL BLEG.....It's a weekend, so I think I'll abuse my blogging privileges (again). My mother and I are taking a trip to Europe this May and I'm noodling around the internet looking for decent, mid-priced hotels in Bad Kissingen, London, and the Taunton area. If anybody happens to have been to any of these places recently and stayed in a place they loved, let me know in comments.

Or, for that matter, if you stayed in someplace especially wretched and want to warn me away, feel free to leave that in comments too. Thanks!

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (71)

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By: Kevin Drum

VOTER TURNOUT....Via Brendan Nyhan, here's a fascinating little piece of political science research that even hardened pols might want to pay attention to. A trio of academics decided to test different ways of boosting voter turnout and discovered one sure-fire way of getting dynamite results: send out letters telling people whether they and their neighbors have voted in past elections and promising to send a followup letter after the election. The unsubtle message is: voting records are public information, and if you don't vote this year your neighbors will know about it. So do your civic duty, dammit.

Result: turnout among those who got the letters was a whopping 8.1 percentage points higher than the control group. A sample of the letter the poli sci boffins sent out is at the right.

Now, I know what you're thinking: this is kind of creepy. And sure, it is. But 8 percentage points? Most campaign managers would sell their grandmothers into white slavery for that kind of an advantage. If you could target these mailings solely to likely Democratic or Republican voters, and thereby increase turnout for your candidate by 8 points, you'd be hailed as America's next political wunderkind. And it's cheap, too. If a bunch of political scientists can afford to do this, it's chump change for a presidential campaign.

So: who do you think is more likely to do this? Democrats or Republicans? And will they try to hide the source of the mail (it is kind of creepy, after all)? Or will they do it out in the open and just take the hit? Or, alternately, do it openly and then brazen it out by claiming that they're really performing a public service and the electorate ought to be grateful?

Anyway, there's plenty of time to get cracking and have these mailings ready to go for November. But only if you get started now. Anyone listening?

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (81)

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By: Kevin Drum

DRY ICE....News of the weird:

Newport Beach police conceded Friday that they were more than a little baffled by the discovery they made during a routine search of a room at an upscale hotel: a woman's body packed in dry ice.

"It's very odd," police spokesman Sgt. Evan Sailor said. "It's not normal; it's a little weird."

Soon to be a major motion picture, I'm sure.

Kevin Drum 11:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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March 7, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CATBLOGGING....Doesn't Inkblot look magnificent, framed in the shadows that way? He thinks he looks magnificent anyway, and who are we mere humans to tell him otherwise?

That said, it would be really nice if he'd stop attacking Domino when she's using the litterbox. That's very ungentlemanly behavior, to say the least. And definitely the wrong signal to send, litterbox-wise. We really need to figure out a way to get him to cut this out.

Kevin Drum 3:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

SAMANTHA POWER REVISITED....Matt Yglesias responds to the news that Obama advisor Samantha Power has resigned after being quoted calling Hillary Clinton a "monster":

So thinking a bit more reflectively about this Samantha Power business, I'm pretty pissed off. Sure, you can rail against the perfidy of the Clintons, but this sort of ritualized calls for resignations is all in the game. Having her resign, by contrast, is just playing the game poorly. Remember when fresh strategic thinking and common sense were going to break with the conventional wisdom? I do. The "monster" business was a dumb thing to say, and certainly the kind of thing you apologize for, but no kind of indication that she was a bad person to get foreign policy advice from.

I'm trying to figure out if I agree with this or not. My first take was just the opposite: I thought this reflected well on Power, who resigned and issued a fulsome apology rather than allowing this whole thing to spiral out of control and hurt the candidate she was working for. Good for her. And since Obama can obviously pick up the phone and call her anytime he wants, this doesn't really have any substantive impact.

On the other hand, Matt is right about the optics. Power really is an interesting foreign policy advisor who brings some fresh ideas to the table, and even symbolically you hate to see someone like that get thrown under the bus over a brief indiscretion. It's a sign of how nasty this campaign is getting that the Obama team apparently didn't think it could afford to insist that she stay aboard.

So that's that. I do have one more comment, though: Power called Clinton a monster and then immediately afterward tried to claim "that is off the record." A few commenters have been crying foul over this, but that's not how it's done: something is off the record only if the reporter agrees beforehand that it's off the record. There are certainly some reporters who would have cut Power a bit of slack here and some who wouldn't, but the Scotsman reporter who published Power's remarks wasn't doing anything wrong. Cozy beltway conventions often seem to dictate that remarks are off the record by default, but we bloggers has long complained about that, and rightly so, I think. Nobody broke any rules here.

Kevin Drum 2:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (151)

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By: Kevin Drum

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY....Over the past few days there's been a huge fracas over accusations that Hillary Clinton's campaign deliberately darkened Barack Obama's face in an ad they ran in Texas. It started with a post over at Daily Kos on Tuesday and has been spread far and wide since then.

The problem is that it's impossible to compare color tones using YouTube clips because their compression process doesn't preserve color fidelity. However, FactCheck.org got hold of a high-quality recording of the ad as it appeared on station KCEN in Waco, Texas, and then compared it to MSNBC's streaming version of the debate from which the clip was taken. Here it is (the ad is on the left, the original debate is on the right):

In the ad version, Obama's face has been desaturated (i.e., there's less color tone) but it doesn't look any darker than the original. Nor has his face been widened to make Obama's nose more prominent, as the original posters also suggested. That was yet another YouTube artifact.

Darkening images is fairly standard practice in attack ads, and FactCheck suggests that the Clinton campaign may have done it here. But if they did, it's pretty damn subtle when you compare the original source material instead of stuff that's been sent through the YouTube mill.

Hillary Clinton is running a rough campaign, and I'm pretty unhappy with some of her tactics, but that's no reason to start hauling out all the old Clinton-hating artillery we came to know and love in the 90s. This ad isn't evidence of race-baiting or anything else. Time to move on.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman points out that Factcheck does, in fact, say the images in the ad are darker than the images in the debate footage: "When we compared the frames in the ad to frames from the debate video using the 'eyedropper' tool in Photoshop image-processing software, we found that the frames in the Clinton ad are uniformly darker."

I don't have the entire video to compare, but I did load the two frames above into Photoshop, and I got exactly the opposite result. When you look solely at brightness, not hue or saturation, the two images are mostly identical. Where they aren't, the frame from the ad is a little bit brighter, not darker. I just don't see any evidence of darkening at all.

Let's not go down the rabbit hole of 90s-era Clinton hatred, where any accusation that gets tossed out is presumed true unless it's conclusively proven otherwise. That ain't right. If someone has credible evidence of dirty tricks, based on high quality recordings of both videos, that's one thing. But until then, there's just nothing here.

Kevin Drum 2:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE PARACHUTES NEEDED....Jeebus. I should have waited until this morning to take a snapshot of the Wall Street Journal's front page. It's even worse than last night. Payroll employment dropped for the second month in a row, plummeting by 63,000 jobs in February, with the losses spread throughout a wide swath of the economy, not just construction and financial services. What's worse, if you take out increased government employment, private sector job losses topped 100,000. From the Washington Post: "And in a particularly worrisome sign, temporary help services cut 27,600 jobs. Often, companies cut temporary workers before shedding permanent jobs, making that category a leading indicator for what is to come." Here's some reaction:

Nigel Gault: "The debate should no longer be about whether there is or is not a recession, only about how deep it will be."

Jared Bernstein: "I haven't seen a job report this recessionary since the last recession. This is a picture of a labor market becoming clearly infected by the contagion from the rest of the economy."

Ethan Harris: "One month you can dismiss. Two months is a lot harder."

David M. Jones: "The world is coming to an end. Yes, you can quote me on that....You almost never have back-to-back payroll declines without a recession."

Joshua Shapiro: "With the consumer's only source of support for spending coming from job-related income growth, a rapidly weakening labor market is the worst possible news for the economy."

Kevin Giddis: "Based on today's Employment Report, if we are not in a recession, it is a darned good imitation of one. We are in an unprecedented real estate and credit crisis that is whipping its way through the U.S. economy like a Midwestern tornado."

Paul Ashworth: "The most striking figure in the whole report is that private sector payrolls shrank by 101,000 last month compared to a modest 26,000 drop in January. A decline of that magnitude screams recession."

By the way, please take note of the headline at the bottom of the snapshot. I included it for comic relief. We could all use a little laugh, right?

Kevin Drum 12:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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POWER-LESS....The Obama campaign takes a casualty:

Samantha Power, a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, resigned Friday morning after calling Sen. Hillary Clinton a "monster" in an interview with a European newspaper.

"With deep regret, I am resigning from my role as an adviser the Obama campaign effective today," said Power in a statement issued by the Obama campaign. "Last Monday, I made inexcusable remarks that are at marked variance from my oft-stated admiration for Senator Clinton and from the spirit, tenor and purpose of the Obama campaign. And I extend my deepest apologies to Senator Clinton, Senator Obama and the remarkable team I have worked with over these long 14 months."

Dan Drezner blames it on Noam Scheiber.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Kevin Drum

MISOGYNY....Katha Pollitt, in the course of noting that Charlotte Allen's "Women Are Dumb!" piece in the Washington Post last weekend was not, in fact, written as a joke, places the blame for publishing it exactly where it belongs:

A far more important question is this: Why did The Post publish this nonsense? I can't imagine a great newspaper airing comparable trash talk about any other group. "Asians Really Do Just Copy." "No Wonder Africa's Such a Mess: It's Full of Black People!" Misogyny is the last acceptable prejudice, and nowhere more so than in our nation's clueless and overwhelmingly white-male-controlled media.

....Here's a thought. Maybe there's another thing women can do besides fluff up their husbands' pillows: Fill more important jobs at The Washington Post....A male editor with a lot of women colleagues on his level might think twice before proposing a sweeping denunciation, humorous or not, of "women." Ideally he would have come to respect women as equals from working with them -- but if he were just afraid of being seen as a total caveman, that would be okay too. And maybe this kind of editor would have flagged as tired cliches references to Oprah and Celine Dion; would have looked up the studies Allen claims prove women have the I.Q. of a bowl of cereal and found they don't say anything like that; would have wondered if more women bake doggy treats than subscribe to Scientific American or run marathons, and how does the treat-baker come to stand for all women?

And then, after all this, and seeing that Allen's piece still didn't ring even vaguely-kinda-sorta true, our imaginary editor would have asked a question. "You know what I think of this article?" a good editor would have said. "I think it's really stupid."

Misogyny really is the last acceptable prejudice — the complaints of the Christian Right and angry white men notwithstanding. And who knows? Maybe the blistering reaction to Allen's piece will help the Post op-ed staff to finally figure this out. That would at least be a silver lining.

Kevin Drum 11:33 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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BREAK OUT THE PARACHUTES....This is what the front page of the Wall Street Journal looked like Thursday night. If the Journal had had a web page 80 years ago, I have a feeling this is what it would have looked like in October 1929. Crikey.

Here's an excerpt from the lead story:

The financial turmoil is taking on a new dimension: Banks that lent money to hedge funds and other big risk-takers are asking for some of it back.

....This is producing a negative cycle that has policy makers deeply worried. When investors rush to dump assets, prices fall and lenders feel compelled to make further demands, or "margin calls," which cause even more selling.

So far, the turbulence touched off last summer hasn't resulted in many big hedge-fund blowups. If that changes, banks and other financial firms could end up holding even more hard-to-sell securities. Already, their troubled investments, especially in securities tied to mortgages, have cost them some $140 billion in write-downs.

...."The fact that this is happening in top-quality agency paper is really worrying," said Tim Bond, a strategist at Barclays Capital in London. "It's marking an extension of this stress into the group of players who only invest in the safest mortgage-backed stuff."

I have a feeling that before long style guides are going to simply ban the words "safest" and "mortgage-backed" from appearing together in the same sentence. Just to avoid embarrassment down the road, you understand.

Kevin Drum 1:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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March 6, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

PRIMARY COLLARS....Obama foreign policy advisor Susan Rice, referring to Hillary's "red telephone" ad, said today of Obama and Clinton that "they're both both not ready to have that 3 am phone call." Jerome Armstrong is unhappy about this, saying that this three second clip is all John McCain needs to go after either candidate in the general election. Obama has gotten similar criticism (including from me) for providing Republicans with ammunition by circulating "Harry and Louise" style flyers attacking Hillary's healthcare plan.

In a similar vein, Hillary said today that presidential candidates need to pass a "commander-in-chief threshold." And who's done that? "I believe that I've done that," she said. "Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you'll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy." Bingo! Instant TV material for McCain this fall.

Now, there's no question that this stuff sucks. Hillary sucks more on this score since her team has been doing more of it than Obama's team, but they should both knock it off.

That said, though, I have a question. It occurred to me today that primary opponents attack each other all the time, and yet I don't remember ever seeing a general election ad taking advantage of that. Once the general election starts, nobody seems to think it's worthwhile trying to make hay out of old attacks.

I can think of several reasons why this is true, but before I commit those reasons to print I'd like to make sure that it actually is true. Anyone got any examples that come readily to mind? TV ads preferred, but debate references and stump speech sound bites would work too. If you can come up with any, leave 'em in comments.

Kevin Drum 9:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (189)

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THE CHINA SYNDROME....Speaking of Esquire's profile of Adm. William Fallon, it also contains this fine little fragment about the tail wagging the dog:

When the Admiral took charge of Pacific Command in 2005, he immediately set about a military-to-military outreach to the Chinese armed forces, something that had plenty of people freaking out at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Chinese, after all, were scheduled to be our next war. What the hell was Fallon doing?

Contrary to some reports, though, Fallon says he initially had no trouble with then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld on the subject. "Early on, I talked to him. I said, Here's what I think. And I talked to the president, too."

It was only after the Pentagon and Congress started realizing that their favorite "programs of record" (i.e., weapons systems and major vehicle platforms) were threatened by such talks that the shit hit the fan. "I blew my stack," Fallon says. "I told Rumsfeld, Just look at this shit. I go up to the Hill and I get three or four guys grabbing me and jerking me out of the aisle, all because somebody came up and told them that the sky was going to cave in."

Ladies and gentlemen, your military-industrial complex at work.

Kevin Drum 2:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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FOX FALLON....Last night I read Thomas P.M. Barnett's Esquire profile of CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon and thought, "Damn. I want someone to write a puff piece like that about me someday." Barnett admiringly portrays Fallon as sort of a cross between Patton and Teddy Roosevelt, with bits of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and T.E. Lawrence thrown in for good measure, but apparently that wasn't enough. Thomas Ricks reports Fallon's reaction:

Asked about the article yesterday, Fallon called it "poison pen stuff" that is "really disrespectful and ugly." He did not cite specific objections.

Barnett reports that Fallon has taken a generally less bombastic approach toward China and Iran than the Bush administration has, but this has been pretty well reported before, so it's hardly breaking news. Most likely the "ugly" part was this:

Well-placed observers now say that it will come as no surprise if Fallon is relieved of his command before his time is up next spring, maybe as early as this summer, in favor of a commander the White House considers to be more pliable. If that were to happen, it may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year and don't want a commander standing in their way.

And so Fallon, the good cop, may soon be unemployed because he's doing what a generation of young officers in the U. S. military are now openly complaining that their leaders didn't do on their behalf in the run-up to the war in Iraq: He's standing up to the commander in chief, whom he thinks is contemplating a strategically unsound war.

Gotta go with James Joyner and Bill Arkin on this: Barnett is pretty clearly implying that if George Bush ordered an attack on Iran, Fallon couldn't be trusted to carry it out. And this theme, namely that Fallon is doing his best to actively frustrate the intent of the military's civilian commander-in-chief, runs throughout the entire piece. Barnett's basis for saying this is pretty iffy, and it's no surprise that Fallon took it as a serious insult.

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NAFTA....I know it's only Thursday, but I'm curious: have either Clinton or Obama so much as mentioned NAFTA since the polls closed in Ohio? Maybe someone who pays closer attention to TV than I do could let us know in comments. Thanks.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Comcast lobbyist Sean Looney, arguing against a Maryland bill that would require broadband suppliers to report their deployments and put the information online for all to see:

"9/11 wasn't that long ago. We don't want to make it easier for them to take out the network."

Rudy Giuliani would have been proud.

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PRIVATIZING PRIVATIZATION....I've always known that U.S. companies sometimes incorporate offshore in order to reduce their corporate tax liabilities, but here's a new one: hiring employees through a shell company in the Cayman Islands so you don't have to pay Social Security or unemployment taxes:

Kellogg Brown & Root, the nation's top Iraq war contractor and until last year a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in this tropical tax haven.

....Social Security and Medicare taxes amount to 15.3 percent of each employees' salary, split evenly between the worker and the employer. While KBR's use of the shell companies saves workers their half of the taxes, it deprives them of future retirement benefits.

In addition, the practice enables KBR to avoid paying unemployment taxes in Texas, where the company is registered, amounting to between $20 and $559 per American employee per year, depending on the company's rate of turnover.

As a result, workers hired through the Cayman Island companies cannot receive unemployment assistance should they lose their jobs.

In interviews with more than a dozen KBR workers registered through the Cayman Islands companies, most said they did not realize that they had been employed by a foreign firm until they arrived in Iraq and were told by their foremen, or until they returned home and applied for unemployment benefits.

Sweet! Congressional Democrats may have defeated Republican plans to privatize Social Security, but it looks like KBR has figured out a way to do it in their own little corner of the world whether anyone likes it or not. That's American ingenuity at work.

Via Think Progress.

Kevin Drum 12:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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JOHN HAGEE UPDATE....Steve Benen remains agog that the press isn't showing much interest in John Hagee's endorsement of John McCain:

John McCain actively sought the support of an anti-Catholic, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-woman, and anti-Semitic televangelist, and despite widespread condemnations from a variety of circles, reporters simply won't cover the story or push McCain for an explanation. As Andrew Sullivan put it, John Hagee is "a white Farrakhan, but the media has essentially given McCain a pass."

It's funny, but in a way I think this is a demonstration of the condescending attitude that a lot of urban reporters have toward evangelicals. Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations. Basically, they figure that these guys are all lunatic nutballs with weird beliefs, and they're so used to this idea that they give it a pass when it pops into the news. It's just Uncle Bob. You know how he gets. If they actually took evangelicals seriously, instead of treating them like members of long-lost Amazon tribes, they'd pay more attention to stories like this and they wouldn't give McCain a free pass on Hagee's endorsement.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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March 5, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

EXPECTATIONS....A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of chatter about the possibility of OPEC cutting production levels. To me, that was crazy talk. With oil prices skyrocketing, why would you talk about cutting production?

My guess is that they're playing games: announce the possibility of cuts, and then, when production quotas stay level after all, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. And once again we're all distracted from the very real prospect that, quite likely, keeping production level is the best OPEC can do these days. They can't increase production anymore — not for long and not in serious quantities, anyway. Iraq is pretty much the only Middle Eastern country left with any spare pumping capacity, but for obvious reasons it can't take advantage of that at the moment.

Right on schedule, OPEC delivers:

Oil prices reached a record close, surging above $104 after OPEC decided Wednesday to keep its production unchanged....But the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries was not completely oblivious to the political and economic impact of $100 oil. The sharp surge in prices recently has deterred the group's ministers from cutting their production, a move they seriously contemplated a few weeks ago to offset a seasonal slowdown in global oil demand in the second quarter.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how the expectations game is played.

Not that I blame them. OPEC could probably increase production a little bit, but what's in it for them? They've got a pretty good thing going right now, and reducing their own revenue just because George Bush wants them to doesn't really make sense. What's he ever done for them, after all?

Kevin Drum 9:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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CONGESTION PRICING....Matt Yglesias was touting the virtues of congestion pricing in urban areas earlier today and got some pushback on the grounds that additional fees would hurt poor people more than the rich. I think his answer is about right:

Of course the costs of congestion pricing would fall hard on people of modest means, but that's because the cost of anything falls hard on people of modest means. But the whole crux of the argument for congestion pricing is that "free" roads come with real costs. They cost money to build (as would priced roads) but on top of that, they impose huge costs in terms of traffic and delays. That cost, is borne by everyone but, again, people of modest means tend to pay the most since in search of affordable housing they're pushed the furthest out onto the metropolitan fringe.

You'll see the same objection raised in other areas as well, notably from social justice environmentalists who, for example, oppose cap-and-trade schemes because they hurt the poor (or, alternately, don't do enough to actively help the poor). It's a perfectly justifiable concern, but when you focus too much on it you end up being paralyzed. You can't do anything that carries an immediate cost, no matter how worthy the cause, because the cost will, inevitably, hurt the poor more than it hurts the rich.

Far better, I think, to support things like gas taxes and congestion pricing but insist that some or all of the revenue be earmarked to ameliorate the impact on low-income users. London's congestion charge, for example, which despite its problems has been more successful than I imagined it would be, is primarily used to fund public transport. Other, more direct subsidies are also imaginable. The social justice folks typically seem to think that such suggestions are little more than an abject sellout because they don't address the problems of the poor vigorously enough, but that's letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Politics is all about building real-world alliances to get what you want, and this is no different. There's no free lunch.

Kevin Drum 6:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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PRIMARY DIVISIVENESS....Does a divisive primary weaken a party in the general election? I've gotten some pushback on my 1968 analogy, though I still think it's a useful touchstone: after all, even if Democratic divisiveness that year did hurt Humphrey, the effect must have been pretty small given the astronomical amount of divisiveness and the relatively small margin of Humphrey's loss. However, political scientist Phil Klinkner suggests another analogy:

It occurs to me that the better example might be 1976. In that year, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan fought each other all the way until the convention in August. Not only that, but the contest was pretty bitter. Ford accused Reagan of wanting to gut Social Security and of being reckless when it came to foreign policy. Reagan, for his part, accused Ford of being soft on the Soviets and for wanting to give away the Panama Canal. Nonetheless, Ford managed to close the gap with Jimmy Carter and only narrowly lost the election. Had Ford not freed Poland in one of the debates, he may well have won the election.

All things considered, Ford should have lost the 1976 election in a landslide. The fact that he didn't — that, in fact, he might actually have won if not for a single gaffe — suggests that primary divisiveness that year had no noticeable effect.

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides glosses the academic research on this issue:

Perhaps the most relevant study is by Lonna Rae Atkeson (here, gated). She examines presidential elections from 1936-1996 and finds that the relative divisiveness of the two parties primaries is not related to the general election outcome, once other factors, namely the state of the economy and the popularity of the incumbent president, are taken into account.

Obviously none of this is conclusive, merely suggestive. But what it suggests is that primary divisiveness just isn't a major factor once the primary is over. I doubt that the current Obama/Clinton nastiness will prove any different.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (86)

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VITRIOL....Atrios:

The campaigns and candidates themselves may not get nasty, but I get the sense that supporters of the various candidates are getting angrier at the other camp. Sure a lot of this is just relatively harmless virtual world internet flaming, but it has real world manifestations too.

This has sort of taken me by surprise too. I'm reminded of the old saying that the smaller the stakes, the more vicious the battle. Obama and Clinton are obviously different in some important ways, but overall there just aren't any huge gaps between them, either in ideology or governing theory. They're both great candidates (as was John Edwards), and I confess that I have a hard time understanding the level of vitriol that the race has produced among supporters on both sides. I sure hope that all the doom and gloom talk is just talk, because anybody who's seriously thinking about sitting out this election if their guy doesn't win is being an idiot.

Kevin Drum 2:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (168)

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QUACKERY....Ezra Klein is at a gathering of health insurance executives today and just listened to speeches by Andy Stern (union leader), Sen. Ron Wyden (liberal Democrat) and Rep. Dave Camp (reliable Michigan conservative). What happened was unexpected:

At some point, I'll sit down and write up some thoughts on each. But the remarkable thing was this: The hit of the day — in front of a crowd on insurance executives — was Stern. Then Wyden. The only reaction which verged on hostile was towards Rep. Camp.

This is rather extraordinary, because Camp came in and gave a liberal's fantasy of a pitch-perfect speech for the insurance industry.

Read the whole thing. Camp marched through all the usual conservative talking points and Ezra says the suits in the audience remained.....silent. They were far more receptive to the liberal pitch than the conservative one.

And I'll just add this: Camp's talking points are nearly identical to John McCain's litany of quackery. Insurance company execs may be conservative, and they may be self-interested, but perhaps even they've gotten to the point where they recognize quackery when they hear it.

UPDATE: More here. Wyden's basic pitch, it turns out, is to remind the insurance folks that their industry is currently about as popular as hemorrhoids, so their choice is either to work with him and stay in business or to keep fighting and eventually face pitchforks and torches in the streets. Apparently they're listening.

Kevin Drum 2:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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LIFETIME OF EXPERIENCE....In the "fair time" category, I'll concede that this really is fratricidal in a way that's not excusable:

In a live CNN interview just now, Sen. Clinton repeated, twice, the "Sen. McCain has a lifetime of experience, I have a lifetime of experience, Sen. Obama has one speech in 2002" line. By what logic, exactly, does a member of the Democratic party include the "Sen. McCain has a lifetime of experience" part of that sentence?

Hillary needs to knock this crap off. It's disgraceful.

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STOP THE MADNESS....Michelle Cottle has the rare good sense to agree with me, so I'm going to quote her at length:

Enough with all the whining. Also enough with all the smack talk about how there must be something seriously wrong with Hillary/Obama as a candidate or s/he would have been able to close the deal by now. Horsefeathers. This isn't a primary in which Democratic voters are having a hard time making up their minds because both candidates are so disappointing. That's what's happening with the other team. Democrats' problem is that they have two candidates who are firing up the electorate, as seen in the consistently high turnout at the polls and the jaw-dropping fund-raising figures. ($30 million and $50 million in just one month? John McCain would kill for that kind of trouble.)

And when did we all get so damn delicate about campaign ads and critical fliers? I swear, all those hyperventilating pundits comparing Hillary's 3 a.m. ad to LBJ's "Daisy" ad make me long for the days of forced institutionalization. Seriously. Time to adjust your meds, guys.

....All things considered, this has not been an ugly primary. There is still plenty of time for it to get that way — especially if the party can't figure out a sensible way to address this Florida-Michigan delegate nightmare that it brought on itself. But we ain't there yet. So everyone just buck up and stop acting as though the Democrats were somehow entitled to a smooth nominating process.

I have to say I'm dumbfounded at the number of people who seem to be completely freaking out over last night's results, convinced that they spell doom for the Democratic Party and eight more years of Republican reign. But look: it's a tough campaign. But that's all it is. Hillary Clinton is not destroying Barack Obama, blacks and young people and old people and the working class and everyone else will eventually rally around whoever wins, the party is still in good shape, Republican members of Congress are quitting in droves, we're raising trainloads of money, and John McCain continues to be a putz. Let's stop the hyperventilating, OK?

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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IT'S A GRAND TIME ETC. ETC.....So how are the ultra-rich doing these days? Quite nicely, thankyouverymuch:

The nation's top 400 taxpayers reported a total of $85.6 billion of income on their federal income-tax returns for 2005 — an average of $213.9 million apiece, according to Internal Revenue Service data obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

....The top 400 taxpayers have greatly increased their share of individuals' income since the mid-1990s. The group accounted for 1.15% of total income in 2005, up from 1.02% the prior year — and more than twice as large as its 0.49% share a decade earlier. It's the highest percentage since the early 1990s, which is as far back as the IRS data go.

Even after adjusting for inflation, the minimum amount of income required to make the top-400 list has nearly tripled since 1992.

....The average federal income-tax rate for the group was 18.23%....well below the average income-tax rate of nearly 30% back in 1995, when Bill Clinton was in the White House. By contrast, the average income-tax rate for 2005, based on all returns filed, was 12.6%

So: federal income tax rates for the zillionaires have been slashed from 30% to 18%. Hell, I pay more than 18% in federal income tax. If you factor in payroll tax, their total tax rate is probably just about identical to Joe Average. That's quite a progressive tax system we've got, isn't it?

The Journal's editorial page will undoubtedly explain tomorrow why this state of affairs remains deeply unfair to the mega-yacht crowd. Probably something about how their total share of the income tax burden has gone up. Which it has. After all, when your total share of income more than doubles, you'd sort of expect to pay at least a little bit more in taxes, wouldn't you?

Well, you would, anyway. The Journal editorial page, I'm sure, will beg to differ.

Kevin Drum 1:03 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (23)

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LOCAL AIRPORT NEWS....Here's some non-campaign news for you. Here in my hometown — or whatever you call the county you live in — there's apparently a move afoot to rename John Wayne Airport. Some local businessmen, obviously traitors to the cause of free enterprise, want to call it John Wayne-Orange County Airport.

Well. Can you imagine? I hope these guys are ridden out of town on a rail.

Anyway, our biggest problem is confusion, and this wouldn't solve it anyway. Depending on who's doing the list, our airport might be listed as John Wayne, Orange County, SNA, or Santa Ana. So usually you have to check half the alphabet to find it. What a pain. I'd vote for just changing it to Orange County Airport and changing our airport code to OCX, sort of like LA is LAX. But we can keep the statue.

UPDATE: Via Debra in comments, here's an interesting little article about how airports are named. Enjoy.

Kevin Drum 12:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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SURFING THE CAMPAIGN-OSPHERE....OK, OK, Hillary won Ohio and Texas but still trails Obama in the delegate count. Blah blah blah. Got it. Is anyone writing about anything else this morning?

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CHILL OUT....The hot topic of conversation right now is the proposition that a long, drawn-out Democratic primary runs the risk of destroying the party and putting John McCain in the White House. So for the good of the country, Hillary should withdraw.

Now, this might be true. But I'd like to offer a historical counterexample: 1968. Consider. The Democratic incumbent president was forced to withdraw after a primary debacle in New Hampshire. The Vietnam War had split liberals into warring factions and urban riots had shattered the LBJ's Great Society legacy. A frenzied primary season reached all the way to California in June, culminating in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. The Democratic Convention in Chicago was a nationally televised battle zone. Hubert Humphrey, the party's eventual nominee, had never won a primary and was loathed by a significant chunk of the liberal community. New Left radicals hated mainstream Democrats more than they hated Republicans.

In other words, this was the mother of all ugly, party-destroying campaigns. No other primary campaign in recent memory from either party has come within a million light years of being as fratricidal and ruinous. But what happened? In the end, Humphrey lost the popular vote to Nixon by less than 1%. A swing of about a hundred thousand votes in California would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives.

If long, bitter, primary campaigns really destroy parties, then Humphrey should have lost the 1968 election by about 50 points. "Bitter" isn't even within an order of magnitude of describing what happened that year. And yet, even against that blood-soaked background, Humphrey barely lost. This suggests that if primary divisiveness has any effect at all, it must be pretty small.

So I say: chill out. Like a lot of people, I'm not very happy about the direction the Democratic campaign has taken, but the idea that it's going to wreck the eventual winner's chances in the fall seems pretty far fetched. It takes more than a few nasty exchanges to do that. And who knows? By keeping Dems in the spotlight, it might even help them. Stranger things have happened.

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March 4, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

ELECTION NEWS....Obama wins Vermont, Hillary wins Rhode Island. Which is not, in fact, an island, though it used to be. In case you were wondering.

Ohio and Texas are still up in the air.

UPDATE: CNN calls Ohio for Hillary. But I guess this was just due to the racist vote, so it doesn't count.

UPDATE: CNN calls the Texas primary for Hillary too. The delegate count will depend on how the caucuses go.

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KAPUT....Adam Liptak has a story worth reading in the New York Times today. Here's how it starts:

Steve Marshall is an English travel agent. He lives in Spain, and he sells trips to Europeans who want to go to sunny places, including Cuba. In October, about 80 of his Web sites stopped working, thanks to the United States government.

.... "I came to work in the morning, and we had no reservations at all," Mr. Marshall said on the phone from the Canary Islands. "We thought it was a technical problem."

It turned out, though, that Mr. Marshall's Web sites had been put on a Treasury Department blacklist and, as a consequence, his American domain name registrar, eNom Inc., had disabled them. Mr. Marshall said eNom told him it did so after a call from the Treasury Department; the company, based in Bellevue, Wash., says it learned that the sites were on the blacklist through a blog.

So that's that. Register your domain name through a U.S. company and your business goes kaput if the U.S. Treasury Department decides it doesn't like you. It doesn't matter if you're based in Spain, your servers are in the Bahamas, your customers are mostly European, and you've broken no laws. No warning. Just kaput.

Solution: make sure your business has as little connection to the U.S. as you possibly can. It's just not worth the potential hassle. I'm sure the rest of the world is getting this message loud and clear.

Kevin Drum 9:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (51)

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MY STATE CAN BEAT UP YOUR STATE....We still don't have much in the way of election news, so while we're waiting around you might want to click here and find out how your state rates for "efficiency and effectiveness," according to the Pew Center on the States. The top rated states are Virginia, Utah, and Washington, which all get an A-. The lowest rated state is New Hampshire, which gets a D+. My home state of California gets a C, and believe me, that's a gentleman's C if I ever saw one.

Anyway, I have no idea whether these rankings really mean anything. A brief explanation of what they're based on is here. Have fun.

Kevin Drum 9:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (21)

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THE WORM TURNS?....I can't tell if this Dana Milbank piece in the Washington Post today is an accurate reflection of what's really happening on the campaign trail, but if it is it looks like the press might finally be wearying of Obamamania:

Reporters from the Associated Press and Reuters went after him for his false denial that a campaign aide had held a secret meeting with Canadian officials over Obama's trade policy. A trio of Chicago reporters pummeled him with questions about the corruption trial this week of a friend and supporter. The New York Post piled on with a question about him losing the Jewish vote.

Obama responded with the classic phrases of a politician in trouble. "That was the information that I had at the time. . . . Those charges are completely unrelated to me. . . . I have said that that was a mistake. . . . The fact pattern remains unchanged."

When those failed, Obama tried another approach. "We're running late," the candidate said, and then he disappeared behind a curtain.

"The fact pattern remains unchanged"? That's a little lawyerly, isn't it? There's probably no harm done, and the sharp questioning from the press is likely too late to make a difference, but it might be a sign of things to come. Obama better watch his back.

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PHARMACEUTICAL INNOVATION....Ezra Klein comments on a new survey about public attitudes toward drug companies:

The latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey on attitudes towards pharmaceutical companies returned some fairly interesting results, namely, that Americans are pretty clear on their desire for more government regulation of Pharma, and fairly unconcerned with the effect that could have on innovation.

This actually strikes me as the dark side of populism. I'm not convinced that, say, national healthcare in the United States would actually have much effect on pharmaceutical innovation (see here for more), but it's certainly something we should at least be concerned about. Of all the arguments against national healthcare, it's the only one that seems to have some serious basis in fact.

As Ezra says, however, there are ways to ameliorate this if it turns out to be a serious problem. Lots of basic pharmaceutical research is already done by federal agencies (or by universities with federal funds), and that could be increased. Prize funds could be instituted. The patent process could be reformed. We could ramp up requirements for genuine evidence-based assessments of new pharmaceuticals.

In other words, this is hardly an insurmountable problem. But it's definitely one that we should at least be sensitive toward.

Kevin Drum 1:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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By: Kevin Drum

KEEPING AN EYE ON FREE TRADE....Is the free trade brigade truly worried about the prospect of a Democratic administration putting the screws on future trade deals? Henry Farrell thinks he's found a clever way of tracking just how worried they really are:

My claim is that the degree of rhetorical overkill in Jagdish Bhagwati's op-ed fulminations on trade is a very good indicator of what the free trade establishment actually thinks about the underlying risks or threats to the existing regime....I'll endeavour to test this hypothesis by keeping track of the Bhagwati Blood Pressure Index (or BBPI) over a period of time, and testing whether it maps well onto the expected outcomes.

....Bhagwati's piece in today's FT is a good place to start. Those unfamiliar with his writing style might think that language such as "faintly ludicrous," "denigration of freer trade," "witless fear of trade," and "disturbingly protectionist" indicates a BBPI that is alarmingly high, both for free trade and for Professor Bhagwati. Comparative analysis with previous op-eds and writings would suggest, however, that these criticisms are almost genial by historical standards; at worst they're love taps. By my reading, the BBPI has dropped quite significantly since mid 2007 or so, suggesting that the free trade establishment believes that the current fervor over free trade is froth that will mostly disappear after the primary season.

Actually, the fact that Obama and Clinton jacked up the anti-NAFTA rhetoric just in time for the Ohio primary and will almost certainly abandon it on Wednesday is all the evidence I think we need. It's likely that a Democratic president will, for a time at least, put new trade deals on the back burner while they work on other priorities, but I'd say there's virtually no chance that there will be any significant rollbacks in our current trade regime. In fact, in a Nixon-goes-to-China sense, it's entirely possible that a Democratic president will eventually be a boon for trade by adopting some modest reforms that gain the trust of liberals and allow more trade deals to pass the scrutiny of a skeptical Congress. Who knows? Cut the right deals on farm subsidies and intellectual property and maybe we could even get the Doha round rebooted.

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

TOO MUCH CONSUMPTION....Via Mark Thoma, Tim Duy offers a gloomy view of our current economic predicament. He agrees that fiscal stimulus isn't likely to help much given that our big problem right now is widespread insolvency in the financial sector, and then adds this:

Monetary policy — as well as fiscal policy — is faced with the additional problem of a fundamental imbalance between production and consumption in the US. The US consumes too much to the tune of 5-6% of GDP, relying on foreign production to deliver the excess.

[Driving down the Dollar helps fix this imbalance. But this produces inflation, and unfortunately, domestic structural adjustments will probably provoke policy changes that make the inflation even worse.]

The inflation, of course, serves a purpose — it is a market response to excessive consumption. Policymakers who want to pretend that the fundamental economic problem is insufficient demand rather than excessive demand will find the market yields a solution — higher inflation to depress consumption via declining real incomes and wealth. Not a pretty solution, but a solution. Perhaps we are well past any other solution.

As Brad DeLong and others have long said, our current account imbalance and the huge buildup of dollar-denominated bonds in the hands of the Bank of China can't go on forever. The only question, really, is whether we manage to unwind this with a moderate amount of pain or a huge amount of pain. The jury is still out on that.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

MUKASEY'S PARADOX....Jonathan Turley on Attorney General Michael Mukasey:

In his twisting of legal principles, the attorney general has succeeded in creating a perfect paradox. Under Mukasey's Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president — and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.

Bertrand Russell would be proud.

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

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By: Kevin Drum

MONITORING EMAIL....The Protect America Act, which revises the FISA law, is partly designed to ensure that communications entirely outside the U.S. that happen to pass through a U.S. switch can be monitored without a warrant. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that this is fine. But the Washington Post reports today that assistant attorney general for national security Kenneth Wainstein put a slightly different spin on this at an ABA breakfast on Monday:

At the breakfast yesterday, Wainstein highlighted a different problem with the current FISA law than other administration officials have emphasized....In response to a question at the meeting by David Kris, a former federal prosecutor and a FISA expert, Wainstein said FISA's current strictures did not cover strictly foreign wire and radio communications, even if acquired in the United States. The real concern, he said, is primarily e-mail, because "essentially you don't know where the recipient is going to be" and so you would not know in advance whether the communication is entirely outside the United States.

But if there's no way to know in advance where the recipient of an email is going to be, then the Bush administration is basically asking for the ability to monitor all email communications that pass through a U.S. switch. And they interpret the text of PAA as giving them that authority. Right?

Kevin Drum 2:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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By: Kevin Drum

LOTS OF CASH....The New York Times reports that American corporations are flush with cash:

The increase over the last decade in the amount of cash, as a percent of total assets, for the companies in the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index has been steep....According to S.& P., the total cash held by companies in its industrial index exceeded $600 billion in February, up from about $203 billion in 1998.

Cash has tripled over the past ten years? Wow. What does it all mean?

Some analysts [] speculate that these cash-rich companies may start sharing their wealth with investors through special dividends, providing welcome stimulus for the economy.

....This cash-saving trend may have a downside, though. Because companies can spend from their own account without scrutiny from the investment bankers or commercial bankers who might otherwise lend them money, corporate executives can do some really dumb things with their cash, said Amy Dittmar, an assistant professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, who has studied corporate spending habits in the United States and abroad.

"There is a subtle line between having enough money to do what you have to do versus having enough money to do anything you want to do," Professor Dittmar said.

But there's another downside to this, and I'm surprised the Times doesn't mention it: huge cash holdings suggest that corporations don't have a lot of good investment opportunities. They're not spending money to expand operations as aggressively as they could afford to; they aren't seeing a lot of attractive acquisition targets; they aren't expanding into new business areas; and they've got the money to spend on productivity-enhancing capital equipment but apparently aren't finding that a very appealing prospect.

Lots of cash is usually a bad sign. It's why Wall Street has historically been lukewarm about stock buybacks: if you can't think of anything better to do with your money than buy back your own stock, what does that say about your future growth potential? Ditto for the business community as a whole. If they can't think of anything great to spend their money on, what does that say about the future growth potential of the entire country?

Kevin Drum 2:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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March 3, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

FARC'S URANIUM....Over the weekend, Colombia launched a raid on FARC guerrilla camps just across the border in Ecuador. Among other things, they claim they recovered a laptop computer "suggesting" that Hugo Chavez has recently given FARC $300 million. Plus this from CNN:

Speaking at a news conference, Gen. Oscar Naranjo [...] said other evidence in the computers suggests FARC purchased 50 kilograms of uranium this month.

Huh. That's a mighty peculiar accusation to just toss out with no further explanation, isn't it? What exactly does "suggest" mean here? And what kind of uranium are we supposedly talking about? 50 kilos of HEU would be a scary thing indeed. 50 kilos of raw ore would be a joke. Perhaps Bloomberg can shed some light:

Naranjo said the FARC, as the group is known, was seeking to buy 50 kilos of uranium for bomb making with aim of getting involved in international terrorism.

Ah. "Seeking" uranium. Anybody have the exact quote? Associated Press, maybe?

"When they mention negotiations for 50 kilos of uranium this means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of terrorism to become a global aggressor. We're not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism," said Naranjo, without giving more details.

Okey dokey. They "mentioned" "negotiations." And no further details are forthcoming. Why do I have the funny feeling they never will?

Kevin Drum 11:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Christina Larson

Move Over Brangelina, for Barackichelle .... Just back from the grocery check-out line, where I picked up a copy of the latest Us Weekly, lured by the cover line "Obama Exclusive! Boxers vs. briefs, Britney & his best Just Like Us pics."

I admit I was pretty nervous, flipping through the endless pages of "Oscar's Best Dressed" photos, past another feature on why Angelina stood up Jen, to see what kind of silliness had resulted when Us news director Lara Cohen spent a day trailing Obama in late February. The possibilities for supreme cringe-worthy moments seemed endless.

In fact, Obama managed to come across as neither obsequious and trying too hard, nor as humorless and condescending.

Us: So, boxers or briefs?
Obama: I don't answer those humiliating questions. But whichever one it is, I look good in 'em!

Thank goodness John Kerry was never put to this test.

I'll leave it to the magazine to break the news on who Michelle Obama's celebrity crush is, and other such tidbits.

I only wish Us had given props to The Washington Monthly, which last summer spoofed their "Just Like Us!!" feature for our Washington Power Couples Guide — in which we printed exclusive paparazzi photos of Bob and Liddy Dole shopping for groceries, and introduced the genre of political celeb sightings. Now they've taken the idea and run with it: behold the the two-page spread, "Barack Obama: He Really Is Just Like Us!

Hmmm. I wonder how and when Us landed in the Obama camp. Please remind me if there've been similar features for past political candidates.

Christina Larson 10:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAN'S NUKES....The UN Security Council voted today 14-0 to approve a third round of sanctions against Iran. A victory for truth in advertising?

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By: Kevin Drum

STRAIGHT TALKIN'....Today Steve Benen updates his running list of John McCain flip-flops — or, um, his "evolutions," as Mr. Straight Talk likes to put it. It's getting pretty long.

As near as I can tell, Republicans are allowed to present themselves as the reincarnation of Winston Churchill if they manage to demonstrate steadfastness on just a couple of high-profile issues. For George Bush it's been taxes and the war in Iraq. He's flipped and pandered on plenty of other things, but those two are enough to keep his reputation for tenacity intact. McCain, though, has raised the ante: he's flipped and pandered on practically everything except one issue: his support for endless war in Iraq. That single thing is pretty much all that his straight talking reputation rides on today. It's quite a brand he's created for himself.

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By: Kevin Drum

OHIO AND TEXAS....Matt Yglesias, after looking at the polls and suggesting that Hillary Clinton might win both Ohio and Texas, says:

Now under the circumstances, I see no real way for Clinton to make up the lost delegate lead, but at this point it does seem to me that she and her campaign staff are probably egomaniacal enough that if they pull out a narrow "win" they'll keep running anyway hoping for lightning to strike and seeing the damage it'll do to the party as a feature, rather than a bug, since a crippled Obama who loses to John McCain could set them up for another run in 2012.

Holy cats. This is entering Andrew Sullivan territory. It's also almost certainly wrong on an analytical basis since Democrats are famously hard on candidates who don't win their first time around. Name the last time that a Democratic primary loser came back to win a subsequent Democratic primary without being vice president in between. You have to go back 80 years. Hillary Clinton knows perfectly well that this is her only shot at the presidency. That's why she's fighting so hard.

Kevin Drum 2:48 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (144)

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By: Christina Larson

TV coverage: Two-to-one against Obama .... With the GOP primary all but resolved, and the Democratic fight only growing more intense, Barack Obama finds himself in the unenviable position of being the chief target of attacks from both the Clinton and McCain camps. As the Democratic leader — with only a thin margin, depending on the latest poll — this is a difficult but perhaps inevitable predicament.

However, this doesn't mean the TV newscasts, night after night, have to give equal time to Clinton and McCain attacks — especially if they're making similar points on the same topic, national security. The presidential race is now being covered almost as though it were a three-way primary: first a news clip of Clinton attacking Obama; then one of McCain attacking Obama; and finally a clip of Obama playing double-duty on the defense.

Here's an open plea to TV producers: Please take note — only two of those three candidates are really sweating out the results of major primaries races tomorrow.

The double-dose of attacks on Obama may be helping Clinton; recent polls show her closing the gap in Texas.

Christina Larson 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (50)

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By: Kevin Drum

elBARADEI AND IRAN'S NUKES....The New York Times today has a longer and slightly juicier account of last week's contentious IAEA meeting in which Mohammed elBaradei laid out new evidence that up until a few years ago Iran had been actively pursuing nuclear bomb research:

For more than two hours, representatives to the International Atomic Energy Agency were riveted by documents, sketches and even a video that appeared to have come from Iran's own military laboratories. The inspector said they showed work "not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon," according to notes taken by diplomats.

The presentation caught no one's attention more than the Iranian representatives in the room, who deny Iran is developing atomic weapons. As they whipped out cellphone cameras to photograph the screen, Iran's ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, nearly shouting, called the evidence baseless fabrications, the diplomats said, and warned that the agency was going down "a very dangerous road."

Mark Leon Goldberg, as an aside, points out that IAEA megacritics Michael Rubin and Danielle Pletka, who railed against elBaradei in the Wall Street Journal last week, have yet again demonstrated remarkably poor timing:

In fact, elBaradei disclosed damning evidence about Iran's nuclear program on the eve of an important Security Council vote on sanctions. Once again, IAEA delivers. And once again, its critics have egg on their face.

Of course, elBaradei turned out to be right about Iraq's lack of WMD. For that, he will never be forgiven.

UPDATE: Judah Grunstein writes that although last week's meeting may speak well for the IAEA, it isn't necessarily a vindication of elBaradei himself:

Last week, a well-informed source I spoke to following the delivery of the report flagged the presentation — which significantly was given by Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's head of safeguards — as evidence of the internal tension between the technical wing of the IAEA (ie. the inspectors on the ground) and the political wing (ie. ElBaradei and his circle). According to my source, Heinonen's presentation grew out of the sentiment among the inspection teams that their "work is not faithfully reflected in ElBaradei's statements." He didn't say it explicitly, but the clear implication was that the followup presentation was an attempt to end run ElBaradei, who presents the IAEA's reports to the Board of Governors, and get the incriminating evidence directly into the record.

Kevin Drum 1:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Kevin Drum

OUTLOOK HELL....Ezra Klein writes about Charlotte Allen's already infamous "Women Are Dumb" op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post:

I don't want to engage with the article because, sometimes in Washington, editors take controversy as a sign of success. "The response is heated, but that just shows we hit a nerve, forced people to discuss an important issue. Namely, whether women are idiots." So instead, I'll say this: They should be ashamed of publishing an article of such poor quality.

I'm always a little unsure of what to do in cases like this. There's a class of people (patron saint: Ann Coulter) whose sole objective is to provoke a response. Link to me! Talk about me! Help me promote my new book! So no matter how deserving of ridicule they are, it turns out that ridicule actually helps them. This presents us with a quandary: ignore such pieces, thus allowing idiocy to sit unchallenged? Or fight back, thus providing the authors with exactly what they wanted?

I dunno. Take it on a case-by-case basis, I guess. Or do what I'm doing now and and respond to someone else's post instead of to the original piece itself. But I'll second Ezra's further comment: Charlotte Allen may be a nitwit, but the world is full of nitwits. The real fault here is with the Post's Outlook editor, John Pomfret, who apparently thought it was cute to run a plainly moronic article solely because it would get some attention when lots of people attacked it for being moronic. He needs to find a new job if that's what he thinks his current job is all about.

UPDATE: This makes it even worse. Who is Pomfret trying to kid?

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Kevin Drum

"WE MOSQUITOED HIM"....A few days ago I wrote about the Mosquito, a device that emits an annoying high-pitched screech designed to disperse loitering kids and teenagers. It's harmless to adults, who generally can't hear it. Shortly after I wrote about it, I got this email from a high school teacher:

My high school students use another form of Mosquito. They have a high-pitched ringtone for their cell phones that only the youngest female teachers can hear. 50 year-old men like me have no chance. Just the latest way to cheat.

Turnabout is fair play! Then, a couple of days later, after I wrote about Hillary's "It's 3 AM" ad, I got this email from a regular correspondent:

Our dogs, two very calm yellow labs, go absolutely nuts — growling and barking, which is very atypical behavior for them — when the Clinton ad is played, either on TV or the computer (it seems to be the ringing phone they don't like). The critters have no such reaction to the Obama response ad (ringing) sounds.

Times being what they are, I should take this opportunity to say that I don't think the Clinton campaign added any high-pitched tones to their ad. Repeat: I suspect no nefarious activity from Hillary Clinton here.

But — wouldn't it be cool if there were? Modern televisions hooked up to modern cable systems certainly have the capability to produce high-pitched Mosquito-esque tones, and this seems like an area ripe for dirty tricks. Whenever you put up a grainy, black-and-white picture of your opponent, don't just play ominous background music, play annoying high-pitched screeches too! Your dogs will bark, your baby will start crying, and your kids will suddenly start acting up. Do this often enough and your brain will automatically associate the target of the ad with disruption and clamor. Voters will start to dislike him or her without even knowing why.

It sounds ripe for abuse, doesn't it? I can't wait for the first campaign consultant to try this. "We mosquitoed him" will join "We Willie Hortoned him" and "We swift boated him" on the whispered lips of Karl Rove wannabes around the world.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

JUSTICE, AMERICAN STYLE....Halliburton, it turns out, is immune from criminal prosecution when its female employees are gang raped in Iraq, and recently a Texas judge ruled that they're immune from civil suit too. Why? Because their employment contracts contain a binding arbitration clause. So no matter how egregious their conduct, Peggy Garrity writes that you're probably out of luck if you want compensation:

This is a preview of the demise of the jury system intended by the innocuous-sounding tort reform movement. "Tort reform" is a deliberately deceptive term coined in the 1980s by tobacco, pharmaceutical, insurance and gun lobbyists and lawyers who set about to transform our civil justice landscape by eliminating corporate exposure to civil liabilities. After years of an all-out campaign, at the heart of which was relentless media propaganda, judicial selection and legislation, the courthouse doors are rapidly being closed to average citizens, who will be shunted off into a lucrative private legal system presided over by retired judges employed by alternative dispute-resolution providers.

Word. Elsewhere in this morning's paper, we learn that having already decided that injured patients can't sue medical device makers, the Supreme Court is likely to extend that ruling to apply to makers of prescription drugs too:

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled last month that patients injured by most medical devices can't sue their manufacturers. And this fall, a similar case could extend the same legal protection to the much larger pharmaceutical industry — a frequent target of lawsuits.

....In recent years, documents and e-mails uncovered in court cases have shown that some companies kept safety issues involving their products from the FDA. "Without the tort system, what reasonable assurance do we have we will learn about the bad actors?" asked David Vladek, a law professor at Georgetown University.

Well, that's sort of the whole point, isn't it? If you'd like to learn more, I have two reading suggestions. First is Blocking the Courthouse Door, by Stephanie Mencimer, a comprehensive look at the business community's relentless attempt to shield itself from liability for just about everything. (Review here.) If that sounds a little too heavy for your taste, try John Grisham's latest opus, The Appeal. Sure, it's John Grisham, so the quality is a little iffy. But The Appeal features an evil corporation buying justice in Mississippi, a Karl Rove-like campaign manager smearing a liberal Supreme Court justice for fun and profit, and the religious right cast in a supporting role as dupes of the business community that really calls the shots in the Republican Party. It's great liberal porn for your next trip to the beach.

Kevin Drum 11:59 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (36)

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By: Kevin Drum

McCAIN'S JUNK SCIENCE....Here's the latest from John McCain:

At a town hall meeting Friday in Texas, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared that "there's strong evidence" that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that was once in many childhood vaccines, is responsible for the increased diagnoses of autism in the U.S. — a position in stark contrast with the view of the medical establishment.

....McCain said, per ABC News' Bret Hovell, that "It's indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates that it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."

This is from Jake Tapper, who, to his credit, calls this for the nonsense on stilts that it is. There's never been strong evidence in favor of the thimerosal/autism connection, and what little evidence there was has practically disappeared over the past couple of years as further studies have been done. The odds of thimerosal being responsible for autism are now slim and none, and perpetuating this myth does real damage — both to the cause of autism research and to the millions of parents who hear this and decide to keep their children from receiving the normal complement of childhood vaccines.

So what happened here? Why did McCain perpetuate this rubbish without even a smidgen of doubt in his voice? Was he pandering to some constituency or other? Was he just making shit up because he didn't really know anything about the subject? Was he misinformed by own staff about this? Unfortunately, my guess is that the correct answer here is "making shit up," a quality that McCain has shown an unfortunate weakness for in the past. It's just another indication that when it comes to anything outside of the few pet issues he cares about, McCain really can't be bothered to take an interest. Not a great quality for the leader of the free world.

Via Mark Kleiman.

UPDATE: James Joyner suggests a fourth possibility: McCain gets his opinions on thimerosal from Don Imus. Great.

Kevin Drum 1:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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March 2, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

INDEMNIFICATION....As we all know, the Bush adminstration is hellbent on passing a law granting telecom companies retroactive immunity for any surveillance laws they may have broken in the aftermath of 9/11. But there's an odd aspect to this whole thing: the telecom companies themselves don't really seem to be fighting all that hard on behalf of this legislation. Why?

A couple of days ago I got an email from commenter/blogger bmaz proposing an explanation for this. To be honest, I sort of blew him off at first without reading his argument carefully, which I now think was a mistake. There's some guesswork in what he says, but he's an attorney with considerable experience dealing with wiretapping cases and he suggests that the reason the telcos don't care all that much about the lawsuits being pursued against them is because they almost certainly signed indemnification agreements with the feds back in 2001. Such agreements would force the federal government to pay any legal judgments awarded in suits against the telcos:

It is my contention that the telcos have just such indemnification agreements with the Administration/government, that we do not know about because they are classified and hidden, that so protect them for any liability and losses resulting from the litigation they are faced with; thus they do not need immunity to protect them from potential liability verdicts, they are already covered....As someone that has had dealings with such entities regarding bad/illegal wiretaps, I can attest that they always protect themselves vis a vis the governmental entity they are working for and are not shy about the use of indemnity provisions.

In email, bmaz put it to me even more strongly: "The general counsels and legal departments of telcos are extremely accomplished and always protect their company's interests meticulously. They have been dealing with wiretapping and surveillance agreements with the government and law enforcement for over seven decades, this was not a matter of first impression to them; and in difficult and unique cases, I have never seen them not insist on indemnification. Never."

In the Washington Post today, Dan Eggen and Ellen Nakashima talk to some of the people behind the telco suits, and they don't seem to think that potential payouts are the issue either — which is why the telcos are remaining fairly low key about the whole thing. Rather, it's the Bush administration that wants immunity, and they want it because they're trying to keep the scope of their wiretapping programs secret:

"I think the administration would be very loath for folks to realize that ordinary people were being surveilled," said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed the lead lawsuit, against AT&T.

....Peter Eliasberg, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney involved in cases against AT&T and Verizon, said that if the cases proceed, the plaintiffs could submit an interrogatory to the carriers seeking answers to the questions: Did you turn over customer phone records en masse to the government? Did you receive a warrant or a subpoena?

Answers to those questions, he said, might reveal that "everybody in the country" has had their phone calls "combed through, and lots of people will be outraged."

Obviously some of this stuff is guesswork, though pretty well-founded guesswork, and bmaz suggests that the press ought to show some interest in the possible existence of indemnification agreements. I agree. If they exist, it would mean the telcos have never been exposed in any way, and immunity would have no effect on their willingness to cooperate with the government in the future. It would also explain why the Bush administration was able to keep the telcos on board so easily even after the Protect America Act expired three weeks ago. Indemnification might be a good subject for some enterprising national security journalist to start prying into.

Kevin Drum 1:34 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (105)

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By: Kevin Drum

IRAQ UPDATE....Here's your monthly look at civilian casualty trends in Iraq. Fatalities in February were (again) considerably lower than the peak 2006-07 months, but showed an uptick of about 25% from January (corrected as usual for the number of days in each month). These are ICCC numbers; official ministry figures show an uptick of about 40% in all deaths, both civilian and military. There's no telling if this uptick is meaningful or not, but it's obviously something to keep an eye on.

There's not much point in rehashing every month the usual dispute about what's responsible for the drop in casualties or whether the drop is meaningful in the absence of political progress. I think we all know the arguments on both sides. This is, as usual, just raw data so that we're all at least familiar with the basic trends.

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By: Kevin Drum

IRANIAN BOMB UPDATE....The IAEA, not generally a font of Iran-bashing, has apparently gotten hold of internal documents demonstrating that Iran was actively pursuing nuclear bomb research until about four years ago. Their conclusion isn't quite identical to that of the American NIE released a few months ago, but very close:

The documents suggest that Iran's research on nuclear weapons continued for several months after U.S. intelligence officials say the effort was suspended, the International Atomic Energy Agency's top nuclear security expert told diplomats in Vienna, according to notes taken by a participant.

....In the technical briefing Monday with diplomats from IAEA member states, [Olli] Heinonen offered new details about the Iranian documents, according to notes obtained by The Washington Post. He revealed that the IAEA had collected corroborating evidence, from the intelligence agencies of several countries, that pointed to sophisticated research into some key technologies needed to build and deliver a nuclear bomb.

...."The information is much harder to refute," said David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. "It seems to point to work on nuclear weapons — even if the program wasn't coherent and even if a decision was never made to actually build a weapon."

Needless to say, Iran denies everything.

Kevin Drum 12:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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March 1, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE AD....Even for a slow news day, Hillary's "It's 3 AM" ad (see here) got remarkable saturation coverage yesterday: top spot all day long from all three major newspapers and — somebody let me know if I'm guessing wrong here — 24/7 loop treatment from the cable nets. I ended up having multiple reactions to all this, so I think I'll bore you with them today.

First, of course, was the instant reaction: this ad sure was a fearmongering old chestnut, wasn't it? Tsk, tsk, Hillary.

Second: That said, on a fearmongering scale of 1 to 10, it maybe rated a 2. It was a cupcake. The images were relatively soft, there was no scary background music, no scary brown people lurking around, and no one was mentioned by name. The lefty blogs went crazy anyway, and I have to figure that Republican strategists were laughing their asses off over this. They're probably rubbing their hands right now and figuring that if this is all it takes to get the libs flustered, maybe they have a shot in November after all.

Third: Obama handled the whole thing perfectly. Instead of going ballistic, he acknowledged that it was a legitimate subject. And it is. Who do you want in the White House the next time a crisis hits? That's a pretty important question, no? And Obama just calmly made the case that the answer is: Barack Obama. (And then put up a response ad almost instantly.)

And finally: what a PR bonanza for Hillary! You can't buy this kind of coverage. Whether or not it works is an open question — probably not, I'd guess — but it shows that her team still has some campaign flair left. For now, anyway, she's once again the center of attention.

UPDATE: On the other hand, flair isn't everything. Smarts count too, and if you run ads like this you really need to be prepared for the obvious followup questions.

Kevin Drum 3:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (156)

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By: Kevin Drum

BAD DAY TO STOP SNIFFING GLUE....This is one of the most harebrained posts I've ever read. I guess that means it's bound to get a link from Instapundit, right? Chris Matthews might want to investigate too.

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By: Kevin Drum

BEHIND THE CURTAIN....After three weeks of blustering and fearmongering over the FISA bill, I see that Congress has finally decided to do the obvious: split the bill into two parts, one to extend wiretapping powers and one to grant immunity to telecom companies, and allow a separate vote on both bills:

Republican officials said they likely would back the proposal to divide the bill into two pieces, as long as there was no delay in taking up the immunity provision. "We would be OK with that as long as the immunity provision [can] become law," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Officials from both sides acknowledged that there are probably enough votes in the House to pass the measure protecting telephone companies. But splitting the bill would give Democrats who oppose the immunity provision political cover for voting in favor of the broader legislation.

This is why this whole thing hs been a charade from the beginning. There are almost certainly a couple dozen red-state Democrats who will vote with Republicans to approve immunity, which means everybody gets to cast the votes they want and the president ends up getting exactly the bill he wants. This is nothing for us anti-immunity folks to be happy about, but the votes are what they are. If there's a majority in favor of immunity, then they should call the roll and let 'em vote.

They could have done this three weeks ago, of course, with the same result. But apparently both sides figured they'd get more mileage out of dragging things out: Republicans got to run their Traitorcrat ads while Democrats got to posture for their liberal base — all the while knowing perfectly well that this deal was almost certainly the eventual end state. Ladies and gentlemen, your Congress at work.

Kevin Drum 1:26 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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